29 April 2008

fucking blue shells...

Apparently, today's release of Grand Theft Auto IV is tantamount ("Marry me!") to some sort of cultural event. While I'm not the sort of person that's interested in dwelling on how far society must have fallen to make the release of a video game that counts among its defining characteristics the ability to have sex with a hooker in your car and then run her down to retrieve the money you paid her (I, frankly, loved GTA III... wasn't so sold on Vice City, and decided to pass up San Andreas all together once I found out you had to keep your character in good shape and maintain relationships with various ancillary characters. As a good friend of mine put it, we play video games so we don't have to nurture relationships that we're not necessarily interested in building), I do feel the need to point out that another long-standing, socially relevant interactive entertainment franchise saw the release of its latest iteration just two days ago. I, of course, refer to Mario Kart [Wii].

Mario Kart was a huge deal back in the glory days of video gaming (Super Nintendo days). I remember going to my cousins' house to do, well, anything at all (they're fun people), and getting sidetracked for the better part of the day playing Mario Kart. Admittedly, one of the more glaring downsides to the game was that only two people could play it at a time, so the other relatives sitting on the couch had to yell suggestions at the ones currently engaged in race or battle. But that was part of its charm, and a portion of what made all of those old games as awesome as they were, that you could find a way to enter into the playing experience without even having to pick up the controller.

I do believe that the original Mario Kart was the genesis of my affinity for the lamer, more pathetic characters in video games, but particularly in Nintendo games. I developed a bizarre affection for the Koopa Troopa in Mario Kart; he was not particularly fast, didn't possess great off-the-line acceleration, but he got me where I needed to go, and usually in just the right amount of time. He cornered well, which was a huge deal in battle mode, where just an extra quarter-second could all you to get around the wall and make the red shell that had your name on it smash harmlessly into the loopy, Mode 7-rendered level structure.

Mario Kart 64, though, was and remains the peak of the experience, and the precisely right combination of factors that came into play prevent any further iteration of the series from attaining the awesomeness that was the version that made its appearance on the Nintendo 64. For one thing, it was at the right time in my life (junior high and the first two, three years of high school were the halcyon days of my video game playing), where I was surrounded by friends that had the same affection for the multiplayer Nintendo games as myself. Concurrently, the N64 heralded the arrival of 4-player, split-screen multiplayer, which doubled the number of people that could be holding a controller and screaming at each other from the couch and the floor during a race, or a set of races. The game was balanced just right, as far as I was concerned, and even though I'd lost my beloved Koopa Troopa, I grew an appreciation for Mario's scaredey cat brother, Luigi (perhaps I just like the color green, who knows?).

Mario Kart 64 was one of the first games that lacked even the pretense of a narrative that engaged me emotionally, and from what I've been able to tell, the game stirred up a similar emotion in most of those that played it too often, as I did: a deep, abiding hatred for the character referred to as "the Mushroom retainer," Toad. To this day, even if I haven't looked at MK64 for months, I, and many people like me (I imagine), can perform, on cue, a halfway decent impression of Toad's more grating voice samples from the game. "I'm the best!" is the most remembered (just to piss the rest of us off, certain friends that shall remain nameless liked to play with Toad, because he was, almost unquestioningly, the best pure racer in the game. But that voice...), followed, with far more glee, the "Aaaaahhh!!" sound that he would make when struck particularly well with a shell, or when he fell off the edge of the racetrack.

A version of the game was released for the Game Boy Advance, but having tasted MK64, I was reluctant to return to the D-pad world of the GBA, and so while I purchased the game (and enjoyed it, relatively, given that I never had the opportunity to play it with other people, thus depriving myself of the best aspect of the game, the social component), it picked up dust soon after all the courses were unlocked.

Fast-forwarding to my second year of college, we saw the release of Mario Kart: Double Dash!! for the Nintendo GameCube. The Cube itself was little more than a series of missed opportunities, looking back on it, for its library of games was replete with software that would make even the most passionate Nintendo-and-only-Nintendo fanboy say, "Well, it was okay, but you know what would've made it a lot better?" (notable exceptions include: Wave Race: Blue Storm, the Resident Evil 1 REmake, Super Smash Bros Melee, F-Zero GX, and certainly others that I'm forgetting). Not making the cut of games that were good enough to live up to the Nintendo standard of quality was Mario Kart: Double Dash. Between the game's inability to impart a sense of speed upon the player, to the crummy-beyond-crummy battle mode (anyone who's played it will tell you that it's one of the key elements in the series), to the thought that two players to a single Kart would be enjoyable for anybody, Double Dash was badly conceived, poorly executed, and received by this Nintendo fan with less enthusiasm than that Forsaken game that came out on the 64.

