Mario Kart 8 is best described as one huge discrepancy. I know what the game’s appeal is supposed to be (or at least I can guess based on its marketing, its brand, the fan discourse surrounding it, etc.), but I don’t see any of that reflected in the game itself. What I see is a soulless shell of a game; something ready to lop off even the slightest hint of personality that it might better fit the mold of a theoretically perfect game. Moreover, it asks something very similar from its players, telling them that they can find the perfection they seek by abandoning themselves to the digital experience. The fact that Mario Kart 8 was able to pass as an obviously good game for a lot of people says more about the culture that video games have created than it says about this specific game’s merits and faults.
I feel it best to begin not with the game itself, but with the history that precedes it, IE the history of kart racing games and the larger world of racing/driving games. It’s a history that stretches back almost to the beginning of video games, which makes sense if you think about it. All you need to create a racing game are two cars on the screen (one for each player), a goal for them to move toward, and basic surroundings to communicate movement. But beginning with Pole Position in 1982, developers realized they could simplify this blueprint even further by cutting down to one player and focusing on the act of driving itself.
This is a more significant development than it may sound. Racing games (now driving games) were no longer just competitive experiences one played to fill up their free time. They became aesthetic statements; objects that uncovered some fact about the player’s relationship with the world. Mach Rider forces the player to navigate a Darwinian hellscape. Here, driving is a desperate struggle for survival without an ounce of dignity behind it. Rad Racer, meanwhile, is paradoxically intense and relaxing at the same time. It gives players an experience where they can forget the world even as it pushes in on them. And OutRun, perhaps the most focused and most enduring game of these three, sees driving as a liberating force one pursues as an end in itself.
Kart racers carried the torch even further by exploring possibilities that driving games never touched on. That may surprise some of you, but historically speaking, the genre is much more diverse than people are willing to give it credit for. Sonic R foreshadows the abstract world design of the Adventure games by applying that logic to its own race track layouts. Mega Man: Battle & Chase sees the genre as an opportunity to translate Wacky Races style zaniness into video game form. Gekitotsu Toma L’arc upends our ideas about good design practices by exploring the possibility that maliciously unfair play can be fun too.
While I feel obligated to mention that the Mario Kart series was part of that history, too, it’s hard to say what role it occupies in that history. Because it was setting trends for other games to follow, the only identity it has for itself is the genre it chooses to inhabit. In addition, anything it tried to create for itself was often done better by its own competition: Mega Man’s zaniness, Gekitotsu’s unfair play, etc. Whatever the case, all this creativity barely left kart racing’s early days. As the genre faded into obscurity and expectations of what these games could/should be solidified, kart racers collapsed into a single model and never bothered to explore anything outside it. (Blur might be an exception, but as far as I know, nobody’s followed up on what that game explored.)
First released in 2014 (and re-released this year), Mario Kart 8 ignores the history it pretends to invoke. In some ways, it’s obligated to ignore that history. How can it do anything else when it rejects the necessary terms for engaging with that history? It’s a very safe game; one so unwilling to violate the player’s expectations of what it should be that it irons out even the smallest hint of self expression. Instead of developing a visual style that tries to say anything about the world, the game opts for a generic cute, soft look that touches on pure nothingness. Likewise, the vehicles serve to divorce the player from the world so that smoothly proceeding through it becomes an option. Slick tires on sandy surfaces, heavy tires on soft surfaces, wooden tires on anything; none of these scenarios presents even the least bit of resistance.
Beyond being frustrating, the sad irony of all this is that in its desperate attempt to appeal to everyone, Mario Kart 8 isn’t built to appeal to anyone. Even at its (supposedly) most exciting, the action is a dull procession from start to finish. At no point during the race will anything surprise you or disrupt the order of things. Drift around that curve; hit that boost pad; avoid that banana peel; follow the clearly marked shortcut; feather your brakes (if you’re playing on 200CC); turn off your brain; become a process of responses to on-screen stimuli. In theory, the technological muscle powering the game’s visuals should prevent me from noticing this, but in practice, I didn’t have any trouble noticing. Maybe it was the aforementioned “process of responses” point focusing my attention away from the visuals and onto the action, or maybe it was the attentive way I play games. Whatever the case, I was very aware of what the game was trying to do.
The only additions the game makes, the only identity it tries to make for itself, are aesthetic throwaways that don’t affect the fundamental relationship between myself and the game. Zero gravity may let the tracks bend every which way, but the camera angles conform so well to these changes that I might as well have never left flat ground. The Crazy Eight is just a beefed up, less strategic version of Double Dash’s item switching mechanic. At best, these changes only give the game the illusion of imagination and fantasy, an illusion that never strays far from the boring formula. At worst, all they add is the pretense of an identity. To be fair, the gravity changing makes a little more sense when applied to older courses, since they force the developers to reinterpret those old designs according to this game’s new mechanics. But as Royal Raceway (and the new gates around Peach’s castle) demonstrates, this approach doesn’t take us far from the game’s problems.
