Do you think racing around with an overweight plumber and a bunch of turtles never gets old? Join Nick D. as he explains where Mario Kart’s absurd staying power comes from.
Like most Wii U owners with half a brain and a not-entirely empty pocketbook, I picked up Mario Kart 8 last Friday. Like Mario’s most recent 3D outing, Mario Kart 8 received reviews that would make the other consoles green with envy, yet it is a thoroughly familiar experience. Those who have played Mario Kart should know exactly what to expect, and those who hate Mario Kart will find little in the game to change their mind. The same, however, could be said of every Mario Kart released since the first one graced the SNES. But there’s something special in Mario Kart, something that brings gamers back in droves, and keeps reviews smiling for days.
Kart racing itself is certainly part of it. Who came up with that idea? Instead of cars, blinding around corners, we have a bunch of go karts humming down fantastical environments. It seems strange, but there’s a pretty awesome reason why it works so well – Karts don’t have roofs. In game that’s supposed to be showcasing various mascots from the Mario franchise, it would be a shame to have them invisibly locked inside a car, or to simply cut the roofs off various real life vehicles. Imagine back on the SNES: you want to showcase Bowser in all his King Koopa-ly glory, but you only have 16-bits to do so. Karting just makes sense.
The mascot racer component of Mario Kart is also exceedingly important to its popularity. Just like Super Smash Bros., Mario Kart involves a large roster of popular characters to choose from. And the roster matters. Just go to any board dedicated to Mario Kart on the internet and you’ll find fans bemoaning the addition of baby characters in the game over recent staples such as Birdo and Dry Bones. The ability to play a diverse cast of familiar characters works, and Nintendo has been using it for generations in order to marry gamers together with their games. It seems so obvious now, but the first time Mario was tasked with racing around beaches and lava-torn castles with his arch-nemeses Bowser and Donkey Kong Jr. was a special time. The same can be said when Wario stuffed his bloated, coin-riddled body into a kart. Even today, the prospect of being able to play as one of the Koopa Kids – baddies who taunted me as a child through Super Mario Bros. 3 and Super Mario World – is an enticing one.
The joy that goes into the character selection and character choice has always been present in track lists as well. Since kart racing isn’t something dour and stoic like Forza or Gran Turismo, it is free to be as creative and wacky as it wants with its level design. How many racing games have the same track? Whether its through a dusty mountain road, a NASCAR speedway, or through a European city, you’ve probably seen them all. Now how many games allow you to speed through a land made entirely of candy with gingerbread men cheering you from the stands as you round the mountainous cake and slide down the chocolate path? I’m guessing not as many. When Mario Kart introduced underwater portions to its tracks a few games ago, Nintendo continued this trend of being different. With Mario Kart 8’s gravity-defying portions, they’ve separated themselves even further from the pack. When each painstakingly crafted level is not just something to race in, but is actually a joy to behold, you know you’ve done something right. It is this inherent uniqueness that keeps people coming back for more.
The stages, the characters, and the music may catch the eye, but it’s really the gameplay that speaks volumes for why the Mario Kart franchise is at the top of its field and a juggernaut for Nintendo. I’m going to go back to bashing regular racing games for a bit. In standard racing games, you have your ultra realistic physics (or less so for games like Need for Speed), and a general idea of how cars are supposed to move. There’s nothing but skill and track memorization between you and victory. With utter mastery, you leave your less talented friends behind and have no choice but to venture online in the hopes you’ll find someone worth the challenge. Not so in Mario Kart. The infamous blue shell may be hated, but it serves a purpose. Skill still plays a role, but there is just enough luck that every match is different. There is no time where you cannot be destroyed if the wheel of fortune turns just a little out of your favour. To some, this is inexcusable and ruins the fun. To others, this is what keeps the races fun time and time again. Victory is more desperate, yet it’s more rewarding when you wide the smile off of Ludwig von Koopa’s smug face.
But it’s more than simply you can lose because you got unlucky. Mario Kart is full of tense road-to-road combat. Shells fly, and it sucks to get hit by one, but it feels great when your green shell connects with a distant rival, allowing you to secure first place at the last moment. And getting bumped from first place isn’t all that bad. Sure, you got hit by two red shells in a row, but now that you’re in the back of the pack, you’re more likely to get the really fun and overpowered items that might let you reclaim your throne. There really is no losing. It means that everyone playing can always get some form of fun from it, and it rarely ever devolves into pure domination by a single party.
Nintendo has been accused of being behind the times – and they are. But sometimes that’s not necessarily a bad thing. Mario Kart 8 has the online features that the game needs, but it hasn’t eschewed a traditional four player split screen that make Mario Kart a hit at parties and casual get-togethers. Online is great for volume and necessary for today’s climate. There is something special, however, about playing in the same room with friends – plotting revenge for that time someone threw a bob-omb at you, or sneakily spying on their screen to make sure they can’t retaliate when you throw your own shell at them (okay, maybe I’m sociopathic).
What I’m getting at with the last few paragraphs is that Mario Kart has always struck that perfect storm of skillful competition and beginner friendly. A good player may win most of the time, but she is never guaranteed to beat all of her opponents. This means that going toe-to-toe with someone who hasn’t been obsessively playing the game isn’t boring. Trust me, the only thing worse than always losing to a friend is always winning It’s boring and frustrating; you find yourself taking it easy, not playing your best just to give yourself a modicum of challenge. Thus, Mario Kart appeals to everyone. It is the quintessential Nintendo game in this way. Newcomers aren’t lost in the dust, and experts will always have something new to master and play with.
Perhaps I’m overthinking this, but Mario Kart is more than a racing game with Mario’s face stamped on it to sell copies. There’s something special in the milieu, and that keeps us coming back.