The Mario Kart series – An Authoritative Ranking

MK8 cover

Mario Kart 8 – Get it Friday.

OKLAHOMA CITY – With Mario Kart 8 dropping this Friday, it only seems appropriate to run back the previous seven titles and rank them from worst to best. I’m extremely excited about this. Here we goooooo!

Mk64cover7. Mario Kart 64

Mario Kart 64 isn’t a bad game, but I rank it my least favorite for two reasons: crummy mechanics and the blue shell.

While its predecessor (Super Mario Kart) featured tight digital controls that rewarded superior starting, turning and other basic driving skills, MK64 mechanics were based on boosting more than anything else.*

See those red E's? Mario's about to boost.

See those red E’s? Mario’s about to boost.

If you’re unfamiliar, boosting is performed like so: while turning, rapidly move the thumbstick away from and into the turn until your kart’s exhaust becomes yellow and then red. If red, you’ll be rewarded with a boost of speed upon exiting the turn.

Some folks are able to boost extremely well, so I quickly realized that, if I wanted to compete, I’d better figure it out. I eventually became pretty good at it, but I still missed the days where pure driving skills (steering, starting etc) were the only requirement for success.

NOTE: Please understand, I believe MK64 requires skill, but it’s not pure driving skill. Check out this video and see how boosting and executing shortcuts allows this guy to set a World Record.

In the end, MK64’s boosting didn’t feel like Mario Kart, and that was crushing to a boy who loooooved the original. It was especially crushing since I sold ALL my games/systems (except my SNES) just to acquire what I thought would be a surefire childhood classic. You’ve heard the phrase “epic fail”? This was whatever is worse than that. Would that I could do that over.

If boosting weren’t bad enough, MK64 also introduced the obnoxious/maddening/joy-killing bane of Mario Karters’ existences, the blue shell. The blue shell does nothing less than punish people for good performance. Whereas one could, through good driving, lap the competition on SMK, one had to be wary of getting too far ahead in MK64 lest a blue shell attack and teach you that equality is better than excellence.

This picture provides fuzzy evidence of an early appearance of the Blue Shell.

This fuzzy picture provides early evidence of the Blue Shell.

Boosting and blue shells have been a feature of nearly every title since MK64, but I won’t penalize those titles nearly as harshly as this one, the instigator. So, there you go – Mario Kart 64 is the worst Mario Kart game of all time.

Silly but true.

Silly but true.

Mario Kart Wii Cover6. Mario Kart Wii

Mario Kart Wii was supposed to be amazing because of the inclusion of bikes and a giant roster of drivers. Unfortunately, all that was wrecked when Nintendo decided to burden MKW with all the issues of MK64 except to an even more maddening degree. This especially applies to blue shells.

What a surprise - Yoshi's in 5th place AND he has a Blue Shell.

What a surprise – Yoshi’s in 5th place AND he has a Blue Shell.

If you’re not familiar, hidden drivers and karts are unlocked as you progress through the Grand Prix on different difficulty levels. While I’m proficient enough to take down the computer even at 150cc, I was not proficient enough to overcome multiple blue shells every race.

You see, in MKW, Nintendo made blue shells more abundant than ever before. So, any time I found myself cruising along in first, I was sure to find a blue shell tracking me down before too long.  This made for the most frustrating Grand Prix ever.

At least the graphics are nice and crisp-ish.

At least the graphics are nice and crisp-ish.

Still, I paid for the game, so I wanted to get as much out of it possible. I determined to win all the Grand Prix and unlock every character, so I began to drive more tactically, letting one driver stay ahead of me to take the shells. Even then, I was more often than not accosted by red shells or other mayhem and finished regularly in 4th or 5th place.

While I mostly play Mario Kart games for the time trials, the Grand Prix in MKW ruined the whole experience for me, and I rarely play the game to this day.

4-player MK Wii anyone? Didn't think so.

4-player MK Wii anyone? Didn’t think so.

mkds cover5. Mario Kart DS

The first portable title on the list! Mario Kart DS is a fine Nintendo DS game that has all the annoying boosting of MK64 except on the go!

