Nintendo is known to traffic in nostalgia, but in the case of Mario Kart, those warm, fuzzy memories of races gone by end up forming half of the game's content.
Since 2001's Mario Kart: Super Circuit, each game has included several tracks from past installments as a sort of "greatest hits" compilation, with the added novelty of dressing up those old favorites with a new generation of graphics. And though each Mario Kart brings us 16 new tracks to master, Nintendo's devotion to recycling has a way of keeping old courses fresh in our minds so many years later.
Now that Friday's release of Mario Kart 8 has us all primed for some furious karting, it felt more than appropriate to ask which particular tracks stick out in the minds of your friendly USgamer staff.
I’m not a very good Mario Kart fan, I’m afraid. I just kind of blow through the courses without really paying that much attention to their names or the specifics. But I suppose if you wrestled me to the ground and forced me to name my favorite and least favorite tracks in the series, they’d both come from Mario Kart 64… mainly because that one came out while I was in college on a platform that had pretty much nothing else going for it at the time. I played Mario Kart 64 a LOT.
And I loved Toad’s Turnpike. Toad’s Highway. Whatever it was called. The one with the cars. It was great! The presence of slow-moving, neutral (that is, not likely to blast you with a red shell) traffic to the course transformed it from a standard speedway into something far more engrossing. Because the other trucks and cars traveled at their own pace, the represented a sort of dynamic obstacle (even if they always followed the same course at the same speed and appeared in the same place each time you played), making each lap different than the last. With deft driving, you could learn to exploit the traffic to your advantage against other drivers, or use other cars to evade your opponents’ attacks. Unsurprisingly, I also love Mario Kart 8’s rendition of the course, which adds fun new features like trucks hauling surfboards to create moving ramps and other goodies. Such a great course. And super dangerous in mirror mode!
As for my least favorite? Rainbow Road 64. I know Rainbow Road is the traditional final course, but it sucked hard on N64. It went on forever, with no interesting quirks or features, just tiresome driving and not enough railways. What fun it was to get bumped from first to last place in the latter stretch of a 150cc challenge because you got knocked off the road on a tight, unprotected turn. A pile of garbage masquerading as a video game level.
I've played a lot of Mario Kart over the years; but by and large, the tracks kind of blur together in my mind. The ones I remember tend to fit into different flavors that remain the same from entry to entry: Bowser's Castle and Rainbow Road being the most familiar of the bunch. The two exceptions for me are Wario Stadium and Banshee Boardwalk, both of which featured prominently in Mario Kart 64.
Wario Stadium, of course, is the ultimate eff you track. It's one of the only races where missing a jump can actually set you back so far that you get lapped. And let me tell you: I loved abusing that mechanic. Whenever I would get hold of the lightning bolt, I would hang onto it for as long as possible, watching the other players' screens and waiting for the right moment. Then just as they were hitting the ramp I would hit the trigger and laugh as they tumbled to their doom.
Putting that little quirk aside, Wario Stadium was pretty balanced for a later track. Where other races had lots of tricky curves, pitfalls, and obstacles (I'm looking at you Bowser's Castle), Wario Stadium's was mostly just long, which put a premium on driving skill and item usage. And of course, being able to use that lightning bolt at the right moment. Sorry, I just got caught up in a uncontrollably maniacal laugh. And here I was wondering why I didn't have any friends growing up.
As for Banshee Boardwalk, well, let's just say that I really hated when that race came up in the rotation. It wasn't even that I slipped off the sections of the road that lacked rails every fricking time (though that definitely happened). It was that Banshee Boardwalk just wasn't that interesting to look at. Its main hook was the technical flourish of having lots of Boos floating in and out of the picture, which was kind of cool when Mario Kart 64 came out, but didn't really excuse the flat brown track and the utter lack of background. Luckily, Mario Kart is usually better than this, even if the tracks don't always stick out in my mind (hey, the pinball track in Mario Kart DS was pretty cool!) Even if they don't have some interesting conceit, they usually have some sort of fun Mario Kart-inspired art. Sadly, that definitely was the case with Banshee Boardwalk.
Wario Stadium from Mario Kart 64 is probably my favorite Mario Kart track of all-time, but since Kat already picked that one, I’ll go with my runner-up, Bowser’s Castle from the same title. MK64 was the first time the series had been in 3D at all and Wario Stadium was a bit of an eye opener, but Bowser’s Castle was still nearly perfect. It’s a rather simple course, but the combination of those Thwomps, all the L-shaped turns, the narrow rope bridge before the courtyard, and the corkscrew tower made for a fun, precision-based track.
