Wednesday, February 18, 2015

"Hi, I'm Daisy!" — The Annoyances of Mario Kart 8

Like half a million other people, I grabbed Mario Kart 8 the month it launched. Being honest, my hurry was only partly influenced by a need to satisfy my high-octane fury—after all, I have six other Mario Kart games, some of them on more than one console. I only rushed the sale to take advantage of Nintendo's generosity and score New Super Mario Bros. U (a game I was hesitant to purchase at full) and enough points from the Deluxe Digital Promotion to scoop a copy of EarthBound that won't ignore me when I tell it to save. The fact that all three purchases also gave me Club Nintendo points (the free game I would get with which would also roll into my DDP) was just the icing on the cake.

This was early on in my days of owning a Wii U. Up to that point I hadn't purchased a single game other than the two I picked up at the same time as the console. I was still feeling salty about the disappointing Wii iterations of my favorite Nintendo franchises, and Mario Kart was the ringleader of that little circus (though I recently had a blast giving it a second chance). Still, the trailers were looking gorgeous and how could I ignore my one opportunity to play as the wicked Wendy O. Koopa?

That's as good a place as any to serve up the red meat of this post. The character selection for Mario Kart 8 is a real mixed bag. While I'm ridiculously happy to finally see the Koopalings featured in a Mario spin-off, their inclusion makes Bowser Jr.'s absence a much more glaring omission than it needed to be. Any removed characters, for that matter, utterly baffle me. Mario Kart isn't like Super Smash Bros. where each character requires unique physics and collisions; the characters in a kart-racer all use the same programming with the stats tweaked. Even if Toad and Toadette share stats, some people are more drawn to playing as Toadette. There's an almost intimate emotional link between the player and the characters. When you take a character out, particularly in a game like this where they can so easily be included, you risk severing that link. Mario Kart, more than any other franchise, should never, ever remove characters. Particularly not if they're going to be replaced by the primary cast wearing different outfits.

Along the same lines, I can't be the only one who finds it at least a little disturbing that Nintendo insists on designing a new baby princess for every console Mario Kart title while somehow ignoring the baby characters which have actually been in the platforming series these games celebrate. How do Baby Daisy and Baby Rosalina rank over Baby Wario and Baby Donkey Kong, who were actually unique characters in Yoshi's Island DS? How can they possibly rank over Baby Bowser and Baby Yoshi—both characters which have played very significant roles in a myriad of titles? It's very strange to me that "brand new" baby characters are added while existing, important ones are given the shaft.

Some people would argue that baby characters don't deserve a spot at all because they're alternate forms of existing characters, but I disagree. The infant incarnations of Mario and Luigi have developed into unique and recognizable facets of the Mario franchise, even becoming staples of the spin-off titles in the Nintendo 64 and GameCube era. It's their influence that paved the way for Yoshi's Island DS and the inclusion of Baby Peach in Mario Kart Wii. Where I begin to draw a line is with power-up characters—literally the same person with a change of wardrobe. I can appreciate the animations and references given to Tanooki Mario and Cat Peach to make them feel less like their counterparts, but I can't help feeling a little peeved by their existence. It's really bizarre to me that they have their own spots on the select screen while the yoshis and Shy Guys are all lumped into one space. I think the Mii characters prove that having similar characters with varying costumes and stats sharing the same space can work, so why can't Metal Mario, Pink Gold Peach, Tanooki, and Cat be folded in with the standard Mario and Peach? For that matter, why limit the costume selection? Fire Mario and Ice Luigi have already appeared in Mario Kart Arcade GP DX, so why not include them as well? Why not power-up forms for all applicable characters? This would be a great opportunity to bring back Frog Mario and Cat Bowser, incarnations of the characters which will otherwise remain relegated to their debut appearance.

While we're talking about costumes, where on Earth are white, purple, magenta, brown, and gray yoshi? Hell, how about an adult form of the glowing yoshi from New Super Mario Bros. U? The different colored koopas from Super Mario World? How about the toads? So much easily remedied inconsistency—I can't take it!

