The third game of the 2017 Nintendo World Championships was Mario Kart 8 Deluxe for the Nintendo Switch, the latest in Nintendo’s long-running, turtle shell throwing, mushroom boosting, banana dropping, power sliding, kart racing series. The first race was 50cc Mount Wario, with the slower speed class chosen to possibly throw off the competitors who were more likely accustomed to the faster cups.
By the end of the first leg of the race, the top four racers had settled into their placements, with “Kyle W” taking a commanding lead in first. The commenters attempted to keep the race exciting with their commentary but the skilled racers kept red turtle shells at bay by holding defensive banana peels behind their karts. It was, from a spectator’s viewpoint, a somewhat boring race (not surprising given the slow speed class).
But then, with Kyle W seconds from the finish line, the notorious Blue Shell made its appearance and the commenters lost their collective minds. “Oh! But here comes the Blue Shell! Here it comes!” they excitedly shouted while talking over each other. The Blue Shell, fired from a racer in last place, flew quickly down the track, honing in on the racer in first. With nothing but coins in hand, the Blue Shell exploded over Kyle W’s kart, but the experienced racer mitigated the majority of the hit by purposely driving off the track. This tactic allows for slightly less downtime as opposed to a direct hit from the shell, and in Mario Kart, every second counts. As Kyle W is moved back into place by Lakitu, the commenters question if the second place driver now has a chance to take the lead. However, Kyle W recovers quickly and it’s clear the Blue Shell had no significant effect on the match. Kyle W crossed the finish line with his closest opponent seconds behind him — an eternity in a 50cc Mario Kart race.
As anyone who’s played a Mario Kart game knows, running across question blocks and strategically using items is an essential part of winning a race. Good driving skill will get you near the top, but skillfully fired shells and stratigically held bananas will get you into first. The Blue Shell, however, is something of a unique case.
The Blue Shell (sometimes referred to as the Spiny Shell) first appeared inMario Kart 64, the second game in the Mario Kart series. The Blue Shell acts as a long distance homing missile, locking onto the player in first place and exploding on impact, causing the player’s kart to spin out and stop moving for a few seconds. The Blue Shell is only obtained from the question blocks by racers in or near last place.
The Blue Shell’s original design purpose, according to Hideki Konno, the director of Super Mario Kart and Mario Kart 64, was to keep a tight race right up to the finish line by keeping everyone tightly clumped together. However, the Blue Shell is failing at its original objective. As the Nintendo World Championships this year clearly demonstrated, and as you can experience for yourself by playing online or watching the Pros race on Twitch, the Blue Shell is ineffective at keeping a race close.
The Blue Shell has many problems in its design and implementation in the Mario Kart series, but crucially, the Blue Shell doesn’t benefit the racer who fired it. The last place racer who gets a Blue Shell can’t see what items the first place racer is holding (Super Horn, Mushroom), so they can’t see if the hit will be successful. But it never matters to them, because firing the Blue Shell doesn’t change the race for that player. Is their kart suddenly faster? Can they no longer fall off the track? Are they transported to the point of impact in first place? No. The player firing the Blue Shell remains in last place. The Blue Shell may have helped second or third place pull ahead, but it’s a blank for last place. You, as the last place racer, may get a good laugh when you see the kart spin out on the mini-map, but — bad news — you’ve still lost the race. Any item would be more advantageous to have in last place than a Blue Shell for a racer hoping to make a comeback.
Second, the Blue Shell is a skill-less item. Most items, from the Red Shells to the Lightning Bolt, still require some sort of skill to effectively utilize them. You can’t blindly fire off a Red Shell, you’re more likely to hit a banana peel, and the effectiveness of the Bolt is dependent upon your ability to drive and drift past the slow, tiny racers. Firing a Blue Shell requires about as much skill as pushing a button on your controller.
Which brings me to point three: It doesn’t matter your placement in the race, the Blue Shell makes the game less fun for everyone. No one in last place wants to get it, as it does nothing to help them, and no one wants to be hit by one, as it feels cheap and undeserved. Isn’t the point of the game to have fun?
The director of Mario Kart 7 and 8, Kosuke Yabuki, has said about the Blue Shell: “You know, sometimes life isn’t fair. Sometimes in life you have something where you feel that’s not right, and that’s frustrating.” I agree, but Mario Kart is not life. Mario Kart is a game created by people who have the ability to make games that are both balanced and fun. When the Blue Shell hits the player in first on the last turn of the last lap, and the next three racers fly past her across the finish line, the designers have deliberately created a situation in a game that is not fair and is not fun.
The Extra Credits video “The Blue Shell — Why Mario Kart’s Most Hated Item Exists,” posits that being in first place the entire game, and thus not being able to interact with other players or items, isn’t very fun. By being hit by a Blue Shell and knocked back into second or third place, these players are now having more fun. While true that Mario Kart’s best items are usually found by racers in 4th to 12th place, the challenge of holding first place can be equally enjoyable. And I’d argue that being knocked out of first by someone in twelfth never feels fun. Just an unearned knock.
In Entertainment Weekly, Kevin Sullivan argues that the Blue Shell keeps the game fun, preventing you from coasting to an easy victory, and giving you “the edge you need to come back from the bottom.” But the Blue Shell does none of this. Releasing your first Blue Shell is fun until you realize, “Well damn, I’m still losing.” But being hit by one? Let me ask you: Has your console of choice ever crashed during a boss fight? Has you PC ever blue screened just before the next auto-save? Did the wifi ever go out when your online team was closing in on victory? That’s the same level of fun as getting hit by a Blue Shell on the last lap of the race. This “edge” to climb back from last isn’t the Blue Shell — it’s a Starman, Golden Mushroom, Lightning Bolt, and good drifting.
So what do you do if there’s a Blue Shell headed in your direction? If it was recently fired, then there’s a good chance it hasn’t locked onto you yet — it’s simply working its way to the front of the pack. If your opponents are close behind, hit the brakes — then follow behind at a safe distance. Once the shell explodes, cruise on back to first. If you have a pretty good lead on the competition, or the shell is already locked onto you, steer into a banana peel or other obstacle. Your kart will spin out, but a spin out is less time consuming than a full on explosion that stops your kart for a second or two. If you don’t see a banana peel or shell, follow Kyle W’s example and drive off a nearby ledge.
There’s no single item in Mario Kart that can equalize two players of unequal driving skill, at least not one which will be fun and fair for both players. A racer who knows the tracks, knows the shortcuts, and knows how to drift is at a massive advantage before the race ever begins. The design team of Mario Kart 64 attempted to fix a problem with the original Super Mario Kart by designing an all new item. They failed. Later iterations of the series have continued to try and continued to fail to fix the Blue Shell, because this isn’t an item that can be fixed.
Throughout human history there has always been a last place. If you were last place in the Stone Age you were eaten. If you’re last place in Mario Kart, your character cries after crossing the finish line. I’m certain Nintendo would like everyone to finish first in a perfect 12-way tie, but that’s just not how a racing game works. When a red shell or fireball hits me, that hit feels earned — it came from an opponent directly behind me, fighting me for first.
But a shot from last place? It feels cheap, unearned. As racers zoom past, it feels like the race has been stolen. And the racer who fired the Blue Shell is still losing. Neither player wins here. Future Mario Kart games have plenty of design space for new items, tracks, karts, and characters, but game design can’t fix a difference in skill level. The Blue Shell was an attempt to equalize players of varying skill — a design that has repeatedly failed — and it’s long past time to retire the Blue Shell from the Mario Kart series.