Some context - a group of about 5 or 6 of us regularly hung out at one particular friend's place in college. The standard games we would play were some combination of Madden, Tecmo Bowl, Golden Eye and Mario Kart 64. Many a weekend was lost to that couch and those particular games while beer and wings were consumed in plentiful portions.
Fast-forward to the other night, and we broke out Mario Kart Wii and Mario Kart 64. Thing is, the appeal of this game goes well beyond nostalgia. My kids and wife played too. The next morning my son and youngest daughter were up before us, playing online and trying to hone their skills for the next day's play. We had a really good time, so here goes:
Graphics - 8:
This series has never been a graphical powerhouse, but the Mario charm shows through and is inviting to younger gamers and older ones alike, as evidenced by our weekend experience with it. There's not as many animations, shadows, lighting effects as true racing games, but it does hum along without tearing and stuttering, keeping the game flowing at a rapid, smooth pace that keeps the fun factor high. Textures and details are a bit low most of the time as a result, but I love the vibrant colors throughout.
Sound & Music - 8:
Limited voices, decent music if perhaps less-than-amazing. It's generally up-tempo and fits what you're doing in the game. Sound effects are just varied enough to keep from getting monotonous. I actually like how well some of the sounds coming out of the controller work. That in particular was clever use of the technology in my opinion, and it serves an actual purpose when it happens.
Gameplay - 8:
Good overall track variety and selection. Some of the throwbacks are a blast to see. The motorbikes are a nice addition and you have a bit more control in the air as you show off on big jumps. The online actually adds a ton of value to the game. I've never been much for solo-racing in the Mario Kart games, and with this feature, you don't have to. Still a pretty robust community from what I can see. I've read a lot of complaints about how the AI works - though honestly it doesn't bug me much. Sure, the person in last has the best chance of getting huge 'weapons' or abilities to try and cut into the lead, but it helps keep the game fun for everyone involved, even if one or two of the players are clearly better than the others. If you go into it with that expectation, it doesn't generally bother you much.
Intangibles - 8:
Online really helps here. Other modes like the various battles help as well. The game is a racer at heart, but sometimes it is fun just to go after one another as well on a course. The single player is okay, but honestly it just feels like training wheels for the online or local competitive modes.
Overall - 8:
It's not the best racing game out there. In many ways, Mario Kart is not even a racing game. There are vehicles on wheels, start and finish lines and timed laps are a factor - but there's a sort of playful combat mixed in and outlandish shortcuts and plenty of game modes to keep you busy. I still get a huge hit of nostalgia from playing Mario Kart 64 - but there is a lot to like in this version as well, as long as you go into it with your expectations properly aligned.