Retro Gaming: Ranking the Mario Kart Games

As everyone's favorite portly plumber exclaims at the title screen of the Nintendo 64 iteration of this famous series, "Welcome to Mario Kart!" In case you have spent the last 26 years clawing your way back to civilization from underneath a large rock, Mario Kart is an arcade-style racing game featuring Mario and many other characters from Nintendo's flagship franchise. The series is known for its multiplayer shenanigans, often questionable opponent AI in single player, and of course the use of various items and weapons that help level the playing field.

There are eight main titles in the Mario Kart series, and in this article I will be ranking them from my least favorite to, well, my favorite. None of these games is exactly bad, so it's basically like ranking them from "good" to "best". With all that boring nonsense out of the way, let's-a go.

8. Mario Kart Wii (Wii, 2008)

Mario Kart Wii is the most successful Mario Kart release to date, selling a staggering 37 million copies. Of course, the Wii sold approximately seventeen billion units and Mario Kart is a popular series, so the numbers make a lot of sense in that respect.

The game itself is a solid entry to the series with plenty of fun new tracks, and adds a number of new features. First of all, bikes have been introduced into the game, and they actually handle quite differently from the karts. While karts are able to get a more powerful mini-turbo boost from drifting, bikes can perform wheelies which can be used to boost your speed on straightaways. The sport bike variants also feature a completely different mechanic for drifting called "inside drift", which involves leaning into the corners like you would see in real-life superbike races.

Mario Kart Wii also adds motion controls, because it's the Wii and of course we need motion controls. You can tilt the Wii Remote to steer, or shove it into a plastic shell known as the Wii Wheel (included with every copy of the game) and play using that. Of course, nobody who actually wants to win races is going to want anything to do with motion controls, and fortunately the game also supports the Wii Classic Controller and the GameCube controller.

Finally, the number of racers on the track has been increased from eight to twelve. In theory, this is a positive addition and makes for more eventful races. However, adding four extra racers into the mix completely throws off the item balance, and as such you are going to get bombarded by items during races. If you're in the lead, expect multiple blue shells to come your way. 150cc and Mirror Mode in Mario Kart Wii are utterly painful experiences, and you must play them if you want to unlock all characters and vehicles. The game also has an online mode, but the Nintendo Wi-Fi Connection servers were taken down in 2014 and while custom servers do exist, they are run by people who still play Mario Kart Wii and are therefore completely terrifying.

The reason this game is at the bottom of the list is (along with the brutally unfair AI) that Nintendo sold it largely on the motion controls and the online play, neither of which is really what I'm looking for in a Mario Kart game. The core gameplay is solid but unspectacular, and since the item balance is completely out of whack, luck plays a much larger role here than in any other Mario Kart.

7. Mario Kart DS (DS, 2005)

Many fans of the series consider this game their favorite, which I assume is mostly due to the fact they played it when it came out and/or played it as their first Mario Kart game. I didn't play Mario Kart DS until this year, and while it is a great effort for the DS I don't think it holds up particularly well. The AI is nearly as brutal as in Mario Kart Wii and often feels like the CPU opponents are teaming up to make sure the player doesn't win, and the tracks are very short by the series' standards. Understandable since this is on a handheld system, but not something I'm a fan of and it really drags the whole experience down for me.

Mario Kart DS was the first game in the series to feature online play, but obviously that no longer functions. When it did work, there were still a few issues – not all tracks were available, and all the top players were using a gameplay exploit known as "snaking". Basically, this involves constantly drifting left and right in an alternating pattern on straightaways, earning a continuous mini-turbo boost. This was clearly never intended to be a mechanic, but if you wanted to win any races online you had to master it. I am, of course, basing this on what I've read online, since I never played the game back in the day.

The game also features a mission mode, which tasks you with completing various objectives and even has boss fights! Despite being an interesting distraction from the racing, this mode has never returned to the series.

