Nostalgiabomb: The Core Aesthetics of Mario Kart 8

Another week, another round of analysis.

This week, we’re looking into a more recent game, Mario Kart 8, which I had the pleasure of playing a few times this weekend (thanks, Arthur!). Given my usual “solo RPG” biases, this was a bit out of my comfort zone, and it showed, because I sucked it up big time! But it was a fun experience, so there was some successful design at work. And one of the first things I do when analyzing a new game is to figure out what the intent of the design was — what experience are the designers of this game trying to deliver? What are its “core aesthetics?”

Mario Kart 8 shines when played with friends. As a solo experience – without the other people in the room – MK8 would seem more tedious and bland. Probably not unplayable, but definitely less engaging. Part of what makes it fun is shooting your friends with red shells! It’s not cooperation to reach a goal, it’s the competition with each other that makes it more delightful. So Core Aesthetic #1:

Competition

This core aesthetic is served very well by the items that have been a tradition for Mario Kart games. While flat-out racing competitions might be fun, the ability to blast your friends off the track or lay a trap for them or thwart their shot with  your rotating shell shield all add significantly to the competition factor — what matters just as much as speed and character choice and knowledge of the map is the clever use of the items to maximum effect (and also clever ways of depriving those behind you of items). It makes the competition angle accessible to anyone just picking up the game, especially given MK’s design choice to reward more powerful items to characters farther back in the race. If you find yourself being out-competed by those that know the track and its tricks better, you can just BLOW THEM UP, which might not give you the win, but can be immensely satisfying!

I was clued into another design aesthetic from the use of old stages from previous versions of Mario Kart. A significant chunk of the tracks in MK8 are tracks from older Mario Karts. More than a mere “homage level” or two would indicate. This signaled that the game was designed with nostalgia in mind, that it wanted its players to fondly remember old Mario Kart games with old levels as they played their new game. The character selection also reinforced this, centering on the main cast of Mario games, and then making baby versions and metal versions and evil versions and genderswapped versions…really, Mario, Metal Mario, Baby Mario, Wario, Luigi, Baby Luigi, Waluigi…all just variations on a central underlying character design. This was a game that wanted you to be familiar with its participants, to feel like you knew the characters already. Even if you’ve never played a game with Toadette in it before, you can recognize her salient characteristics really fast from your knowledge of what Toad is like.  But, “nostalgia” isn’t really a core design aesthetic (though given how often Nintendo relies on it, maybe it should be…). This nostalgia is in service of a greater goal. And that is Core Aesthetic #2:

Abnegation

This core aesthetic focuses on the need to zone out, relax, to be safe, to be comfortable, to be at ease. Nostalgia serves this core aesthetic because it is comfortable, familiar, and reassuring. You know Mario. You know what he’s going to do. You know what he’s like. You know what Peach is like. You know what Yoshi is like. There are no surprises or curevballs with these characters, and in MK8, you even know what about half the [I]stages[/I] are like (give or take). You are re-visiting old favorites and old friends, and so you slide into them well. Every time you see an old familiar face or an old familiar track or an old familiar item, that’s MK8 telling you “It’s OK. We’re here. Life changes, but Mario never does!”

Luigi just abnegated the shit outta that bitch, y0.

Those two core aesthetics are probably the biggest, but I’d say there’s at least one more reason one plays MK8, in addition to competing with friends and having some casual fun. This element comes in most strongly in the “unlockables” mechanic, where you get more racers, car options, and track options as you play. It’s a pretty standard thing to have happen in competitive games, and for good reason: it gives you an important reason to play the game. That reason is MK8’s Core Aesthetic #3:

Discovery

One of the reasons you play MK8: to find out what secret, hidden, unlockable treasures there are. Is  your favorite character a racer? Did they add a new one? Is your favorite track present? What’s it like to race with this new wheel or this new cart? Even, “What item am I going to get here?” or “How do I weave around this obstacle coming up?” All of these are elements of discovery, elements of finding new things out. This actually complements the Abnegation and Competition aesthetics really nicely, because it introduces variety into the mix. The game never becomes as stale as chess or as dull as a rerun because there’s always a new little twist that’s come down the pipe. This is true in the races themselves, too, where even the old tracks have new twists, and new tracks have plenty of different paths to take to the end.

I especially like how these aesthetics reinforce each other. Without discovery, the abnegation would get dull, and the competition would get stale. Without abnegation, the competition and discovery would push out casual players and kids. Without competition, the abnegation and discovery wouldn’t have much of driving, compulsive force behind it.

It’s also interesting how long-term fan annoyances about the MK mechanics actually work to support these ideas. The Blue Shell makes competition more equal and aids in abnegation, making the last-place player still feel like they’re going to be supported. Sure, it robs the lead player of 1st place (for a time, at least), but games of demanding raw skill hurt abnegation, because you can’t feel like you can relax and enjoy it. The Blue Shell tells the 1st place player, “Relax. It’s a game about dinosaurs and Italian stereotypes in a land of mushrooms racing on go-karts. You don’t need to take it seriously. Isn’t it HILARIOUS that your turtle-child with a rainbow mohawk just got blown up by an exploding turtle shell? I mean, WTF?”

MK8 delivers admirably on its core aesthetics. It’s not a perfect game by any means, but it is good, and being able to deliver on these three things reliably is part of the reason it’s such a good time.

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