Mario Kart 8 Deluxe is an undeniably great game, putting an extra layer of polish on the already impressive Wii U title. It's the fastest-selling game in the series and the best reviewed, with an aggregated Metacritic score of 93. But despite all those accolades and success, MK8D still isn't the best Mario Kart game. That title belongs to Double Dash, the 2003 GameCube release that turned the entire franchise on its head to become one of the best racing games of all time.
Before I continue, I'll admit that, yes, I'm viewing Mario Kart Double Dash with a bit of nostalgia. This was the game that my friends and I played endlessly through college until we memorized every shortcut on every track — and then we kept on playing. But after trying out the newest entry in the franchise and comparing it to the GameCube title, I'm still convinced that Double Dash is superior thanks to a mix of impeccable driving mechanics, a unique approach to combat and some of the most memorable courses in Mario Kart history.
Side note: Don't even get me started on Mario Kart 64. That game may be a classic, but it hasn't aged well and playing it on a modern TV will make your eyes hurt after a few races.
Anyway, on to the actual best Mario Kart game...
Two racers are better than one
Part of what sets Double Dash apart is the decision to put two characters in each kart instead of one. It may seem like a gimmick, but this minor tweak actually changed the entire Mario Kart experience for the better.
Two racers means two items, making it possible to hold defensive and offensive weapons (like a banana and a red shell) at the same time. Mario Kart 8 Deluxe offers a similar option, but only Double Dash lets you switch between your available items at any time.
Additionally, the two-character system allowed inexperienced players to take a backseat in team races and let a more practiced racer take the wheel. This was a great way to learn the mechanics of the game and to get a feel for some of the tougher courses, all while still being involved in the race.
From the back of the kart, it was up to you to lob shells, bananas and other items — so you never felt left out of the fun. You could even use the trigger buttons to punch to the left or right as you passed by an opponent.
Kart combat, perfected
Double Dash featured some of the most thrilling kart-based combat in gaming history. For one, the game stripped away the ability to indefinitely hold an item behind you as a shield. Instead, you were forced to keep a banana or shell at the ready and shoot it behind you at the exact right moment to block an incoming red shell. And, with a bit of skill, it was also possible to dodge a red shell using a well-timed drift boost. So you had options.
Nintendo also tied specific special items to different characters. Donkey Kong and Diddy Kong could both pick up a giant banana capable of blocking the entire track in certain parts of each course, while Bowser and Bowser Jr. got a massive spiky green shell that could bowl over multiple opponents if you aimed it correctly.
One of the most interesting special items was reserved for Yoshi and Birdo, who could throw a heat-seeking egg that would drop mushrooms, stars and even bob-ombs on the track when it cracked open on impact.
The best courses around
None of that other stuff actually matters if you don't have good tracks to race on, and that wasn't a problem with Double Dash. Baby Park offered eight laps of mayhem around a small loop, resulting in a mad dash to the finish line where anything could happen (it's so great it made it into MK8D as well). Waluigi Stadium perfected the dirt-bike course design that Nintendo had been working on for years, while Daisy Cruiser featured a tight race around a cruise ship filled with sharp turns and dangerous drops.
But the most memorable course in Double Dash has got to be DK Mountain. You start by driving into a cannon that shoots you to the top of a mountain. Then you race down the mountain and straight back into the cannon for two more laps.
Other classic courses from the game include a particularly brutal rendition of Bowser's Castle and Dino Dino Jungle, which is exactly what it sounds like.
Unfortunately, unless you have an old GameCube lying around or you're willing to install an emulator on your computer, there's no easy way to play Mario Kart Double Dash. I'm still holding out hope that Nintendo will bring its true racing classic to the Switch with an eventual Virtual Console release. But until then, we're stuck playing the solid, but far-from-superior, Mario Kart 8 Deluxe.
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