Were I just reviewing the game, I feel I could end things here. Yet this is just surface analysis. Several important questions, like why Mario Kart 8 is the way it is or why the video game buying public accepted this without a second thought, remain unanswered. It’s also not enough to say that the game’s success comes down to how well it conforms to a recognized brand. After all, games like Duke Nukem Forever have been criticized for sticking to a brand in the past, and more recent games like Final Fantasy XV and The Legend of Zelda: Breath of the Wild have been praised for abandoning (what people attach to) their respective brands. Where does this leave us?
I’ve noticed that many of the tracks’ designs shared key similarities with how theme parks are laid out, so it might help to start there. Starting in early 2017, it’s become more common (or at least more conspicuous) for writers to compliment a game by comparing it to a theme park/roller coast. Prominent examples of this include Horizon: Zero Dawn, The Legend of Zelda: Breath of the Wild, and this piece being shared in relation to Breath of the Wild and possibly Final Fantasy XV. The basic comparison likely stretches as far back as early rail shooters and light gun games, but as far as I can tell, this specific line of thought begins with Tevis Thompson’s criticism of BioShock Infinite in late 2013. But in the intervening years, an odd sort of transformation has transpired. What was once given as an insult meant to expose how shallow a game’s view of reality (its realism) was has now become a compliment for world design that offers minimal guidance while allowing players to do as they please within its bounds.
One could interpret this as a sign that hyperrealism in games is no longer valued to the extent it once was. If this is true, then what we’re seeing isn’t so much a shift in thinking as much as it is an obsolescence of hyperrealism. It’s no longer necessary to believe that games are 100% real; we can admit that it’s all a fantasy so long as that fantasy does what we ask of it. Theme parks, then, serve the same purpose that hyperrealism once did: normalizing our dominion over the world and any ideas we may employ to achieve that end. (I believe I developed these ideas before in my Nier blog.) Returning to the open world example from before, these games have not only preserved the idea that the player’s desires be centered, not only advanced how designers go about centering them, but have made the act itself more transparent. All that’s gone is the pretense that these worlds must be like our own.
What happens when you apply this to a more strictly controlled experience like Mario Kart 8? Broadly speaking, I see the game as acting from a place of pure affirmation. By this I mean the game sees its role as affirming a set of values that have already been given to us. It’s a very common attitude in video games, permeating many of the games we play and the writing see around them. For an example of the latter, consider how a blockbuster game’s significance, regardless of its artistic merit, is decided well before it’s ever released. Writing this in late March, I can tell you there will be dozens of articles probing (as a random example) Sonic Mania’s successes and failures, numerous podcasts dedicated to the same, and a place (if not a full award) reserved for the game at GOTY discussions – all of it assuming an importance nobody bothered to demonstrate in the first place.
You can probably guess why I see this as such a problem: it’s an inherently anti-critical stance. The values have been decided for us in advance, and the affirmation of them is all that matters. Questioning them, trying to understand them further; this is not allowed. The creation of new values (especially those not entirely compatible with the current set) must be strictly controlled if not outright forbidden. No considering games that weren’t given a chance their first time around. No accidentally finding shortcuts or creating your own paths in Mario Kart 8. The former has yet to fully abandon consumerist terms of discussion, and the latter must admit nothing of its imperfections, only ever passing itself off as polish.
Given how widely that polish applies to the game, the affirmative attitude manifests throughout a lot of Mario Kart 8’s design. To offer a minor example, by concentrating on the refinement of formulae already known to player and developer alike, the game precludes any sort of learning on either party’s part.
To offer a clearer and more substantial example, consider how the tracks are designed. Here there can be no doubt that the theme park approach applies to this game. Beyond the gravity-defying curves being more evocative of roller coasters than of actual race tracks, Mario Kart 8 employs a Las Vegas approach to world design. Like the theme park approach, this carries with it a subtle argument that games are nothing more than objects for us to exert power over. But in this particular context, that argument is expanded: I’m a tourist in these spaces, and the world only exists for me to consume what it offers.
There’s a contradiction inherent in this model. I enter this space as an outsider, one whose presence isn’t necessary and who may not even belong here. But to know this would disrupt any feeling of comfort and negate this space’s purpose as a tourist attraction. To prevent this from ever happening, the world must open itself up to the player and give up whatever independent existence it might otherwise have, requiring their presence to complete if if anything is going to make sense.