Honestly, I feel rather “meh” about MKDS. It is a good game with a nice selection of tracks, but it is little more than a minute improvement on the formula.

Luigi cruising through the mansion.

Luigi cruising through the mansion.

However, there are a couple of elements that make this game neither the worst nor second worst game in the series.

First of all, this is the first game in the series to have a selection of retro tracks taken from preceding games. NOTE: Mario Kart Super Circuit is the first game in the series to feature retro tracks, but they are all from SMK. MKDS includes various tracks from every preceding game.

This feature makes for a lovely walk down memory lane. No longer are tracks simply there to be raced. Instead, I often play old tracks in Time Trial mode just to revisit the music and curves and to relive my formative years. This is a huge plus, and thankfully Nintendo has kept this trend around ever since.

DK getting it done on Waluigi Pinball.

DK getting it done on Waluigi Pinball.

The second element of note is quite minor yet infinitely valuable. Namely, MKDS is the first game of the series to reveal opponents’ items during Grand Prix.

Remember how obnoxious blue shells are in MKW? And, remember how I had to let drivers take first just so blue shells would hit them instead of me? I could only achieve that by knowing when an opponent had a blue shell, and I only knew that from the realtime driver position and item display.

The realtime driver/item display came into its current form in MKDS. While I still hate blue shells, this display makes them slightly more manageable.

So, despite its being largely a rehash of old ideas, the sampling of retro tracks and the implementation of realtime driver/item info puts MKDS at #5.

Oh, I guess I should point out that MKDS is the first Mario Kart game to allow for internet multiplayer. Sadly, Nintendo has taken down the servers, so MKDS online is no more. Rest in pieces.


Mario catching Pac-Man in Mario Kart Arcade GP DX 2


I’ll be back to the list in just a moment. Right now, I just want to pause and recognize three Mario Kart games that most of us have never played and probably never will.

Nintendo developed Mario Kart Arcade GP, Mario Kart Arcade GP 2 and Mario Kart Arcade GP DX2 in conjunction with Namco specifically for arcade play. They all have beautiful graphics and an interesting assortment of tracks.

This game is gorgeous.

This game is gorgeous.

Due to the affiliation with Namco, several tracks are based on Namco properties, and you can even race as Pac-Man or Blinky (as well as a couple other Namco characters).

Pretty cool stuff. I wish these would get ported to the Wii U, but I’m not holding out hope. Okay, back to the list….

mk7 cover4. Mario Kart 7

Mario Kart 7 is where this list starts to get good. Released in 2011 for the 3DS, MK7 is the most up-to-date entry in the series until Friday. It has the same lame boosting, but it also has lots of great new tracks, a nice selection of retro tracks, new kart mechanics (including hang-gliding) and 3D presentation. It also has great graphics, a smooth framerate and nice music. It is a pretty cool game; very well put together.

Mario hang-gliding amidst the trees and pipes.

Mario hang-gliding amidst the trees and pipes.

I would be remiss if I didn’t mention how much I enjoy experimenting with the hang-gliding. It’s tremendously enjoyable to see how much of a track I can fly over rather than drive, and the physics of gracefully gliding to the track work very nicely.

Of course, one might say “But Grant, hang-gliding is just a gimmick like boosting!!! LOL. Idk why you give that a free pass but not boosting??? LOL.”

Mario hang-gliding across a river - cheaper than building a bridge

Mario hang-gliding across a river – cheaper than building a bridge

In my mind, the difference between boosting and gliding is that gliding is an element that tests one’s ability to control one’s kart whereas boosting is just a devs gimmick to spice up the experience of controlling one’s kart. There is a big difference there.

Mario chillin on the MK7 version of MKWii's Maple Treeway

Mario chillin on the MK7 version of MKWii’s Maple Treeway

I play racing games (including Mario Kart) largely for the basic experience of guiding my vehicle through a tough track. That alone is exciting enough for me. I don’t need boosting mechanics to make it more enjoyable or thrilling.

