I’m In Love With My Kart

Deep down, I’m sure that people in the industry and on this site have had that one defining moment where they realise that they’re truly a gamer. This is something I’ve thought about a lot, because it’s one of the only hypothetical questions I can answer immediately. Favourite series? The Legend of Zelda. Greatest guilty pleasure? BASEketball. The moment I realised I was a gamer? Christmas 1997.

I’d just been given an N64 as a present, and rather than interact with the rest of my family or visiting relatives, I was instead sitting far too close to the television and refusing to acknowledge anything outside of Mario Kart 64. I’d just been knocked down to sixth after being sent spinning by Yoshi’s banana peel on the penultimate lap of Sherbet Land, and rather than reset the console so I could win, I viciously fought my way from there to a last-gasp victory with a well-placed green shell. I jumped up and cheered so loudly that I almost disconnected the controller from the console and the console from the TV, with the neat side-effect of making everyone else in the room jump in shock.

It was only the second race of the cup, and I was already acting like I’d won the trophy. It may be one of the sole memories I have of that day, but it’s one that’s stuck by me ever since. As the years passed, plenty of games came and went, but outside of Ocarina of Time, I don’t think I ever truly loved anything on that console as much as I did Mario Kart 64. I don’t like to think of myself as competitive, and I don’t consider myself a fan of racing games, but I practically become a different person whenever Mario Kart is involved. If my everyday persona is akin to Dr Jekyll, then the side of me that emerges at the sight of a blue shell is my geekier, far more ineffectual Mr Hyde.

It doesn’t matter how jovial I look beforehand, it’s serious business the moment Lakitu’s lights start counting down. Whether you’re a friend, enemy, or someone I’ve literally met within the last few minutes because we’re at a mutual friends’ house and someone thought it might be fun to have a couple of drinks and play Mario Kart, I will do everything in my power to win. Even if we’ve been drinking, I’m exactly the kind of player who won’t stop until everyone else has long stopped having fun.

I don’t trash-talk or gloat about my victories, but I’ll also refuse to rest until I’ve won so comprehensively that no-one else wants to play any more. Someone once suggested that I try and throw the occasional race to keep people interested, and I glared at them with the exact kind of confusion and lack of understanding that you’d get if someone told you they could talk to sparrows and tried translating their speech for you then and there.

What makes this even weirder to me is the fact that, all things considered, I’m not even that great at it. I challenged the European Champion of Super Mario Kart once, and even though I had a good thirty seconds head-start, he still managed to nearly lap me by the end of the race. While on a weekend away with the GamingLives crew, someone casually mentioned that they were pretty good at Mario Kart 64, and within ten minutes we’d stolen Lorna’s N64 and were racing for ultimate supremacy, where I didn’t just lose, but I lost badly.

Although I’d still played that iteration of the series pretty frequently, when the final showdown led us to that iconic Rainbow Road, I managed to fall off the track twice. Considering that there’s only one real place you can do that, especially when there are barriers on both sides of the circuit, the fact I managed to leave the circuit twice wasn’t just hopelessly embarrasing, but ego-shattering.

Yet, the moment Mario Kart is even mentioned to me, I gain a sudden aversion to bananas and an itch for racing success. Even after that horrendous defeat, I still find myself playing Mario Kart 64 to this day, and even though it’s probably the weakest in the series, I don’t think the Super Circuit cartridge left my Game Boy Advance for a good year after its release. However, that competitive spirit didn’t start becoming insidious until the DS iteration entered the scene.

It was the first in the series to have online multiplayer, and although I didn’t realise it at the time, that mode was responsible for several years of crippling addiction, just not in the way I’d have initially thought. I may have tried out the mode with every intention of taking on the best the world had to offer and emerge victorious, but that idea was soon sullied by the myriad of hackers who were constantly able to get three mushrooms or stars despite being in first place, and who would thus go on to win the race by half a lap. Meanwhile, second place would inevitably go to the snakers, and these were the people who ended up feeding my ever-consuming addiction.

