Thursday, February 2, 2017

The Mario Kart Series - Scripting a Better Race (Part 1)
How a company's increasingly inhibitive tendencies corrupted the definition of "fun" and the means by which I could extract it.

It seems appropriate: Just when I thought I was ahead of the game, Mario Kart walloped me with an emotionally loaded blue shell that set me back about 12 months. I'm speaking of the intense feeling of dread that would overcome me every time I'd pull up a chair and attempt to put this "Memory Bank" entry together. Absent any real motivation, I'd instead endeavor to produce an earnestly written piece through sheer force of will, which I knew was a blueprint for failure. Predictably, within a matter of days, I was left stressed and mentally drained, and the burnout that resulted is the reason why I had to take a year-long hiatus to reassess what it was I was trying to do here.

I mean, it's not that the Mario Kart games aren't important to me or that I don't want to write about them. Oh, no--it's quite the opposite. Rather, it's that I've struggled to pay them their proper respect because they epitomize what's been a persistent issue for me: That is, there are certain games that made such an impact on my life that I feel obligated to write about them in this format, yet I've been entirely unable to generate enough interesting material to form a coherent narrative. And that's been the case with the Mario Kart games, which, by and large, have left me not with stories but instead collections of unconnected memorable moments.

Still, I'm not going to miss the opportunity to chronicle my history with the Mario Kart series, which has been a part of my life for over 24 years. So what I've chosen to do is approach this from a different angle: I'm going to tell my story by sharing with you the broader, more-encompassing narrative about how the series and I have grown apart over time.

Don't feel sad, dear reader. The story concludes with a hopeful message. I promise.

So what is this "Mario Kart" all about, really? Well, that's an easy one: To me, Mario Kart has always been about ubiquity and dependability. Nintendo's manic racing series has always been there, it's always been fun, and it's always had the knack for reliably filling voids--for both the industry and for me. When I look back upon my experiences with the Mario Kart games, it becomes evident that the laughter and joy they provided helped me to endure some pretty rough stretches. I'd even go as far as to say that no other series of games has done as well to reflect where I currently was in my life, whether we're talking about my adolescent days in which I struggled to deal with the crippling effects of obsessive-compulsive disorder or the present day in which I constantly express my dissatisfaction with the state of game design.

During our time together, neither of us has really changed all that much in terms of outward appearance, no, but on the inside, we've clearly evolved in opposite directions. This speaks to the changes that have taken place within Nintendo, whose design philosophy has shifted from letting the players define the parameters of their own experiences to obsessive-compulsively attempting to control how they derive enjoyment from its products. It used to be that its Mario Kart games were well-crafted racers in which items had tactical applications. There was a happy medium; neither aspect worked to diminish the other. Sure--we'd all find ourselves subject to the usual comical item-barrages and hilarious screw-ups (colliding with your own tossed green shell, wildly swerving off a cliff while in a panic, etc.), and we'd always find great amusement in each other's misfortune, but we never felt as though we weren't in control of our own destinies. There were benefits to mastering the games' mechanics. There was an incentive to try to get better even if you were convinced that you lacked the skills necessary to achieve greatness. There was satisfaction to be gained from winning.

But the creators at Nintendo didn't see the value in this formula, and so its series slowly abandoned these roots. In time, Mario Kart became more about manufacturing "fun" than providing a balanced, rewarding combat-racing game. Somewhere along the line, "everyone must have a good time" replaced "everyone is free to dictate the terms of his or her experience." "Everyone must feel like a winner" replaced "come to know the true feeling of accomplishment that results from personal improvement." Why, it's almost as if Nintendo was seeking to render 8-12-player races indistinguishable from those in which you engage multiple CPU opponents with their obnoxious rubber-banding-AI routines!

"So how did we get here?" you ask. Well, let me show you the way.

Now, "racing" had never been my favorite genre of video game. To me racing games were barely a step above sports simulations and side-scrolling shooters, which I'd regarded as thoroughly uninteresting. Over the course of my youth, I largely avoided them. Oh, I'd spent a fair bit of time playing the Off Roads, OutRuns and R.C. Pro-Ams--and just recently I'd invested a whole lot of energy into conquering F-Zero--but never once during those moments did I give serious consideration to the idea that a racing game's action could amount to anything more than a brief diversion. A racer was the type of game I'd play when I'd exhausted all other options or when I needed to find temporary relief as I was transitioning from one favorite to the next. That's all it was good for. That was its niche.

