Tuesday, April 29, 2008

The Untimely Death of Mario Kart

Update: I have started a thread on the Mario Kart Wii forum about this. Some interesting discussion has started up, most people seem to support the change. I suspect people will be talking about it a lot in MK circles.

It's time to take a break from ukuleles and talk about something much more serious and dark.

The world changed on 4/28 (the release date of Mario Kart Wii), but it's taken me two slow days of denial and vain hope to realize it. I didn't want to believe it was true, but it is. It's been documented in Wikipedia, and I quote:

The ability to "snake" in previous Mario Kart games, which creates speed boosts by repeatedly drifting, has been abandoned in favor of a new speed boost system based on how long the player actually drifts and the angle at which they drift.

The ability to snake "has been abandoned".

The unique controls of Mario Kart have been abandoned. The "ability to snake", as if it's just some wacky trick move, was taken out.

No, "the ability to snake" was the ability to have complete control over your turns and to get speed boosts as a reward. When you watch a good player play any version of Mario Karts past, they "snake" through the game. The world champions of Mario Kart are good because they know how to turn. They know how Mario Kart works, how it has always worked. Speed turns, drifting, snaking, whatever you call it, is what makes Mario Kart different than EVERY OTHER RACING GAME EVER.

It's not the items, it's not the characters, it's not the levels. It's the game control. It's the reason Diddy Kong racing never went anywhere. Similar characters, similar levels, similar items. Boring, unresponsive standard racing controls. It's the reason Crash Bandicoot's wacky Kart madness emporium fandango driving game with every bell and whistle in the world disappeared without anyone caring. Nobody wants to race with "press the fast button and move left and right" controls. It's been done. Over and over and over again.

Nintendo was on to something big, and apparently they had no idea. I always respect them for taking the extra time to make their major releases perfect. They make us wait the extra year because they want every Smash Bros. character to be balanced. They want 5 years to get Link's story to be complete. They delayed Mario Kart and any major release whenever they had to to make it perfect, and that was fine with me. But somewhere long the way they forgot how it rose from anonymity in the first place.

What makes (made) Mario Kart different is the controls. No other game has controls anything like Mario Kart.

The ability to drift to get speed boosts is what separated the good from the great, and the ability to snake expertly separated the great from the godlike. They could look at a turn and see the perfect angles, the perfect line of attack, and drive up a ridiculous number of speed boosts along the way.

By abandoning snaking, Nintendo is abandoning those hardcore Mario Karters. The "game of Mariokart" as it's been played for the last 15 years, has become half of what it was.

Now, some Mariokart fans won't care. There are a substantial number of people who are huge fans of Mariokart, but don't care too much for the details of the driving and turning portion of the game, or never got comfortable with "snaking".

They are the ones who've never beat all (or any) of the ghosts in time trials. They play with a heavy reliance on items and item strategy. Most people I know play like this.

But they were just scratching the surface of what Mariokart had to offer. If they were half as good at drifting and doing speed turns as I am, I would never have won a game. They excel at using their items and knowing the course, but they never took their driving to the next level. Every karter can be divided into where they lie on a graph of their skills in different areas: Driving and Items.

There will never be another race like this. Or this. Or these. Snaking is how Mariokart is played at a high level. It is the skill portion of the driving. There are other skills in the game, but it was the ability to snake that made driving in Mario Kart unique and amazing.

I should have seen this coming, but I never imagined they would go so far. Double Dash represented a strong shift away from snaking by increasing the power of the items and giving stronger items to people in higher places. It was the first move towards reducing the advantage of snaking.

An expert driver on MK64 might never lose a game to someone who couldn't snake, no matter what items they got. For example-- if I knew someone didn't turn with the speed boosts, I knew I could beat them by 15, 20 seconds at least and there wasn't going to be a competitive game. The game creators noticed the imbalance and took major steps to correct it. Double Dash had smaller speed boosts, more powerful items, and the programming gave better items to people only a few spots behind. On the 64, you were getting mostly bananas and shells until you were past 5th, on the Gamecube you could get a star as high up as 3rd place.

Double Dash was a near perfect balance of driving skill and items strategy. They even had a two-player mode to separate the two components, to let one person drive and one person shoot. It was a fully aware, carefully balanced game.

But it still wasn't enough for them. They had to take out the snaking. They had to dumb down the controls, to get rid of the hard part so "wii" can all play. Their all-inclusive gaming philosophy on the new system outweighed their sense of tradition or their series continuity.

It used to be simple to learn, difficult to master. Now they are moving away even from difficult to master. They need to accommodate their new players and their new technology. Snaking would be basically impossible on the new wii-mote wheel. It's not precise enough, not sensitive enough to handle the quick joystick maneuvering it would take.

This is what's so distressing about this move. It's a permanent, consistent part of Nintendo's new philosophy. They want to make games for everyone, and they will eliminate any part of a game that's too difficult because of the potential to alienate new and part-time gamers. Great for new gamers-- but us old-timers, and the record-holders, and the tournament players, and the devoted fans who've grown up with Mario Kart and mastered it's amazingly precise controls are left to play a dumbed-down, simplified version of the game we love.

The worst part is that the new game has everything hardcore karters could have ever wanted. The new tracks are amazing, the bikes cut corners better than any kart could, and there are legacy tracks from every previous game. Finally, we can play internationally and get a rating like in chess.

It's torturous to make it so good without giving us all the necessary tools. It's not just that the turning is different, it's that it's worse and slower. We're forced to see everything in the game through a frustrating haze of poor, wide turns and painfully slow snake-free straightaways.

I look ahead while I'm driving in this game and I can see exactly how I want to slide to cut the shortest path, to get the most speed, to skirt the edge. After fifteen years, I can see the best route every time. But the route I see doesn't exist anymore.

Nintendo abandoned it.

This may not prove to be a mistake on Nintendo's part. The game controls are simplified, the world is expanded, there are more items, and it is finally online. Those few among us who still appreciate games with high ceilings are probably outnumbered a million to one by casual gamers who hate to lose to jerks who are too good at complicated maneuvers.

It is the end of an era, maybe not so much for Nintendo as for me.

Disclaimer: I'm still going to play the game for fun, I just won't be any better at it than, say, Need for Speed 4 or Diddy Kong racing or whatever. Luckily it's not all about winning. Oh, and the next post will be about ukuleles again.


Mundane Turbulence said...

But...can't this new drift-boost be utilized in a similar fashion?

Anonymous said...

oh my goodness. this post. mind blown.
this reminds me of when at UMass, these folks set up mushroom kingdom, with question boxes all over campus, and a guy dressed as Mario. too bad you missed it.

Paz said...

haha, i can't believe i missed that! I love large scale re-enactments.

they left in speed boosts, but changed the way they worked. it's just enough to look like the same system, but the whole theory of making turns has been overhauled and simplified.

for most people, probably for the better...

Aaron said...

They should've made the trigger button the "skid" button. I'm not holding the wheel in my hands right now, but I imagine the trigger is pretty easy to reach with your left index or middle finger. They could've just designated the trigger as the new "left bumper", and let you use it for skidding in both directions.