Updated: Oct 10, 2022
Nintendo’s GameCube entry in the Mario Kart franchise is the fourth instalment in the series, but the added system of two kart racing mixed up the formula enough to make it feel fresh and fun with groups of friends.
So, it's more Mario Kart, right? Well, yes. But the main change to the formula was the introduction of the additional racer per kart, meaning you not only chose your driver but also an ‘item’ character that hung onto the back and helped skid around corners by leaning to one side or fired the different projectiles picked up throughout the race. I remember that system initially feeling gimmicky back in 2003 and disappointed that they hadn’t simply increased the amount of racers instead of the usual eight (it would be the 6th instalment on the Nintendo Wii which would finally do this). But as I played the game this feeling faded pretty fast as I was having such a good time. And now replaying the game, I absolutely love it.
For starters, the visuals are stunning. In fact, this is one of the best looking GameCube games on the system. It helps that you can switch the game to run at a smooth 60hrz mode and the colourful and vibrant art style really gives the Mario characters a new lease of life that hadn’t been seen before.
The modes available fall into the familiar categories seen in all previous games: Grand Prix championship has you compete against computer AI on four courses with the aim of collecting the gold cup at the end based on the highest points earned, Versus mode returns for simple player-based racing on any track and the popular Battle mode introduces some new gameplay types such as Bob-omb Blast and Shine Thief as well as the standard Balloon Battle. Time Trial also returns for those that like to compete with ghost data to get the fastest time possible on every track.
But the best moments are in multiplayer. As much fun as the one-player modes are, the game really comes alive when you have an extra friend or two to join in. This was always the case with the previous titles and the GameCube version is no exception. Some of my favourite memories stem from late nights playing this game with my best friend in high school as we set the world to rights, discussing our melodramatic high school troubles over a background playing Queens of the Stone Age album as we dodged blue shells and Bowser Castle thwomps. Good times.
This game also utilises the system’s ability to connect via LAN support so theoretically you could connect eight GameCubes together for manic 16-player racing across 8 different screens. Of course, I don’t know anyone that was actually able to use the LAN connectivity let alone get another 15 friends to all meet up in one location to do this so as far as I’m aware this was a pretty under-utilised feature.
The GameCube game’s superior fidelity and handling is a vast improvement over the predecessors. The hidden skid boost from the early games was brought to the foreground and is used more commonly to blast round the tracks faster, simply by quickly moving the left analogue stick left and right as you skid round a corner (signaled by the bottom of the kart turning red then blue before releasing the boost). On the harder difficulty, races will descend into skid-fueled frenzies as mastering the boost skid technique is crucial to beating the AI opponents.
Not unusually, Nintendo created a game which is accessible to everyone as the initial 50cc mode is ludicrously easy and ideal for anyone who is new to the series but the higher difficulty modes allow for some challenging gameplay for those that master the tracks (and speed boost technique) and are still fun on repeated attempts. The unlockable All Cup Tour is a great addition which is a championship which requires a race on all 16 tracks in random order (except for the first and final tracks which were always Luigi Circuit and Rainbow Road, respectively).
As for all the other extras, this version introduces loads of new characters (some unlockable) and tracks. There are new items such as the Bob-omb and the ability to select which kart to be used (for instance each racer has their own custom kart and special move). This means that depending on the characters you choose will allow for some basic strategy in that the weight of the characters determines the type of kart on offer ( heavy characters are always limited to the heavier karts which are slower in general but have a higher top speed). Additionally, you might want a special ability granted by a specific character (fireballs for the Mario Bros, golden mushrooms for the two Toads, etc). You can switch the characters mid race and it is pretty amusing to see some of the character combinations (the idea that evil Bowser would agree to team up with cutesy Yoshi or Toad always tickles me).
When including unlockable characters there are a total 20 available racers to choose from, with all the stalwart Mario characters returning (even Koopa Troopa who hadn’t been seen since the original game) with 11 of them being new to the series. Most of them are welcome additions such as Waluigi, Diddy Kong, Birdo and King Boo but some feel like lazy palette swapping (the addition of both Baby Mario and Luigi characters as well as Toadette – a pink female version of Toad - spring to mind).
The new tracks are mostly all great but ultimately those will always come down to personal preference. One person’s Bowser Castle (a fantastic version in this game) will be someone else’s Wario Collisuem (my least favourite track). Although some are sheer lunacy such as the barmy Baby Park which is simply a short oval which the characters fly round so quickly that the amount of laps is increased from the standard three to seven, and lapping characters will cause all sorts of chaos due to the small confines of the track. The music is also suitably manic as expected and adds to the hectic nature of the races.
Ultimately, Nintendo really pulled it out and delivered a top quality title which tried something new within the familiar formula and layered it with a load of extras that it’s difficult to be disappointed. It’s one of the highlights of the series and definitely one of the best games on the Nintendo GameCube.