20 things you didn't know about Mario Kart 64
Secrets, tips and tricks from the 20-year-old racing game we all still love
Mario Kart 64 is not the high-point of Nintendo's arcade racer series, but it's rightly remembered by many for what it represents: a leading force in heated couch-play entertainment, late nights of tarmac tournaments and friendships left in tatters after the resulting arguments.
The game was also littered with memorable tracks and technical oddities that could give seasoned players an added edge. Remember the wild speed increase on Skyscraper?
Twenty years after it first skidded into our hearts, here are 20 game elements, secrets, development tidbits and references that you might have missed after all these years.
It was almost a launch title
At its North American launch in 1996, the Nintendo 64 only had two titles on offer: Super Mario 64 and Pilotwings 64. But a recent Iwata Asks interview revealed that Nintendo was planning to include Mario Kart 64 in this early lineup. Development resources were focused more on Super Mario 64, which meant postponing the kart racer's release by several months.
Bananas are avoidable hazards
When the effects of banana collisions aren't instantaneous, did you know it's possible to prevent spin-outs?
If you hear your wheels start to squeak, use the brake (B Button) to negate the slipping rather than continue driving. A music note will appear above your character's head to indicate you were successful. This same trick works when bumping into other racers fiddles with your steering, and when losing your grip on Sherbet Land's icy landscape.
The Time Trial display on the title screen was probably intentional
If you press the R Button while on the title screen, a box will appear in the center showing your current Time Trial record for Mario Raceway. But why only Mario Raceway?
You may have thought this to be a bug, but it's not all that random. Mario Kart 64's instruction manual reveals that the game designers viewed Mario Raceway as their favourite course for speed runs. Coupled with the fact that it's one of only three tracks in the game to feature a staff ghost, this was likely their subtle way of nudging players to experience similar joys.
You can leap over a hill in Choco Mountain
You know the hill that precedes the rockslide in Choco Mountain? Brown and lumpy?
With practice, you can use it as a springboard to bypass the subsequent U-shaped section. Pick up some speed while drifting as you approach the hill, then hop on an angle as you release the power slide (and activate a Mushroom if you have one).
You'll collide with the bumpy terrain, but if aimed correctly, the momentum will be enough that you’ll tumble over to the upper area. An alternate method involves using the stone wall just after the hill, doing a hop as you ram into it with a Mushroom. It will take some experimenting to find the right angle, but it's a neat trick to humiliate friends with.
Mario Kart 64’s Special Cup differs from other entries
Mario Kart isn't always one for consistency — the unwritten rule of retro tracks reappearing only once has been broken multiple times now — but Mario Kart 64 feels like an outlier for not adhering to the Special Cup format seen in other entries, where the sequence of a Bowser's Castle stage followed by Rainbow Road would mark the final Cup.
Granted, Super Mario Kart did the same, so they weren’t going against an established tradition at this point. Mario Kart 64 is also one of only two Kart games (Super Circuit being the second) where the Special Cup is not represented in the form of an item or a series of items, choosing instead an "S" initial against a green diamond. “Special”? Hardly.
Luigi Raceway's hot air balloon is a guaranteed race-disrupter
Luigi Raceway is iconic as Mario Kart 64's opener, with the Luigi-faced hot air balloon being one of its distinguishing features.
But it's not simply for show. The item box attached the underbelly of its basket is not an ordinary pickup — this one will always give you a Spiny Shell. Grabbing the contents as it descends will require a well-timed hop along with an empty inventory, made tricky by the string of item boxes right before. Even if you miss, it’s a fun little diversion to aim for.
Fake Item Boxes behave differently in Mario Kart 64
Later installments altered Fake Item Box properties or shunned their usage altogether, but when they first debuted in Mario Kart 64, "trick boxes" could be placed in mid-air and stay afloat rather than falling to the ground.
Learning this trick opens up new (evil) tactical possibilities, especially on Wario Stadium and Royal Raceway where running into a trap during a big jump has damaging effects.
If you're accustomed to later Kart titles, you may also be surprised to learn that Fake Item Boxes can also block shells when they’re held behind. Really, the item was at its most useful here.
Banshee Boardwalk’s theme samples Ghost Valley from Super Mario Kart
Banshee Boardwalk has a distinct mood that marks it as one of Mario Kart 64's standout tracks, with a fittingly off-kilter theme that's dominated by a persistent xylophone and transient sounds resembling a revving engine. Mixed in with this concoction is the familiar thread of eeriness ("dundundun dun DUN DUN DUN-DUN") taken from the Ghost Valley theme in Super Mario Kart.
Another noteworthy case of sampling: Neo Bowser City in Mario Kart 7 samples Toad's Turnpike and the main Circuit theme from Mario Kart Wii. But unlike with Neo Bowser City, Banshee Boardwalk’s theme still maintains its own identity.
You can save a huge chunk of time on Wario Stadium
Because of its length, pulling off shortcut stunts on Wario Stadium is a satisfying test of skill. You may already know that with the help of a Mushroom, you can use the biggest bump along the arched stretch after the starting line to leap over the wall on your left.
But why wait until then? There are shortcut opportunities a short distance from the starting line - no Mushroom required. If you build some speed and angle your jump carefully, you can use the fourth (or even the first!) bump in the road to "hop the fence" to the opposite side. It's tricky but it is doable, and the massive time save makes multiple attempts worthwhile.
