Thursday, February 2, 2017

The Mario Kart Series - Scripting a Better Race (Part 2)
How a company's increasingly inhibitive tendencies corrupted the definition of "fun" and the means by which I could extract it.

Remember what I said earlier about the GameCube's uninspiring vibes possibly playing the biggest role in the fomenting of my disinterest with the series? Well, Mario Kart DS is the reason why I believe that to be the case.

In contrast to how I felt about Double Dash, I had great anticipation for Mario Kart DS. And it was all due to Nintendo's recently released portable system--the Nintendo DS, which was quickly becoming one of my favorite platforms of all time. Its powers were such that it could make me feel excitement for games and series I'd long since written off. Its wonderfully intriguing dual-screen presentation invited me to imagine new possibilities for games like Mario Kart, which had stagnated on the iterative hardware that Nintendo felt compelled to deliver on schedule. The company's thinking outside the box is what gave new life to its aging franchises and sparked a revolution.

Mario Kart 64 arrived at the perfect moment in the DS' lifespan, when its popularity was booming and it was on the cusp of becoming a cultural phenomenon thanks to the industry-shaking success of titles like Brain AgeAnimal Crossing: Wild WorldTrauma Center: Under the Knife and Phoenix Wright: Ace Attorney. It solidified the DS' standing as the portable that held great appeal to players both old and new. It helped to define what the system was and where it was going.

This time I was there day one (or, well, as close to day one as an order could get me). I didn't care that the game's action was said to be derivative or even slightly regressive. No--that's not what Mario Kart DS was about. Rather, it arrived with the promise of allowing players from around the world to compete with each other online! This was something I'd been waiting to do since the end of the N64 era, a period in which I was lacking for friends who were willing to engage in Mario Kart multiplayer! I already had my Nintendo-branded Wi-Fi USB connector plugged in and ready to go!

For tradition's sake, I took some time to conquer all of the cups, set some records in Time Trial, and generally explore the courses. I was happy with the new track selection, yes, but I was absolutely ecstatic about the inclusion of retro courses like Moo Moo Farm, Frappe Snowland, Choco Mountain and Mario Circuit 1 (SNES); revisiting them a decade later--knowing from my thorough inspections that they were almost perfectly replicated--felt surreal. So too did seeing the 16-bit tracks reimagined in true 3D! Here they were--the classics--still as relevant as ever. Still just as fun to race through and explore. It was a genius move to include them, I thought, and I was hoping that this was the start of a trend.

Playing Mario Kart with a d-pad and those inconveniently positioned shoulder buttons was far from ideal--the setup requiring awkward, often uncomfortable, hand and thumb movements--but I adapted pretty well. I was willing to accept compromises if a game's content was compelling enough.

And now I was ready. It was time to mix it up with the world's best.

My skills hadn't declined. Ever the master, I won race after race. Day after day I'd dominate the competition. All told, my winning percentage totaled somewhere around 95%. 

I couldn't get enough; the day had come when I was once again hopelessly addicted to Mario Kart. It was just too bad, then, that I was going to have to take an extended break from the game. Because you see: Thanksgiving was only a few days away, and I'd planned a weeks-long trip to visit my relatives around the Tri-State Area. I'd never take my electronics with me when I traveled, so my taking on the world in Mario Kart would have to wait.

When I arrived home, I was raring to go. I activated the game's online mode, chose my racer (usually Wario or Luigi), and pumped myself up for the first race. And I hadn't lost a step, man. I was cutting every corner as closely as possible! I was nailing every power-slide! I was expertly dodging items left and right! I was on fire! I was ... half a goddamned lap behind everyone. I finished in 4th place by about a mile. Every race in following played out the exact same way.

"What the hell is going on here?" I shouted out in frustration, the events of the past half hour having left me utterly baffled. "How are these guys getting so far ahead of me? Have they all discovered shortcuts that I don't know about? Did I somehow wind up in a room with super-experts?"

Things started to make sense when I decided to forgo racing and actually observe what they were doing. Here's what I noticed: As soon as the race would start, all three opponents would begin wildly swerving back and forth from one side of the track to the other. And at no time during the race would this activity cease. It was then that I knew exactly what was going on: These silly schmucks had discovered a way to power-slide along straightaways, thereby turning a situational skill into a readily exploitable "technique."

I'd come to learn from reading message boards that this technique had been termed "snaking." What happened is that some guy figured out that you could trigger a turbo boost earlier than intended by rapidly pressing back and forth on the d-pad as you were sliding. If done correctly, a player could essentially turbo boost his or her way through an entire race. Also, it was said that just about everyone who played the game competitively had begun to use it liberally and had likely already mastered it. And all of this occurred in that two-week period in which I was away from the game.