The most painful thing about Mario Kart Wii, and a point that still pricks me whenever I play, is the item balance. Nintendo seems to have this perspective that balance means to radically reduce the role skill plays in a game. To "balance" the Mario Kart franchise, they decided to rig the item distribution: players up front get a selection of five pathetically wimpy items while players lagging behind have a high chance of scoring something which will absolutely devastate the competition. A skilled player can hold first for an entire race, but end up being the last person to cross the finish line once the competition finally runs out of bullet bills, bob-ombs, lightning bolts, and blue shells.

It goes without saying that this isn't balance. Sure, "leveling the playing field" sounds like balance, but it isn't. While Mario Kart 8 drastically improved this aspect of the game, it still suffers from horrible distribution bias. Truly balancing the game should mean giving all players an equal opportunity to obtain any item and giving players different ways to use those items depending on their situation. For all the shit it gets, Mario Kart: Super Circuit did something really incredible with the red shell item that needs to be revisited. Normally the red shell acts as a homing weapon, relentlessly running down whichever player has the misfortune of being ahead of you. In the GBA installment, the item can be placed behind the player where it will sit in wait for some poor sucker to drive by, at which point it activates like one pissed off road cop and pursues Player Two with an unquenchable thirst for blood. This isn't a death sentence, however, as the shell waits for the racer to pass before chasing after them, leaving it vulnerable to defensive maneuvers that work on any other red shell encounter (like destroying it with a banana peel). Modern games allow the red shell to be launched backwards as well, but doing so removes their homing capabilities and essentially turns them into a festively colored green shell. I understand that. A tracking bomb might be too powerful for an item as common as the red shell.

But it's a perfect way to balance the blue shell. Giving the blue shell this functionality would mean players upfront who happen to acquire it won't end up shooting themselves in the foot (or the front tire, whatever). It means they can take a more active hand in defending their position. The functionality would also give players in last more interesting options, because they can choose to launch the shell to the head of the pack as usual or they can choose to drop it behind and leave it as an ambush. The difference seems trivial until you realize that leaving the shell to ambush the leader as they approach it means they won't have the opportunity to prepare for the attack. Where sending it forward would alert the opposition, allowing it to lie in wait means it can catch them unawares. They might not have a Super Horn to stop it with (although the thing doesn't show up often enough to be nearly as useful as it was intended to be), because they weren't expecting it to be coming. Leave it on the finish line for even more fun.

While the items might need some tweaks and the character selection leaves much to be desired, it's safe to say that Mario Kart 8 is the most successful iteration of the franchise when it comes to absolutely nailing the single core mechanic: driving. The game excels at vehicle control and course design, with enough grip and weight and response-feedback to help the players feel as though they're actually drifting through Moo Moo Meadows. Unfortunately, the same can't be said for Mario Kart's second most significant mode: Battle. Battle Mode has been with the franchise since the very beginning and has always sported its own set of arenas designed to best contain the furious frenzy. In Mario Kart 8, however, the mode has been given much less consideration. While there was plenty of opportunity to improve favorite battle arenas of years past (Block Fort with ramps and gliding? Battle Course 2 with underwater segments? Hell yeah!) the developers decided to toss players into a handful of average race tracks instead. This is interesting in concept, I'll admit, but in execution it just doesn't play out well. The courses are simply too large for the frenetic play Battle Mode is known for and players can go an entire round without ever crossing paths. Kind of defeats the purpose.

At the end of the day, these problems aren't deal breakers for me. I can turn on Mario Kart 8 and have a great time zipping around beautifully reimagined retro stages and a host of incredible modern compositions, but these issues do stop it from ranking very highly with my enthusiasm. When I sit down with friends I want to play Pikmin 3, I want to play Hyrule Warriors (but mostly Pikmin 3), but when somebody suggest Mario Kart 8 all I can say is: "Well... okay."

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