The Nintendo 64 is easily that best game console of all time. In terms of reliable distractions that aren’t as life-ruiningly immersive as contemporary consoles, but still competitive and community fostering, the N64, its stupid-ass tri-pronged controller and all, is the all-time MVP.
After the console turned 20 years old this June, the Nerdist writers banded together to pay tribute to our favorite games, which ranged from Star Fox to GoldenEye to Harvest Moon 64. Weirdly, only one person selected Mario Kart 64, the game that essentially defined the spirit of console before more well developed games (Super Smash Bros.) homed in on what made the N64 so special. I thought this was a travesty and started Karting it up on my original console, rediscovering what made the game so great in the first place, testing my muscle memory and remembering the intense schadenfruede of hitting someone with a shell right as they were about to hit a big jump. But the thing that stuck out most upon my revisiting was the game’s soundtrack. It is at once the best and worst part of the game and something for which composer Kenta Nagata should be remembered by forever.
So in the spirit of one of the most replayable, competitive games of all time (second only to Smash IMHO), we decided to get super f***ing petty and rank the music from Mario Kart 64 in order of greatness. Some levels share the same music, which is why some are grouped together. Let’s dive in below… Also suck it, Toad.
11. MOO MOO FARM & YOSHI VALLEY
This song is straight trash. It’s like a shitty vaudeville version of a western song that I am sure would have made Johnny Cash throw up in his mouth if he ever played Mario Kart during his time on Earth. And with no warning, it veers from its annoying petting-zoo twang–complete with a coach’s whistle for some reason–into a contrived Caribbean vibe with steel drums. Like, what is going on here? It’s like Kenta Nagata knew he had to bail on the opening and tried to throw a hail mary, when really he should have just saved it for Koopa Troopa Beach.
10. BANSHEE BOARDWALK
I appreciate that the song for Banshee Boardwalk is supposed to heighten the disconcerting vibe of the course with its irregular, staccato rhythms and brooding synth, but this track is extremely monotonous. And sure, there is something sinister and maniacal about sociopathic repetition, but it is hard to be legitimately frightened when your character is an overweight train conductor who can be vanquished by a f-cking banana peel.
9. CHOCO MOUNTAIN
Why Nagata didn’t just use the Choco Mountain theme for Yoshi Valley and Moo Moo farm is a mystery worthy of Luigi’s haunted mansion. Sure, 8-bit country music is objectively not great, but at least the song from the brownest level of Mario Kart 64 has legitimate structure, a decent chord progression, and an actually impressive mandolin/banjo arpeggiation during it’s chorus. Not great, not horrible.
8. BOWSER’S CASTLE
This is how you do scary music for N64–creepy, glowing synths that resolve in a really pretty, melodic hook toward the heart of the track. The alternating synths of the chorus remind me of a haunted organ summoning ghouls and goblins for a Halloween style crossover between Mario Party and “The Monster Mash.” Admittedly, however, listening to this song mostly makes me want to play Bowser’s Castle to the theme song of Stranger Things.
7. LUIGI RACEWAY, MARIO RACEWAY, ROYAL RACEWAY, WARIO STADIUM
Look, I know that this is THE song from Mario Kart given it is the song we hear on the levels named after our titular character and his stupid sibling, love interest, and bizarro train conducting cousin. So out of respect to the franchise that I grew up with, this song isn’t any lower on this list. Much like the characters this music represents, it is functional and absolutely nothing special. With its bulbous bass and organ hook, it conveys that you are supposed to be having an exciting time but is also fine background music for strictly focusing on the race at hand so you don’t lose another race to your shitty cousin. Just because it is a classic track (like the rest of these songs), doesn’t mean it’s good.
6. KALIMARI DESERT
Did you guys ever listen to that episode of This American Life, where Ira Glass and company investigate whether or not the calamari we have been ordering at restaurants might actually be pig butthole? It might actually be a larger issue than we think, given that the seafood fraud can happen at any point in the food distribution process and that taste testers couldn’t really tell the difference in taste or texture between authentic calamari and pig bung. But anyway, back to the point: the music in Kalamari Desert is pretty cool.
