Nintendo has a reputation for crafting games that appeal to all ages and Mario Kart may just be one of their greatest cross-generational achievements. No matter what age you are, the racing antics of the Mushroom Kingdom have something to offer. Hardcore gamers can obsess over learning the most efficient ways through the franchise’s many race courses, while more casual fans can pick up a controller and just try to troll other players with blue shells from the back of the pack. In other words, if you don’t enjoy Mario Kart, there’s something wrong with you.
With Mario Kart 64 celebrating its 20th anniversary this year and an updated version of Mario Kart 8 coming to the Nintendo Switch, it feels like the perfect time to look back at the series as a whole and rank each in order from worst to best. Of course, this is all just subjective and you’ll probably disagree with me on some (or all) of these rankings, so sound off in the comments with your own personal rankings. Let’s keep things civil though, people. There’s no need to attack someone for which game about plumbers, monkeys, and dinosaurs racing around in go-karts they prefer!
*Please note that only the 8 “canonical” games are being considered here, as the Arcade editions are very much their own thing and aren’t available on any of Nintendo’s traditional consoles.
8. Mario Kart Super Circuit
The closest thing there is to a “bad” Mario Kart game, Super Circuit for the Game Boy Advance was actually pretty impressive for its time considering what hardware it was running on. In hindsight, Super Circuit’s only real defining contribution to the series was that it was the first portable entry, which meant that it easily became one of the GBA’s most popular titles.
Unfortunately, the GBA wasn’t really the greatest multiplayer platform, as the need for link cables limited the appeal of Super Circuit’s main selling point, but more importantly, Super Circuit just isn’t that great of a Mario Kart game to begin with. Its track selection is arguably the weakest in the series and its 2D graphics lack the visual pop of other entries. With both Mario Kart DS and Mario Kart 7 offering vastly superior portable racing experiences, there’s really no reason to revisit Super Circuit other than for a dose of nostalgia.
7. Mario Kart Wii
Easily the worst home console version of Mario Kart Nintendo has ever put out, Mario Kart Wii’s biggest problem is that it just feels distinctly unremarkable, like it was designed by committee to try and please every fan without really nailing any one feature. The motion controls and included steering wheel peripheral were neat at first, but were ultimately gimmicky, while the inclusion of motorcycles can’t disguise the game’s overall lack of personality or soul. That may sound like a ridiculous criticism but for whatever reason, Mario Kart Wii is missing that intangible feeling that comes from exuberant game design that is present in pretty much every other entry in the series.
The only thing that really saves Mario Kart Wii from being a total write-off is its impressive amount of content, but this doesn’t make up for its overall lack of quality. This may be the best-selling version of Mario Kart ever — in fact, it’s Nintendo’s third best-selling game of all time — but in this case, popularity doesn’t necessarily translate to quality.
6. Mario Kart 64
Much like Super Mario 64 before it, Mario Kart 64 successfully made the leap forward to 3D graphics and became one of the most popular multiplayer titles of its generation in the process. In many ways, Mario Kart 64 is the game that laid the foundation for the series for future titles like Double Dash!! and Mario Kart DS, as it established what kart racing should look and feel like in three dimensions. With only eight racers to choose from, MK64’s character selection pales in comparison to most other games in the series, especially the ridiculously huge roster found in Mario Kart 8, but as every Mario Kart fan knows, it’s all about the track design and fortunately, MK64 featured a number of classics, such as Yoshi Valley, Royal Raceway, and of course, Rainbow Road.
Unfortunately, Mario Kart 64 hasn’t aged very well and whereas Super Mario Kart still holds up as a unique entry in the franchise thanks to its Mode 7 graphics and distinctive art style, Mario Kart 64 is positively ugly by today’s standards and more importantly, later titles simply have it beat in terms of gameplay and features. Still, Mario Kart 64’s lower ranking on this list shouldn’t be taken as an indication that it’s a bad game, but rather a reflection of the franchise’s overall high quality.
5. Super Mario Kart
The one that started it all, Super Mario Kart for the SNES is an incredibly important title in gaming history, essentially creating an entire genre and the concept of Mario spin-offs in one fell swoop. While Super Mario Kart doesn’t offer as deep or nuanced an experience as later entries in the series, it has a purity to it that has never truly been replicated in any other title. Racing games were hard to nail from a technical standpoint on consoles back in 1992, but Super Mario Kart not only delivered in this respect thanks to its impressive Mode 7 graphics’ it also delivered one of the best multiplayer experiences found on the Super Nintendo.
