Sunday, May 11, 2008

Snakes on a Plane

Alright, did some reading on GameFaqs, and looked into the issue of powerslides and "snaking" on the new Mario Kart Wii. Longtime fans will know that this was a major issue with Mario Kart DS, especially for online play.

Snaking, simply, means stringing together powerslide boosts one after another. In Mario Kart DS, you can activate the red powerslide boost by hopping, then pressing left-right three times while in a powerslide. You come away with a speed boost, the same as if you hit one of those old S.T.U.N. Runner boost pads. Some players - either nefarious or very skilled, depending on your take - learned how to endlessly string together these boosts on straight roads, creating a weaving, snake pattern. It also made them impossible to beat, since they were constantly driving at a higher speed. Mario Kart DS quickly devolved into a two-tier game, between the regular gamers and the snakers.

So this was my big issue for the Wii version. Was Nintendo aware of snaking? Was it intended in the first place, or was it merely unintened consequence? The new game is here now, and I think we can draw some conclusions.

I think Nintendo's overriding concern with Mario Kart is fairness, which means fairness for the novice or causal player especially. It's a democratic system - every player has an equal shot at winning, or at least the learning curve is easy enough for the rookie to become skilled. Snaking, I think, really broke this mantra down. It's not an easy technique, especially not easy to perform again and again, race after race. You really just have to have a certain reflex to pull it off. The problem is that it elevates you into an untouchable realm. By snaking, you've become one of the upper class snobs, while all the poor schlobs are left waddling around with their turtle shells. It's not fair. You can debate the pros and cons all you want, but at the end of the day, snaking just isn't fair.

I don't think this was something Nintendo ever intended, and there are many ways to fix the powerslide system to take this out of the equation. And this appears to have been the case. Powerslides are different on the Wii. Gone is the left-right mechanism which has been in place since Mario Kart 64. Now the drifting is much simpler. Powerslide boosts - first blue, then red - are awarded over time, nothing more. The only way to get that red boost is to stay in the drift for several seconds. The blue boost is effective, but slighter, and in the course of a given race, not much of a factor. In fact, the addition of ramps, bumps and halfpipes strip away much of the advantages of the old powerslides. This is a different Mario Kart, kids.

What this means, in a practical sense, is that it's now far more difficult to snake around the tracks. I'm really curious to see if it becomes a factor in this game. Possibly not. But you can never be sure; trying to find new tricks and tweaks is part of the fun, after all. But if some new trick emerges from Mario Kart Wii, it will be a new one. It won't be the DS snake.

I don't know about anyone else - as if anybody will actually read this - but I'm much happier with the new driving scheme. As always, take my opinions with a serious grain of salt. I don't own a Nintendo Wii, and likely won't for some time. You'll be able to see how it all plays out online; heck, by the time this posts, my thoughts may already be obsolete. Maybe. Maybe not. I just want a fair game that everyone wants to play. Viva Democracy! Games For All!

Mario Kart Wii Musings

I had a little more time to play around with Mario Kart Wii at the Megamall, and it's definitely growing on me. This would easily be a "system seller" for me if Nintendo Wii was actually stocked anywhere. I am continually amazed at how well this little cream-colored box continues to sell. The last time I saw one on a store shelf was last August. At this rate, I'm openly wondering if I'll ever get one; then I sigh and go back to my turntable and record collection.

Back to Mario Kart Wii. An excellent game overall. I'm starting to grok the controls, or at least the basic Wiimote controls sans steering wheel. I can appreciate how well the steering wheel would improve things, since the game really is meant for that. I'm also aware that you can use Wiimote with Nunchuk, which should be very similar, but I haven't seen that at the Gamestop stores around here.

One great thrill for me has to be the new courses. The early beginning racetracks are pretty basic and standard, which is no surprise to seasoned Mario Kart freaks. The Star Course is where things get really interesting. One course takes place over a series of giant trees, where you are blasted into the branches, and then work your way down to the roots. There are some groovy curves on large branches that remind me of the tubes in F-Zero X, and I'm sure that's going to become a major cause for fistfights among friends. Then we add in some bumps - which enable you to perform show-offey stunts - and a halfpipe or two, and you've got a terrific thrill ride. This tree course may be my favorite Mario Kart in the whole of the series.

Ah, yes, a quick mention about stunts. You simply shake your Wiimote whenever you bump into the air. It can be a simple bump in the road, or one of the ramps, or one of the major jumping points like the red psychedelic mushrooms - someone needs to explain to me why Nintendo has always been so open about psychedelics. Weren't they the ultra-conservative ones, the guys who wouldn't stand blood and violence in Mortal Kombat? And yet, here they are, handing out psilosybin like Terence McKenna. Hmm...come to think of it, Terence McKenna raps would go perfectly with all-night sessions of Mario Kart.