5. FRAPPE SNOWLAND & SHERBERT LAND
Now we are in the territory of legitimately great Mario Kart 64 songs. When I was a kid, the winter wonderland that the snow-levels evoked with their pristine, twinkling arrangements got me more in the mood for wintertime than virtually anything else. I remember specifically getting Nintendo 64 in December for Hanukkah one year, so perhaps the original environment that made this arrangement stand out simply takes me back to those first blissful moments playing N64. Sure, becoming frozen block of ice or getting hit by a combusting snowman sucks a lot, but the music is too cheery to ever be too bummed about it.
4. DK’S JUNGLE PARKWAY
This is kind of a controversial call and perhaps is more a matter of personal preference than legitimate greatness. The repetitive vibraphone and xylophone jabs mixed with the shaker totally work with the messy tangle of brush and brambles that comprise Donkey Kong’s difficult track. Is it a well constructed song with changing elements? No. Does it have structural similarities to the Banshee Boardwalk song, a song very low on this list? Yes. I understand if you are frustrated, and I don’t blame you. “What are the criteria here?”, you might be asking yourself. That is a fair question and I sympathize with you. But the music here is at once adventurous and soothing, a feat given just how annoying the worst songs on this list are. Also, this track really reminds me of Blood Orange’s excellent song “Chamakay”, which is both absurd and fantastic. Honestly, that is probably why this track is so high on this list.
3. RAINBOW ROAD
Do you remember how f***ing high you felt throwing caution to the wind, jumping off the side of the Rainbow Road’s initial declivity, hoping you would stick the landing and assure victory for yourself? That is what the Rainbow Road song sounds like to you, me, and everyone out there who had the privilege to play this game as a child. It is basically ethereal victory music that plays before you’ve even won anything. From a instrumental standpoint, this song is really diverse and and mellifluous. The organ and slap-bass are the backbones here, offering a really uplifting chord progression, while the whistling synths let you soar to new heights as you catch insane air even with a big stupid character like Bowser. And after a shimmering noise pans from the right speaker to the left speaker, there is this anemic but still rad electric guitar solo that just mimics the previously established melody. And then the drum beat picks up, urging you to race to the finish, but really you know the results don’t actually matter, because you already feel like a winner. Unless you chose Bowser, because then you probably lost and feel bad about yourself.
2. TOAD’S TURNPIKE
Man, if this level were more iconic, or even just a little bit better and less controller-smashingly frustrating, this track might have taken the number one spot. It is so extremely robust and impressive for a Nintendo 64 composition, especially when you compare it to a piece of shit like the Moo Moo Farm song. Playing this aloud in the Nerdist office, we found traces of krautrock, fusion jazz, and funk. It sounds like if George Clinton weirdly collaborated with Kraftwerk and they had a time constraint of 10 minutes to write one or two hooks. It is astral, especially funky, and, like the best krautrock, makes for great IRL driving music if you find yourself on a metropolitan highway.
1. KOOPA TROOPA BEACH
As soon as you hear this song you immediately see Koopa Troopa Beach in your head. You know exactly how far the start line boost will put you on the course and how many chances you have to hopefully get another boost before you try to hit the ramp through the alcove to give yourself a healthy lead. Of course if you are good enough you can just time your jump correctly and land the same shortcut. Aside from Rainbow Road and Luigi’s Raceway, this track is the most beloved, and most importantly the most enjoyably competitive track in the entire game. Playing this one with friends, you tried your very hardest to sabotage their jumps, and if you were so horribly behind and desperate, you attempted to drive up the stupidly long ramp for a spiked blue shell.
Musically, the song is simple and pleasant, but undoubtedly iconic, availing itself well of the steel drums that were horribly misused in our least favorite track–that which will heretofore not be called by name. The island vibe is relaxing and taps into the game’s aspirational balance of competition, fun, and good humor. And weirdly, given the recent rise in dancehall in popular music, it is easy for me to imagine a rising rapper hopping on this island beat and making a fire song. Perennially, this song is the one that embodies everything we love about Mario Kart and if you disagree with me I will fight your whole family and then crush you in the Star Cup 250cc grand prix. You are my best friend.
What do you think about our Mario Kart 64 music ranking? Do you agree with me or do you want to get a lightning and stop on me while I am a tiny version of myself. Let me know on Twitter.
Matt Grosinger is the music editor of Nerdist and spent far too much time thinking about Mario Kart today.