Mario Kart 64 was the first sequel to the series which made its début on the SNES. Nintendo's go-kart racer's roster is similar to the original with only two changes: Donkey Kong replaces DK Junior and Wario replaces Koopa. The returning characters are Mario, Luigi, Peach, Toad, Yoshi and Bowser. The statistics of each character are hidden, but each character basically falls into three categories which determines their top speed, acceleration and handling. Mario, Luigi and Yoshi are balanced, Toad and Princess Peach have excellent acceleration, and Bowser, Wario and Donkey Kong are the fastest.
Mario Kart GP mode has 4 cups, Mushroom, Flower, Star and Special; each consisting of 4 tracks. All the tracks are much longer compared to the original game, so have 3 laps rather than 5. There are three levels of difficulty; 50cc, 100cc, and 150cc which include faster karts and more aggressive opponents. There's an extra unlockable mode; Extra (Mirror) where the tracks are flipped.
At the end of each race, scores are awarded to the top four racers (9 for 1st, 6 for 2nd, 3 for 3rd, and 1 for 4th). At the end of the fourth track, trophies are awarded for the top 3 racers. Like the original game, you must finish in the top 4 to continue, although now you can retry as many times as it takes, rather than using a lives system. I much prefer to accept a loss and move to the next track rather than being forced to replay it, but at least it is a small improvement.
The controls are straight-forward, A button to accelerate, B to brake, R to jump/power-slide and Z to shoot weapons. The jump ability is very useful for leaping over hazards/small off-road sections and power-sliding gives you a tighter turn. If you power-slide and toggle the control stick, you can charge a boost which became a common feature in future games. The problem is, the N64 controller is not the best, so the feature only works some of the time. The way the cars handle often means it's better to drive simply rather than relying on power-sliding.
Wide tracks were impressive back then, but don't really suit the games' small karts. Modern day games have bigger karts that can power-slide tight corners. Toad's Turnpike works well though. The track design itself may be simple, but the cluttered track creates the atmosphere and tension, since you have to weave though the traffic. The track is more claustrophobic and the scale of the heavy goods vehicles really overshadow you which is lacking in the Mario Kart 8 remake.
The game-play isn't just pure racing; you need to utilise weapons for attack and defence. Driving through floating question mark blocks gives you a weapon from the iconic arsenal; green shell, red shell, banana, Mushroom, Starman, lightning bolt, ghost. The shells are fired forward; green shells bounce around the track and red shells home in on their target. Bananas cause opponents to spin out when they drive over them. Mushrooms to give you a speed boost, Starman grants you invincibility and temporarily raises your top speed. Lightning Bolt shrinks all 7 of your opponents. Ghost makes you invisible and steals an opponent's item. In terms of changes to the weapon system, the feather which allowed a bigger jump has been removed, the ghost now appears in single-player rather than just multiplayer. There are a few new weapons too, bananas and shells can come in batches of 3, but have the limitation of only firing them forward, the much maligned blue shell makes it's début, which chases after the leader (but is a very rare occurrence), and a special Turbo mushroom gives you continuous boosts for a limited time. Fake Item block may fool newcomers of the game and the AI, but against moderately experienced humans, the block only works as good as a banana.
A welcome change is that the AI controlled opponents are happy to battle each other and use the same weapons system as you. In the original SNES game, they all had their own weapon which could only attack you which was a very strange system. The coin system has also been removed (these used to speed you up and a couple were taken as a penalty for collisions).
Colliding with opposition has little consequence as opposed to the SNES game where you get violently shunted, slow down and lose a coin. Now its just a minor shunt. The AI, in general, seems much fairer; leading to much more enjoyable races. There's a lot of criticism with the game's use of rubber banding. I didn't think it was too bad, although sometimes your rivals will seem to hover behind you; coming close, dropping off, then coming close (as if they are become faster than you, then returning to normal speed repeatedly).
There's a Time Trial mode to set your fastest times. This is pure racing against the clock, although you get three Mushroom speed boosts to use which can be utilised to cut corners or take short-cuts. I usually enjoy playing Time Trial in Mario Kart, but it's quite a dull experience in this game. I think it's partially due to the handling; that it's hard to consistently power-slide, and partially due to some tracks lasting a bit longer than they should.
The multiplayer allows two players to play the main Grand Prix game mode, and up to four players for the other game modes: Match Race; a one-on-one race with items, or play Battle Mode; a last-man standing death-match which takes place in an arena.
Graphically, there's the usual “N64 fog” in the distance, and some tracks seem particularly blurry, but overall it is okay. Mario Kart 64 was really impressive for its time, and is still is good fun to play now. The main problem is that it was one of Nintendo's first 3D racing games and so looks very dated by today's standards.