Still, I’d be remiss if I didn’t admit that the Mario Kart franchise as a whole has come a long way since the original, but whether or not it’s a case of nostalgia clouding my judgement, I do believe that Super Mario Kart holds up better than Mario Kart 64 simply because it doesn’t suffer from ugly textures and polygonal character models (not to mention the inclusion of Donkey Kong Jr.) Besides, is there another Mario Kart game with a soundtrack that can rival this one?
4. Mario Kart DS
Although it wasn’t the first portable entry in the series, Mario Kart DS was arguably the first game to realize the franchise’s potential on-the-go and helped the still-fledgling DS find an audience thanks to its terrific use of the handheld’s multiplayer features. Mario Kart DS quickly became a must-have title for the DS thanks to its brilliant track design (Walaugi Pinball remains a personal favorite), wide assortment of characters, and clever use of the system’s dual-screen design, as the placement of the course map on the DS touchscreen made for a more convenient version of a similar feature from Super Mario Kart and was indispensable in times when you were hit with the Blooper item.
This was also the first title that started featuring a variety of retro courses, which helped Mario Kart DS feel like an amalgamation of the best traits of the series up to that point in time. The only real downside is that the game’s online mode was pretty much ruined by people using the “snaking” exploit, which essentially allowed players to use infinite boosts through courses, but setting aside that issue, the game is very much still playable and fun today, even if it’s now thoroughly outclassed by its 3DS successor.
3. Mario Kart 7
Even though it feels a bit like a Mario Kart 8 beta in some ways, Mario Kart 7 is the real deal and easily the best portable entry in the series to date. In many ways, it feels like the perfect follow-up to Mario Kart DS, as it addresses pretty much every problem with that game while adding some new bells and whistles for good measure. It’s much prettier for a start and actually makes great use of the 3DS’s 3D capabilities. It also has a better online mode than the DS version and that pesky snaking exploit is nowhere to be found. Mario Kart 7’s big contributions to the series are the introduction of gliders and underwater sections, as well as customizable karts. While these could have just been gimmicks — and in the case of the water sections, things admittedly border on gimmick territory — they ultimately make for great additions to the franchise that help flesh the traditional gameplay out in small, but exciting ways.
Ultimately, Mario Kart 7 stands as one of the best entries in the series because it pretty much makes the DS version obsolete — all tracks being available in single-cart download play definitely helped in this regard — and is the best way to experience Mario Kart on the go … at least, until Mario Kart 8 Deluxe becomes available on the Switch.
2. Mario Kart Double Dash!!
Mario Kart Double Dash!! may very well be the most divisive game in the franchise, as many people hold it in high esteem, while others consider it a lesser entry. As you may have surmised by its placement here, I fall into the former camp and feel that Double Dash!! is one of the best Mario Kart games there is (and depending on the day, it is the best). While it’s disappointing that Double Dash!! features only 16 courses, Nintendo took an approach of quality over quantity here, as pound for pound, Double Dash!! has the best selection of tracks in the series. Whether you’re barreling down the side of a volcano in DK Mountain or weaving around dinosaurs in Dino Dino Jungle, each track in Double Dash!! is lovingly crafted and full of surprises and shortcuts.
One of Double Dash’s most controversial design decisions has to be its dual driver mechanic, which I believe adds a new wrinkle of strategy to the traditional racing gameplay, as you have to put thought into finding characters who complement each other. This becomes especially important when it comes to characters’ special power-ups, which are also a feature I wish the series would bring back. And even though it lacked online play, Double Dash!! has the best multiplayer in the series if you can manage to get eight people and two linked GameCube systems together.
1. Mario Kart 8
If we’re just talking about the Wii U version, I would probably put Double Dash!! ahead of Mario Kart 8, as the latter game’s battle mode is truly atrocious. However, when you factor in the updates that Nintendo has put into Mario Kart 8 Deluxe for the Nintendo Switch, such as an improved battle mode and all the characters and tracks previously released as DLC, it’s hard not to declare Mario Kart 8 as the definitive entry in the series. It’s the most beautiful-looking game in the series by far and also boasts the tightest controls, thanks in large part to the ability to use pretty much every controller variation under the sun (with the Wii U version at least).
Heck, even the introduction of the zero-gravity segments are a blast, offering F-Zero-style track variations that work well in combination with the returning glider and underwater segments introduced in MK7. Topping it all off is the best multiplayer experience in the series, whether you’re playing with friends locally in split-screen or with up to 12 players online. Sure, Mario Kart 8 may not rank as everyone’s favorite Mario Kart game given its recency, but it’s arguably the greatest realization of the concept to date and for that reason, it deserves to be called the best Mario Kart game to date.