6. Super Mario Kart (SNES, 1992)

Where it all began. Initially, the project was meant to be a two-player version of F-Zero, the futuristic racer that showed off the SNES' Mode 7 pseudo-3D capabilities at the system's launch. After it turned out the blistering speeds of F-Zero were off the table in a split-screen multiplayer game, the vehicles were changed from futuristic anti-grav death sleds to humble go-karts, initially with a random guy in overalls in the driver's seat. At some point, someone on the team decided to replace the random character with Mario, and a franchise was born.

Super Mario Kart has aged quite well for a racing game from 1992, but it has some serious issues. Before we get into those, though, I would like to say I really appreciate how this game doesn't punish you for being skilled at it. No blue shells, no massive rubberbanding – if you're in the lead and drive really well (easier said than done, because Super Mario Kart has some of the narrowest and twistiest tracks in the series), you'll probably win. This is one aspect of the game I enjoy tremendously.

But then we've got the flaws. First off, the courses lack variety. This is due to technical limitations, as the SNES could only handle a handful of different environments. More importantly, though, while you can indeed get a lead and hold it, getting there is far from easy because the AI cheats like an absolute champ. They can drive right through obstacles on the track. They can drive over rough terrain without losing speed. Hell, they can sometimes drive on thin air to avoid falling off tracks without guardrails, such as the infamous Rainbow Road! Worst of all, the AI drivers have their own special items, which can be used whenever they feel like it. Probably the most frustrating of these is the invincibility star used by Mario and Luigi, but the rest with their pinpoint accuracy projectiles aren't exactly fun to deal with either. Still, if you're good enough at Super Mario Kart, you'll manage to overcome the cheating AI. The same can't always be said about the other games.

5. Mario Kart: Super Circuit (Game Boy Advance, 2001)

The Game Boy Advance is basically a handheld Super NES, and as such Super Circuit is the closest thing to a direct Super Mario Kart sequel there is. While Super Circuit utilizes certain elements from Mario Kart 64 (the character roster is the same and the character sprites are done in a similar pre-rendered style to the N64 game, and the item selection is mostly identical as well), the gameplay returns to the Mode 7 style of the original.

Super Circuit is a more refined experience than the original SNES release in many ways. The graphics are improved, and the tracks have much more variety than the first game's environments. There are more jumps and dash plates on the tracks, more unique environments, and everything simply feels more polished. You can even unlock all of the Super Mario Kart tracks in the Extra mode, although they lack many of the original obstacles for whatever reason. Much like Super Mario Kart, Super Circuit also rewards skilled play, albeit to a lesser extent since the blue shell is included. Hooray.

4. Mario Kart 7 (3DS, 2011)

You know, most long-running franchises stop doing numbered titles after the first few sequels, but Nintendo decided to do the opposite and only start numbering the Mario Kart games after the first six entries to the series.

Mario Kart 7 is not the best game in the series, but it does add some interesting wrinkles to the gameplay. This time, the main additions are underwater driving and gliders, neither of which people exactly clamored for but there they are anyway. Deal with it, I guess. Aside from these gameplay additions and the 3D feature (which works nicely and adds a good sense of depth), there's not much to say about Mario Kart 7. It's a good Mario Kart game, and that's pretty much it. The number of competitors is reduced back to eight due to the handheld nature of this release, and the competition at least feels more fair than Mario Kart Wii.

3. Mario Kart: Double Dash!! (GameCube, 2003)

I first played Double Dash on a friend's GameCube I was borrowing back in 2003, and based on that experience alone I would've ranked it near the bottom of this list. I made the mistake of playing Double Dash immediately after F-Zero GX, so it was no great surprise that I bounced off the game quite hard at the time. However, I recently picked up a copy of the game and gave it another shot, and it's obvious I've been missing out!

The main gimmick of Double Dash is two characters on each kart. One drives, the other throws items, and you can swap their places at any point. This adds an extra dimension of strategy into Mario Kart, although some combinations of drivers are straight-up better than others due to the fact different characters have their own special items. For example, Koopa Troopa can use triple green or red shells, so you'll probably want him or Paratroopa as one half of your driver pairing.

