Article Lead Image

Screengrab via KagatoTheFinalBoss/YouTube

Mario Kart 64 has been stoking competition—and memes—for 20 years now

No one is safe from the blue shell or Luigi's death stare.


Elijah Watson

Internet Culture

Posted on Feb 10, 2017   Updated on May 25, 2021, 12:45 am CDT

Twenty years ago today, Mario Kart 64 hit us like us a red shell on Rainbow Road, turning our world upside down.

Mario Kart 64 took what its predecessor, Super Mario Kart, started and propelled it further. From adding new characters and items to introducing a four-player racing system, Mario Kart 64 is largely responsible for the series’ timeless appeal.

To mark its 20th anniversary, we’re taking a look back at the way Mario Kart 64 (and the entire series) has been immortalized through memes, most of them highlighting the competitive frustrations and joys that make the series so much fun.

Take, for example, the many memes about the infamous Spiny Blue Shell. Introduced in Mario Kart 64, this item serves one purpose: to knock whoever is in first place into oblivion. The consequences of being first and getting hit by the shell vary. If you’re still on your second lap, chances you are you’ll be able to reclaim the top spot before the end of the course. But if you find yourself about to cross the finish line on your last lap and you’re hit with the shell…  well, you’re screwed.

The blue shell is one of the most hated items in the series’ existence, so much so that there’s a video literally titled “The Blue Shell – Why Mario Kart’s Most Hated Item Exists” on YouTube.

The Spiny Blue Shell is the symbol of what Mario Kart is all about: doing anything and everything in our power to take first place. People have a love/hate relationship with the shell because the shell is us. Friendship doesn’t exist in the world of Mario Kart. As soon as that light turns green, everyone is an enemy, and no one is safe from getting that blue shell.

Following Mario Kart 64, the Mario Kart series experimented with its approach to competition in other ways: Double Dash’s two-player karts, Wii’s motion controls, 7’s hang gliding and submersible karts, and 8’s anti-gravity racing.

Players have also contributed to the competitive nature of the series in their own ways, with the most notable being a Mario Kart-inspired drinking game. Often referred to as “Beerio Kart,” the game follows some simple rules: You can’t drink while driving and you have to finish your drink before crossing the finish line for the last time.

The simplicity in the rules allows for strategies that vary depending on the course. For example, if you’re doing Luigi Raceway you’re probably better off chugging your drink as soon as the race starts because the course is so short. However, if you’re doing Rainbow Road, you can take your time considering how much longer it is than the others.

As you can imagine, the longer the game goes on, and the more people drink, the more competitive it gets. Inevitably, as with any drinking game, most people have their own house rules. (There’s actually a Reddit page that is dedicated to different strategies, as well as different ways of playing Beerio Kart).

There’s this one, for example: “At the end of each lap, whoever crosses first presses start. If you are in first, drink 2 secs. Second place, 4 secs. Third place, 6 secs. And you guessed it: fourth place, 8 secs. You do this at the end of every lap for every race. If the person in first forgets to press pause and someone else does, first place has to drink for 8 secs.” And there are plenty more.

Sure, you don’t need alcohol to partake in the competitive fervor of Mario Kart, but it’ll likely help the insults come out a lot quicker.

There are also the many Mario Kart parodies in which fans have literally brought the series to life. The first one to pop up was this one from 2008, in which prankster Remi Gaillard drives a go-kart all across France and throws banana peels at other drivers. Three years later, Gaillard made a follow-up to the first video, taking the prank even further by driving into stores and trying to evade the police.

That same year, another IRL Mario Kart video, created by RocketJump, blended real go-karts with special effects. The drivers produced computer generated shells that knocked the other racers off course. All three videos have racked up tens of millions of views.

However, if there’s anything that truly encapsulates what the popular Nintendo series stands for, it’s the notorious Luigi Death Stare, which made its debut in Mario Kart 8. Following its release in 2014, players began to notice that whenever Luigi attacked an opponent with an item or hit them out of their place, he responded with one of the most malicious faces any Mario-related character has ever given.

The meme was born when YouTube user Rizupicor uploaded a video of Luigi making the face after attacking Waluigi with a green shell, but it rose to prominence when CZbwoi synchronized the clip to Chamillionaire’s “Ridin.’” From there the Luigi Death Stare received its own Reddit forum and even popped up on Fox News.

Luigi’s facial expression just happens to be a result of the game’s mechanics. As Charles Herold from Lifewire writes:

“The Death Stare phenomenon is simply a result of the way characters in the game turn their heads and their eyes in order to stare at passing characters they have just attacked or been attacked by. Luigi’s expression could probably most accurately be described as one of concentration, but when using the highlight-reel features’ ability to play races in slow motion, these neutral expressions and smoothly rotating heads become hostile and arrogant.”

Still, it’s easy to view the Luigi meme as a metaphor for players of the Mario Kart series: good-hearted and happy people who come across as harmless and innocent, only to reveal themselves as destructive and malevolent beings once they get behind the wheel.

Hopefully the series continues on for generations to come. But let these and countless other memes be a reminder of the game’s legacy and the ways in which it defined and redefined competition in video games. Because although it sucks to have something like this happen to you, the competitive camaraderie makes it all worth it.

Share this article
*First Published: Feb 10, 2017, 8:59 am CST