Princess with the Lucky 7 power-up

Princess with the Lucky 7 power-up

So, having said that, I really like the hang-gliding, and I like the variety of tracks and overall production quality. As a modern Mario Kart game, MK7 works very well.

mksc cover3. Mario Kart: Super Circuit

The last portable title on the list is also my favorite portable title. Mario Kart: Super Circuit came out when I was in college, and while the critics loved it (it received critical acclaim upon release, garnering a 93% on Metacritic), I definitely loved it more.

The first thing I loved about it is that it features SMK mechanics (no silly boosting), so I was finally able to cut loose and just drive again. Love love loved that!!

Mario dominating Koopa Beach.

Mario dominating Shy Guy Beach.

I also love the incredible selection of tracks. MKSC has forty total tracks, giving it the series’ most extensive collection to date. The first twenty courses are new while the other twenty are, get ready for it, the ENTIRE collection of tracks from SMK. For someone who loves the original, MKSC is a dream come true.

Luigi MKSCQuick note: one difference between SMK and MKSC is driver size. On average, the driver-size-to-track-width ratio is much larger in the second game, making even the most familiar track seem smaller and less forgiving.

This isn’t really meant to be a complaint, as the end result is that races in MKSC are FAST. In fact, I have to admit that I never fully learned to handle some courses at full speed with DK/Bowser. Ahem, Ribbon Road anyone? Ugh that track is tough.

Wario MKSCThe final thing I loved (and still love) is the fact that I can actually play this portable game on my TV using the GBA Player for the GameCube. I don’t do this too much, but it is a very fun feature if I don’t feel like hunkering down in a corner and removing myself from the world to play on my GBA/DS.

Overall, I love MKSC because it is so reminiscent of my first love, SMK. I wish Nintendo would make another title like it with updated graphics. Alas, I fear the best days are indeed behind us. That doesn’t matter, though, because MKSC is still awesome.

box_mkdd2. Mario Kart: Double Dash

Even as I write this, I realize this is a controversial choice. Players generally didn’t like Mario Kart: Double Dash as much as other games in the series, so for me to place it this high will undoubtedly generate indecorous consternation.

Nevertheless, MKDD is #2 on my list. Of all the “boosting” games, I like this one the best, primarily because of the speed factor.

Mario about to ruin someone with a banana

Mario about to ruin someone with a banana

Heretofore I haven’t mentioned much about speed in the MK series other than to point out that MKSC feels fast. Indeed, as MK64 took the series into the third dimension and brought us boosting, the game (ironically) felt slower than the original. That trend has continued to this day. Recent games (while still fun) feel slower and less breathtaking than earlier entries.

Luigi and Daisy on a drive through Peach Beach

Luigi and Daisy on a drive through Peach Beach

However, MKDD doesn’t feel slow. Somehow, the devs conjured up just the right formula for modern racing mechanics while maintaining a sense of speed. Just thinking about the technical Yoshi Circuit and simple yet blazing fast Baby Park get my juices flowing. This fast game leaves plenty of room for driving acumen.

Before moving to #1, I should expand a little bit on the graphics. For a standard definition game, MKDD’s graphics are crisp and colorful. And things run along at a smooth 60 fps making this a slick, beautiful game.

King Boo at Wario Colosseum

King Boo at Wario Colosseum

One more note – I can’t find my copy of MKDD ANYwhere. If I loaned it to you, I would appreciate having it back. 😀 Okay, on to #1!!!

SMK cover1. Super Mario Kart

Super Mario Kart is the greatest Mario Kart game ever made. I don’t know how they did it (maybe it’s just beginner’s luck), but Nintendo somehow managed to knock their first attempt at Mario racing out of the park.

The music is fun, the graphics (though 16-bit) are colorful and cheery, and the track designs are superior to pretty much everything that came later. This is a racing game that anyone can enjoy.

Mario on MC1

Mario dominating Mario Circuit 1

There are three things that I really love in SMK.

First, you can lap your computer opponents. This was largely taken away in later MKs (except for MKSC); I’ve never understood why. I LOVE driving a couple perfect laps and then, hello, that’s Mr. Eighth Place! Then seventh place. Then sixth. And on it goes. The greater the margin of victory, the better the Grand Prix experience. SMK gives you that experience to the hilt.

Toad winnaar

This was state-of-the-art twenty-two years ago.