The seemingly sterile billboards were originally parodies
Long before Nintendo's Splatoon had a go at fashion label parodies, the billboards you see in some of Mario Kart 64’s tracks originally played on real companies - a joke that only made it into the Japanese release.
Koopa Air, most notably, was originally presented in yellow text against a blue background as a nod to Goodyear's logo, but this reference was wiped clean in the localized versions by replacing the yellow with a purple gradient and the blue with a plain white background. Potential lawsuit averted.
Kamek was going to be a playable character
Nowadays, Kamek has weaseled his way into Mario games as a more prominent figure, but the blue-robed little wizard best was planned to be more than a vanilla minion for Mario Kart 64, as the game's beta version originally had a blue-robed Kamek taking the slot that would later be Donkey Kong's. This may have been to substitute for Koopa getting dropped from the Mario Kart roster until Double Dash.
Since all the characters in the final version of Mario Kart 64 essentially have their own themed tracks (Royal Raceway is thought to be Peach's because of the castle from Super Mario 64), Kamek's unjustified presence would have been an odd choice.
Kalimari Desert holds a big secret
Narrowly sneaking past or between the wheels of the same train everyone else waits for will secure a huge lead, but how about sneaking in an entire lap?
In what is bound to amaze on first discovery but also infuriate in the company of friends, take a Star along as you head left into the tunnel at the first crossing. When Lakitu starts telling you to turn around, follow his instructions but also activate the Star in your possession. You'll inexplicably trick the game into thinking you completed a lap, allowing you to exit the tunnel and continue the race on the succeeding lap.
Crazy? Yes. But also sanctioned by the development team, if you can believe that — they reference the tunnel's time-saving power in the instruction manual.
You can make a loud boom at Royal Raceway
Funny physics and Mario Kart 64 go hand in hand, from clipped Mushrooms due to sloped terrain and Star cancellations from crashing and jumping into walls.
If you're not on the cusp of victory when these occur, then these happenings are quite hilarious. One can be easily reproduced on Royal Raceway: after getting shot over a body of water by the second boost pad on the big ramp, if you press the R Button as soon as you reach the ground, the landing will create a louder-than-normal boom and your racer will do a high bounce before coming back down. That's one way to wake the neighbours at Peach's Castle!
Invincibility lasts longer in Mario Kart 64 than in any other series title
Although the series' item rotation has fluctuated with each release, the Starman remains a staple across all titles.
It's in Mario Kart 64 that the item achieves peak performance with a roughly eight-second duration, whereas the average in other entries is between six and seven. More time for demolition is never a bad thing.
Moo Moo Farm’s hole-peekers aren't Monty Moles
...at least, that's not how the game addresses them.
According to the instruction manual, the moles of Moo Moo Farm go by the name "Chubby" rather than the familiar "Monty Mole," even though their physical design is not dissimilar. Add this to the list of Mario Kart 64's unexplained mysteries right after the imprisoned Thwomp in Bowser's Castle.
Mario Party's voice clips were borrowed from the Japanese version of Mario Kart 64
Some characters like Peach and Toad had different voice clips in the Japanese version of the game. If Luigi's exaggerated exclamations ("Bingo! Hoh-ho-ho-ho") fill you with laughter, you should hear him in the other version. "Weegee is the TOPPPPP!" Chill out mate...
Some of these same voice clips were later used commonly in Mario Party and Mario Party 2, including Wario's "D'OH, I MISSED!".
Yoshi Valley's porcupines were a one-off enemy
If you don't remember Yoshi Valley for its multi-path layout or nonsensical design choice of mystery standings, the porcupines featured in the early parts of the path split should jog your memory.
Scaring off some racers from pursuing certain shortcuts, the tiny creatures were like cardboard cut-outs due to their flat representation (similar to the crabs of Koopa Troopa Beach).
As it happens, these porcupines appear to be hastily-chosen hazards, as they never showed up again - in Mario Kart or anywhere else in Nintendo's canon. When the course reappeared as a retro offering in Mario Kart 8, the porcupines were nowhere to be found. Goombas take their place instead, but the threat isn't the same.
Boos can steal other Boos
By no means is this a frequent occurrence, but when using Boo to steal an item from a fellow racer, it is possible to get another Boo in return.
Because of the flashing animation, it can be amusing to mess with someone in Battle Mode, but it's not practical to keep a Boo when there are superior items available.
There are official remixes of Mario Kart 64 themes
There's no shortage of fan-made remixes of Kart songs online, but did you know there have been some official treatments as well?
The Japan-only Mario Kart on Club Circuit soundtrack took Mario Kart 64's title theme and threw in a bunch of voice clips ("Ma-ma-mamma-mia!") for a 'funky' remix. That same theme was later used in Dance Dance Revolution: Mario Mix for a house-style rendition (Midnight Drive).
Mario Kart 64 wasn't the only series title to be represented in this collection of tweaked dance tunes. Two from Mario Kart: Double Dash were also remixed — the main Circuit theme was given a more techno feel, while a distorted version of Bowser's Castle served as the game's boss song (complete with a break dancing Bowser). In case you're wondering: the best remix in the game came from Wrecking Crew, of all things.
You can go for a swim in Double Deck
Although the Map Select screen shows Double Deck surrounded by grass, it's not greener on the other side. In fact, there's no grass at all!
While playing as a lightweight character, if you're close to the map's white walls and get rammed by a Star-protected character (or a Red Shell in some cases), the speedy hit may send you airborne on an angle and over the map's boundaries. But if that happens, rather than landing on ground, you'll land in a grey pool of water before Lakitu escorts you back.