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Mario Kart’s Rainbow Roads, ranked

Look, a blue shell right behind you!

Dylan Riley Snyder Races Into His 18th Year With Nintendo Photo by Jonathan Leibson/Getty Images for Nintendo

What is this? Mario Kart? That’s not baseball! Royals Review is FAKE. NEWS. - You

Well, guess what? It’s January and nothing has happened. Baseball is coming and we’re still doing the musical chairs of the offseason, except the chairs are lava and the music being played is the soundtrack to the Bee Movie but slowed down by one thousand times each time someone says the word ‘bee.’

And besides, this isn’t even the first time this offseason that an SB Nation writer has written about video games on SB Nation. We’re coming for you, Polygon.

So here’s Mario Kart’s Rainbow Road courses, ranked. If it makes you feel better, NASCAR is apparently a sport, so Mario Kart, which is far more exciting and accessible and similar insomuch as they’re both ‘races,’ is a sport. I’ve decided. My favorite Mario Kart team is me. Deal with it.

Let’s rank.

8. Mario Kart 64

Mario Kart didn’t really become MARIO KART until Mario Kart 64 on the Nintendo 64, and I think a lot of that is because the N64 console had four controller ports as opposed to the Super Nintendo’s two ports. That’s a big deal, and everyone who’s ever played Mario Kart knows it gets crazier the more people are playing. Furthermore, Mario Kart 64 was the first Mario Kart for a large swath of millennials who are anywhere from early-20s to late-30s.

Unfortunately, that means that there’s a whole lot of intense Nostalgia Goggles (TM) squatting on the noses of a sizable portion of those millennials through which this game is viewed. Without them, you’d all realize that the Mario Kart 64 Rainbow Road is rubbish.


Oh, Mario Kart 64 has a lot of brilliant and exciting courses, but its Rainbow Road is not one. The course is a five-minute slog through slowly undulating hills with no obstacles other than the chain chomps you can see and hear from sixty miles away or a banana hidden in the yellow band of the psychedelic floor. If you’re bad, or if a few red shells somehow manage to avoid hitting a wall for two seconds and start slowing you down, the course could last almost seven minutes. That’s an eternity in a game that is supposed to be about bite-sized fun.

Rainbow Roads are hard, but this course is the easiest in the entire game. I’ve had a more fun time sitting at a stop light on Rainbow Boulevard in Kansas City than driving through this mind-numbing color torture device. You can’t slap a bunch of bright colors over a boring track and make it a proper Rainbow Road.

7. Super Mario Kart (SNES)

The original Super Mario Kart was an odd Mario spinoff at the time, but in hindsight was the progenitor of an entire subgenre of racing games. The 1992 classic was limited by the graphics of the Super Nintendo and it didn’t have any truly memorable courses except for one—Rainbow Road, of course.

Super Mario Kart set the standard for Rainbow Road courses: they were to be chromatic, hallucinatory experiences and deviously difficult. This one features not a single wall throughout the entire course, forcing you to drive carefully lest you plunge into the abyss and watch your hard-earned place tick higher and higher as Lakitu labors to bring you back.

Its spot is so low because it is not that much demonstrably different than other Super Mario Kart tracks, and because its layout is not particularly exciting or creative. But make no mistake: this is where it started.

6. Mario Kart: Super Circuit (GBA)

Mario Kart Super Circuit is the forgotten stepchild of the Mario Kart franchise, but it was a nifty game that included its own unique 16 tracks as well as the entirety of the Super Nintendo version’s tracks, cramming a lot of fun (and terror, as per Mario Kart’s MO) into the small Game Boy Advance carteridge.

The key difference between this version and the Super Nintendo Rainbow Road is that the latter is simply dangerous, while the former adopts a philosophy of lackadaisical hatred towards the player. I’m going to guess the conversation between the two lead designers went something like this:

JAPANESE DESIGNER A: Alright, we need a new Rainbow Road.

JAPANESE DISIGNER B: Well, we don’t have 64 bits. We have to do something like the Super Nintendo one.

A: Fair enough. What if we just do something similar? No walls and such?

B: No, that doesn’t teach the player enough of a lesson. Let’s include walls...

A: Seems like taking a step backward.

B: ...bouncy walls that, when you hit them, it makes your car involuntarily jump. So rather than just dropping into the abyss, you’ll be CATAPULTED into the abyss like the terrible driver you are.

A: Oh. That seems cruel. Still, I suppose some tricky players could use them to create shortcuts. Alright, fine. Bouncy walls. Whatever.

B: This one is still going to be in space, yeah?

A: Yeah?

