You make a brew, it’s there. You take a dump, it’s there. You sit in the corner of a totally-hipster coffee shop with your one-pound bevy hoping everyone notices just how supremely cool you are for playing Switch, it’s there.
You are Ahab – and this ‘it’ is your explosive, gravity-defying whale, the monster that took the last leg of your last race.
It’s haunting, it’s horrifying and it’s absolutely infuriating.
But it also represents the best thing about Mario Kart.
Those lovely flashing boxes. Those goddamn blue-shell-carrying beauties.
The iconic victory-killer embodies the core essence of Mario Kart, a series in which both loser and winner – in that order specifically – can interact despite being miles and many-a-racer apart.
Here, items transcend time and space. They let your measly, kart-driving, likely-to-be-underachieving-in-school self occupy virtually anywhere on the track at virtually any time. Last place can interact with first place, second with eleventh, third with tenth and fourth with ninth. Mario Kart is almost horizontal in nature – we’re all a pick-up away from finding the front of the pack. Out in front or down and out in back, you’re never out of the race.
Items are the great equaliser. They avoid relegation of the weakest players to the Last Place of Eternal Doom, giving flailing fledglings a route to redemption. That chance – even if not fully realised by the player – is enough to keep a twelfth-place race seat-of-your-pants exhilarating. Traditional racing condemns the weakest to the scrap heap of a lonely, solitary slog in a river of soulless shiny-grey tarmac.
But this doesn’t mitigate skill. The elite of any group are inclined to drive at their very best as they can’t rely on the freedom of a substantive lead – as freedom doesn’t always survive the contents of Mario Kart’s toy box.
Play with friends or play online and the same set of players typically take the top spots, if not always in the same order. Winning means little without the occasional loss to define it, with the ever-shifting top three likely evidence of randomness doing its work and avoiding rote, predictable outcomes time and time again.
But Mario Kart’s ‘socialism’ comes at a cost: the inescapable sensation of shit-out-of-luck randomness – the feeling that Lady Luck doesn’t like the cut of your jib. Randomness, of course, is a key component in game design. Here, though, randomness sits on Mario Kart’s bonnet for all its neighbours to see.
The downside is that you’ll inevitably lose in the final seconds of a twelve-kart fight, occasionally slamming into a situation where all the skill and efficiency in Koopa Kingdom can’t keep you in top spot.
All this randomness invites a very particular, very peculiar kind of paranoia – the feeling that you’re in a perpetual state of about-to-be-screwedness. You’re waiting for that ghost, that craftily-placed ‘nana skin, that relentless red shell. It’s a tension unique to Mario Kart, one that can only serve to bring out the best in you. Mario Kart’s ability to yank you back a position or five keeps you at the top of your game, inclining you to nail every boost jump and turbo every corner. Efficiency is mostly the mitigator of chance. Mostly.
But for a game about keeping up with the competition, Mario Kart’s online functionality leaves a lot to be desired. Specifically, it leaves me with a list of things I simply can’t do: I can’t form a party for matchmaking – despite being able to join ranked matches via friends – and I can’t open a lobby without enacting schedules and time limits.
Things I’ve done in video games for well over 10 years.
Still, in a genre filled with self-important trailers backed by music that’d make a perfume ad cringe, Switch’s iteration of Mario Kart manages to be a three-year-old breath of fresh air based on a 20-year-old formula – an oxymoron that exists in part because the genre seems so reluctant to go off the beaten path and in part because it’s simply so goddamn good.
Indeed, Mario Kart 8 Deluxe is a kart racer worth shelling out for because of its wild spontaneity, not in spite of it.
And to end this post on the theme of ah-en-gee, read about Mexican singer Luis Migel.