Mario Kart cannot be stopped. Dread it. Run from it. Destiny arrives all the same. And now, it’s here. Or should I say, Mario Kart is.
It is an absolute behemoth of a franchise that has graced every Nintendo console since the Super Nintendo. It’s also a staple in the Valentine household; my wife and I play regularly. I thought I was a big Mario Kart fan until I met her. Her playtime and skill absolutely put me to shame.
This, however, is my ranking, not hers. We will be going over every Mario Kart title in the franchise and putting them in their proper hierarchy.
By proper, of course, I mean my own opinion. You may agree with me, but you’ll probably disagree. Of note, Mario Kart Live: Home Circuit will not be included in this list.
Mario Kart Tour
The fact that this game is even playable on mobile is a borderline miracle. I’m not going to lie; I enjoyed it for a little while as well. Sadly, Mario Kart Tour is nothing more than a passable entry in the franchise that also happens to be a good mobile game.
I understand the reasoning behind the decision to make the controls more mobile-friendly than, say, going the emulation route. We also live in a world where one of Nintendo’s defining features of a handheld was using a touch screen as a fully 3D capable joystick.
They could have shot for the moon and tried to capture an authentic Mario Kart experience on phones. It would have been a runaway smash hit that printed money for them if it worked. Instead, they played it safe. The result was an enjoyable mobile experience that is still printing money for them.
Compared to the rest of the franchise, though, it’s no contest. This is the racer in last place that constantly gets Bullet Bill power-ups.
Super Mario Kart
Ironically named since it’s the first game in the franchise, Super Mario Kart is the poster child for a game that has not aged well.
There is so much charm and personality found in this game. It’s oozing with character, the soundtrack goes hard, and the roster selection for racers is super impressive.
The controls, however, leave a lot to be desired. Having to rely on a D-Pad on a game featuring challenging tracks (I don’t think I’m bad at this game, but it’s very possible) is frustrating. Multiplayer matches often feel like they come down to whoever messed up the least.
Super Mario Kart is the game everyone at a barcade is excited to play until they’ve played it. Newcomers will drag you over to relive old days before realizing there’s a much better alternative if you want to take a trip down nostalgia lane.
Mario Kart DS
Here’s the first controversial take, especially since Mario Kart DS is the first handheld entry in the franchise that nails the “traditional” Mario Kart experience. Everything you had ever wanted in a Mario Kart game was in the palm of your hands. Great racing, enjoyable tracks, and online play. All of it right there.
We need to, however, address the elephant in the room: snaking.
Mario Kart DS ultimately came down to “who can perform constant mini-boosts” best. Any and all strategy (yes, I’m talking about strategy in a Mario Kart game) was thrown out the window. Instead, races were determined by who could successfully cheese and gimmick the game.
For that, I have to keep a great game down.
Mario Kart Super Circuit
Super Circuit is a prettier, more exciting version of Super Mario Kart.
I’m told, though, that I need to write more than just that.
The game pushed the GameBoy Advance’s hardware to the limit as one of the few titles that made people audibly go “wow.” While today’s standards undoubtedly date the graphics, the art style is still absolutely gorgeous. Track environments are vibrant despite the limitations of the handheld’s hardware. The 3D level design from Mario Kart 64 is sorely missed, but it’s still a vast improvement over Super Mario Kart.
Handling is a vast improvement over the SNES predecessor, though that’s not saying much. However, it was good enough not to be a detriment, which made for an enjoyable enough experience in my book.
Mario Kart Wii
The Mario Kart franchise has always been able to push its consoles to the limit in terms of visual quality. But, for some reason, that wasn’t the case with Mario Kart Wii.
Visually, the game felt bland and muted. As a result, it was a bit off-putting compared to past Mario Kart titles, which always felt bright, colorful, and vibrant.
The reason for disappointment is that everything about Mario Kart Wii felt like it was made with the Wii-mote in mind instead of expanding gameplay. Just look at the game’s trailer, for example.
In a 1:12 video trailer, it takes almost 30 seconds for actual gameplay to appear. All the time prior to that had both the Wiimote and the (poorly built) steering wheel attachment front and center.
Mario Kart Wii is only high on this list because the franchise’s foundation is so rock-solid that it’s hard to mess it up.
Mario Kart: Double Dash
This is my wife’s personal favorite because she has amazing taste. However, this is my list, so it’s placed here.
The first fully 3D Mario Kart game is also one of Gamecube’s best ever. In that article, I called the game underrated and still believe it to be true today. However, I didn’t realize how well it stacks up compared to the rest of the series until taking a closer look.
Double Dash is just pure, unadulterated fun. This a perfect example of taking an already great game (Mario Kart 64) and making it arguably even better. Level designs, items, double riders, everything takes full advantage of the Gamecube hardware to produce one of the finest racing experiences ever made.
So why is it below its predecessor, then? Because, dear reader, Mario Kart: Double Dash gave us Baby Park, and I can never forgive it for that.
Mario Kart 64
While it wasn’t the first entry in the franchise, many refer to Mario Kart 64 as the granddaddy of them all.
Mario Kart 64 laid the framework for just about everything you know and love about the franchise today. 3D tracks, items, drifting, shortcuts, that stupid blue shell, it’s all here. The enjoyable, albeit frustrating, foundation of Super Mario Kart, is greatly benefited from the Nintendo 64’s controller. Look, it’s still a piece of alien technology, but the analog stick did wonders for precise driving in kart handling.
Regarding the tracks, it’s no contest either; Mario Kart 64 has the best quality the series offers. Yoshi’s Valley, D.K. Jungle Parkway, Royal Raceway, Bowser’s Castle, and the Rainbow Road marathon lead a selection of circuits with very few duds.
Mario Kart 7
If Mario Kart 64 laid the foundation for the series, Mario Kart 7 helped lay the modern framework.
A whopping 32 tracks, kart customization, air gliding, and other features taken for granted in Mario Kart 8 make their mark here. Even more impressive is that it’s all done on a handheld, not a console.
The game was about everything you ever wanted in a Mario Kart game. It was the real deal. No gimmicks, no cheesing, no limitations. It didn’t necessarily reinvent the wheel, but arguably it didn’t have to either. Nintendo knew what worked and what didn’t. That mindset not only led them to the success of Mario Kart 7 but also…
Mario Kart 8 / Mario Kart 8 Deluxe
Mario Kart 8 was initially released for the Wii U in 2014. The Deluxe version made its debut on the Nintendo Switch in 2017. In 2021, it is one of the top-selling games of the year.
It is a beast. A behemoth. A juggernaut. All of its reputation has been well earned, too.
Mario Kart 8’s “hook,” if you will, was the anti-gravity tires that led to some unique circuit design. The real appeal, however, is just how near-perfect, if not outrightly perfect, the game is. The Deluxe version includes all the DLC found in the original game, which means there’s a large selection of characters, customization options, and circuits. In addition, the online mode works just about flawlessly, creating an addicting experience that will, and has, hook players for years.
The game is so good that it’s hard to say where the franchise goes from here. The only plausible route is Mario Kart Ultimate, if you will. There’s a chance Nintendo won’t ever release another Mario Kart game again. Honestly, I don’t blame them. Online multiplayer is still well populated, the game still sells like hotcakes, and it’s one of, if not the best, games available for Nintendo Switch.
If you’re looking for more Mario Kart 8 action, check out our ranking of all the Mario Kart 8 tracks from worst to first.