From then on, that was my Mario Kart DS experience: the race would start, everyone would continue to obnoxiously swerve back and forth, I would lose by a country mile. Snaking would come to plague the online scene, and inevitably I arrived at a point where I was forced to make a choice: "Do I want to continue to play the game as intended and compete well only when I happen to be matched up against people who aren't snakers, or do I want to learn this tiring, thumb-killing technique and hope to find some kind of enjoyment in doing it?"

It was an easy decision. It took me no more than a few seconds to conclude that I had no desire to want to spend hours learning how to execute a rather-involved "technique" that turned the art of racing into a chore. So after I finished recording, oh, my 200th-straight last-place finish, I switched off the system, removed the Mario Kart DS game card, and never looked back.

Now, I don't care to start a debate about whether or not snaking is cheating. Frankly, I don't care one way or the other. Instead, I put the blame squarely on Nintendo for not properly testing its game and not doing anything to fix the problem. It was the company's unpreparedness, and not, that drove me away from Mario Kart DS.

It was a bitter parting. And needless to say, I wasn't very happy with the state of Mario Kart.

The time was ripe for the series' return to consoles: Nintendo was at the height of its resurgence. The Wii, much like the DS, had become a legitimate cultural phenomenon. The company was attacking game development with renewed vigor. Everything was lining up to create a climate in which a Mario Kart game could rock the world and establish a new standard for fun.

I couldn't help but feel excitement for Mario Kart Wii. Everything I'd read about the game in Nintendo Power--from its 12-player online races to its intriguing selection of retro courses--convinced me that it was must-own. However, I remained somewhat skeptical; rightfully so, my enthusiasm was tempered by the fear that competitive players would work to discover an exploit whose proliferation might potentially lead to the ruination the entire online experience.

So I planned to wait a few months--see how things were turning out--before deciding whether or not to take the plunge. As my birthday was quickly approaching, it seemed like a good idea to put it down on my list; this way, I could eliminate any financial risk and avoid feeling like a sucker if the game turned out to be a dud. At the least, I felt safe in knowing that no snaking-style exploits had been found. There didn't seem to be any reason for me to worry. "What could go wrong?" I asked myself, my tone optimistic.

Well, where to begin?

I'll start by saying that I managed to squeeze a lot of enjoyment out of Mario Kart Wii over a five-year period. I poured countless hours into its online modes. I spent more time with Mario Kart Wii than I did any previous entry--by a huge margin. But ours was a love-hate relationship. I spent as much time being entertained by Mario Kart Wii as I did being actively infuriated with it.

"Why's that?" you ask, feigning ignorance.

Oh, you know all too well. Nintendo, in its continued push to convert casual players into loyal customers, decided that it was best served to turn Mario Kart's racing action into a virtual lottery, as if to infer that non-gamers were fragile, insecure little flowers who could only be made happy if they were handed a victory trophy just for showing up. Now, maybe people who fit that description are indeed prevalent in society, but why automatically assume that the majority of prospective customers is averse to self-improvement and the allure of reward systems?

But that's what Nintendo did. And it looked to achieve its goal of creating a false sense of parity by ratcheting up the item-rate to extreme levels--by doling out insane amounts of overpowered attack items. I wasn't like it used to be when occasionally I'd be the victim of an item barrage; here I was being mercilessly bombarded at all times, my poor racer seemingly stuck in an endless hellstorm. For the amount of horror being inflicted upon its players, you could easily confuse Mario Kart Wii for a war game in which everyone was doomed to be a casualty. Mario Kart Wii deservedly became infamous for its patented item-chains, which saw players (and usually in this order) shelled, blown up, flattened, shrunk, starred, and ultimately knocked off the course. And this would happen somewhere between 8-10 times per race. Don't even get me started with the hackers whose only objective, it seemed, was to relentlessly firebomb the entire course. I guess that was worth 100 or so of their 99,000 VR points.

This is the first racing game I'd ever played where spending half a race at a dead stop was the norm. Whose idea of fun is that?

The result was that race outcomes were largely randomized, with only supreme masters able to win at a decent clip. Everyone else was stuck in the middle, forever doomed to share in each other's pain and suffering. Nintendo's goal was to create an environment in which everyone could have a good time, yes, but it was just as likely that everyone would come out feeling miserable. Tearing down competitive-minded gamers and veteran enthusiasts in order to create a level playing field, it turns out, is not conducive for creating a "fun experience." Not for any of us.

