Top 5 Kart Games of the 90's

John Argirovski,

April 13, 2023 8:53 AM

Kart games were a HUGE craze in the 90's in case you didn't notice...

How did Kart games become the it "thing" of the 90's?

The short answer is It had some help from some great racing games that paved the way from the 80's.

Racing games improved on so many levels throughout the 80's in comparison to what was available before that decade. The graphics were much improved, the sound effects really began to sound like an engine revving, and the gameplay was fun yet challenging. The best racing games of the 80s were technical and there was no room for error when navigating hair-pin turns at over 200 MPH. You just couldn’t afford to make a mistake in games like Pole Position or Outrun because each poorly navigated turn would cost you another quarter at the arcade.

One could argue that racing games began an evolution sometime around 1988, with the arcade release of Power Drift. Sega managed to bring many non-racing game enthusiasts into a new "hybrid" type of racing game genre. It had a different vibe than Sega’s other titles like Outrun.

Power Drift (1988)
[Image Source Wikipedia] 

How successful are Kart games today?

Look no further than Mario Kart 8 Deluxe to understand how profitable Kart games can be. It sold 52 million copies as of December 2022 and is currently the best-selling Nintendo Switch game of all time.

In addition to the classic GP circuits, Mario Kart 8 Deluxe features a nice assortment of Battle-Modes and incredibly addicting online play with a community that battles it out on tracks like Mario Kart Stadium and Sweet Sweet Canyon at all hours of the day, every day of the week.

Kart games are more successful than anyone in the Power Drift development team could ever have dreamed of and it has come a long way since. The Mario Kart franchise has currently cemented itself as the “face” or “poster” of the sub-genre.

Mario Kart 8 Deluxe Cover Art
[Image Source Wikipedia]

What about those Kart Games of the 90s?

By the end of the 90s, the Kart game sub-genre was heavily over-saturated with many titles, most of which were not memorable at all. I mean, when was the last time you played Pac-Man World Rally or Smurf Racers?

Who Didn't Have a Kart Game?
[Image Source YouTube]

---Top 5 Kart Racing Games of the 90's---


5. Super Mario Kart - SNES (1992)

Mario Kart (1992) Cover Art
[Image Source Wikipedia]

Can you believe Super Mario Kart actually started as a prototype for what the development team dubbed a “multiplayer F-Zero”?

Building upon the “Mode 7” graphics used in F-Zero, Super Mario Kart used the same visual technique to create a “3D” driving circuit, but in a Mario world environment for the very first time.

The only issue was that the introduction of a multiplayer mode pushed the 16-Bit SNES to its hardware limitations, and as a result, game speed was affected. The developers also shrunk the length of the tracks in comparison to F-Zero. This is why they opted to make the vehicles into “Karts”.  That should justify the slower speed and shorter tracks… right?!?

Long story short, the “Kart gamble” was a huge success. The birth of drifting AKA “Power Sliding” and the introduction of items used as power-ups during the race would now be a mainstay in Kart games going forward.

Super Mario Kart went on to sell 8.76 million copies worldwide.

4. Crash Team Racing - PS1 (1999)

Crash Team Racing Cover Art
[Image Source Wikipedia]

By 1999, it felt like every animated character and their uncle was now being considered for a Kart game and Crash Bandicoot finally got its own introduction to the fiesta.

Crash Team Racing didn't "re-invent the wheel" when it came to gameplay, but it did have a great boost mechanic, and a nice adventure mode similar to that of Diddy Kong Racing. Each new Kart game was taking inspiration from its predessors.

But in the end, I think the soundtrack probably held this title back, or maybe it was just me? I need some good tunes when I’m Kart Racing.

CTR went on to sell nearly 2 million copies which was very impressive considering it was Crash’s first Kart game.

3. Diddy Kong Racing - N64 (1997)

Diddy Kong Racing Cover Art
[Image Source Wikipedia]

I remember playing Diddy Kong racing for the first time and it truly was a whole new type of beast. It took the Kart game concept, added airplanes and hoverboats into the mix, and featured an open-world concept where you could explore new areas that featured boss battles. Whoa.

However, looking at this with 2023 prescription glasses, I don’t think the game aged as well as some of the others from the 90s. The game's framerate speed is just not as slick when played today. No big deal, but it's hard not to notice it after playing Mario Kart 64.

On a funny side note, the game featured a character named “Conker” the Squirrel. You might be thinking “that name sounds familiar”. Perhaps you recall a game titled Conker’s Bad Fur Day?

Conker's Bad Fur Day Cover Art
[Image Souce Wikipedia]

Which begs the question, how did Conker go from Diddy Kong Racing, to Conker's Bad Fur Day? That would be like a side character in the Super Mario universe such as Waluigi getting placed in his own Grand Theft Auto game. I always found that hilariously fascinating.

Diddy Kong racing sold nearly 5 million copies worldwide and even received a world record for the fastest-selling game at that time.

2. Speed Punks AKA Speed Freaks - PS1 (1999)

In Europe, it was known as Speed Freaks
[Image Source Wikipedia]

What the heck is Speed Punks? Possibly the most underrated and least known Kart game ever. This one totally slipped under the radar which is such a shame.

Unfortunately, Speed Punks just happened to be released around the same time as Crash Team Racing which really deflated its marketing ambition and prevented it from reaching its full potential given that CTR got all the hype.

Speed Punks plays more like a traditional Kart game and has a well-designed power drift mechanic that allows the player to build up their Speed Boost meter as long as they drift, without interruption to that drift. The stages are really well designed, the graphics are vibrant, and it had a near perfect balance between skill and fun-game play that should suit any type of player.

Yes it has the expected “rubber-banding” when it comes to item pickups, but it compensates for the skilled-players by allowing the player to use different techniques such as “accelerator mashing” or well-timed turns in order to avoid weapons being fired at them.

Best of all, there are three unlockable characters and 12 unlockable bonus tracks which adds lots of replay value to the game.

Speed Punks sold about 200,000 copies worldwide which might be why it just never gets the love it deserves.

1. Mario Kart 64 - N64 (1996)

In a League of it's Own - Mario Kart 64
[Image Source Wikipedia]

No Shocker here. No seriously, what Kart game was better in the 90's?

This game exceeded pretty much everyone's expectations in the 90's. How much do people love this game? Take a look at the speedrun community for this title and they collectively nearly maximized the lap times on every track in this game.

The graphics were awesome. The levels and characters were instantly recognizable since we all played a Nintendo game at some point in our lives, even the music and sound effects were easy to listen to. 

The replay value for Mario Kart 64 was second to none, with the usual set of challenging GP circuits 50-150cc, and an amazing multiplayer mode experience.

Don’t forget, multiplayer in the 90's was hit or miss on any gaming title no matter how good the solo player was. Mainly because the hardware was so limited. Four player Speed Punks for example just didn’t play the same as the one player mode and it was noticeable. Mario Kart 64 on the other hand, was pretty smooth with 4-player action and the new concept of multiplayer “battle mode” was incredibly genius.

Best of all, a skilled player could avoid weapons (but not all of them) with the right techniques which helped deflate the “rubber banding” effect.

Mario Kart 64 was the viral sensation that the Kart game genre needed and it went on to sell 12 million units worldwide.

Final Thoughts

A great Kart game is one that has a nice balance of technical skill and casual type gameplay. One that features  "Power Drifting" and gives the player the ability to evade weapons with just the right amount of "rubber banding".

A fun Kart game has some unlockable content and an excellent multiplayer mode that doesn’t look and feel different than the one player mode.

Lastly, a memorable Kart game is one that has some great tunes and eye-catching level designs.


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