Friday, June 27, 2008

Blue Shell: Socialist Leveller or Nietzschean Abyss?

I write today on a delicate and difficult subject, one which much erudition can scarcely enlighten.

I'm referring to the blue shell in Mario Kart DS.

Now, it must seem strange that I'm limiting myself to discussion of this item's DS incarnation. Well, there is a reason for that. I happen to know the properties of the blue shell well in that game, and I am unsure if it has the same features in the other Mario Kart games in which it appears.

Also, the title of this post is not a lie. I am taking blue shells that seriously.

The blue shell has a bad reputation among skilled players of Mario Kart. To those ignorant of its effects, here is how it works: it's an item picked up from the racetrack, usually by racers who are trailing the leader severely. Once used, the blue shell travels inexorably to wherever the leader is, circles above his head, and then descends in a kart-busting explosion. The leader spins out and loses all forward momentum. The effect of a blue shell hit can be five seconds of lost time, which is enormous, especially when some tracks take only eleven seconds for an entire lap.

This loss of time is intolerable to veterans of Mario Kart, because it can propel a mediocre player in second place to a first-place finish, especially when the shell hits very close to the finish line on the final lap, when all the skill in the world can't close the sudden gap between the new leader and the shell victim in time. Because people who are good at the Mario Kart games spend a lot of track time in first place, they're recurring victims of the blue shell's annoying, unavoidable forced equalization.

Actually, the blue shell isn't unavoidable. But I'll get to that soon. What I want to impress upon the reader is the perception of blue shells - they punish skill. The only person that will ever become the target of a blue shell is the one who excels and plays better than the other seven participants in each race. Because the blue shell tends to show up in item boxes picked up by racers trailing in the last few places, the person who launches the shell probably won't benefit at all from its effects, but will only fiddle with the order of the first few finishers in the race. Because the blue shell is a weapon of the weak, who punish the strong not in order to benefit themselves but simply out of a sort of spite, it seems socialist - soak the rich, even if it does nothing to help me, because, damn it, it's unfair for them to be better off.

People resent being punished for doing well. Well, those people aren't doing as well as they think. The blue shell can actually be avoided, though it's much more difficult than most maneuvers, so that only an elite few can pull it off. Because Nintendo obviously programmed the shell in order to balance the game, a game which, otherwise, could be dominated by those with quick fingers and wits, avoiding the blue shell effectively breaks the game. The blue shell haters are whining over nothing.

There are really three classes of players in Mario Kart DS, with the blue shell dodgers on the top. To those in the middle, who have the skill to get in first place most of the time but not enough skill to maintain that position (which would be accomplished either by being so fast that a blue shell doesn't matter [which is possible, although very difficult, effectively making anyone good enough to do it a first-class player] or just by dodging the thing), the blue shell is an injustice against which they are impotent. The third-class player spitefully wields the shell in order to make the second-class player suffer, and this dynamic between these lower classes is what defines most of the interplayer struggle in the Mario Kart metagame. By using his superhuman powers to escape this pointless conflict, the first-class player is a Nietzschean √úbermensch.

The identification of the first-class player as Nietzschean hero is bolstered by the apparent ignorance of many Mario Kart players to the possibility of dodging the blue shell. On GameFAQs, none of the indexed FAQs I saw even acknowledged the existence of a technique for dodging the blue shell, all of them simply describing the item as inescapable. The possibility of escaping the tyranny of blue shells occurs to very few players, even ones who consider themselves good, even as the rejection of traditional morality that Nietzsche championed is so rare as to be mythical to most.

The hammer in the Smash Brothers series operates in a similar way, although, in that case, the one who wields the hammer is at a positive disadvantage against the first-class player, because the hammer actually severely cripples the movement of its wielder and can't be dropped. In many cases, having the hammer is a liability, because a good player can get around it and knock the wielder off the edge, where he can't jump (because the hammer disables any but a single jump from a standing position) and falls to his death still swinging his own bane. But in any discussion of whether a match that includes items is "fair," the interlocutors will point out the hammer as something that tips the balance of a match - though, of course, with two first-class players, the hammer would lie unused, because picking it up would be lethal.

Concluding: rather than being a skill-punishing injustice, the blue shell is an opportunity for very good players to demonstrate their skill. Embrace it.


At 1:37 PM, June 27, 2008 , Blogger Nick Milne said...

