I first ranked these games based on how fun they were today. That seemed fair enough, but it ended up punishing the older games too harshly as each new game has included almost everything that came before it. My ranking became chronological and defeated the purpose.
The new ranking will consider the game as it first launched. The earlier games introduction of new features will stand proudly against the nostalgic remixes of later entries.
Mario Kart Wii
Oddly enough, this is the one I spent the most time with as I had a girlfriend and group of friends that were always down to race. The automatic drifting and generous balancing to slower racers probably factored into how easy it was to get a group interested, but also worked against it in my books.
There are two main mechanics that irritate the hell out of me.
Firstly, the items. All Mario Kart games have annoying items that help slumping racers get ahead, but the Wii version is the worst offender. It has a large amount of cheap items that don’t need to be aimed and are unavoidable by the target. A skilled green shell, clever banana, or deceitful fake item box are wonderful moments that can turn a race around, but a pow block that affects everyone except the user in a certain radius is just lazy. This and other lame items are exacerbated by the larger amount of racers that cause the least fun chaos if stuck in the middle pack.
Secondly, the tracks are too wide. This was probably implemented to assist people using the motion controls, but it mostly serves to slow the game down. The illusion of speed is diminished and turns become much easier.
I enjoy the huge amount of tracks both new and old, but the gameplay is the dullest of the bunch.
This was another staple for a few years and I appreciate the risks Nintendo took to reinvent the franchise. The two-driver mechanic, 8 player mode, and unique racer items (great SNES throwback) were ambitious as heck. I wish I could use Peach and Daisy’s protective hearts in every Mario Kart. Although the two-driver system was novel, it felt unnecessary and I’m glad it didn’t stick around.
The game felt speedy enough and the courses were a decent evolution from the N64 version, providing a bit more to look at and interact with.
What keeps it at #4 are the slippery controls. I felt there were better Mario Karts when it came to handling and feedback, which is most important overall.
A fantastic experiment and great game, but still #4 on this list.
Mario Kart 64
The first Kart to introduce four players, 3D, and drift boosting. These elements are staples of the series and got off to a great start here. 64 also feels speedy and lacks many of the cheaper items later games would introduce. The battle mode evolved brilliantly into 3D and still remains one of the best.
A fantastic hybrid of what made the first game so engaging while embracing modern improvements.
The visuals have aged the worst however. The presentation is muddy and the tracks are barren. The N64 was pushed to its limits and it shows with each passing generation.
An important game that’s still a blast to play today, but lacking in overall content.
Super Mario Kart
Yes it lacks many of the features found in other entries, but it also offers a unique experience that focuses heavily on actual racing. It’s also devoid of the blue shell and most of the irritating items. Only the lightning affects every racer without aiming, but is only available to a human racer in last place.
The ability to play the Grand Prix with a second human racer was a tremendous feature at the time, and one that is unforgivably missing from the Wii version.
Tight controls, great music, and engaging unlockables make for a masterful debut.
Mario Kart 8
Look at this game! The screenshots are great but to see it in motion is mind-blowing. If Nintendo can do this on a Wii U I’d be terrified if they ever used their powers for evil.
The recreated SNES courses are nostalgic crack but it’s the new tracks that show what this game can really do. The added boosts from bumping opponents at the right time, performing stunts, and picking up coins are a clever integration of the franchise’s best moments.
Another part of the game I love is the perspective. The camera feels a lot closer to the racer and ground, greatly enhancing the sensation of speed and presence. Once you get used to the speed, the 200 cc mode is there to melt your mind all over again.
Mario Kart 8’s most important change however, was taking the emphasis off random weapons and putting it back into skilled racing.
There are gripes to be had of course. The stellar online play is missing a few standard features like easy voice chat, and the battle mode’s use of regular courses feels unfinished. The cast is large but features too many repetitive baby and Bowser kids.
These quibbles are minor as there’s far too much enjoyable content wrapped up in a ludicrously shiny package. Mario Kart 8 did an outstanding job of combining great elements from the past with a spiffy new future.