For the uninitiated, Mario Kart DS was unique in the way that it handled drifting; while other entries in the series would bestow a speed boost after holding the button for a second or two, this time around you could get the maximum boost easily by quickly shifting left and right. If you could get your timing and reactions right, then you could get two or three boosts on a straight, and this constant drifting was known as ‘snaking’. It was oft-maligned online, and I never used it there or against any of my friends, but when I was alone, there was nothing stopping it from tempting me with its forbidden fruit.

Before snaking, I spent all my solo time in Grand Prix mode winning trophies over and over again, but once I’d discovered it, you’d rarely see me driving outside of the time trials. I never really found myself getting the hang of them in Mario Kart 64 or Super Circuit, thanks to the fact that I’d often end up just following the ghost times whilst never trying to improve upon their racing lines. I spent so much time trying to copy them that I’d never surpass them, but that all changed on the DS.

Instead of each circuit having one ghost time set by a staff member, there were instead two, but what made this especially fiendish was that the latter set were often six or eight seconds quicker overall than the previous ones. In a way, they lulled you into a false sense of security – the first set of times would be challenging at first, and you’d feel a great deal of pride eventually beating them, but once they were surpassed you’d unlock even faster times that often required entirely new tactics and approaches to even come close to defeating them. In some cases, you’d have to completely unlearn everything just to stand a chance of competing with them. However, once I’d finally managed to outdo them, the sense of satisfaction I had beating some of those ghost times was greater than I’ve from completing entire games.

The biggest problem was that I didn’t learn to stop once I’d bested them all. Even after beating every ghost time the staff had to offer, I’d still spend all my waking hours on the time trial mode. I may have been the fastest, but I could be even quicker if I wanted to, and so I’d spend entire days just trying to shave thousandths of a second off of my lap times. If I hadn’t shut myself off from most of my friends to play more Mario Kart, then they’d certainly have hauled me off to rehab for all that Mario Kart I was playing. Yet, somehow, it got worse.

On the 11th of April 2008, I got my grubby mitts on a copy of Mario Kart Wii, and things only spun out of control from there. Having also imported a copy of Super Smash Bros. Brawl only days before, my days were spent doing little but waking up, playing one or the other, possibly eating, then sleeping. The fact I managed to go out several times and socialise was practically a miracle, as was the fact that I was able to do all this without spending all of my time outside thinking about going back indoors and playing some more.

Truth be told, I think some part of me was hoping that I wouldn’t end up as insanely addicted as I had been with Mario Kart DS, and importing Brawl was some effort on my part to mitigate that, but instead I ended up hopelessly addicted to two games at once. I blame the bikes. For Mario Kart Wii, Nintendo saw fit to change the formula by adding motorbikes into the equation. They couldn’t get as great a boost from drifting as karts (and both were back to the “time spent drifting” method in order to prevent snaking), but they could wheelie on a straight line for extra speed. If anyone or anything bumped into a bike while it was performing a wheelie, then it’d grind to a halt, which was potentially disastrous considering that they also had worse acceleration than karts. It was a genuinely fascinating risk versus reward system that the franchise had never attempted before, and one that opened up a whole new realm of racing possibilities.

The problem was that as soon as I’d unlocked the ability to use either karts or bikes in every Grand Prix CC, I never touched the mode again. After all, why would I race against other people when I could prove I was better than them by beating their ghosts in time trials? The amount of time I spent playing the DS entry may have been bad, but at least I unlocked everything and ended up with two stars or above on every cup and mission. In Mario Kart Wii, I don’t think I ever even attempted a cup in 150cc or Mirror mode, so content was I with the time trials. That means that years on, there’s still a bunch of characters I haven’t even bothered trying to unlock, and I’ve no intention of ever going back and getting them, either.

Despite appearances, Mario Kart can actually be incredibly nuanced and deep when it wants to be. It’s occasionally overshadowed by the never-ending insistence on blue shells and the fact that races can sometimes be more about luck than skill, but when everything comes together, racing has seldom felt so pure.

At least, that’s the excuse I’m giving for the fact that I may have gone incredibly overboard with the time trials in Mario Kart Wii and spent so much time dicking about trying to shave fractions of milliseconds off of my ghosts. It actually got to the point where I wasn’t satisfied until my friends actually messaged me to tell me that they not only couldn’t beat my time trials, but that they weren’t even going to try anymore. In response, I went back and put in even faster times in case they ever changed their minds. My friends defeated and the staff ghost times positively slain, I turned my eye to the online leaderboards.