If I was to have any hope of competing with the Mario Kart Wii masters--of avoiding the item insanity, as they were apt to do--I'd have to replicate their playing style. That meant using a bike. I didn't want to do that. I despised bikes; I was deeply annoyed that their innate advantages rendered karts inferior. I wanted to drive a kart, man! This was "Mario 'Kart,'" after all. I wanted to race against all of the those wonderful Mario-universe characters in their distinctly customized karts--not eleven Rosalinas on bikes. Hell--a single Rosalina was one too many. So I had to choose the second-best option, which was Funky Kong in a Flame Flyer. Even then it was a struggle.

Eventually it got to a point where I could no longer take the abuse. For the sake of maintaining what was left of my sanity, I had to end our relationship.

"So what was it that kept you coming back to Mario Kart Wii for all those years?" you ask. Well, dear reader, I'm not sure. It might have been that I was obsessed with the idea of getting into that elusive 9,500-VR bracket. Maybe my options were otherwise limited. Or perhaps I'd simply developed a taste for masochism. Anything's possible. Though, upon serious reflection, a more plausible explanation surfaces: I continued to play Mario Kart Wii because I had hope that what I'd seen was an anomaly--that inevitably emerging from the chaos would be the equal parts fun and competitive Mario Kart experience I was so desperately seeking. But it never did. The great Mario Kart game held captive within could never break free from the shackles of Nintendo's increasingly suppressive control systems.

And if what I was seeing here was indicative of the series' future, then I had no reason to believe that Mario Kart and I had a future together.

"You need a girlfriend."

Shut up.

Without my requesting it, my brother bought me Mario Kart 7 as a Christmas gift in 2011. I gave up on it after about a week, so there isn't much I can say. But don't take that as an indictment of the game's quality; there was nothing particularly offensive about it. The problem was that my experience was hampered by the 3DS' overly flat ergonomics, which were such that I could barely hold onto the system as I played. The required pincer grip made it difficult for me to keep my thumb centered on the circle pad; half the time, I couldn't stop it from slipping completely off. I made an honest effort to adapt, but the compromises entailed led only to discomfort and poor racing. It simply wasn't worth the hassle.

From what I saw of the game, it appeared to share Mario Kart Wii's values in terms of how it handled item-distribution, so maybe it was best for my mental health that things didn't work out.

It would be fair to say that I had just about zero interest in owning Mario Kart 8. Yeah, sure--I was impressed with its E3 debut trailer. I thought it looked spectacular in motion. It was clear from watching the video that Nintendo was finally raising its game in terms of visuals and course design. "But so what?" I thought to myself. "I'm not falling for it this time." I was certain that all of those fancy shuttle loops and shiny textures were nothing more than an enticingly applied ice cream coating layered over that same ol' sloppy mud pie.

Buying it was out of the question. I didn't care that it was coming out at a time when the Wii UI was starving for software. I was done; I'd had my brains beaten in enough for one lifetime, thank you very much.

But some things never change. 

There he stood on August 18th, my birthday, with a gift that was shaped suspiciously like a Wii U game I didn't ask for. As I'd correctly guessed in the moments prior, James had bought me Mario Kart 8, since he was out of ideas and figured that a Nintendo game was always a safe choice. My apathy was palpable. I couldn't have been less enthusiastic about the game I was holding in my hands. Oh, I was going to play it--honor his generosity--just not immediately. I did, after all, have plenty of recently purchased 3DS titles that I needed to finish. It wasn't until maybe a month later when I finally got around to Mario Kart 8.

My early experiences with the game told me that I might have been too quick to judge. To my surprise, it genuinely appeared as though Mario Kart 8 had come packed with all of the ingredients necessary to break the mold: It looked beautiful. It controlled great. The soundtrack was fantastic. And its bending, winding and twisting courses conveyed a wonderfully breathtaking sense of depth that made past games' track-sets feel comparatively flat and lifeless. There were too many Koopa kids for my liking, sure, but whatever--I wasn't going to stress too much over Nintendo's roster choices. There was no time for that! No--I was eager to hurry up and finish unlocking all of the special cups and hidden racers so I could head online and renew my passion for competitive Mario Kart!

However, to my great disappointment, it soon became apparent that Nintendo's empty philosophy was still in full effect. I was led to believe that the crazily unbalanced item system had been remedied, yet here I was feeling as though things had somehow gotten worse. It wasn't that the frequency of the item-barrages had increased; in truth, they were occurring at a similar rate. The problem was that they were now rendered more crippling due to the misguidedly tweaked item-distribution system made it tremendously difficult to catch up to the racers who had passed you by during the prolonged assault. It was near-impossible to gain ground and break free from the middle of the pack when every racer in positions 4-9 was constantly being supplied speed items (Triple Mushrooms, Gold Mushrooms, etc.). And if you were to fall into 10th place or below, forget it; all of the Lightning strikes and Bullet Bills in the world weren't going to help you part company with the poor saps who had already resigned themselves to bringing up the rear. It was either storm into the lead immediately upon a race's start or spend the entire race trying to keep pace with those similarly positioned.