Every once and a while, my less-than-popular opinion is proven right. This was one of those times. That's not to say that I relished in the fact that MK:DD was bad; this is more of an opportunity to state that I was right. For once.

Given the apparent worldwide popularity of the Nintendo DS, I'd have imagined meeting more people that have played Mario Kart DS, but it's been a rare occurrence. That's kind of a shame, for MKDS is, in a lot of ways, the perfect Mario Kart experience. It merges the controls of the SNES release with those introduced, and pretty much perfected, in MK64 (since I didn't mention it earlier, I should now: the power slide added a fantastic element of strategy, and skill, to a game that didn't really have a next "level" that those truly obsessed with the game could go to. Waggling the control stick on those N64 controllers back and forth was just what the game needed). It brought back some of the more notable levels from past Mario Karts, and introduced several fantastic new ones (the one inspired by Bowser's battleship in Super Mario Bros 3, particularly). Moreover, MKDS was probably Nintendo's first real foray into mainstream online play. They took their time getting there, and it certainly left a lot to be desired, but there was no other way for me (and probably hundreds, thousands, of other people) to play the game with anybody except over the impersonal, anonymous player-matching provided by the DS.

Now, finally, we come to Mario Kart Wii. I should get this out of the way: the Wii has not, as of yet, changed video gaming as we know it, certainly not the way I expected it would change it. Sure, the motion controls are, in theory, awesome, but very little that is truly revolutionary has been done with them. Granted, I have yet to play Okami, but a port of a Playstation 2 game will have to truly knock my socks off to make me think all of my pre-launch enthusiasm for the Wii was warranted. I still think its real impact will be felt in the realm of the Virtual Console, where a crazy little developer will design a game so out there, so completely different from what we even conceived as a "video game," that everyone who dearly loves this art form will be stunned for minutes, at least. That, and the distribution of classic games that dearly need a new audience.

The above paragraph was mostly a preface for this single point: the "Wii Wheel" (Nintendo really dropped the ball here; "Wii-l," anyone?) is virtually useless. Perhaps if you, or someone you know, has never even been introduced to the concept of the video game, it would have some purpose, but for anyone else, it simply gets in the way, and everyone is better off recovering an old GameCube controller (hey, another thing the Cube did right: proving that a wireless controller - my beloved Wavebird - was the way of the future) or jack the Nunchuck into the base of the Wiimote (see? "Wii-l!").

Aside from that, and the unforgivable ditching of the 2-player Grand Prix mode (who wants to play Mario Kart alone these days, or ever?), MKW is likely the best version in the series yet. The controls are the perfect mix of loose and tight, the track mixture may be the best yet, the jump from 8 racers to 12 throws a serious new dimension of crazy at the players, and online... Nintendo's finally entered the 21st century and given us real, honest-to-goodness online play (and I'm mostly okay with the continued omission of voice chat - it got to the point with Halo that I was muting every player before the game began. I don't think voice chat was designed with the intention of driving every other player insane, but that's what it's become. I should credit the people on Call of Duty 4, and Team Fortress 2, with being among the most reasonable, nay, entertaining people I've listened to on the Internet to date). I wasn't sold on the idea of the motorbikes (it's Mario Kart), but the simplistic trick system, and the wheelies, add another little dimension of strategy that people can add to their repertoires, if they want to. If not, the kart is still there.

I know plenty of people complain about the cheap catch-up that the AI, and your fellow players, can play (first place gets shitty items - fake item boxes and banana peels - while twelfth place gets more leader-seeking blue shells, invincibility stars and lightning bolts than they can handle), and the way the game can stack items coming at you so as to make you drop from first to seventh to eleventh in moments, but that's really part of Mario Kart at this point. Somebody once said that it's better to be lucky than good, right? Well, that's never more true than in a game of Mario Kart.

In my experience, the game brings people together more effectively than any interactive entertainment experience I've witnessed, with perhaps the notable exception of Rock Band (who doesn't want to sing "Fortunate Son," or play drums on "Limelight?"). Even my roommates, who refuse to play any Nintendo games with me at all, will happily sit down for a few games of Mario Kart. While it's not the most important experience a group of people can share, it's still something to do together. And that, as someone else once said, is not nothing.

I don't often grin when I open up a game and start to play it; I can't imagine smiling while playing GTA IV, for instance. I'll be laughing sadistically, I imagine, but pure, pure glee is not an emotional I anticipate experiencing during my playtime. But that fat little Italian plumber has so much of my youth wrapped up in his image that I can't help but be reminded of myriad happy times whenever I see him, or hear his voice. He's like that uncle that you can't see enough of.

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