Achieving this requires a lot of denial. Signifiers are lifted from their original locations but stripped of any meaning, forced to lead a hollow existence that begins and ends with their aesthetic value. It’s not so much histories erased as it is histories that were never given a chance to be in the first place. What business transpires when there aren’t races scheduled in the Super Bell Subway or at Sunshine Airport? What kinds of lives do people lead in Neo Bowser City or Toad Harbor? Why have these people come out to cheer us on as we race through their home towns? As far as the game is concerned, these stories aren’t worth acknowledging. After all, they’re just props for our entertainment; don’t look too much into it.
At least at the game level, this approach is justifiable, albeit not without important problems. But when we move outside those bounds – when we engage with material from other games with histories of their own – then that approach becomes harder to justify. Before going any further, I feel I should revise a previous statement: Mario Kart 8 isn’t reinterpreting what these previous games were doing (at least not consciously), because that would require quite a bit from the game. It would require that it confront what it is that players value from these older games, what it is the developers themselves value, and whether or not we’d value what those older games are today. I just can’t see Mario Kart 8 committing itself enough to these questions for reinterpretation to be a possibility.
Nor can these tracks exist as faithful recreations of the past. Mario Kart 8 is a heavily audience-oriented video game, and this situation requires that it speak to two desires at once: conform to the current standards of what video games should be while also telling us that yes, our judgments of these older games were right the first time around and they deserve to be revered today. This excludes faithful recreations, since positing these older values may not have obsolesced would be antithetical to the game’s goals.
So instead, the game does what many HD retro remakes do: it affirms the value of the nostalgic object by translating it into a modern context. Of course, this means it has to invent reasons for why we value older games, contradicting the very history it’s trying to affirm, but this isn’t a problem. The audience doesn’t value the actual history as much as they do they idea of it. (We can know this because “what happened the first time around” may be a historical fabrication.) In addition, we remove the human element from the game by reducing artistic expression to what technology is capable of; something you see all the time when an old game is translated into a modern engine. The unsurprising result is similar to the tourism scenario from before: hollow imitations incapable of inciting genuine elation. The two F-Zero tracks provide some good examples of this: despite giving Mario Kart 8 the most to work with, any hints of danger, speed, imagination, celebration, the things that give F-Zero its spirit, are stripped out so the tracks can better fit the Mario Kart mold.
Lest you think affirmation is only a problem with how these worlds are presented to us, rest assured knowing it’s also a problem with how we interact with those worlds in the first place. Mario Kart 8 doesn’t stray far from the basic kart racing formula established for it two decades prior: you race through fantasy worlds in go-karts/bumper cars, collecting items along the way either to help you get to the front or ensure those behind you can’t do the same.
As I detailed before, this basic formula can be used to express a large number of things, which is why I’m so intrigued by what Mario Kart 8 chooses to express through it. Permeating the game are subtle and contradictory inflections that code the play process as an underdog story (at least from your perspective) while building success directly into the experience. We begin with a broad point: a racer’s performance in a race derives wholly from their skill, meaning any success/failure they encounter is entirely their own. This claim is then supported by racers at the back of the pack consistently flubbing their Rocket Starts while those at the front consistently pull them off. Finally, we turn to the player, who is both portrayed as a paragon of skill, one who easily zooms past even the most seasoned racers on the track, and placed in a position where they can appreciate this, IE at the back of the starting line. “Don’t worry”, the game says, “your being placed here is a temporary accident. It won’t take you long to return to your rightfully earned place at the front.”
On its face, this format makes little sense. Ignoring all the holes the argument presents on its own, many of the game’s items (the blue shell, the lightning, the mechanism for choosing items in the first place) nakedly invoke luck rather than skill. Yet just like the nostalgia point from before, the argument itself isn’t as important as what it enables. On a basic level, Mario Kart 8 is affirming the player’s value unconditionally while presenting that affirmation through a false conditional (IE through a condition the player is incapable of violating). Breaking that down further, we can tease out a few of this strategy’s effects. Most of them rely on distraction. For example, the affirmation becomes that much more valuable not only by hiding its unconditional nature, but by presenting it through a condition that further enhances the player’s worth and the worth of what they’re being offered. And by pulling attention away from the fact that this space was designed specifically to elicit these feelings, the game effectively naturalizes the ideology it uses to give the player their worth, rendering both impervious to scrutiny.
Granted, a lot of what I criticize comes from Mario Kart 8’s end goal of creating a more balanced play experience, but that point shouldn’t escape interrogation. We should constantly be asking these hard questions like what balanced gameplay does, what we’re really asking of games, and whether or not we’re OK with the answers we find. Otherwise, you end up with ludicrous statements like “games can be made more competitive by ensuring a player in the lead stays in the lead”, “a modest success is a colossal failure”, and “games should be praised as bold and innovative for blatantly following popular genre trends.”