Second, I love how fast 150cc is. SMK’s normal racing speed hovers somewhere around the 100cc mark for non-Grand Prix elements (Time Trials, Battle Mode), so 150cc Grand Prix is something special, as it is the fastest gameplay available. Speaking of “special”, 150cc Special Cup feels even faster than normal 150cc. To this day, 150cc Special Cup is the most brutally hard set of races found in any Mario Kart game.

Third, I love, love, love, love, love, love, LOVE Time Trial mode. When I get a new Mario Kart, I will always spend the bulk of my time playing Time Trials. Sure, Grand Prix is fun (and essential for unlocking tracks/characters), but Time Trials are where the true replay value is. I could’ve discussed this on every MK game, but it originated here, so SMK gets the credit.

Princess making it happen on Choco Island

Princess making it happen on Choco Island

Two more things about Time Trials.

1. I remember reading an issue of Nintendo Power twenty-two years ago in which readers were challenged to send in their fastest times for Mario Circuit 1. I raced with Toad back then (I hadn’t discovered the powers of DKJ and Bowser), so I raced and raced and raced and RACED until I got my time down to about 1’07″14 or so. I couldn’t wait to read the next issue and see how I compared.

Battle Mode was so EPIC in SMK ;)

Battle Mode was so EPIC in SMK 😉

I got the next edition, flipped to see the results, and was completely dumbfounded. Readers had sent in times of 1’01” and 1’02” – I was a solid 5-6 seconds off pace! I didn’t understand how that was possible. I eventually realized I had to use DKJ or Bowser to get close to that. After racing for over twenty years, I’m proud to say I’ve arrived at a best time of 1’00″70. Can I go faster? Yeah, probably, but I don’t have time to play anymore with work and life and such.

Before continuing, enjoy this acapella rendition of the theme from Rainbow Road by Smooth McGroove.

Okay, back to the article.

The point is, Time Trials in MK have become like Olympic sprinting. Folks will spend years whittling down their best times, even rejoicing over shaving one one-hundredth of a second off their records. It’s a very fun endeavor, and something that can generate lasting memories.

For example, one year my buddy Andrew and I went back and forth one-upping each other, trying to see who could get the best MC1 time. He had the best lap time; I had the best total time. We spent at least one full spring/summer trying to beat each other. Awesome stuff.

Time to go pro - my MC1 times

Time to go pro – my MC1 times

2. There is an entire community devoted to Mario Kart Time Trials. This might seem like nerd central to a lot of folks, but it is essentially like Mario Kart Olympics to enthusiasts. If you’re new to Mario Kart and want to see how you measure up to the best in the world, go check it out.

So there you go – SMK is the greatest Mario Kart game ever made, and I don’t see it ever being dethroned. BTW – it is on the Wii’s Virtual Console, so if you don’t have a Super Nintendo lying around, why not give is a download and try it out?

THAT’S IT. Those are my rankings. If you love my order, rad. If not, no problem. I understand that even the smartest folks are capable of holding false beliefs. If you think I’m waaaaaay off or waaaaaay right, why not tell the world in the comments below? I’d love to hear from you.

mario_kart_8_upsidedownAND FINALLY – As mentioned earlier, Mario Kart 8 is coming this Friday. Get ready for some anti-gravity kart racing. I’m pumped.

* – In SMK, there is a method described as NBT (New Boosting Techniques). It is a collection of boosting elements used by the top SMK drivers today, but it wasn’t even used in a World Record attempt until TEN YEARS after SMK’s release and six years after MK64’s release.

While these boosting techniques are comparable to boosting in MK64, they aren’t a blatant element of the game and weren’t meant to be the focus for new drivers. So, I consider MK64 to be the father of modern kart boosting.

Grant Stevens is a semi-non-pro Mario Kart racer and part time Mario Circuit 1 dominator. He also writes, plays music and enjoys basketball. And he likes apologetics. AND he’s the Dictator of the Use Ironic Correctly Society.

