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Chaos by Design: A defense of competitive Mario Kart

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Apr 20, 2018, 2:10 PM EDT

As one of the largest portraits on the millennial wall of nostalgia, Mario Kart is not the first thing that comes to mind when you say “competitive game.” This is partly valid: Our beloved party game has an element of chaos that would make a seasoned Counter-Strike: GO or Rocket League player rip their hair out. Your best race ever can turn into a tragedy after one blue shell.

But while you won’t see Mario Kart 8 (Wii U/Switch) in South Korean arenas, with over 15 million copies sold, you will almost certainly see it in someone’s living room. And that’s because while it’s not always balanced – and definitely not always fair – Mario Kart has a surprising amount of depth at its core. Such depth results in randomness, but that randomness actually opens up more competitive possibilities, something that the series gets little credit for.

Part of what makes Mario Kart so intense is its well-known difficulty balancing. Players in last receive better items, while players in the lead receive lower powered items. This allows races to take unpredictable turns and creates drama between players. (And creates unforgettable moments like this:

This difficulty balance is a perfect example of what game designers call a feedback loop. YouTuber Mark Brown defines this as an element of a game that changes a player’s likelihood of successes or failures. Mario Kart, which punishes winners, qualifies as a negative feedback loop. Something like Dota 2 allows players to build power to the point where they steamroll others, creating a positive feedback loop.
Because of this system of feedback loops, the heart of Mario Kart gameplay is not blue shells or power slides, but rather risk management.

The first part of this is driving style. In last place, nailing a risky shortcut can propel you from 12th to 5th place in seconds. Smacking multiple obstacles or running off the road can overrule even the most powerful item distribution. Conversely, leading players must drive defensively, sticking to safe routes and avoiding risk at all costs.

This is best embodied by turns. Turns in Mario Kart present a sweeping array of choices: Do you go for an item box or a booster arrow? Do you slip stream other players for speed, or stay away from crowds and potential bumps? It’s not only a question of technical skill, but one of strategy, risk, and reward.

Mario Kart’s second element of risk is in items. Most trailing items – those given to losing players – encourage immediate use. A star provides invulnerability and an instant burst of speed; a lightning bolt shifts the power dynamic in a flash. For leading players, a frequent item is the green shell. While it can be used offensively with great difficulty, it can also be used defensively, dragged behind your kart as a safeguard against attacks.

Both kinds of items tie into risk. Instant-use items invite you to play aggressively, to push hard and fast and climb up the ladder. Defensive items encourage you to keep it safe and predictable, and play reactively rather than proactively. This creates a sense of tension that constantly shifts across the course of a race, where players feel joy, paranoia, and triumph in equal amounts. That randomness leads not only to fun, but to a delicate game of constantly shifting strategy, one where players must adapt or fail.
But going back to the bridge GIF above, that doesn’t look fair. Isn’t consistency an important component of competition?

Absolutely. But that question begets another one: is that what matters most?
Monopoly is one of the most random games in existence, but like Mario Kart, it’s fun as hell and has broad appeal. Also like Mario Kart, Monopoly can be played with a surprising amount of strategy, so much so that official tournaments exist.

What both games have in common is a low skill floor. They’re easy to pick up and play. Compare that to something like Street Fighter, with its lengthy move lists, or Counter-Strike: GO, with its reliance on twitch accuracy and established base of skilled players. Both of those games and Mario Kart have very high skill ceilings, so why the distinction?

It likely comes down to one thing: elitism. The high barrier of entry for certain games turns them into a 1% sport of sorts. The aspirational nature of such a game leads to an air of snobbery, much like golf. Communities can be toxic and even unwelcoming to new players, with unironic shouts of “GIT GUD” pelting them relentlessly. Those games have less randomness, that is true, but skilled Mario Kart players can find equally high-level ways to mitigate their chaos.

Mario Kart can be learned in five minutes, or played thousands of hours to master. It’s fun playing drunk with friends, or online against stiff competition.

The heart of Nintendo has always been a sense of equal opportunity: challenge for the hardcore, and easy fun for casual players. Mario Kart may embody that better than any other Nintendo game, and our couches are better for it.

But most importantly? Video games are better for it.