The speed-boosting coins were useless, since you were soon to lose them. The removal of the stored-item mechanic limited your means of defending yourself. Red Shells were ubiquitous to the point of absurdity. And there was so much trash flying around the course at all times that getting blindsided every ten seconds was the norm. Again Nintendo had created a racing game in which I was spending half the race at a dead stop. "How is this 'fun'?" I'd continue to ask myself. "Why put so much effort into refining the actual racing mechanics if they're intended to play less of a role than ever before?"

After playing it for a few weeks, I came to realize what Mario Kart 8 was: It was the game that modern Nintendo had longed to make. It was the culmination of ten year's worth of misguided, regressive design choices. At long last, Nintendo had finally succeeded in its goal to create a Mario Kart game in which no player was allowed to be better than any other.

Bravo, Nintendo! You did it!

Yet I continued to hold out hope that things would get better. Eventually, I figured, Nintendo would thoughtfully tweak the game--come to its senses and rethink its approach to item-distribution--and then Mario Kart 8 would rise to a level of greatness. That hope was extinguished when the last of the "balancing" patches had been applied and nothing seemed to have changed. My time with Mario Kart 8 came to an abrupt end after a rather brutal hours-long session during which endless item-barrages rendered me unable to finish any better than 7th place. The final straw was a race on Tick-Tock Clock wherein I got three Bob-ombs thrown in my face as we were approaching the finish line--all three hitting within an 8-second span. I was so pissed that I switched the console off before the race had even finished. I didn't give a damn that I'd be docked points for doing so.

I gave Mario Kart 8 another shot a few months later after foolishly wasting money on its two DLC packs (I had an abundance of cash on my Nintendo Account, and frankly there wasn't much else to spend it on), and it only took about, oh, two races before I remembered why I previously swore it off (more like "ran screaming").

I haven't touched it since, and I have no plans to return to it in the future. In fact, the entire process has left me so exhausted that I wouldn't care if Nintendo chose to never again release a new entry.

I should mention that I played Mario Kart: Super Circuit when Nintendo made it available as part of the 3DS Ambassador Program. I found it to be entirely mediocre--a pale imitation of the SNES original. I would prefer that Nintendo bring the Namco-developed arcade Mario Karts to its Virtual Console service. I understand that they're not highly regarded, but I would buy them just for the novelty of being able to play as Pac-Man and company. And because I really love arcade games.

So that's the story: The Mario Kart series had the potential to produce games that were equal parts fun and rewarding, as its famed progenitor so excellently demonstrated, but instead it chose to dictate to us that one was far more important than the other while providing no proof that its math was sound. Future entries will arrive with the promise of being "balanced," but it's clear that the real problem--Nintendo's frustratingly ill-conceived philosophy--will never be addressed. And there's no reason why Nintendo would address it. Regardless of the repeated criticisms thrown its way, its Mario Kart games will continue to sell 5-million-plus copies no matter how deeply the company embraces the fake inclusiveness of controlled spaces over compelling game design.

Each new entry will be plagued by the same issues: Item overload, randomized outcomes, Blue Shells at the finish line, and not enough organically derived fun to compensate for the fact that Nintendo would rather the player have as little control as possible lest some imagined customer type might have a bad experience.

But hey--maybe I'm taking this too seriously. Maybe Mario Kart was only meant to be a silly diversion. Maybe Nintendo's is the correct course of action and I'm just spewing nonsense.

Really, I don't think that I am. I still believe that Mario Kart has the potential to be an irresistible combination of great racing and wacky fun. The truth is that I really do hope to see a future in which I can again anticipate the release of a Mario Kart game. I want to see a return to the days when I didn't feel as though I was a complete idiot who was willingly subjecting myself to a Mario Kart game that was created specifically to piss me off. I'd love for today's younger players to get a taste of the Mario Kart my friends and I once knew--the one that didn't treat you like a fragile flower with self-esteem issues. The one in which your being blown up and knocked off a mountain was a memorably hilarious event because it wasn't happening every 10 seconds. The one in which you could have a blast without victory being handed to you. It's the one I know they'd love even more if they ever saw it.

And if it works out that I never again feel inclined to purchase a Mario Kart game, I won't be too heartbroken. After all--my disapproving of what the series has become can do nothing to erase all of the treasured memories its earliest entries provided me. That is, I'll continue to fondly recall the many ways in which Mario Kart brought joy to my life. How its patented brand of wacky racing action inspired great laughs, memorable moments, and a whole lot of fun with old friends.

And there wasn't anything scripted about that.

No comments:

Post a Comment