The Mario Kart Effect
February 22, 2022
We’ve all been there: you’re cruising down the final stretch of Rainbow Road, the finish line is only inches away and you can taste victory.
Then you get hit by a horribly timed blue shell.
You drop to 3rd place.
“Hey that’s okay, I’m still in the top three!”, you think to yourself.
Then a red shell.
“Well, at least I’m in the top half?”
Then another red shell.
“Okay, what the heck just happened?”
You've just been “Mario-Karted”, a phrase I use to describe getting hit with a string of events so unfortunate that it completely disrupts the expected outcome in a game.
While very frustrating, I believe that the humorous and game-changing nature of being Mario-karted is what makes the series such a great party game.
When players sit down to play a casual game with their friends, there is an implicit expectation that everyone plays at a similar level. It’s not very fun if one player dominates every game repeatedly, racking up points while everyone else falls behind. Regardless of their skill, players need to feel like they can meaningfully affect the outcome of the game. If your actions have no impact on your friends, then what’s the point of playing?
The answer: items. Mario Kart’s items/powerups are what level out the playing field for casual gamers, making it so players of unequal talent can all feel like they have a viable chance of winning. Specifically, biasing the chances of receiving impactful items (bullet-bill, star, red/blue shells) towards players in lower places balances the race in a way that feels natural. It doesn’t matter if you’re not great at drifting if you’re able to red shell the players in front of you.
This isn’t to say that Mario Kart can’t be played competitively. The coin system and various shortcuts (whether designed into the map or not) reward players for intentional practice and skill on the circuits. But for casual players picking up the controller for a few minutes, the balance established by the item system keeps things fresh and fun.
This concept of using chaos to level the playing field isn’t unique to Mario Kart either. Nintendo uses map hazards and items in the Super Smash Bros. series as well. A 2:1 stock disadvantage can easily be fixed by a lucky assist trophy or master ball. The game isn’t over ‘til it’s over.
The moments we remember from games are the unexpected ones. It’s the adrenaline-pumping experience of rocketing from 12th place to 6th with a final lap Bullet Bill. The “nonononono”s muttered as the red-shell indicator pops up, or the “yesyesyes” of spamming the golden mushroom’s boost. Party games are designed to be a light-hearted way for friends to share some laughs. They can be played competitively but are at their best when played with your closest friends. Being Mario-karted is simply the game’s way of adding to the chaos, and it’s an essential part of my game-design vocabulary.