So you can understand why I wasn't overflowing with excitement when Nintendo Power announced that the company's next big IP was going to be Super Mario Kart, a new type of racing game. The idea of it sounded ridiculous to me: "With so many activities to choose from, including infinitely-more-popular sports like baseball and basketball, why go with go-kart racing?" I wondered, completely perplexed. For as much as I worshiped at the altar of Mario and friends, I wasn't ready to believe that their inclusion was enough to make the racing genre that much more interesting.

Now, of course I was going to buy it anyway. I was, after all, a fan of a company that had never failed me. From that perspective, how could I take the chance of passing on Super Mario Kart and possibly missing the next big thing? That's where Nintendo Power's enticing marketing was as effective as ever. To miss out on Super Mario Kart, they had me convinced, would be tantamount to refusing an invitation to a party that every kid in the world would be attending!

In this instance, I didn't feel at all deceived. The magazine's hype was no lie. In fact, Super Mario Kart delivered an experience well beyond what I'd imagined. To me it was a revelation--the type of game I didn't know that I needed until I played it. I'd never seen anything like it: a racer that featured a combination of solidly designed racing action, wacky combat, and nonstop hilarity. There was great fun to be had in its single-player modes, whether I was attempting to win the gold cup in the Grand Prix circuit or set a course record in Time Trial, but let me tell you, man--Super Mario Kart turned absolutely magical when friends or family would join me for some multiplayer action. Never before had a two-player racing game been as fun or as addicting. No game, period, could offer us its compelling mix of satisfying gameplay and laugh-out-loud potential. We devoted countless hours of our young lives to it. We mastered its every mechanic. We extracted endless amounts of laughter and joy.

Everyone had Super Mario Kart. Wherever and whenever we'd meet up, there wasn't a single person who didn't want to play it. No other game could bring so many different people together.

That was the power of Mario Kart.

I used Koopa Trooper almost exclusively. He was my boy. He was fast, he handled well, and his light weight, which was purported to be his main drawback, was hardly an issue. In comparison, Mario and Luigi had no perceivable strengths. Yoshi and Princess Toadstool were too unwieldy. And the big guys, Bowser and Donkey Kong Jr., took way too long to accelerate, negating, in my opinion, any advantage gained from having superior top speed; this weakness was exacerbated by their needing to re-accelerate even after making light contact with an obstacle.

"But what about Toad?" you ask. "Why didn't you use him interchangeably with Koopa Trooper, since their stats are identical?"

Well, there's a very scientific explanation for that: I thought Koopa Trooper looked cooler. And, really, I never liked Toad all that much anyway. I rarely used him in Super Mario Bros. 2, after all, and I was immediately repelled by any game in which he played a starring role (like Wario's Woods). I just never found him to be an interesting character.

I might have used him had there been notable differences between characters of the same class. In fact, we got excited when Nintendo Power hinted that such was true, and we spent an inordinate amount of time trying to synchronize same-class characters' movements in order to prove that one might be faster or heavy than the other. In the end, we wound up agreeing that the information was likely suspect. I mean, it might have been true that there were differences between them, but we never found evidence convincing enough to prove it. Any variance had to be so negligible that it was bordering on imperceptible. Yet, still, people would continue to claim that Yoshi was slightly faster than Princess Toadstool. Such were the days when there was no definitive source.

There was no sense of uncertainty in our unanimously positive appraisal of the game's wonderfully dinstinct musical score, its spirited tones and unmistakable instrumentation working to imbue Super Mario Kart with the palpably effervescent personality that strongly set it apart from other Mario-related series. You could identify Mario Kart music merely by observing its rousing guitar strains and sharp, quirky percussion.

Our favorite was the high-energy Rainbow Road track, which never failed to raise our spirits with its goosebumps-inducing story about perseverance and triumph. We considered it to be one of the greatest video-game tunes of all time. I was sure to record it using my tape recorder--include it in my compilation of favorite game tracks.

Super Mario Kart wasn't without its annoyances: For one, I was very disappointed that Nintendo chose to include Donkey Kong Jr. over Donkey Kong--a true gaming icon. His omission strengthened the signal that Nintendo was trying to erase the existence of its pioneering mascot; that's how we interpreted the company's actions. I mean, you don't replace a star with some second-stringer unless you intend to bury him! (In truth, they were preparing to reintroduce him in Donkey Kong Country and probably wanted to maintain a level of separation--create the sense that Donkey Kong could stand on his own.)

