Critical Play: Balance- Mario Kart

Mario Kart

Creator: Shigeru Miyamoto

Platforms: Super Nintendo, Nintendo 64, GameBoy, GameCube, Nintendo DS, Arcade, Wii, Nintendo 3DS, Wii U, Nintendo Switch , iOS, Android

One of my favorite games to play on the Wii that I still play today at parties is Mario Kart. Mario Kart has such staying power today because it’s a fun fast-paced multi-player game with interesting tracks, short races, and a good level of skill involved. Balance is plays an interesting role in Mario Kart because there are so many miscellaneous decisions that each player makes when playing that can contribute to the balance or lack of balance in a single round of game play. In terms of the type of balance that is most relevant here, I think multi-player asymmetry is the most relevant since players inherently have different starting positions. Physically, the starting position on the track is different for each player. Similar to a track race, some players start closer to the finish line than others and players based on their finishing positions in the race before. There are also theoretically different starting positions between players since each player brings different skill levels and experience into the game before the race even starts. 


I think that Mario Kart does a good job at evening out the balance in the game through the choices it allows players to make. Before the race even starts, players are able to select their character and their cart. These choices feel rather transitive because there are explicit costs and benefits to each character and cart choice. Each character has different tradeoffs and fall into different weight classes. Bowser for example is in the “Very Heavy weight class while Toad is in the “Light” weight class. The tradeoff with weight is that lighter characters have lower overall speed but are able to achieve faster acceleration and heavier characters accelerate slower but are able to reach a faster maximum speed. At the start of the game players must make the decision of what they prefer to emphasize, speed or acceleration. Lighter characters can also be harder to maneuver since they are much more light and a little less stable. In addition to the weight classes, players must also decide what cart they will ride. The inherent cost benefit relationship with carts is that they vary in terms of speed, grip, and acceleration. In general, similar to character, heavier carts can achieve higher max speeds. With so many different and carts to choose from the number of possible combinations feels enormous. Of course, there are more advantageous combinations of characters and carts than others. For example, if you intentionally choose a very light character like Baby Mario, it would not make sense to choose a super heavy cart, a light sports bike might be a better choice to keep the overall load light and take advantage of the high acceleration that a super light character affords.

The other key part of the game that I think restores balance are the item boxes on the tracks. These take the form of item boxes and when you encounter them on the track it randomly provides you with an item you can use to your advantage. These items feel both fruity and transitive. They are all unique but they also have distinct costs and benefits that make some items more preferable than others. Some items you can be given include banana peels that you can throw on the track to trip other players, shells that you can knock other players out with, and lightning bolts that can be used to shrink the first place player down to half their size for a short amount of time. While they are supposed to be completely random, the game actually makes very smart choices in how they determine what items go to whom. Players in lower positions get much more useful items than players in first place such as the Star or Bullet Bill. These items try to help players regain ground in the race, for example Bullet Bill transforms the player into a bullet for a short amount of time and autopilots the player at a very high speed further up into the race. Players in higher positions are given less useful items like bananas and green shells. I think these item boxes do a good job at balancing some of the unequal skill levels that players come into the game with, specifically giving very useful items to players in lower places is useful to make sure less experienced players don’t get left in the dust. 

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