I note with no considerable surprise that nowhere in this article is the technique for dodging the blue shell revealed. Nobody's special if everybody's special, right?

At 8:08 PM, June 27, 2008 , Blogger Vernunft said...

Typing "" is hard yeah.

Hey how about some updates, Lazy McEnglishMaster?

At 5:43 PM, February 19, 2009 , Blogger Vernunft said...

No, I explained.

The blue shell in the DS version can be dodged with sufficient skill. It's true that if the blue shell gets you at some parts of a track, you can't execute the dodge. But I don't think those parts are a substantial portion of any track. In most cases, it's up to you to dodge.

Back to blue shells - check videos. Dodging them can be done. Facts negate theories.

You just aren't good at disarming hammer-wielders. I've spent too much time playing SSB, I know, so my gameplay might be different from yours. Simply put, the hammer can be overcome. It can be avoided if all else fails, except in unlikely situations where it's picked up with little notice in a tight spot. In large levels, one can avoid the hammer-wielder until it wears off, because he's so slow. And it's not impossible to disarm someone with the hammer - it takes a great deal of skill, which requires long hours of cultivation. Add up the ways of neutralizing the hammer or making it a positive liability, and it's not scary at all. On balance, I think the hammer is a DETRIMENT to have in the original SSB - it's just too easy to disarm the wielder.

Additionally, hammer kills often encounter instant karma. Kill a guy with the hammer and he comes back temporarily invincible, and you are stuck holding the hammer.

The skill-negating effect of items is woefully overestimated, usually by people who just don't have skill. You know how a piece of technology sufficiently beyond your intellectual comprehension will seem like magic? Well, effective item warfare (not mere use of items, but also picking up items, disarming items picked up by others, and negating the usefulness of items picked up by others) sufficiently beyond your skill horizon seems like luck.

Granted, if neither player has item skill, then it IS luck which determines successful use of items. But then you're just not good. Get better.

At 5:53 PM, February 19, 2009 , Blogger Vernunft said...

This was the comment I was responding to:

"Dodging the blue shell requires not skill, but extremely lucky circumstances that Nintendo doesn't offer to a first-place driver.

Also while the hammer in Smash Bros. cripples the movement of the player, it renders them invincible from almost anything in a 4-foot radius around them, and lands an insta-kill on anyone with more than 30% damage.

It's no fun to play a match where people are knocked out due to reasons beyond any amount of skill tempering. It's much more fun to play games with items like the fire flower or the Freeze."

I deleted it because I don't like links to malware.

At 12:55 AM, February 20, 2009 , Blogger Vernunft said...

Another malwarelicious comment:

"I was referring to Mario Kart Wii and SSBM, to be exact.

All the videos online which you haven't even bothered linking to include using a mushroom to escape, which is not even offered to a first-place runner when collecting item boxes (I verified this with someone else's probability charts).

Chalking up an item's power by measuring it to an extremely immense amount of skill you have makes it invalid. You have to consider players in the upper-average range, who don't have joysticks glued to their thumbs but still play normally and with a good degree of skill. It really is no fun to play with instant-kill items like the hammer and bomb, especially a hammer that knocks down projectiles and can go through platforms. Can you imagine trying to avoid it with the slow-moving Link or Marth, whose B-up instantly renders him a sitting duck?

As a reminder, the only way to dodge a blue shell; the only DOCUMENTED YOUTUBE way, is with a mushroom or taking advantage of a track cannon. Since getting a mushroom while in first place is an impossibility, it truly satisfies the statement that it is an unfair item that doesn't even help the launcher in any way."

I limited my discussion to Mario Kart DS because I'm familiar with it. If we're talking Wii, I can't speak to the blue shell's behavior. You may well be right.

I could link to my two videos where I dodge a blue shell without the use of mushrooms, but that would only go to the DS version. You seemed not to read my post and its explicit limitation. Since we're talking at cross-purposes, that sure was useless.

You're talking about the Melee version of the hammer? Get better at this game. It's weaker, much easier to avoid, and randomly leaves you helpless when the head falls off. Further, the levels are larger, which makes simple flight a viable option even more than in the original.

Psst - Link has bombs. He also has an up-B capable of hitting even a hammer-wielder.

Get better at this game. I don't see a purpose talking about a skill level where luck rules because the players are too bad to control their characters. If they're that bad, then ANY discussion is inevitably going to come down to randomness.


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