Fight for the Blue Shell Workers – A Look at the Mario Kart Series

As the year 2013 comes to a close and 2014 brings us the arrival of some fine Nintendo games, one of those projects just so happens to be the ever anticipated Mario Kart 8. Like Super Smash Bros., Mario Kart is one of my favorite gaming franchises, even more than the actual Mario franchise! Ah, but there is quite the difference with my love between the two; while Smash in my eyes needs to get a swift kick in the cahones for producing the Brawl installment, Mario Kart has gotten better and better with each new game released. Its appeal comes from the fact that you’re not racing to win, you’re racing to royally piss someone off by throwing them the ever infamous Blue Shell just as they are about to pass the finish line.

Look at them, smiling. You KNOW they have a Blue Shell somewhere….

Come now, can anybody tell me they play Mario Kart just for the sake of racing? If you do, YOU LIE. Within you lies not only the need to get that gold trophy, but to eliminate anybody who stands in your way. You laugh your hardest when you get a Lucky 7 and your opponents coward in fear of your massive arsenal. You shout at the top of your lungs when someone has triple Red Shells and starts lunging them at you. And when you get a Starman? Yeah, you just love to ram over your friend, back up, then ram them over again until the effect wears off. Like Mario Party, it’s a surefire way to shatter friendships, ruin families, and get you fired from your executive job after you pass onto your boss the Thunder Cloud. However, UNLIKE Mario Party, there’s also strategy involved, but sometimes these advanced tactics still cannot take away the fact that a single Mushroom is all that matters from you eating someone’s dust for the finish line.

My first Mario Kart encounter was on the Nintendo 64, when I was a wee lad of innocence and care-free nature. Boy, did that change. My brothers always got the 5 Banana Bunch and slowed down just so they could put the bananas right in front of me in a singular line. Not cool, dude… but I eventually got them to sulk within their foolish jock bodies as I was the first one to discover the Rainbow Road shortcut (it pays sometimes to know the right friends that play 24 hours of this schtuff). I would obviously win every time, with their foolish maneuvers not enough to keep them ahead of me, but at the cost of numerous punches to the chest and countless “You damn cheater!” chants screamed into my eardrums. Looking back, it was worth it, mostly since I’m the only one still playing the games.

Anybody remember this infamous shortcut?

I actually don’t remember a lot about my Mario Kart 64 days, but if I were to talk to you about my Double Dash period, I would most likely put so much data on this article it would overload the website and explode, and I don’t want SuperZambezi to put me in the dungeon again for trouble making (I’m in 8BIT’s lair as we speak, good thing he has WiFi!). Double Dash to me is the quintessential installment to play if you’re looking for the wackiest racing and if you can’t catch Dane Cook at a comedy club. Seriously, this game is pretty hilarious, and not for the reasons you might think. Double Dash has the most unstable controls, most annoying track layouts, and incredible ear-piercing voice acting (Don’t you guys even UTTER that phrase from Princess You-Know-Who, and I don’t mean Voldemort!), and yet, it’s my all-time favorite game of the series.

Don’t get me wrong, Mario Kart DS and Mario Kart 7 are great installments as well, but there’s just something about Double Dash that puts it on top. Perhaps it’s because tracks like Mushroom City or Waluigi Stadium are certifiably insane. Or how I enjoy my newcomer friends who always fall off the Rainbow Road track simply because they aren’t used to DD’s offbeat controls. Oh yeah, Battle Mode. Battle Mode for me has always been the branch where I would introduce newcomers to as an alternative that is “more fun and strategic than the Grand Prix.” And then I pick Bob-omb Blast and start royally screwing them over by performing donuts on a short stage like Nintendo GameCube, repeatedly collecting the item boxes and spamming Bob-ombs all over the place that would make Vietnam look like a walk in the park. Mind you, this was all before the popular war games like Call of Duty were mainstream popular, so if you were into carnage and explosions at the time, you definitely grabbed Double Dash and played Bob-omb Blast. Added to the fact that now you control two characters and thus can pair up two items at once, Double Dash is more than a game, it’s a straight-up adventure filled with mayhem. I do only wish that Nintendo worked on the controls a tad more. I always hated the fact that you couldn’t jump, and the drifting was just as horrible as Super Mario Kart’s.

Friendships will BREAK.

I did forget to mention about my little excursion with the first title in the franchise. I didn’t play Super Mario Kart as a kid, and the first time I picked it up was when I was in high school and going through that hipster phase where I needed to collect every classic game that Retroworld had to offer. I figured since it was the first Mario Kart in the series, some gameplay mechanics would be slightly different. I popped the cartridge in, picked Grand Prix 50cc and never turned back.

Super Mario Kart is one of the worst Mario games I’ve ever played.