There's another course on the Star circuit that takes place on water, where everyone races over a raging river. That's just wonderful from start to finish. The best part is when you suddenly find yourself careening over the waterfalls, and into some underwater tubes. There are also some narrow rocky passages, laden with halfpipes and ramps, of course. There's a bit of a balance between steering and driving responsibly, and playing risky and reckless with powerslides and stunts. Going the latter may pay dividends against your peers, but it's so much easier to fall off and crash away.

Twelve racers are present, instead of the old eight, and it's a great thrill. I'm expecting that online matches will include all racers, which makes me more interested for the online modes. As I wrote before in the last post, I don't know if "snaking" is present in this version, so hopefully we won't have the multiplayer games devolve into one or two expert racers that leave everyone else hopelessly lost in the dust. That was the one reason I grew tired of Mario Kart DS' online races. What's the point in competing against that?

I've trolled around gaming blogs for impressions, but it's tough to find anything. Most game sites like Go Nintendo, Joystick and Kotaku are merely interested in posting news items. They see themselves as the prozines redux, offering little more than free advertising in exchange for getting paid to play videogames. Where the bloody hell are the real videogame blogs? The real voices? The real opinions? I'm probably asking for too much, but whatever.

In any case, when I do find online discussions, they're all complaining. For me, this is a good thing. As I've said before, the hallmark of a Mario Kart is its ability to spark controversy among the fans. Usually it's for trivial reasons, all of which point to the same whiny lament: "I can't win anymore." Well, boo hoo freakin' hoo, Timmy. That's what you get for wasting your twenties in front of a television set, instead of going outside and living. I don't really care if "rubber-banding," the slang for racers snapping back from the rear of the pack, costs you anything. I really don't care if you've been hit repeatedly by items. That's just part of the show, and it comes with being the leader in the race. If you're way out in front, there's a good chance you'll get hit multiple times by your rivals. Suck it up. It's part of the game.

And I can say this honestly, since my last race ended with me falling into second place after being hit four times by shells and bombs. The hallmark of a great multiplayer game is the ability to royally screw over your friends. It's what made M.U.L.E. so great. It's what made Super Bomberman 2 and Saturn Bomberman so great. It's what made Chu Chu Rocket and SF Rush 2049's Battle Mode so great.

So don't listen to the crybabies. Mario Kart Wii is a democratic racer - everybody has an equal shot at the gold.

Friday, May 09, 2008

Mario Kart Wii - Yaay....Yawn....Yaay...

I finally managed to play a little bit of Mario Kart Wii this week, since the game is now installed on the Wii kiosks at the Gamestop stores at the Megamall. Yes, I am still without a Nintendo Wii, although in all fairness, I haven't bothered to look for one since Christmas. My turntable and record collection are consuming all of my playtime.

But, anyway, at least I got to play a couple courses on the new Mario Kart. I realize I haven't spent nearly enough time to make any final pronouncements or any bold opinions, just first impressions and early vibes. And I have to be honest. My feelings are pretty mixed.

First the good. Mario Kart Wii looks terrific, is bold and bright and loaded with more karts than ever before. Trying to steer with the Wiimote on its side (sadly, without the steering wheel) was a bit of a mess for me, but it's a learning curve I'm sure can easily be fixed. I can understand why that steering wheel was packaged with the game - it really is necessary for driving.

I've long been a critic of analog thumbpads for racing games, since they never mimic the rotation of a steering wheel. It just never feels right. Mario Kart Wii gets it right, and that's a great bonus. This is something that will become more pronounced over time, as players become more skilled with the controls. Everything is intuitive and easy enough for just about anybody to get into the game. I'm really looking forward to playing this game for extended sessions with the wheel, and especially with friends. As soon as I can find some friends.

Being able to play online games will be endless fun, and having all your custom Mii's lurking the courses is bound to be good for a few laughs...depending on how weird your characters are. I can just see myself playing now, pulling a cool mid-air stunt, and waving hello to The Dude and Walter on my way down.

Now the downside. This is essentially the big-screen tv version of Mario Kart DS. Again, I've only raced on a couple courses, but I've got a pretty good vibe for the game. The same structure of old and new courses returns, as the multiple karts, as Mario Kart DS. Even the new racetracks feel like a continuation.

This just reinforces my belief that Mario Kart DS really was the series' peak, the absolute high point. It's a good thing, overall, especially since we can get straight to playing friends on the couch and online. But one of the things I loved about Mario Kart is that each game was essentially different. Most game series play it safe by repeating the same formulas, changing as little as possible...The Madden Effect. Hey, it sells, kids...this is consumer capitalism we're talking about. And yet Mario Kart was the lone holdout, the one series that dared to reinvent the wheel at every turn. This had the effect of splitting the fans with each new installment, but the upside is that each version remained fresh.

