Wednesday, February 27, 2013

Mario Kart DS (Nintendo DS) (Nintendo, 2005)


Out of all the franchises that Nintendo can be relied upon to iterate on with each new platform, Mario Kart is, I would say, consistently the least brave, least exciting. The original Super Mario Kart was inspired, birthing an entire new sub-genre (I still don't understand how other companies are able to release mascot-based combat kart-racing games without having to pay Nintendo). I skipped Mario Kart 64 because I didn't have an N64 until after the system's heyday, but, when I eventually gave it a spin later, I found it a rehash, ugly, and really freaking unfair (this was the game that introduced blue shells, largely originating Nintendo's reputation for anti-competitive multiplayer games that cater to the weak rather than rewarding skill). I did play Mario Kart: Super Circuit for the GBA, finding it competent but stale and, in the absence of convenient multiplayer options, incredibly insubstantial. Double Dash!! for the GameCube was cool, although, for whatever reason, I didn't play it much beyond that first weekend I got it (that was how it went for most of the more party-oriented multiplayer games on the system, probably because there were just so many).

I don't know that Mario Kart DS is, on the strength of its core gameplay, a standout necessarily for the series, or even still worthwhile next to the latest 3DS installment (which I haven't played). I do vastly prefer the button-tapping tightness of powersliding with a D-pad versus an analog stick, but that's a personal preference. What made Mario Kart DS great in its time were the new capabilities afforded by the hardware and, for me, also the environment in which I was able to enjoy it.

I think everybody agrees that the strength of the series lies in its multiplayer. It's what made the first game fun, what Mario Kart 64 took advantage of to instantly justify that console's third and fourth controller ports, and why Super Circuit is such the forgotten entry now (because, even in the unlikely case that you could find someone to link GBAs with, the wired connection was slow and cumbersome). Mario Kart DS, however, was able to realize the multiplayer potential of the series like never before. The game did almost nothing with the handheld's dual-screen and touchscreen innovations, but instead it utilized the wireless connectivity of the DS to offer multiplayer gameplay that was easy to set up and did not involve cramped split-screens. Best of all was the number of players it could accommodate: up to a full eight, leaving no bots to spoil the party.

Although Mario Kart DS is often cited as one of the system's most important releases, on account of it being the first to do online right, it was, in my personal experience, fairly difficult to find a match, and even when I did, I would not enjoy getting left in the dust by some silent stranger driving like a weirdo with some "snaking" technique. No, the best way to enjoy the game was with seven other friends in the same room. Admittedly, this is an improbable scenario for most people, but I happened to be working as a game tester when Mario Kart DS came out. When the DS caught on at the workplace, Mario Kart DS was its killer app. It started with one guy using the DS Download Play feature to share his game with another DS owner. Then others, curious, asked to take turns, and, quickly enough, multiple people, myself included, were sold on the system specifically because the Mario Kart DS multiplayer was such a party. Soon, we were having eight-player matches every break, and, let me tell you, anything less now feels like a compromised version of the game. Nothing really compares to a race against seven other human beings, where every change in the standings is accompanied by a real person's live trash talk, and, for every maneuver, there is somebody to take the credit or the blame. Toward every frenzied finish, alliances are struck to unseat a leader, or bargains or petitions are made over when to use the blue shell or lightning bolt, before finally it all blows up and becomes every man for himself again.

Even Nintendo's "rubber banding" becomes forgivable when the bots are removed. After a few rounds, you kind of figure out who the better racers are, regardless of the blue shell-tainted results, and you come to accept those blue shells as just a way to keep the weaker players involved and happy. And you can never be as mad at a pitifully lousy human player as you would be if it were an AI cheating you out of your victory.

* * *

Sometimes, there would even be a mysterious ninth player trying to get in on our game—somebody who was not any of the people in the room, but who was somehow aware of our game and thinking to join uninvited. We would notice, of course, and laugh as we excluded him. Or if he somehow managed to join before one of us, the host would simply close and reopen the room, so that we could knowingly exclude and laugh at the mysterious stranger.

"Oh, I actually know who that is," one of our group mentioned once.

"Psh, we all know who it is," said the host.

I didn't know but was quickly informed that it was the office's resident douche bag (as if there were only one)—a straight edge born-again Christian nerd, who was apparently a stereotypically obnoxious example of each descriptor. In truth, to the extent that I knew him, I did not find his reputation entirely deserved. Although lacking a certain self-awareness, he was generally a pretty normal, cool guy, provided you kept him off certain trigger topics. But he was inescapably defined by a few infamous outbursts from before my time there, and, thereafter, even people who had never interacted with him knew him as "the resident douche bag" and would treat him so behind his back.

Teamed together with him one time on a later project, I found him playing Mario Kart DS during a break. The old Mario Kart DS group had, by this time, been broken up by the high turnover at that job, and I myself had tired of the game. A few people were still playing it during breaks together, but that was in another room. Where we were, the douche bag was the only one playing DS.

"Playing online?" I asked.

"No, by myself." Then, thinking to explain to me the workings of Mario Kart DS multiplayer at the workplace, he added, "There is a game in the building, but you gotta be quick to get in on it."

It really seemed that he was unaware that this "game in the building" was a private game among a specific group of people. I wondered, did he think he had somehow stumbled upon some mysterious game room that was just magically manifesting every break period for the first eight people who could fill it? Had it never occurred to him to try to seek out the source of the game and maybe just introduce himself and ask to join in person? Or if he was intending to play with strangers anyway, why didn't he just go online? These were all reasonable questions, but asking any of them would have required that I risk pointing him in the direction of the roomful of people laughing at him, and I didn't have the heart to do that.

Hrm, thinking about it now, it seems I easily could have busted out my own DS and offered to play with him, instead of deliberating over whether to laugh at or feel sorry for him. But, honestly, the thought never crossed my mind.


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