The problem with SMK stems from the overall gameplay. First of all, the controls BLOW. Even if you’re playing with the finest of SNES controllers or using an emulator with a wireless PS3 controller, you’re still going to struggle the first time through. You can pick the characters with the most traction and off-road stats (in this case Toad and Koopa) and you’ll be driving like a crazed psycho killer (but, then again, isn’t that what Mario Kart encompasses?). I just want to get back on the track, but no, the drifting in this game makes it impossible to do so. Unlike later games, usually you drift by holding the jump button and then tilting the control stick to the direction you want to aim for. But in SMK, the drift occurs automatically and can really mess you up, especially on tight corners if you’re only trying to do a small turn. You can already drift by doing the jumping method, so I really don’t see why Nintendo had to also implant auto-drifting when you just want to turn ever so slightly. This doesn’t really occur much if you’re playing on 50cc, but man, you’re in for a really rough ride once you’re an expert enough to try 100cc and 150cc.

I hate this game.
I don’t like this game in particular.

Next thing are the items. Now I know Nintendo probably used item panels because they couldn’t implement respawning item boxes due to the restrictions of the Super Nintendo, but it feels rather unfair that while I get one, maybe two items for each lap, the panels get used up. AND if I’m playing against CPU players, the one closest to me gets to spam items like they have a Game Genie! When you face the CPUs in 1P mode, they have unlimited items they can use on you, and depending on who you face, some of them are worse than others. Donkey Kong Jr. uses Bananas (not bad), Peach uses Poison Mushrooms (annoying), Mario/Luigi use Star Power (really bad), etc., but the point is that they should only get one item per lap too! How is it fair for me to race when clearly the other opponents rig the item system? As for the items themselves, the only beef I have is with the Red Shell. Next to DS, it probably has the worst tracking system ever. If you’re so much as near a wall or a lake, the Red Shell will just fail. And if your opponent is maybe an inch away from you, something tells the Red Shell to just circle around you and not do anything. Also, I really don’t understand the Feather at all. I mean, yeah, it gives you a really powerful jump, but I can manage to cut through the shortcuts (such as Ghost Valley 2) with my normal jump (even with Mushroom assistance) so really, if you are experienced enough, the Feather is pretty much useless.

Is it just me, or is having A LIFE COUNTER in a RACING GAME just about the dumbest thing ever? SMK has you start out every cup with three lives. The coins on the track are meant to be picked up to get enough for an extra turn (and I really have no idea how much you need to get for a 1Up, I honestly think around 60-70). How can you lose a life, you might wonder? Why, if you’re a sorry loser and get 5th place or lower of course! Yes, you get “ranked out” if you lose to the top 4 racers and have to start the race all over again, resulting in the use of a life to retry. Why the hell did Nintendo just do the method they employed later and give the lower spots a lower point numeral spread? Why the need to throw lives into the mix, it’s a racing game! I don’t want to be 5th place knowing that I have 0 points that is also reserved for 8th place! I achieved SOMETHING! Don’t call me a terrible player yet just because I can’t get used to your horrible controls!

The only redeeming thing about SMK is the Battle Mode which only includes Balloon Battle. The track layouts are fair enough, but still, with the horrible controls and terrible drifting, it really is unbearable for me to play. It just goes to show you how much the franchise has improved. Going from SMK to MK64 was a very radical transition, but definitely for the better.

Super Circuit pretty much can be summed up by being SMK’s long lost cousin, so I’ll save you the trouble by simply saying this: Horrible, but as far as controls go, SLIGHTLY better than SMK.

So now that I’ve established my favorite and least favorite Mario Kart installments, it’s time to talk about the Mario Kart that I have the most hours on: Mario Kart DS. I used to play this every morning and late evening on the school bus with my cross country buddies, and while it was definitely not as crazy as Double Dash, I understood that Nintendo was trying to go for more of a competitive direction with the franchise, and to me, it was the right decision. The controls were fixed beyond belief from DD and didn’t make your kart spiral out of control with a short mistap on the D-Pad. Drifting was ten times better, although I did hate how you had to move back and forth on the D-Pad to produce mini-turbos because sometimes I could get blisters from it. I did feel that some of tracks were quite boring though, even with some of the harder ones like DK Pass or Tick Tock Clock. Mushroom Cup always kind of bored me, especially since Figure-8 Circuit didn’t really have an appealing design. I also was impressed how they imported some SMK tracks. Finally, I can play some of SMK without having to succumb to such awful control and rules!

Look out, Luigi a-comin’!

