[26 June 2014]
Mario Kart sticks out amongst other established Nintendo series. Like Mario, Zelda, or Metroid, certain constants have persisted over the years. Cartoonish characters, drifting, and wacky items have all become its distinguishing characteristics. But it’s the last example, the items, that best illustrate Mario Kart’s unique qualities.
They represent a chance, unexpected upsets, and straight up dumb luck that doesn’t exist in the clockwork levels of Super Mario (there will always be a goomba on the ground traveling from right to left on World 1-1). Zelda’s steady accumulation of items build out a consistent internal logic that governs that game’s world. For example, torches can be lit, the boomerang can spread fire, and therefore the boomerang can be used to spread a flame to multiple torches. Metroid is similar. Ongoing success is determined by the tools you find, which are discovered through testing your existing skills. In all these games, failure is the result of a lack of knowledge or execution: you either haven’t learned how to succeed or you screw up the implementation.
This isn’t the case in Mario Kart. Instead, there is randomness. It’s the series’ defining tension. The deepest course knowledge and the most exquisite power slides can be undermined by the infamous blue shell. Mario Kart 8 embodies (and possibly perfects) this constant seesaw between skill and luck. The most interesting thing is that this rubber band effect, this impulse to both intervene and ignore a race’s outcome, extends past the game’s rules and into its social features. In a world where the racing game spotlight has moved from arcade kart games to the Forza model, Mario Kart 8 is an example of a game stretched between conventional and progressive impulses.
There’s no denying the fact that Mario Kart 8 is balanced to try to keep weaker players in the race. Certain powerful items (like the blue shell) only appear when you drop out of contention and are meant to shake up the leader board. Even so, Mario Kart is more like a poker game than some form of racing communism; the luck of the draw can rocket newbies over veterans, but over the long term, the best players will come out ahead. Mario Kart 8’s online rankings bear this out. Players receive and lose points depending on their finishing positions. You start out with 1000 points, and I’ve already encountered people with twice that score. I might eke out a victory against these experts once in a while, but I’m usually left in their exhaust.
The reasons behind this are numerous but subtle enough that only people who truly care will notice. Collecting coins increases your top speed, but they might make you take a non-optimal route around a turn. Tracks have multiple paths, some of which are slightly shorter. Tiny boosts that you get for correctly timing your jumps add up to a big difference by the end of the race. Even the infamous blue shell can be countered by the new Super Horn or a well placed mushroom host (although I’ve yet to pull this off myself).
This interventionist/laissez-faire mixture shows up outside the races as well. Racers have hidden speed and handling stats, which are then modified by explicitly stated stats for car bodies, wheels, and glider types. None of this is explained in any in-game tutorials, but the mixture of racers and of kart types seen online suggest that there is no one optimal configuration. Players are given the freedom to figure it out or to simply ignore it.
Nintendo uses a heavier hand when it comes to the replay and social features, though. Mario Kart 8 looks amazing, and its replay option lets you re-live and appreciate the chaos after the race. However, just as the game is not content to simply let the best player completely dominate the race unscathed, players cannot piece together their own versions of the race. Replay camera angles and areas of focus are controlled algorithmically. Players can suggest a few areas or players to focus on, but in the end, it’s the game that decides what you see.
Limited though they may be, these clips still contain moments worth sharing. The ability to “favorite” clips and then upload them to YouTube is a refreshingly forward-thinking tactic. The interface is easy, and the uploads are relatively quick. Of course, their speed is in part thanks to the fact that you cannot upload complete races, only 60 second or less highlight reels. These clips contain the action on the track, but they don’t include couch-side banter. Without voiceovers or clear descriptions of which real people were playing which characters, some of the drama is lost. Take one of the most memorable matches Jorge Albor and I played:
It’s hard to tell that I was the one playing as Ludwig and that I came from three places down to take first place with mere fractions of a second separating me from the next contestant. You definitely don’t hear the colorful language Jorge and I threw at each other and the television. You get part of the way into the new world of social hooks and game streaming, but you’re snapped back to the limits of the traditional local console experience.
Mario Kart 8 seems to have found equilibrium when it comes to in-game rubber banding. Novices can use items to stay out of the basement and maybe even topple a champion once in a while, but the best players find the areas where their skill can reliably separate them from the pack.
When it comes to elements of the larger experience like replays, online interactions, video sharing, and basically any other type of player-generated content, the balance is unclear. However, if the delicate balance Nintendo achieved between equality and meritocracy in the races themselves is any indication, there is certainly a future for highly polished replays and meticulously-produced player-generated commentaries. Players will always be subject to the capricious thrill of the golden mushroom and the agony of the blue shell, so why not let give them more control over telling the story?