Several years back, we had a chance to work with Supersonic, a British developer that everyone at International Hobo respected because they were responsible for one of our favourite multiplayer games of all time: Micro Machines 2: Turbo Tournament on the Sega Megadrive. Even better than this was the realization that the game we were being brought into was another game in the same style: it didn’t have the Micro Machines license, it was in full 3D rather than top down 2D, but it was clearly another link in the same chain. Supersonic, we discovered, had never lost their love for this kind of game, and had found a way to keep making them even when the publishers had forced them off the intellectual property. It could be complained that the new game, then called Toast but eventually released as Mashed, was not original. But to do so would be to miss precisely what was valuable in Supersonic’s custodianship of player practices – and the same argument that applies to Supersonic equally applies to Nintendo EAD Group 1 and Mario Kart.
Why would anyone question the value of Nintendo’s hugely popular Mario Kart franchise? The most likely reason for doing so is because of the assumption, common to critics in a great many media, that originality is the highest value of artworks and thus that works that lack it are in some way deficient. Let me call this the cult of originality. If I may abuse Robert Hughes phrase for the impact of modern art, critics are infatuated with the shock of the new. Now it is important to recognize that originality is indeed a genuine value in respect of artworks, yet it is in no way its sole value. Equally it is worth recognizing that while games have a conceptual claim to art (as I argue in Imaginary Games), they are also at an intersection of a great many human activities, including narrative and sports. The way we assess a game, therefore, might not be through a common set of critical practices. Indeed, if we want to fully appreciate games in all their diversity, it is necessary to understand that by collecting so many disparate things under the single banner of ‘game’, we distort a chaotic multiplicity into artificial unity.
Before seeing how this approach of deifying originality falls apart when considering Mario Kart, it is worth reiterating this claim. At the point that ‘games’ as a term become a unity, they have ceased to possess their individual character: it is the attempt to then impose unitary character back upon individual games that causes people to valorise some games and denigrate others by excluding them from the mantle of ‘game’. This is the argument I put forward in Implicit Game Aesthetics. When we accept instead the diversity of play, we find that inside the blanket category of games are things that resemble narrative artworks, things that resemble fairground sideshows, things that resemble representative art, things that resemble or represent sports – and we have an ever-growing need for a ‘liberation of games’ to break us out of the habit of seeing all these diverse activities and entities as subject to judgements of only one kind.
In the case of Mario Kart, we land somewhere between sports (that is, motor sports) and fairground rides (that is, bumper cars). Immediately, we are outside of the space where someone whose critical practices were learned in connection with books, films, or theatre – the narrative artworks – has firm footing. Since most critical practice has come down this path, and since alternative approaches like Ian Bogost’s Unit Operations are out of the conceptual grasp of the majority of game critics, Mario Kart comes into the space of art criticism like a cuttlefish at a flower show. Immediately, the critic who wishes to defend it must appeal to its inherent entertainment value – and for many with a penchant for criticism, this feels like selling out.
However, it should not. The aesthetic value of fairground rides lies precisely in their capacity to amuse, and if we were able to get past the barrier that the totalizing term ‘game’ inflicts upon us perhaps we would be unafraid to make this connection. My interest here, however, is not in the aesthetics of amusement but the conservation of player practices in sports and sport-like activities. For one of the aspects of sports that characterises them as such is that their player practices are strongly conserved. While the rules of sports do change, and occasionally the institutions governing sports split and create variant practices, the rate of change of player practices within sports is the lowest of all games. It is this continuity – this maintenance of tradition – that affords sports their cultural esteem, for if they were not stable in this way they would not persist long enough to establish themselves as national institutions.
Mario Kart, like a sport, has strongly conserved player practices. Across all eight iterations of the main franchise (ignoring the arcade cabinets Nintendo co-developed with Namco), the core of the game has persisted, and the player practices have thus obtained a constancy. The concept of a multi-race grand prix with power-ups to aid a racer – or inflict upon others! – and of power slides and hopping to assist with cornering remains the core of the titles in this series throughout. Over and above this is the idea of abstracting difficulty out by characterising three different speeds of race as 50cc, 100cc or 150cc i.e. of having engine size substitute for difficulty by recognising that faster races require greater skill to master. These establish a core suite of player practices that remain, sports-like, constant throughout the franchise.
This is not to say that the games do not change or develop. The original Super Mario Kart (1992) had grand prix races (then called Mario Kart GP) consisting of five consecutive races for each cup; this changed to four with Mario Kart 64 (1996) and has remained thus ever since, although the number of cups offered raised to eight with Mario Kart DS (2005). The selection of power ups has been adjusted, most notably by the inclusion of the dreaded Blue Shell with Mario Kart 64, and the Super Horn in Mario Kart 8 (2014) that at last offers a chance of defence against it. The role of the Coin has also been in constant flux throughout: core to the design of the first game, it did not return until Mario Kart Super Circuit (2001) on the GBA, then disappeared until Mario Kart 7 (2011) on the Wii, which seems to have reintegrated it with some permanency.
Super Circuit was the only title not developed by Nintendo’s EAD Group 1 studio, although Intelligent Systems (who made that particular game) have always been closely tied to EAD. Super Circuit is particular significant for its introduction of the concept of cups consisting of classic races, solidifying the continuity of player practices by making every previous game a potential participant in each new game. Players who engage in a contemporary Mario Kart are thus offered not only nostalgia but a chance to exercise their already learned player practices, allowing quicker mastery that is no less satisfying because of it. A gainful comparison could be made to the motor racer revisiting the same tracks each year, or the golfer who plays on classic golf courses.
With Mario Kart 8, the conservation of player practices takes an unusual twist, for thus far we have been talking about Nintendo EAD Group 1 acting as custodians solely for the player practices of the Mario Kart series. But with the DLC provided for the latest installment, we find the concept of classic tracks being extended to another, less successful Nintendo racing franchise: F-Zero, a series also created by EAD. The recent addition of the 200cc speed further takes the game closer into intersection with F-Zero, which always had speed as a core element in its concept. The result is that Nintendo EAD Group 1 are now the custodians not only of the player practices of Mario Kart, which they have faithfully maintained for more than twenty years, but also for F-Zero, which (uniquely) is being curated within Mario Kart itself.
The cult of originality, dutifully served by reviewers, critics, and gamers alike, misleads us into thinking that all that matters in videogames is breaking new ground. While inventiveness and creativity are undoubtedly values we should celebrate, we must not be fooled into thinking that this is all that could ever matter about games, or indeed any artwork. Whereas a painting can be viewed largely unchanged centuries after it was created, games cannot be played in the conditions they were first created ever again. Emulation is more reincarnation than preservation. As such, the capacity to maintain player practices, to act as custodians for an established form, is something also worth celebrating. There is even precedence for this in adaptations of books and plays that, while adding some new element or twist to their staging, remain faithful to the source materials. The theatre has long since thrived on this continuity of practice, and the same aesthetic principles can be applied to games. Mario Kart remains faithful to itself, and EAD – and Supersonic, for that matter – deserve praise for this achievement.
Dedicated to Supersonic, and also a friendly glove slap for Jed.