I didn't like how CPU racers could generate an endless supply of character-specific items where I was limited to whatever the infrequently appearing item spaces were doling out; this wouldn't have bugged me so much had Bowser and crew not been so adept at tossing their fireballs and mushrooms in such a way that they'd land right in front of me, even if I was wildly swerving at the time (you'd think it was programmed like that or somethin'). If they weren't doing that, then they were persistently bumping into me from the side and redirecting me into lava pits and the Ghost Houses' empty voids. This is where Princess Toadstool became my eternal nemesis, the bubbly pink terror always resolving to hound me from start to finish. It was never anyone else. And she'd proceed to hound me as such for the next 24 years! There have been so many times when I've come close to hating her. Honestly, I may get there yet.

Also, Super Mario Kart was the series' worst offender when it came to the CPU characters' rubber-banding AI, for which we didn't have a name at the time. I didn't know how it was that the person in second place would always manage to catch up to me no matter how smoothly I executed my turns or how well I utilized my items. "I just saw Donkey Kong Jr. fall to the back of the pack after I hit him with that green shell, so how is it that he rocketed past past all of the other racers and catch up to me within ten seconds?" I'd wonder to myself as the inexplicable comeback occurred. "I never observed such nonsense in a versus match, even when my opponent was the beneficiary of consecutively doled mushrooms, so how are the CPU characters able to do this?"

Well, you know why.

But none of it really mattered. To the contrary, Super Mario Kart's irritating quirks were part of what made it so memorable. We loved it, warts and all. It was truly a special game.

My friends and I derived years of enjoyment from Super Mario Kart, which we came to recognize as a quintessential SNES game and one of the 16-bit generation's finest creations. And we would have continued to play it for many years in following had it not been for the arrival of its 64-bit sequel.

Mario Kart 64 is my favorite game in the series by virtue of it being the one that provided me the largest collection of fun experiences and memorable moments. Also, I think it's a pretty damn good racing game. For how it aggressively refined the formula, Mario Kart 64 represents the biggest game-to-game evolution the series has ever seen, and it remains the template upon which all of the future Mario Kart entries were built. Both the series and I benefited greatly from its existence.

Mario Kart 64 holds the distinction of being the first racing game I ever looked forward to playing. I eagerly awaited future Nintendo Power issues that I suspected would have more information about it. I made it a priority to ignore all other N64 releases and save up my money in anticipation of its arrival. I couldn't wait to get a hold of the game and begin testing out all of those new mechanics and exploring its genuinely-three-dimensional environments. Sure--there was always the chance that it would fall short of exceeding or even matching its beloved predecessor, which had set the bar pretty high, but I had no reason to believe that it wouldn't live up to expectations. And why would I? I was afflicted with N64 fever, baby, and Nintendo had yet to publish an N64 title that hadn't wowed me!

And Mario Kart 64 delivered. It looked great, save for the obvious flatness of its racers, and its unmistakable brand of Mario Kart music captured the essence of the original, its comforting vibes helping to make me feel right at home in a game I barely knew. My earliest hours with Mario Kart 64 were all about wondrous experimentation and exploration--about testing out the game's new mechanics and getting a sense for the scope of its content. The game wouldn't be "new" forever, I was aware, so I made sure to savor these moments. I'm glad I did; my memories of those early experiences remain vivid.

loved the newly introduced power-sliding mechanic, which put emphasis on cornering and gave a decided edge to those who were skillful enough to master it; also, it made the simple act of turning so much fun on its own! It took me a while to get the hang of power-sliding, but once I did, I'd never again miss the chance to abuse it. For certain, I'd sorely miss its presence whenever I'd return to the SNES original.

I was sad to see that the feather was removed (understandably so, since its inclusion would have likely broken the game), but I liked all of the new items and the creative ways in which they could be utilized (triple red/green shells for maximum shielding, banana bunches for the calculated littering, and lightning bolts that could be timed specifically to screw with your friend who was currently flying over a gap). I was even an advocate for the new Blue Shell item, which was programmed to strike all of the racers ahead of you. If only I'd known what I was welcoming.

It was my opinion that Mario Kart 64 had the best courses. Moo Moo Farm, Choco Mountain, Sherbet Land, Bowser's Castle, Toad's Turnpike and the rest were all standouts to me. I raced through them hundreds of times over the years. I'd come to know every inch of them. I'd have fun exploring them in Time Trial mode--lovingly gauging their every unique graphical detail.