7 thoughts on “The Mario Kart series – An Authoritative Ranking

  1. Bah ha ha, you’ll hear no indecorous consternation out of me with your choice of ranking double dash! I remember going to babbages…with you, and seeing it on display. I remember thinking it….and Halo Combat Evolved must be the most amazing games ever made, and then I bought a game boy advance and Mega Man Zero. Archaeology class was never boring again. So, if you would like Mario Kart Double Dash back, I have it. You loaned it to me without me asking for it, so I have it for you. Come over and get it when you can, but you have to play some fighting games when you do.

    Have you bought/played MK8 yet? I’m curious to see how you feel about it, as it’s been getting great reviews all around.

    for the record, my favorites were always the snes and gba games. I too hated (but still played alot) the N64 version. I played very little of the wii version, but noticed the blue shell garbage right away. I suck at boosting on all these games, so it’s a moot point for me. I can see your frustration though. I really enjoyed playing the 3ds game on your 3ds the few times that I have. The hang gliding is pretty fun!

    So anyways, come get double dash. Ibuki and Rolento say “hi hi hiiiiiiii”.

  2. Great article! I remember when Nintendo Power had the original Time Trial contest in the “Power Player’s Challenge” section in Nintendo Power magazine. However, the best time published for Mario Circuit I was just under 1’01″00, it was actually 1’00″88 and was accomplished by Ricky Innocent from New Castle, Pa using Donkey Kong Jr. The time was published two times. Nintendo Power waited a few issues before they published it for the second time. Amazingly, nobody was able to beat it at that time so it was held as the official World Record.

      • Yes, that would be me. However, as you noticed, I go by just Rick these days, unless it’s my mother. Lol She still calls me Ricky.

      • Hey Grant, I’m not sure how I came across this thread again, but somehow I managed to find it. It’s now 3:15 A.M. and I’m having one of those sleepless nights. Lol But I never even knew you replied to my last comment so I apologize for not replying sooner. I always said “Better late than never”, but even I think that 8+ years is maybe just a little bit ridiculous. Lol Anyway, to answer your question, I don’t play much nowadays. However, I bought a Nintendo Switch a year or 2 ago and I did get back into SMK for a while since I subscribed to the Nintendo Online (or whatever their service is called) for a year, which included a bunch of NES and SNES titles. Not surprisingly, I couldn’t reach the times I used to get. The record I have in Nintendo Power is 1:00:88 for Mario Circuit 1. I think I was able to get roughly in the 1:04-1:05 range. I have 2 sons (ages 23 and 25) that are into gaming. I sometimes jokingly brag about being the world record Mario Kart champ, although I have no delusions that my time has been crushed many times over a long time ago. Lol My bragging about my “world record” has become a type of running joke. For example, my oldest son was telling me a few years ago that he was ranked extremely high on Call Of Duty, which I would arrogantly and sarcastically respond “Wow, that’s awesome. Did I ever tell you that I had an unbreakable world record on one the most famous games of all time?”. It is such an ongoing thing with me that my youngest son actually made me a custom t-shirt with my name and world record printed on it. Lol I wish I could post a pic because it’s so ridiculous that it’s funny. Yes, I know I’m rambling but I though you deserved a reply with some substance since I left you hanging for over 8 years. Lol I’m probably wasting my time since it’s been so long and you probably won’t even ever see this. Again, I apologize for not replying sooner. – Rick

        Oh yeah, I don’t think I specifically said it in my original comment, but I also rank Mario Kart 64 as my least favorite Mario Kart game. I remember being pretty disappointed when I first played it. I mean, it’s not BAD, necessarily, but I don’t believe it was on the level of the first one. Just saying. 😕

      • Hi Rick, thanks for the reply. Indeed, better late than never! Hahaha man that’s hilarious about the unbreakable world record. You have to make the most of those bragging rights!! Your sons have no idea how awesome that record was.

        I hear you about not getting to play as much these days. I also don’t get a lot of time to run MK nowadays. My main interaction with MK at the moment is playing the soundtrack songs on my phone for my nephews as they run around the backyard in real-life “Mario Kart” races. They love that.

        Having said that, I did happen to play some Konami Krazy Racers (GBA) a couple of days ago, and that was really fun. It’s pretty solid, almost like a whole new MK game.

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