6. Mario Kart 7, Nintendo 3DS
In the same way that Super Mario 3D Land felt like a 3DS rough draft of the magical Super Mario 3D World on Wii U, so too does Mario Kart 7 feel like a warm up for the far superior Mario Kart 8. It’s not a bad game by any means, and it positively sings as a course correction after the lackluster Mario Kart Wii. Still, 7 feels stuck between the series’ conflicting impulses of being a skill-based game that’s easy to pick up but tough to master and a rubbery colorful mess aimed purely at casual players. It looked fine, the online play was fine - and certainly less prone to cheating and exploits than Mario Kart DS - but Mario Kart 7 still felt less than the sum of its parts. The addition of gliders to the karts felt like an afterthought here but were fully realized in Mario Kart 8’s brilliant track design.
5. Mario Kart 64, Nintendo 64
The leap to three dimensions has killed many a burgeoning star (Bubsy, we hardly knew ye), but Mario Kart 64 nailed it. Taking the concepts introduced in Super Mario Kart, Mario Kart 64 expanded on them, filling in the details with actual polygons where our imagination originally had to do all the heavy lifting. Barriers were made out of actual (virtual) canyon rocks and trees instead of flat, two-dimensional blocks, and ramps jutted out of the ground and led to shortcuts off the beaten path. The shift to 3D added a physicality to Mario Kart's racing that just wasn't there on the SNES, and laid the foundation for Mario Karts to come for years. It has the best 4-player version of Battle Mode in the series, though it’s still not as good as the one found in the original.
4. Mario Kart DS, Nintendo DS
Coming right at the end of the Nintendo DS’ first year, Mario Kart DS was the physical embodiment of the handheld’s promise. With 3D visuals cleaner than those in Mario Kart 64, genius track design, customizable Kart logos, and online play (Mario Kart DS was the showcase game for Nintendo’s newly launched Nintendo WiFi Connection service), it truly felt like the future in the palm of your hand. The single-player campaign was also a perfectly balanced challenge, demanding expert play to unlock all racers and karts and not just hoping you’d get lucky with blue shell-lobbing AI opponents. The years haven’t been kind to Mario Kart DS. Online play was ravaged by “snaking,” an exploit that let cheaters boost infinitely around tracks, and the 3D graphics aged quickly compared to DS releases that followed just a year later. It’s still playable and fun, but it was a revelation at the time.
3. Mario Kart Double Dash, Gamecube
People have been clamoring for Gamecube games to hit the various incarnations of Virtual Console since its inception; Mario Kart Double Dash is a huge reason why. Jumping from Mario Kart 64 and Super Circuit to the detailed, vibrant world of Double Dash was astonishing in 2003, as was the realization of its tracks. Mario Kart 64 peppered its courses with shortcuts and tricks, but Double Dash’s world felt like a place built to be exploited by your imagination. Why drive on the road across Mushroom Bridge when you could drive up the suspenders of the bridge itself? The dual driver mechanic made for colorful character pairings and interesting experimentation with the game’s weight classes. Under the right conditions, with two linked Gamecubes and eight players, the dual driver system made for absolutely insane multiplayer sessions. Mario Kart 8’s excellent online is a great alternative, but nothing can match a full Double Dash session.
2. Super Mario Kart, Super Nintendo
Sometimes you just need the original flavor. Super Mario Kart for Super Nintendo is less mechanically dense than its successors, but what it lacks in complexity it makes up for in sheer quality. Racing games were not well-suited to consoles prior to the 3D age. Even high quality racing games like F-Zero tended to be single player affairs. Super Mario Kart was a spectacularly entertaining racer with challenging, inventive, and beautiful courses that also let two players, finally, race one another in splitscreen. Like the best Nintendo games, Kart felt like an idea that should have existed forever. A racing game that let you throw turtle shells at other players to slow them down? How did we not we think of that! The first Super Mario Kart also has, to this day, the best incarnation of battle mode. It may not have the four player action in Mario Kart 64, but it’s even faster and more brutal. The sun never sets on this, what may be the last ever appearance of Donkey Kong Jr.
1. Mario Kart 8 Deluxe, Nintendo Switch
There's a hell of a lot to like in Mario Kart 8 Deluxe. You can talk about the sumptuous, stylish graphics that run its cartoony vehicular combat at a never-wavering clip. You can talk about the track design, whose introduction of zero-gravity segments offer never-before-seen thrills on its newer tracks and adds new ideas to older tracks. You can talk about its huge roster of characters, bulked out by adding all the wonderful DLC from the Wii U version, or the seamless reintegration of the Battle Mode that worked so well in previous games. But the simple, not-very-exciting truth is that this is the best, most complete version of any Mario Kart ever.
On top of this, the game-changing Super Horn makes its debut in Mario Kart 8, and at first glance, it doesn't seem like all that big of a deal. It's a hard item to grab from the random generator, and when you use it, it pushes everyone within a certain radius around you with a huge blast of noise. So what? Well, what if I told you that you could use it on a blue shell? Time the Super Horn just right and those pesky, pole-position-seeking nuisances are nothing but a fly to swat out of your face on your road to victory. Finally, the blue shell has been vanquished, and Mario Kart is fun again.