I was, for instance, tickled that you could take a detour off of Royal Raceway and drive over to Peach's Castle, which appeared to be ripped directly from Super Mario 64! I'd find it neat when a 2D game would cleverly recycle sprites from its predecessor, yes, but stumbling upon this, a monstrous three-dimensional structure that previously encompassed the entirety of 64-bit epic, was mind-blowing! I just had to inspect the castle exterior and see if its design elements, including tree placement and object textures, matched up. To my surprise, the castle grounds were pretty much faithfully replicated, though I did notice that they removed the waterfall on the castle's left side the grating near the pond. You knew I would. I was a stickler for those kinds of things, after all.

If not that, then I could have fun trying to glitch my way over the walls in Wario Stadium and cut minutes off of my Time Trial record. Or I could use a mushroom to rocket myself off of the sides of the equally lengthy Rainbow Road and attempt to land somewhere near its narrow three-quarters point. The game had its intended shortcuts, but my friends and I could just as well create our own. And if we grew bored of doing that, then we could always head over to Battle Mode and spend hours bludgeoning each other! What could be more fun than that?!

I mainly used Wario. As a heavy racer, he had that undesirable acceleration issue, sure, but his wasn't as pronounced as Donkey Kong (he finally made it!) and Bowser's. There was almost no downside to using him: He was fast, he handled well, and his corner-cutting ability was topnotch. Together we were unbeatable. And it was always customary to seal my many 1st-place finishes by mimicking his victory taunt "I'm-a Wario! I'm-a gonna ween!"

Much like its predecessor, Mario Kart 64 was a game that could bring together an eclectic mix of friends and family and leave people of all personality types feeling jubilant. If not for any other reason, I'll always remember it as the game that made such a positive impact on my life during my college years, when everything was falling apart for me. By then, all of my friends were gone, my condition was ever-worsening, and my future was looking bleak. One of the only things I could look forward to--one of the only things I could depend upon for a lift--was playing Mario Kart 64 with my brother, James, who always knew how to make me laugh. It became a daily routine for us.

Now, James, like me, had been around video games all his life, but he wasn't particularly good at most of them. He did, however, have a strong aptitude for the racing genre, his skill-level such that he could rack up the top score in any arcade racer or complete even the toughest console racing game (F-Zero's Master difficulty, for instance, was no sweat for him). Not surprisingly, he also loved the Mario Kart games. Logically, we thought, he'd tear through the competition like a pro, since Mario Kart was comparatively easy. Instead, for whatever reason, he'd struggle mightily with them.

What made our time playing Mario Kart 64 together so memorable was how he'd embrace his futility and purposely use it as a mechanism to elicit laughter from me. There he was as Luigi falling off one of the higher ledges of Choco Mountain for the 30th time, his kart bouncing in front me on its way further down the mountain while Luigi screamed in horror "MAMA-MI-YAAAAAAHAHAHAHAHAHA!" That was the norm. He'd spend entire races in a flustered state, his confused commentary raising Professor Frink-style questions for which neither of us could find answers ("Why do I keep falling off the thing with the person?").

I can't tell you how many times he screwed up the final jump near the end portion of Wario Stadium and had to repeat half the lap. Or how many times he ran into his own remotely placed fake item boxes. That's how it would go. If there was a gap somewhere, he'd find it and fall into it. If there was a penguin, he'd collide with it. If a course had no rails, Lakitu'd be working overtime. And he was an abuse magnet. Really--I'd never seen anyone get hit with so many random green shells, nor could I remember anyone having so many thrown bombs and banana peels land perfectly on his or her head.

Sometimes he'd become so lost in the chaos that he'd resort to blindly following me, which worked out fine if I was doing well. However, there were instances like the one in Frappe Snowland: During a particularly messy race, I'd become so overwhelmed by the mayhem erupting all over the screen that I lost sight of the track and wound up making a series of wild turns that carried me over to a remote snow bank, where I crashed into a wall. I had no clue where I was, and I couldn't be sure that I hadn't glitched through the floor and drifted off into some inescapable netherworld. I was so far removed from the action that my character didn't even register on the map.

As I was backing up, I thought to myself, "Man--no one can be dumb enough to do what I just did."

Two seconds later, sure enough, James comes flying over a snow hill and smacks into the exact same section of wall. And though I had many questions for him in that moment, I dared not speak them. That is, I didn't want to evoke any response that might shatter my perception of James as the intelligent, observant big brother.

And that was my daily Mario Kart 64 experience. James would make me laugh so hard that I'd fear for my life. Seriously--my face would go numb, and it'd feel like it was raining on my face. There were times when I thought I was on the verge of suffering a stroke. And still he wouldn't stop.

But whatever--for at least a few hours a day, his hilarious antics allowed me to take my mind off my troubles, and that's all that really mattered. Maybe he knew, and this was his way of helping me.