Super Mario Kart on the Super Nintendo is nothing like Mario Kart 64. They're completely different beasts, and that's a good thing. I can play both games and enjoy them equally on their merits. Mario Kart Double Dash was another shift, with the second player riding shotgun. Mario Kart on the Gameboy Advance was a throwback to the original, but that one was developed by Intelligent Systems instead of Nintendo proper, so it worked fine as a side project, instead of a full studio album. Finally, Mario Kart DS managed to bring together all the games' best traits, while adding all those extra karts, the brilliant track designs, online play, and the best damned steering in the whole series.

So that's where we've come from. Mario Kart Wii is the most conservative of them all. It takes the fewest risks; instead, Nintendo seems to have realized that the formula was pretty much perfected on DS. The only real gameplay gripe - and this is another one of those things that split the fans down the middle - was the "snaking," or the ability to endlessly chain together powerslide boosts. I tried in vain to figure out how to do the old powerslides on the Wii version, and I didn't have any luck. I don't know if the old "three left-rights" result in that red boost, or if you only get one powerslide now. I guess we'll find out soon enough.

Which brings us back to the present, where I'm complaining like a spoiled child. Mario Kart Wii is no doubt another triumph for Nintendo, and it should be a no-brainer for every Wii owner looking for that perfect game to appeal to the hardcore and the casual player. There's probably no other Wii title that can make that claim, apart from maybe Wii Sports. So ignore my faint sighing. So there doesn't seem to be any real surprises this time. So the jazz combo has perfected their sound. My fear is that I will lose interest and become bored with the "Mario Kart DS Director's Cut," where a completely different paradigm would hold my interest for years.

Ah, well. It's Mario Kart. What am I supposed to say about it? Discussing this series is like discussing a pizza. You already know everything there is to know. At this point in your life, you either like pepperoni or you don't, and you've learned to make your peace with that fact.

Wednesday, May 07, 2008


Are the primaries over yet? Just askin', although to be perfectly honest, I do enjoy this never-ending boxing match. Matt Taibbi's piece in Rolling Stone really made me appreciate the Ali-Frazier quality of this battle between Obama and Clinton.

That would be nice to end these primaries sometime over the next month. I don't want to be thinking about this in August. I'm pretty sure no one does. But for now, it's all still part of the process and a lot of fun for political junkies. Grab the popcorn and enjoy.

$7.50 a Gallon

Seven dollars for a gallon of gas? You know, it sounds crazy and overly pessimistic, but all the while it makes perfect sense. I think a $5.00 gallon of gas is inevitable in this country...what's another couple clams on top of that?

It's at this point that I point out that I've been without a car for the past 10 years. It royally sucks in a metropolitan area that has such a poor mass-transit system - although the arrival of the first light-rail line goes a long way. But the end of cheap oil isn't a sudden crisis. We've seen it coming for ages. We've had time to prepare and plan ahead. Now the chickens are coming home to roost, and we're thoroughly screwed.

If oil continues to climb past $150 in the next few months, then it's anybody's game. Anything could happen. And the consequences would be disastrous for our economy.

Which leaves me wondering....what's going to happen to the airlines? Will we still have airplanes to fly around in? I wanted to take a vacation overseas. I better hurry up before everyone goes bankrupt.'s a good thing we invaded Iraq, right? That sure turned out fine.

Saturday, May 03, 2008

Another 100 Years

Whenever I feel the pessimissism and cynicism creep up reagarding the 2008 Presidential campaign, I have to step back, take a breath, and politely remind myself that the truth will out. Americans really aren't that stupid. They really will vote on actual issues that affect their lives, not endless mass-media parades of triviality and bullshit.

So I go from feeling slight bouts of despair at the endless replays of Jeremiah Wright on the TV news stations - the unemployed woman who asked Obama about the flag at the last debate is iconic - to feeling a bit more optimistic. At the end of the day, everyone will have to deal with the endless war in Iraq, the worsening economy, rising bankrupcies, collapsing infrastructure, rising pollution, global climate change, domestic spying, torture as official US government policy....yadda yadda.

The bottom line is that George W. Bush's tenure in the White House has been a disaster. And it's widely seen as a disaster, by historians and the voters themselves. Don't even get started on world opinion - yes, Fry, there really is a "rest of the world." This spells doom for the Republican Party in November, any way you slice it.

And, sooner or later, attention will focus on the general election between Obama and McCain, and McCain will have to answer on those deeply unpopular issues. We've seen that this week, with the uneasy shifting around his "100 years" remarks about Iraq. You can shift it around and mold it all you want, but the simple truth is that the Republicans want us to stay in Iraq forever. Doesn't matter how many years of conflict or secatrian violence, followed by how many years of supposed peace and prosperity, ala Germany or Japan. The mantra remains the same: We Are Never Leaving.

Sooner or later, Iraq will sit closer to the center stage of our attentions, especially in the general election debates. Today, at least, I'll be optimistic and believe that Americans won't base their vote on who's wearing a flag pin, or whether gay people are kissing somewhere. Do you want an American military presence in Iraq for the next 100 years? Yes or no? It's an easy enough question for you.

This is going to be a looooong campaign. Don't squeeze the Sharmin. Pay attention to things.