With this special edition of AVQ&A, we’re celebrating the 25th anniversary of the original Super Mario Kart and the Mario Kart series by asking a very important question:
What is your favorite Mario Kart track?
My instant, instinctive reaction to this question surprised me, because it’s a track I actually kind of hated when I was a kid. But I think there’s something really special about Mario Kart 64's Yoshi Valley, one of the few courses to break out of the basic Mario Kart mold. The structure of the level is almost like a rally race, allowing drivers to pick their route through a winding valley, full of harsh turns with no railings, confusing switchbacks, and that big, evil egg waiting to smoosh a leading run. Yoshi Valley might not be the most traditionally successful Mario Kart course ever, but in a series that’s been around for so long, I really gravitate toward those races that give me something inventive and new, rather than technically sublime.
Although I’d spent plenty of hours with it before, Mario Kart DS was the first time the series really clicked for me and became an obsession. It was all about the feel of the drifting and the satisfying push-pull of efficiently taking a corner while leaning to the outside and building up those mini-turbo boosts, a concept borrowed from Double Dash and integrated beautifully here. The level I played most in that edition and still constantly go back to now that it’s been updated for Mario Kart 8 is Tick-Tock Clock. I love all the moving pieces and how they affect your racing line. That first big clock face offers an early opportunity at a long slide that you have to keep nice and tight if you’re trying to hit its rainbow boost pads. Then, those three spinning gears in the middle of the course force you to change direction at a rapid pace you hardly ever see in Mario Kart. And of course, it all ends with the winding ramp up to those final giant cogs that are, let’s face it, just plain fun to ride. That they alternate rotations between laps give the course yet another wrinkle you have to keep track of.
I am a lifelong casual player of Mario Kart games—the guy who comes over, loudly plays it at your house for several hours, wins unfairly exactly one time, and then gets delusions of grandeur, gets his ass kicked, and leaves. I have only ever owned one Mario Kart game, and it was the 3DS one, so it doesn’t count. Thus, my favorite Mario Kart course is the one with which I have the most recent memories: Mario Kart 8’s glorious Sunshine Airport. Other courses from that installment defied belief, taking racers through psychedelic phantasmagorias, but there’s something pleasantly cohesive about the airport’s runways and concourses and massive taxiing airplanes. The spectacle of those gleaming vehicles seamlessly gliding nearby and overhead as you race around provides a sort of holy-shit graphical spectacle that Nintendo games normally leave to the other guys.
Wario Stadium in Mario Kart 64 is one monster of a course—in length, in its dirt-bike track terrain, and in its hairpin turns that ensure crashes unless finessed with acute turn control. But it’s one hell of a fun bumper car-track that my high-school group defaulted to in four-person races. With its sharp turns and uneven elevation, there are parts of the track that are difficult to see ahead, making them an ideal place to wipe out fellow competitors with banana peels. And there’s the jump near the end of the course where a well-timed red shell can knock other drivers off course in mid-flight, careening them back a quarter lap. It’s always worth doing this just to hear the expletives.
I’ve probably played Mario Kart games more than any other video game series ever, and I could easily provide a detailed list of 10 tracks that I hate with a fiery passion, but there really is only one track that I’d take over all others: Excitebike Arena from Mario Kart 8. The course is an odd duck, even for Mario Kart, and that’s partly because it’s a faithful 3-D recreation of classic NES game Excitebike—one of Nintendo’s more under-appreciated gems. The track is a large oval, and outside of some oil spills, grassy patches, and ton of jumps, it’s relatively pure and simple compared to most other Mario Kart levels. You don’t have to worry about Monty Mole popping out of the dirt, you don’t have to stop for a stupid train, and you don’t have to weave past human-sized cars. It’s all about handling your cart through the turns and over the jumps, making it a true test of both Mario Kart skill and NES fandom.
Every Mario Kart features a version of Rainbow Road, and it’s easy to understand why. These tracks pair whimsical, psychedelic track design with deadly serious turns that will drop you into a cold, indifferent abyss if you get too sloppy. With so many Rainbow Roads to choose from, it’s difficult to pick the best. You have to strike that perfect balance between giddy, barely controlled free-falling and enough safe areas to gather some calm before the next wild twist. While Mario Kart Wii might be one of the series’ less loved entries, it without a doubt has the best Rainbow Road. You begin with a high, steep roller-coaster drop that sends you speeding toward a distant planet that rapidly rises to meet you. Booster strips are generously placed along the track, but they’re located dangerously close to the edges, forcing you to really weigh the added speed against your confidence in not flinging yourself off the side. It’s a heroic track; an adorable little Bifrost that will lead you to kart-racing Valhalla.
I’ve played plenty of Mario Kart 64 over the years, but those races were scattered throughout casual childhood rides and sloppy college Beerio binges. Getting the Switch led to the first time I became truly enamored with a Mario Kart game. Every level in Mario Kart 8 Deluxe is breathtakingly beautiful, but the developers at Nintendo outdid themselves with the Twisted Mansion level. I’m playing for the love of a level’s details as much as love of the race, and Twisted Mansion is the pinnacle of Nintendo’s whimsy: Boos hover over floating cutlery on dining-room tables; Fish Bones swim through the inexplicable anti-gravity/underwater segment; knights drop giant hammers outside, for some reason. Every last detail is a perfect assembly of haunted-house cornball aesthetic. And the music is the best of the best.