Critical Play: Is this Game Balance? (Mario Kart ;))

Mario Kart Promotional Poster

This week, I will be writing my critical play about, arguably, one of the best games in history: Mario Kart. Created by Nintendo, Mario Kart is a racing game launched initially on the Wii, expanding to Wii U and Nintendo Switch in recent years. The game’s target market is 5-6 y/o+ and people who love the sense of competition it provides. The game is memorable to me for being great because 1) it was quite literally my childhood and 2) more specifically, it is a game that never fails to bring together my friends and family through fun sport. The game can be played by any number of players of really any skill level, providing customizable level difficulty and map settings. I primarily played during huge holiday parties with my little cousins, crazy uncles, family friends, and confused grandparents haha. It is simply awesome how Mario Kart can bring family drama to rest, at least for a few minutes. The game incorporates inter-competition with both its players and CPUs with the main incentive being winning the race overall and placing on the final leaderboard. Its use of randomness in its item drops, CPU interactions, car/track customizations, etc. make game balance an unavoidable topic of discussion whenever the game’s brought up.

Before hopping into a direct discussion of balance, let’s look into some of the game’s most important formal elements:

  1. Objectives: To win as many races as possible to optimize accumulated points which determine the final winner!
  2. Outcomes: Mario Kart has a non-zero-sum state!
  3. Rules: The only rules are really just to run the race on the track and finish.
  4. Procedures: In the beginning, players are thrown into the race in staggered, random order that is later determined by point number. Players then race a series of races.
  5. Resources: Power-ups!
  6. Players: When single-player, Mario Kart is Player vs. Game. When multiplayer, it’s Multiplayer Co-Op.
Mario Kart Power Up: Bullet Bill (only offered to players ranked below 6th place)

When looking at the game’s balance, I feel like single-player balance, strategy balance, and asymmetric balance almost dominate in relevance. Mario Kart’s customizable race and CPU difficulty settings make it so the players can make personal choices in order to make the game more balanced and therefore more fun for themselves. When looking at the choice between Automatic and Manual drift mode and between different remote options, I feel like the player has many choices in regards to actual gameplay controls/devices to make their experience more comfortable and seamless (closing the gap between people of different ages and ability). I also feel like the random nature of the game mentioned previously (item drops, CPU interactions, character/car/track customizations, etc.**) is an intentional choice to facilitate asymmetric balance. These game dynamics offer advantages and disadvantages to its players, however in order to make it less chance-based and ‘rigged’ the game offers items like bullet bill (an item that practically runs the race for you at high speed) and the blue shell (which attacks first place) that is offered to only players who are losing the race or behind a certain threshold of players. I find it interesting that the main way the game enforces balance is through its item boxes; people winning the race always get the worst items while those losing get items to help them get ahead (making the game more unpredictable and fun!) I do have to say that in regards to choosing tracks, cars, and players, the game is fairly unbalanced as one who analyzes the stats of each wheel, car, and parachute will automatically have a faster car and therefore faster race than their competitors. There is no way to balance out such imbalances in this game aside from everyone playing with the same vehicle and character (which is simply NOT fun)… This becomes clear when observing the contrast in choice between experienced and inexperienced players. Most of the time, experienced players (myself included haha) have specific vehicle customization combinations that they choose each time to maximize their stats while inexperienced players just choose the cars they think look the coolest or cutest. But, honestly, I think though this part of the game is unbalanced, other parts of the game, specifically its randomness, make it sometimes negligible. I have played with the fastest car and lightest character against bowser in the heaviest, slowest car (played by my little sister) and lost horribly because CPUs kept on throwing red shells at me.

Mario Kart Kart Customization Screen

Mario Kart, in all of its iterations, is a beautifully balanced game. Whether it is played as a single-player or multiplayer, the game promotes a sense of challenge, competition, and exploration through its amazing maps. No game is ever truly balanced, but in my opinion, it is the imbalance and unpredictability that brings players back for more. 

I can’t believe this is our final critical play and I truly have been so grateful for these assignments as I really do feel like they have given me a new lens to analyze my favorite and my original games :).


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