The Rainbow Road moniker is as much of a revered institution as the Mario Kart name itself. Known for its glittering colors, upbeat music, and often unforgiving difficulty, Rainbow Road concludes each Mario Kart installment with gratuitous fanfare and grandeur.
Here, I take a look at my top 5 favorite Rainbow Road iterations and reflect upon what makes each technicolor path of peril so brilliant.
A huge step forward from the admittedly flat Rainbow Road seen in this game’s handheld predecessor, Mario Kart: Super Circuit, the Mario Kart DS Rainbow Road brings beauty, wonder, and a great challenge directly into your sweaty palms. While Mario Kart DS arguably has the tightest controls in the series, even seasoned drivers will find themselves flying off the road if they’re not careful, especially if they attempt to snake their way to a faster time. This iteration may be a bit on the short side, but that just makes each lap that much more crucial.
Mario Kart 8‘s Rainbow Road certainly wins the award for most original design in the series. The inexplicable rainbow ribbons in the sky are now replaced with space stations and blooper spacecrafts, and the anti-gravity feature is most at home in this stage for obvious reasons. In my opinion, this is the hardest Rainbow Road in the entire series, even more so than any of the Super Mario Kart Rainbow Road iterations. In this particular track, the turns and paths are many, and the walls are few. Combined with Mario Kart 8’s brutal AI and the recently released 200cc update, you have a Rainbow Road with a difficulty as breathtaking as its stunning backdrop.
This iteration of Rainbow Road was the first 3D Mario Kart title to incorporate the terror and ubiquity of the dark abyss found in the 2D installments, a detail that was criminally missing from the original N64 Rainbow Road. With the jump to three dimensions comes twists and turns that were unimaginable on previous platforms, including the series of sharp U-turns at the track’s beginning as well as the infamous spiral to heaven with its scattered speed boost pads. This trek through the stars is topped off with lively music that propels forward from beat one and contrasts beautifully with the reprise of the classic N64 Rainbow Road theme.
This new version takes everything that was good about the original course, namely just the music, as well as what was bad (everything else) and re-imagines it in typical Mario Kart 8 fashion, by adding as many flashy bells and whistles as possible. The result is everything the original course aspired to be and more. Gone are the 7-minute wars of attrition and blank background, replaced with a high-speed single shot race to the finish with a gorgeous backdrop. From the space train, which is surely a reference to Night on the Galactic Railroad, to the intermittent bursts of fireworks depicting racers to the night skyline below, there’s plenty to see on this tour of the stars.
Mario Kart 7 introduced the concept of the single-track course, and my jaw dropped when I saw how its Rainbow Road utilized this idea. This track guides the racer through planets, rings, and moons, and the music fits perfectly. When the player races upward at the beginning, the music builds up appropriately. When you fall to the moon’s surface, the music becomes floaty and delicate as you catch major air over the intermittent craters. The last leg of the tracks is a massive sprint to the finish through a massive rainbow wormhole, accompanied by a reprise of Mario Kart 64‘s Rainbow Road theme. The track is capped off with a flight through an asteroid field, an ascent towards a supernova, and a final dip to the finish line, earning it the title of Best Rainbow Road.