B: Let’s put clouds in it.

A: Clouds? In space?

B: Yes.

A: But...

B: Don’t think about it too hard. Just go with it.

5. Mario Kart DS

Even though the Nintendo DS sold a bajillion units, no one seems to remember this one, despite a half-bajillion people buying it. That’s probably because the mobile ones feature less opportunity for party hijinks.

Mario Kart DS was the first to feature online play, which was neat. People would just disconnect if you were beating them too badly, though. I had to specifically let them win a race in order to keep them around. Not a good plan for long-term success, Nintendo. I want to DESTROY AND PILLAGE other Mario Kart players.

This Rainbow Road features quite the twisting track. You come right out of the gate in a tight upwards helix, which features boosts and a missing guardrail. Once you’re done with that, it features more boosts, a loop, a corkscrew, and a bunch of hairpin turns with no guardrails.

It’s hard, it’s fast, it’s a trippy color dream, and it’s fun but only if you don’t die a bunch. That’s how you do it.

4. Mario Kart 8 (Wii U)

Most people will end up playing this one as Mario Kart 8 Deluxe on the Nintendo Switch, because nobody but suckers bought the Wii U. I was one, though. I will raise my sucker hand proudly. Nintendo is lyfe.

As the first true HD Mario Kart, this Rainbow Road is a visual masterpiece. The colors are a little more muted, but in exchange everything else looks fantastic. The previous Rainbow Roads were vaguely space-themed, but this one has a specific setting: in Earth’s orbit, in and around an International Space Station-esque satellite. There’s so much visual candy involved that you will not be able to comprehend it at full speed.

Nothing else has such a unique and confident setting. That, combined with its twists, turns, jumps, and significant opportunities for death lend it great weight. Which is ironic, because it’s in space and everything is weightless, but you know. It’s a good track, alright?

3. Mario Kart Wii

My guess is that, for the Wii version of Rainbow Road, somebody walked up to the developers and said, “make it like the N64 version, but actually good and not awful.” The developers looked at each other and nodded.

Course begins with a huge slope downward at the beginning? Check. Wide track with similarly-styled guardrails? Check. Undulations? Check.

Ah, but this course is actually hard. It’s got holes, places where there aren’t any guardrails, spots with tricky boosts that are tantalizing and dangerous. It also features a cannon shot that shoots you wayyyy back up to the top like a ski lift on LSD and boredom. There are branching paths and lots of jumps.

The track itself is partially transparent, too, which is terrifying. It’s a cool visual effect, but come on. Like we need anything else telling us “hey, you’re going to fall off the track at some point, and maybe at a lot of points.”

2. Mario Kart: Double Dash (GCN)

Double Dash is my favorite Mario Kart game because it is ludicrous. It’s as if, because Mario Kart isn’t chaotic enough, somebody in a design meeting mentioned that there should be two racers in each car as a joke and people thought the designer was being serious. No sane person would ever think this was a good idea.

And yet! It was, and it is. Long live Double Dash, which brought kart choice into the fold for the first time as well as being the only Mario Kart to feature unique items based on which character you picked. Now, being Bowser or Toad had an actual difference other than just slight difference in acceleration and top speed.

The added insanity makes for an equally insane Rainbow Road, which features some of the tightest turns in the series alongside some of the most potent opportunity for item shenanigans. This is a really interesting course visually as well, as it shuns the traditional ‘space’ theme for a more general night theme while retaining the eponymous rainbow roads. In addition, this course has truly fantastic music.

1. Mario Kart 7 (3DS)

I first saw the 3DS’ glasses-free capabilities back in 2011, and was floored at how cool it was.

Fast-forward seven years and nobody turns the 3D on because its uses are basically nothing and it gives everyone a headache, so the 3D portion unfortunately doesn’t make this Rainbow Road any better.

But make no mistake: this is the best Rainbow Road. The biggest reason for that is simple; this Rainbow Road takes the form of a downhill ski race rather than a NASCAR race. Rather than having three laps, there are three sections you must traverse.

And that just magnifies the two core tennants of Rainbow Road, those tennants being fantastic visuals and high difficulty. Not revisiting any of the turns or the jumps or the psychadelic backgrounds makes each place you get to in this Rainbow Road a new experience.

It also contains some of the best visuals in the entire series. The rainbow track flaps on its own like a ribbon, and at times you drive through a rotating cylinder, on a moon, and on some rings on a Saturn-like planet. It’s as varied as it is fast. It is, truly, the Rainbow Road to end all Rainbow Roads.

At least until Mario Kart 9. Bring it on, Nintendo.