With Mario Kart 64’s soundtrack, the best thing came to those who waited – and it’s this finality that gives Rainbow Road its core motif, says Matt Gardner.
They say that good things come to those who wait, and having endured all 15 racetracks on Mario Kart 64 – which, as we all know, was a game that advanced the franchise much more than its 63 prequels – you get the best payoff with its final track, Rainbow Road.
It was the longest, brightest, most colourful journey along a space-based rollercoaster with dubious laws of gravity, and was absolutely stunning to boot. It still kind of is, 21 years on. Yet visuals alone didn’t fully convey the atmosphere the race was going for; the accompanying music was the true star of the track, despite the fact there literally was a massive, fuck-off, smiley-faced star as a key landmark.
Mario Kart 64
When it was released, Mario Kart 64 split people down the middle for a number of reasons, whether it was due to its incessant rubber-banding (bolstered by the then-new blue shell), not-quite-there 3D visuals, or tricky handling. Even the usually trusty soundtrack was filled with highs and lows. Luckily, they left the best for last, and on arguably the most iconic racetrack the series ever produced.
It’s even more impressive that the MK64 soundtrack was Kenta Nagata’s first for Nintendo. Speaking to Kotaku shortly after the release of the excellent Mario Kart 8, he explained his ideology: “The music used throughout the Mario Kart series isn’t intended to be just background music. Instead, we aim to produce pieces that will stick in players’ minds. We consider it a great success if the other production staff start unconsciously humming the tunes as they’re racing.”
Considering I still don’t so much hum as shout the four-note “DER DER DE-DERRRRRRR” every time it comes around, Nagata stayed true to form. Sure, fellow Mario Kart 64 classics Royal Raceway, Toad’s Turnpike and even the menu music for Set-up and Kart Select are just as guilty of being passively sung under one’s breath. Still, I’ve seen countless mates belt out Rainbow Road while racing, as if they’re having a fever dream after capitulating due to the stress of hours of closely-fought races. The colourful yet ball-tripping visuals of the race itself only added to this experience.
Keeping it simple
When you break Rainbow Road down, it’s an incredibly basic song with only two distinct parts, across a core tune that lasts for just one minute, nine seconds. While it’s different to most other songs in the game by repeating itself with a different set of instruments (woodwind, then what I can only assume to be a synth’s attempt at an electric guitar), it’s not particularly special from a technical perspective – it’s just so damn memorable.
The first 30 seconds or so is a chipper, well-paced launch into the track. Given you start the race with a huge downhill ski jump-like drop, Nagata clearly felt that he had to get straight into it – there wasn’t even a wacky ditty before the music rolls in, as with Moo Moo Farm/Yoshi Valley. The tune was hopeful, positive, but not intrusive. It knew you had a lot to take in, so didn’t overstep the mark.
When you hit the second half, it ramped up the orchestral grandiosity the course needed. Once you’d settled in, it kicked in with that so-called “goodbye feeling” which Rainbow Road has come to be associated with – as the countless YouTube comments are keen to point out. The high notes always never sounded like they’d hit what they need to hit, because the under-par synth effects seemed like they’d crumble under the pressure. But they always just managed to make it, usually as you just managed to scrape around a corner, avoiding a rogue Chain Chomp and overtaking Luigi in one swift move.
The reliance on synthesisers meant that sure, there were odd sounds used to reflect real-life musical counterparts, but that only added to its uniqueness. The way it’s composed made you listen very carefully indeed, and it’s only then that you realised how many layers there are to it, like a multi-coloured onion that only makes you cry happy tears.
The whole tune was tied together with a few simple, unwavering accompaniments, which underpinned the song to such a degree that it stayed with you for hours after you heard it:
- A constant, unerring, three-beats-on/one-beat-off baseline;
- Carefully-paced chords from an electric organ that’s more suited to a Baptist gospel choir akin to James Brown’s ensemble in The Blues Brothers;
- A drum beat so simple, you’d pick it up first time; and
- The occasional glittery star effect, just to remind you you’re in the most literal definition of a space race.
It’s so simple, I’d guarantee that if a group of seven people with no musical experience decided to learn a part of Rainbow Road on the instrument of their choice, they’d play it perfectly in the space of a day. Mind you, nobody quite does it like Nintendo, and their own seasoned professionals took it upon themselves to give it a new lease of life.
In 2014, the N64 Rainbow Road course was remastered for its inclusion in Mario Kart 8, fittingly being the very final track of the base game in the all-retro Lightning Cup. The star of the show, without a doubt, is the trumpet player who occasionally sounds like he’s going to run out of breath as he parps the core tune out, supported by an electric guitarist who clearly fucking loves his job.
Despite Nintendo somewhat taking the edge off the Rainbow Road’s epic length by splitting it into three sections in its MK8 re-release – instead of having you simply do three full laps – I’m not embarrassed in the slightest to admit I got genuinely emotional playing it for the first time. It was all because of the music; sure, it’s still absolutely stunning to watch it running seamlessly at 60fps in full HD, but the song had been perfected for the gaming experience. The orchestra had finally given it the send-off it deserved, much like Rainbow Road gave Mario Kart 64 the send-off it deserved, with the finality it represented for the series.
Before or since, there hasn’t been a better Rainbow Road track – or a better Rainbow Road song. And because you should expect Rainbow Road to be at the end of everything it’s featured in, here you are again: one last chance to give it another listen, and to wave goodbye to a review that still cannot do the song the justice it deserves – much in the same way you regularly waved goodbye to one of the best racing experiences of its era.
There’s an argument for Rainbow Road being the single best song in the Mario Kart franchise, as well as the Super Mario franchise, the Nintendo franchise, and the entire history of the racing genre. Even if it doesn’t make your top ten list, there’s one thing you’d be hard-pressed to say: that it isn’t a beautiful piece of music. MK64 wouldn’t be complete without the song, but Rainbow Road doesn’t need anything to be an enduringly endearing musical masterpiece.