The cold unthinking politics of Mario Kart’s weapons

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By Neil Merrett

If we are to consider games as an art form, then that means also accepting a diverse array of views on their commercial, philosophical and, somewhat more perilously, political subtexts.

With the BBC now broadcasting coverage of tournaments for a select number of videogames such as Rocket League, it is clear that there are an increasing number of reasons to pick up a controller. These range from improving one’s social status and even earning a living, to simple, mindless escapism.

The expanding value of gaming as a medium to entire generations of people can give even the most seemingly innocent of narrative and programming decisions much deeper ramifications for a certain subsection of society.

As such, even the Super Mario Kart series, with its immensely playable approach to weaponised racing, is not immune to competing theories about its politics.

Whether dropping banana skins or firing off red homing shells, the game’s weapons have served as a frustrating, if harmless means of overtaking or sabotaging the progress of a fellow player or computer rival for the last 25 years.

In an interview with Eurogamer this week, Kosuke Yabuki, the director of Mario Kart 7 and 8, stood in to defend the inclusion of the infamous blue shell weapon. The so-called leader bomb will seek and hunt down whoever is in first place and stop them dead in their tracks for an agonising number of seconds via a huge blue explosion.

Defined by players and developers as a form of “rubber banding”, the blue shell seeks to balance the competitiveness of the experience between more experienced gamers and newcomers, by singling out race leaders to try and prevent them holding an uncontested lead.

In the years since the blue shell’s invention in the Mario Kart series, the infamy of the weapon has seen the development of a number of nicknames such as “blue justice” or “the great equaliser”. Perhaps it is just better known as a massive pain in the ass.

Nonetheless the concept is clear, even players with a seemingly unassailable lead are vulnerable in Mario Kart, no matter their skills. Even complete and utter talent is not immune to cold, emotionless fate.

A gamer’s perspective on the weapon is likely to vary. Some may see it as a vital means to ensure races cannot be dominated by any one individual, while others may view it as an unfair punishment that disproportionately sets back a skilled player and undermines their long-cultivated skills as a bedroom racer.

Is it a necessary means of ensuring a more long-term collective enjoyment of the Mario Kart series in an age of online competitions and casual gaming with family, or an attempt to penalise the seemingly gifted or successful for getting ahead?

Only sometimes is victory in Mario Kart dictated on pure, raw skill and blazing speed around corners alone. Sometimes victory comes from vengeance, pettiness, or collaboration.

It is here that Mario Kart 8 director Kosuke Yabuki stepped in to explain his belief in continuing to include the 1st place hunting blue shell in the Mario Kart series of games as an important reflection of the inherent chaos that serves to undermine natural order.

“Something I personally really consider is the human emotion element of the play experience,” he told Martin Robinson in an interview with Eurogamer. “So for example playing Mario Kart – if you have something that feels unfair or makes you feel frustrated or makes you angry… Everyone is different in that respect. What you will feel is unfair might be different to someone else. As far as possible we want to avoid those feelings of frustration.”

Take another example of a weapon in the game – the bullet bill. This not always reliable ‘shit bullet’ – as some on the mean suburban street racing Mario Kart scene know it – is often given to a player falling way behind the leading pack as a means to catch up after a bad performance.

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For a brief period, the player does not have to steer their way around a troublesome part of track, relying instead on the computer to steer and damage any other racers in the way. Its purpose is to provide a leg up and assistance for those behind, at least until the player is thrown back into the harsh reality of re-assuming responsibility for their own control, sometimes on the edge of a perilous cliff top.

Gamers will undoubtedly never agree on what makes the perfect Mario Kart title or experience.

But by the nature of the game, weapons in Mario Kart are a safety net for when we fall and stumble off a chosen path, a faint, dwindling hope that you might get back to where you once were and perhaps can once again move ahead with a mixture of skill, guile and luck.

They are a controversial, problematic and essential means to try and better navigate an imperfect system.

They are maddening and unfair, and a universal part of the appeal of the game.

Some people will go through the rigours of life considering themselves largely unpolitical with regard to who governs their lives and the type of system they may want to exist in.

Yet in the decisions and inclusions of the games that they love, players may increasingly have to consider the realities and implications of welfare reform and numerous other complex considerations that are literally wrapped up in a turtleshell.

Gaming will be all the better for it.

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