Add in the Nintendo 64’s 4-controller multiplayer action, and you had a hectic course. I remember hours sitting around the television, messing up my friends in Bowser’s Castle and other MK64 courses. Dropping a banana peel on the narrow bridge, leaving a moving minefield of green shells in the courtyard; anything it took to take first place. Mario Kart 64 is my Mario Kart game, and Bowser’s Castle is one of my favorites. Mario Kart Wii didn’t touch my heartstrings, but I was glad to see Bowser’s Castle back for another race in that title.
As for my worst track? It’s a toss-up between Vanilla Lake on Super Nintendo and Sherbet Land on Nintendo 64. Both courses are utterly frustrating and though I mastered both eventually, if I have a choice, I avoid them. Slipping on ice, grinding through snow, and jumping the jagged cracks in the ice make both tracks more complex, but not more fun. And the penguins. Those flippin’ penguins in Sherbert Land will haunt me to the end of days.
Combined with the frustrating track designs is a rather boring visual design, because both icy tracks are all whites and blues. It’s like they just suck the color right out of Mario Kart. Nintendo even had the gall to bring Sherbert Land back in Mario Kart Wii. Truly, they are history’s worst monster for it.
As a Super Nintendo kid, I've been with Super Mario Kart since the beginning, though I passed on the Wii and 3DS versions after falling in love with the complexity of Double Dash. And even though I never owned it, I must have played Mario Kart 64 the most because, let's face it: What else could a bunch of teenagers do with an N64 and four controllers before Goldeneye gave us purpose? That said, since my brain has filed away an inappropriate amount of Mario Kart 64 knowledge, DK's Jungle Parkway is the first thing that comes to mind when I think of that game. Even though the graphics of Mario Kart 64 haven't aged gracefully, I still feel Jungle Parkway stands out as one of the most visually interesting tracks. The steamboat lazily floating down the river, that ride over the rickety bridge, and the final push to the finish line through a (kinda) torch-lit cave give this course a sense of atmosphere that's lacking in some of the more button-downed tracks—even if the music is some aimless, steel drum improv session.
DK Jungle Parkway also provides plenty of opportunities for those who've mastered power slides and boosts, which still feel semi-optional in MK64. If you know what you're doing, those tight turns throughout the middle segment make for the perfect way to cut ahead of the pack, provided the road isn't littered with banana peels. And hitting the perfect slide right after that massive jump across the river feels so satisfyingly Mario Kart.
As for my least favorite track, this may be a little unfair, but I'm afraid the award goes to the original Mario Kart's Rainbow Road. Since the 64 installment, this final track always felt like a victory lap that let you close out the game in the awe-inspiring grandeur of outer space. SNES Mario Kart's Rainbow Road takes a different tack, and its narrow, unguarded roadways are meant to put your Mario Kart skills to the ultimate test. I've never been able to meet the demands of this challenging course, so I rarely return to it—and Nintendo's takes on Rainbow Road since the SNES version have only made this one feel so much worse. At least the music is still rad.
Oh, and while I usually enjoy the track, I'll be damned if I don't find myself flung into the icy waters of Mario Kart 64's Sherbet Land at least once per race.
Since I’m Wii U-less, I can’t comment on the latest iteration of Mario Kart - but even if I’d played it, I bet I’d still cite three tracks from Super Mario Kart: Mario Circuit One, Two and Three. Despite the game featuring an absolutely superb roster of tracks, these three stand out particularly for me. Their corner geometry and straights have been tuned perfectly to work with the Karts’ handling characteristics, and because the courses are open and have long, straight walls, you can pull off epic bank shots with shells.
If I had to pick one, it’d probably be Mario Circuit One. It’s very simple, and very short - but because of that, it turns races into very close battles, where a couple of well-placed shells or bananas can guarantee victory. There’s little margin for error, which results in the racing being tense and exciting. I’ve had far more photo-finishes on that track than any other - because no matter what you do, it’s very difficult to get far ahead of the competition. Which also gives adept players the opportunity to take down the leader with a well-aimed shell to snatch victory at the last moment.
Despite Super Mario Kart being less sophisticated than later iterations, I still think this game is a benchmark for competitive racing. It’s simple, but everything comes together to deliver a terrific experience. I don't think there's a bad track in it, though Rainbow Road would get my nod as the least best one. Which tends to stand true for subsequent Kart games.