On one particular morning, I woke up, turned on the Wii and decided that I wasn’t going to stop playing until I was on the global leader-boards for one of the tracks. With my trusty combination of Mario (or my Mii, at a push), the Mach Bike and a Gamecube controller, I set about my task. After a couple of hours, I set my sights on the track where I’d fully pursue my attempts at glory – Koopa Cape. A combination of sharp, fast corners, big jumps and an underwater tunnel where a single wheel out of place could scupper your entire run, it felt like the perfect track to test my mettle on.

Hours passed, and yet I never felt my concentration waver or my determination begin to fade. I lost count of the amount of times I found myself restarting an entire run because I’d accidentally started drifting a fraction of a second too soon, or because I hadn’t stopped popping a wheelie quickly enough. The tiniest mistakes led way to complete do-overs, and little by little, the times crumbled away. With every try I was getting ever-closer to glory, until I suddenly found myself nailing the corner exactly right every time I tried it, using a mushroom boost the exact moment I needed to, and biting my lip every time I took on that tunnel and the ever-rotating blades within that’d shrink you if you so much as grazed them.

After what felt like the three-hundreth attempt, it finally paid off. My name was finally on the leader-boards. In that glorious moment, I was the third-fastest Mario Kart player in Europe, and ninth-fastest in the world. Sure, within two weeks I’d long been replaced by people who’d hacked their times so they showed up as having beaten the entire thing within three seconds, but for a brief week or so, I was one of the fastest people in Europe at Mario Kart. To date, I still consider it one of my greatest gaming achievements, and it’s one I doubt I’ll be able to top any time soon.

So what finally slew my relentless addiction? A few months after release, I ended up moving house and being stranded without internet for nine weeks. Along with going partially insane by being left without Wi-Fi, being deep in the midst of a school term where every subject wanted several pieces of coursework in at once was enough for me to finally turn the damn thing off for a while and concentrate on my education. Besides, what was the point of exerting all that effort on time trials when I couldn’t see my friends see how fast I was?

As with its N64 and DS counterparts, I still play Mario Kart Wii from time to time, but nearly always only with friends, so as to prevent myself from falling into the realms of addiction once again. After only forty or so hours of gameplay, Mario Kart 7 hasn’t quite sunk its hooks into me the way its predecessors have. While its heart is definitely in the right place, a combination of slightly dull tracks, a lacklustre retro selection and an odd sense of pace and handling means it joins Super Circuit and Double Dash!! in the pile of Mario Kart games that I don’t totally love. That being said, I never owned a Gamecube, a copy of the game or really understood the whole two drivers in one kart mechanic, so I shouldn’t really count it. The same goes for Super Mario Kart, which I played a bunch of around a friend’s house a couple of times, but never really got to truly enjoy.

From spawning the moment I knew I was a gamer to leaving me an addicted wreck in the corner jonesing for another turbo boost, Mario Kart remains an almost-anomaly in my gaming repertoire. It’s a series I love in a genre I often avoid, can bring me from terrific highs to terrible lows within a second, and brings out a competitive element in me that otherwise doesn’t exist.

With Mario Kart 8 ever-looming on the horizon, I already know it’s going to leave me a hopeless junkie, and I’m not willing to do anything to stop it. They’ve bought back the bikes, there are anti-gravity sections that change the entire dynamic of courses new and old, and forces veterans to rethink their tactics. It handles beautifully, the retro track selection looks amazing (and utilises four of the best courses from Mario Kart 64 to boot, including that iconic Rainbow Road) and they’ve finally added a weapon that can also be used to block that ever-dreaded blue shell. I’d rather they took the spiny out entirely, but it’s a great start.

It may have the entire future of the Wii U resting upon it, and there’s every chance that it could end up being a dud, but I know that I’m going to lose a great portion of my life to it, and I couldn’t be happier. To wrongly paraphrase Queen, I think I’m in love with my (Mario) kart.

Last five articles by Edward


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