A few cons though: the weight class. This also was sort of present in SMK, but in DS, this could very well determine your win rate in how much weight your selected characters have. Unlike other installments, DS can have racers push you off the track BRUTALLY by simply using a Mushroom to hit them. Now I know that Mario Kart is supposed to be unpredictable, but if you’re going to race with Bowser, DK, or Wario, chances are you’ll be a tightwad and merely tap Toad’s kart to knock him out of a narrow, gate-free path like Rainbow Road. I’m glad this was eliminated out of future installments, since I usually main Yoshi, and trust me, he ain’t safe when ANYBODY uses a Mushroom around him. I unfortunately know from experience. Another huge one is the Wi-Fi Connection, which seems to be Nintendo’s bane, doesn’t it? Even with local connections, such as the matches on my bus, the game lags horribly and the connection can snap at any moment if you shift one centimeter from your position. I rarely ever played online so I don’t really know how that was like, but if my local matches were usually lagging, I can only imagine how much trouble was caused in worldwide matches. Oy.

Mario Kart Wii continued the tradition of making the franchise more competitive, complete with an upgraded online experience and launching its very own “Mario Kart Channel.” To be honest, I feel as though Nintendo sort of took a backwards step with Wii. For example, the bikes: way too overpowered. Yes, I know it’s possible to win first place with a kart in a room filled with bikers, but trust me, if you’re an experienced enough player chances are you go for the bike just so you can perform nasty stunts and therefore spam mini boosts. Plus I feel as though the handling is a tad strict, and the collisions with walls are so tight that it takes you two seconds to align yourself back on the course, whereas in the other installments you simply just bounce off. There’s also the issue with the whole online experience. I understand that Nintendo offering free internet capabilities means that some mechanics will be vastly under-polished, but I at least want to go into a room where I don’t have to deal with hackers from the Middle East or Asia. It’s so easy to hack into the game that even a fifth grader who shoves crayons up their nose can manage to royally screw over the people, like me, who want to play NORMALLY. I have entered races where someone shoots out 50 Blue Shells at once at the very start, or a giant Mega Mario going around with Star Power ramming people over with no problem. I’m fine if you want to try and screw with people normally, but hacking is like drugs: it’s not cool, m’kay?

Maple Treeway is one of my favorite courses from Wii, though.

I was also disappointed with the fact that in Battle Mode, you have to be paired up in teams. What kind of sick freak would not make it an optional choice?! I look out for number one: ME! My own flesh. I don’t want to protect people, I want to cause destruction and chaos to anybody on the arena! And for me to lose all because I’m paired up with inexperienced players is just unacceptable. You may find me to be quite an elitist, but hey, this is coming from a guy who generally doesn’t do great in multiplayer settings (RPGs and Platformers, the ultimate single player genres… and proof that you don’t have many friends…*sniff*)

And then we get to Mario Kart 7, which I will admit is my second favorite installment next to Double Dash. 7 perhaps has the best control out of any Mario Kart title. The only fuss I will bring to the table is the Coin System. I don’t think speed should be determined based on how many coins you obtain, since that could easily deter strategy and offer noobs an alternative factor into an unfair win. However, the addition of getting kart parts by obtaining coins by racing gives the game a lot of replay value. The online mode is definitely the best designed so far, and Nintendo was even smart enough to offer a patch to cover up the glitchy shortcuts that played the two Wuhu courses. Now why couldn’t they do a patch to fix up the many dunders we fans had to suffer through with Wii’s online play? Perhaps to save time and effort, or to merely compliment the fact that Nintendo just hates the online community. Also, to those who complained about the lack of Vs. Mode or special multiplayer options, maybe you could, you know, grab some friends and play on Local mode. I understand Vs. Mode allowed you to make up your own set of rules for certain cups, but it’s a luxury that unfortunately had to be scrapped in order to polish up the fine modes of Coin Runners and Balloon Battle (which I’ll admit are fine but I’ll agree that they could have done more with the Battle Mode).

Teams?! I think not.

So how did a franchise that started out with the most godawful SNES game I’ve ever played become one of the coolest franchises in our arsenal? It’s because Nintendo improved on the mechanics to a science. They, for the most part, know what fans want. Like in Smash Bros., the issue comes down to balancing a need of casual play and competitiveness. Mario Kart has always been zany and wacky but if you’re the right driver, you’ll realize how to avoid items, how to place items strategically, and take your maneuvers to the next level by drifting constantly and performing boosts. Yet, there’s also the possibility that someone throws out a Blue Shell and your hard-earned placement gets lower and lower, and with a bitter blow with some other funny comedian throwing a Red Shell immediately after, you land in last place and get taunted by your 8-year-old cousin with various “nah nah nananah!” chants. That’s the genius of the franchise, you can be as competitive as you want but it’s not always going to give you the desired results.

With all that said, I have full confidence that Mario Kart 8 will continue the progress of… well, progress, and bring us something fresh and exciting, like the anti-gravity concept, along with some well-grounded franchise staples that we fans have come to cherish. What I truly want to see is a better online experience free of hackers every single round and a better balance with the item system improved similarly to Mario Kart 7. Other than that, if no other drastic changes are made, this Mario Kart fan is all set to rev up his engines!

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