Mario Kart 64 brought so much joy to our lives that it pains me to constantly see it labeled "overrated" by those Internet folks whose only reason for existing, it seems, is to parrot the damning opinions of media types who view video games through a lens of cynicism. They say that it didn't live up to the original. They tell us that it failed to reach its full potential. I don't see it that way: The Mario Kart 64 I knew delivered satisfying racing action, creatively designed courses, a great deal of content, and a lifetime's-worth of laughter and fun.

What more could you ask for?

For as much as I've reflected upon the subject, I've never been able to pinpoint a reason as to why I wasn't looking forward to Mario Kart: Double Dash. Maybe it was that the amazingly addictive Super Smash Bros. games had stolen the Mario Kartseries' thunder--Nintendo's mascot-filled fighters supplanting it as the place to go for frantic multiplayer action. Perhaps I'd played Mario Kart 64 so much that I'd become fatigued on the series. Or it might have been that the GameCube just wasn't an exciting console for me. Though I can't say for certain, I tend to lean toward the latter suggestion.

To be fair, the GameCube was a fine console--the little purple lunchbox having played host to some all-time greats, including one of my favorites--but I was at a point in my life where I was slowly losing my love for consoles as I began to favor portable systems, which were now rife with the kinds of games I wanted to play.

My disinterest was such that I had no compulsion to buy Double Dash, which released sometime around Thanksgiving--the prime game-buying season for gullible enthusiasts like me. Still I felt no temptation. It came into my possession a month later but only because I'd tossed it onto my Christmas list as filler when my brother insisted that I write down more than one game. And though I was cold on Double Dash, its arriving in my hands as a gift meant that I had to make an earnest effort to derive enjoyment from it. That was my rule.

I gave it my best effort, but ultimately the game and I failed to connect. It was lacking for ambition. It felt standardized. Nothing it was doing could make me forget about Mario Kart 64, which had evolved the formula in so many meaningful ways. Sure--having two drivers per kart was an interesting twist, particularly for how it added an element of team strategy and produced the agitated squabbling that onlookers would find so hilarious, but it wasn't an evolutionary change; it was more a novel concept designed to distract us from the fact that the rest of the game was largely derivative (this was a theme with Nintendo's GameCube sequels).

Oh, we had some fun with it. I'd play it every once in a while with my brother and his friends--engage in some wacky four-player action. Share some laughs. But that was it. I didn't have any friends of my own to play it with, and my brother and his friends had greater interest in what was happening on competing platforms, so it wasn't long before Double Dash became a permanent fixture on my game rack.

The visuals and music were solid but unspectacular. The new tracks, taken as a whole, were so dull that I could only remember three of them. The new items--like the giant eggs, fireballs and chain chomps granted when two related characters were paired--were neat but not game-changing. And I found it highly irritating how they redesigned the Blue Shell to act as a homing missile that would hit only the person in 1st place. The problem was more so when it would hit. Because of the frequency with which it was occurring, I could swear that the Blue Shell had been programmed to strike specifically on the final lap as you were approaching the finish line. There wasn't a Double Dash player who hadn't come to know the feeling of having a gold cup stolen from him or her thanks to a last-second Blue Shell. This has since become a recurring scenario. 

The infamous Blue Shell, which remains the very symbol of misguided game design, continues to infuriate players to this day. Despite their protest, Nintendo refuses to tweak it--rethink its use--because, I guess, someone on the development team thinks that punishing players for doing well is the height of hilarity. No one can be deluded enough to think it has anything to do with "balancing" the game.

"Who really benefits from this?" I was left to wonder. "In what way does this enhance the gameplay? What is the purpose of this other than to leave me feeling angry?"

Why, it was almost as if the Mario Kart team was in the early stages of an experiment whose ultimate goal was to use spitefully designed items as a means to diminish any sense of competition and create randomized outcomes.

Naaaaah--they would never do something like that.

I wish I could find more to say about Double Dash, but honestly I can't recall any standout moments. The only thing I remember well is how James would make my cousins and I laugh with his refusal to accept our explanation for Waluigi's character ("He's a tall, skinny Italian plumber," we surmised). Instead, he would continue to insist that Waluigi was either a "vampire" or "Dracula," and he'd demonstrate this for us during cooperative play by repeatedly triggering Waluigi's leg-raising taunt and shouting "Bluh! Bluh! Bluh! Bluh!" That was my brother.

Double Dash was so forgettable that I couldn't envision a future in which the Mario Kart series would ever again excite me. Frankly, I'd grown bored with it.

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