My siblings and I – five of us in total – played an entire, unadulterated shit-ton of Mario Kart 64 in our youth. We knew every track by heart, uncovered many of the shortcuts (even the downright shitty ones, like hopping the fence on Rainbow Road’s opening dive), and got a feel for the best times and places to use each item.
But my familiarity with the game’s systems and flow came to a skidding halt every time the first-place racer managed to grab hold of a Spiny Shell. It defied logic; inasmuch as nature exists in the Mushroom Kingdom, it negated that, too.
See, all Mario Kart games sport a single, simple goal: get in front. It’s a task more easily understood than achieved, and the space between thinking and doing – especially with all manner of silly obstacles in that space – is where deep rhetorical thought can weasel its way in, perhaps unexpectedly, particularly with respect to which racer is holding which items.
The longevity of almost every Mario Kart game comes from each entry’s iteration on that established formula. It’s an admittedly unoriginal one, but it’s been shaken up through the addition of traversal mechanics, alteration of item distribution algorithms, and implementation of systems that seek to reward the best players while giving stragglers the tools to aid a comeback. Each has its peculiarities, perks, and peeves.
While each entry is individually tweaked to distinguish it from the last one, success in Mario Kart ultimately hangs on a power/dependency relationship between players in which the varying randomization of items plays a big role (maybe too big, depending on who you ask, which Mario Kart they’re playing, and how badly they’re losing).
Many modern social power dynamic theories hold true a similar dichotomy: that power is a function of dependence. In theory, one increases as the other decreases. That is, the more power someone has, the less dependent they are on other sources to get power and vice versa – less powerful, more dependent. This is especially true when only two people contend for that power.
In practice, the quantification, form, and flow of “power” in a social system is much more fluid than that, but it’s an easy lens through which to look at many simple power systems.
Systems like – you guessed it – Mario Kart races. Power dynamics in Mario Kart rely on the players, the items, and the courses; the algorithms that determine which racers get which items cast a shifting balance of power over the entire circuit, from proud first-placer to the underdog trailing the pack.
the goal really isn’t the whole game anymore
For example: with Mario Kart 8’s change from the series’ position-based item randomizer to a proximity-based one (where a player’s chance of getting a more useful item is relative to the distance between them and the next kart in front of them), a player in first place might do best to keep the second-placer in their rearview rather than gun for the finish line.
In that case, if a player is lucky enough to take first place, keeping it can mean sacrificing a mile’s lead to dull the hound’s teeth clacking at their heels. Does the leader have power simply because they’re in front? Or does the mob behind them, reaping the benefits of Mario Kart 8’s updated stimulus package algorithms, have the upper hand?
Getting in front is still the goal – but when you think about it, the goal really isn’t the whole game anymore.
Where that example is a macrocosm of these power relationships, specific items bring that struggle to a micro level. Mario Kart 64’s Spiny Shell, as mentioned before, is one of the most compelling instances.
Opening a certain item box in 64 – the one attached to the hot air balloon on the second lap of Luigi’s Raceway – carries a 100 percent chance of receiving a dreaded blue shell, regardless of the recipient’s position on the track. Should the leader of the pack – call them Player One – use the item while in first place, the blue shell will faithfully do what it does best: fuck over the guy in first place.
It’s when Player One holds onto the shell that things get interesting.
See, in this case, Player One is actually depending on Player Two (now in second place) to take first place and reap the blue death that comes with that transitory crown. But say Player Two lets off the gas a little and lets Player One keep their lead for a while. Player One can’t use any other items before getting rid of the Spiny Shell, giving Player Two a slight power advantage but forcing them to sacrifice, or at least delay, their shot at the lead spot.
In Player One’s favor, that blue ball and chain is staving off Player Two, who knows passing means death. But how can Player One definitively keep the lead with a constipated item queue? Furthermore, if Player One holds onto their trump card too long, Player Two might get a Red Shell and shatter the Spiny Shell altogether. Back and forth, each player seems to have another unique advantage over the other.
And then, in true Mario Kart fashion, someone cruises in from the lower ranks, barreling straight through the analytically-tense scene with a blazing-hot Star, stealing first place from the two fools. It’s chaos with an invisible but tangible balance – just like Mario Kart itself.
The same feeling pervades most semi-serious matches of Nintendo’s other “competitive if you make it, fun if you don’t” party game franchise, Super Smash Bros.: The idea that these nuanced systems are exploitable if only one studies them well enough. The famed “Nintendo magic,” a phenomenon ubiquitous with Big N-developed hits, is more than just a feeling of accessibility and innovative design.
What if the tension between player and game, even between player and player, is just ushered by a whole bunch of numbers competing? Then again, what the hell do those numbers mean compared to the fun of holding first place?