The whole double character mechanic aside, Double Dash is simply an extremely solid Mario Kart game with some of the best tracks in the series. Plenty of people consider it the black sheep of the franchise (and I was one of them up until recently), but you should give Double Dash a shot because it just might surprise you. Oh yeah, and this is also the only Mario Kart to run at 60 frames per second even in three and four player splitscreen. Not only that, but if you happen to have eight TVs and eight GameCubes each running a copy of Double Dash, you can play system link with up to sixteen players! I don't know if anyone has ever actually done that, but the option is there.

2. Mario Kart 64 (Nintendo 64, 1996)

I'm well aware that this placement is largely based on nostalgia, but I never said I'd be 100% objective and unbiased. As the first true 3D game in the series, Mario Kart 64 changed everything. The move from flat Mode 7 tracks to full 3D environments was simply a tremendous jump, allowing for much more complex and varied tracks than had been possible on the SNES. This game has some of my favorite tracks in the series, and most of them have been remade in later games for their retro cups. It's also the only Mario Kart whose Battle Mode is fun for more than five minutes, largely because it has the best battle map ever in Block Fort. And four player splitscreen, can't forget about that.

Of course, Mario Kart 64 is not perfect and has not necessarily aged all that well. The character models are prerendered sprites, which looks a bit crummy nowadays but it was either that or equally unattractive low-poly 3D models. Mario Kart 64 is also the only game in the series to run with a 30 fps cap even in single player, as the N64 simply didn't have enough juice to run these graphics at 60 fps. The AI here is notoriously bad due to its rubberbanding tendencies, with opponents getting gigantic speed boosts whenever the game thinks you're too far ahead. Still, you can usually blow them up with items when they get too close, so as long as you stay in the lead you should be okay for the most part.

This also happens to be the game that introduced the blue shell, which targets the leader of the race. Thanks, lads. It didn't get obnoxious until Double Dash, because that game gave the blue shell its wings and made it target ONLY the leading driver instead of navigating the track and hitting everything in its path. Not only that, but Double Dash made the blue shell more common than it was in its first appearance – it was by far the rarest item in Mario Kart 64.

1. Mario Kart 8/Mario Kart 8 Deluxe (Wii U, 2014/Switch, 2017)

You could describe Mario Kart 8 as simply Mario Kart 7 HD, but that wouldn't do this wonder of a game any justice whatsoever. While Mario Kart 8 retains the gliders and underwater driving from the 3DS game and brings back the bikes from the Wii, it also introduces spectacular anti-gravity sections which almost feel like a test run for a new F-Zero. The core gameplay is basically perfect here, especially with the tweaks made for the Deluxe version, and the presentation absolutely shines. The HD visuals are gorgeous, and the music is catchier than ever with some excellent remixes of old tracks as well as new compositions performed by the "Mario Kart Band".

Mario Kart 8 also boasts the largest selection of tracks in the history of the series, with a whopping 48 courses to race on. Sixteen of these (including tracks based on Legend of Zelda, Animal Crossing and F-Zero) were initially released in the two Wii U DLC packs and later incorporated into Deluxe. Deluxe also improved on the lackluster Battle Mode from the original release, adding proper battle arenas and several game modes, although personally I still don't care about Battle Mode in the slightest. Of course, Mario Kart 8 also features an extensive online mode both on the Wii U and the Switch, but regardless of how you choose to play, this is one hell of a game. Frankly, I don't know how the next Mario Kart is going to improve on what we have here, but I'd probably be happy with a new set of quality tracks.

Do you agree with the listing, or do you hope I get mauled by badgers for ranking your favorite game too low? In any event, I hope you enjoyed this look back at the Mario Kart franchise. Feel free to visit Three Voices Gaming for even more gaming content!

Marko's picture

I have plenty of common sense. I just choose to ignore it.