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The Blue Shell and its Discontents
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The Blue Shell and its Discontents

May 30, 2014 Article Start Previous Page 2 of 2

No matter, when the two forms merge in Mario Kart 64, those forces struggle against one another. Chaos and comfort, futility and control all bound together in blasphemous profanity. You see, the original Blue Shell didn't just seek out the leader, not back in 1996 it didn't. Things were stranger then, less certain, less predictable. Save for the leader, any player was eligible to receive the Blue Shell. But when fired, it would first speed away like a normal shell, susceptible to any obstacle that might destroy it, whether friend or foe. After a few moments, it begins following the track, destroying anything in its path on its way to its final target: the race leader. But during this pursuit, drivers in the Blue Shell's path who hear its banshee's wail can dodge out of the way, avoiding calamity for the moment, at least.

In Mario Kart 64, the Blue Shell reveals both sides of its split personality: the chaos of an indifferent universe is embodied in the first few moments of prospective squandering, while the comforting dominion appears in its certain destruction of the leader. In between, red spiny indifference and blue comfort blend into an invisible violet: power actuates and squeals its siren but remains inherently impotent, easily outwit by a well-timed dodge. The universe may not care, but that very unconcern can be focused, leveraged.

But perhaps most poetically, in Mario Kart 64 the Blue Shell punishes hubris. A player who happens to collect a Blue Shell and store it until reaching the leader's position is rewarded only with woe. After teasing the thrower with its initial straight shot, the shell reverses course and strikes the unsuspecting leader. Perhaps one goes a step too far in reading allegory into a Mushroom Kingdom-themed kart racing game, but surely we can all marvel at the fact that 1996 still believed that an arrogant winner could be hoist on his own petard.

By 2003, everything had changed, and not just in the Mushroom Kingdom. The dot-com crash had come and gone. We blogged now, and we Googled. PlayStation 2 and Xbox had stolen the thunder from the cute, cubical GameCube, on which Mario Kart: Double Dash!! made its appearance. 

The eager double-exclamation in its name underscores how desperate for attention and approval Mario Kart had become. It was willing to do anything for our love. Those of us who had cut our teeth on Lakitu's rage were too old to care about Mario ourselves and too young to have kids with whom to start caring again. We'd made and lost fortunes by then, we'd E*Traded YHOO, we'd gone to war for no reason. For their part, the former SNES tots were now adolescents interested in a different kind of magic mushroom, screeching through Liberty City rather than prancing across Donut Plains.

Here, amidst the despair of longing, the Blue Shell gave up, taking on the familiar form we know to this day. In Mario Kart: Double Dash!!, racers in fourth place or worse can receive the item as a pickup. Wings allow it to fly rather than glide past obstacles and other drivers on its inevitable race to the would-be victor. While some hazard still faces middle-field drivers who might happen into its lofty path, such accidents are newly rare. Dejected, the Blue Shell now hisses instead of wailing its earlier klaxon. Even it doesn't want to be here. There is only shame underneath the cover of a Blue Shell.

"This is the Blue Shell of collapse, the Blue Shell of financial crisis, the Blue Shell of the New Gilded Age. This is the Blue Shell in Facebook blue."

For a decade now this shame has entrenched. Through Mario Kart DS, through Mario Kart Wii, through Mario Kart 7. In the latter, the Blue Shell was even stripped of its wings, although inexplicably it can still fly - a cruel illogic meant to wrest its last faculty from its brainless husk. And with the release of Mario Kart 8 for Wii U, the Blue Shell's impotent entrenchment is only further affirmed by an insulting band-aid. A new item, the Super Horn, allows the leader to destroy the Blue Shell en route. But so rare is this pickup that early reviewers reported having seen it only once, if at all, during the game's entire campaign. Victory and defeat are just lies told out of two sides of the same mouth.

This is the Blue Shell of collapse, the Blue Shell of financial crisis, the Blue Shell of the New Gilded Age. This is the Blue Shell in Facebook blue, where anything you'd do with it already will have been done anyway on your behalf without you knowing it. To lead or to fall behind, to turn the tables or to evade one's fated fortune, these are just roles we play. Really the decision has already been made, as if by barrels in a slot machine pre-ordained by cosmic odds tables. Gone is the chaos where once terror and comfort intertwined like smoke and sex in the darkness, where all options seemed possible even if some seemed less likely. Some hope remained, that a world of uncertainty might still afford tactics even as it also eluded them. That outcomes hadn't already been determined on our behalf behind closed doors or in data centers.

Mario Kart 8Today, winner and loser alike know that the real winners aren't even in the game, aren't even on the course. Real winners need not even bother with Mario Kart, for they have managed to master a real Blue Shell in the interim, a trump card against the universe. This week, as the newbies and the nostalgic and the neotenous power up their Wii Us for the first time in months to pilot cartoon apes and dinosaurs once more in Mario Kart 8, Sergey Brin has launched his prototype Google Autonomous Car. He's already turned all of Mountain View into one big, real-world kart race - and he's coming for your town too. How charming that you would pilot toy cars in mimicry of the future.

For its part, Nintendo is more like us than it is like Google. It needs a Blue Shell more than anyone. Hemorrhaging money, the company punctuated a year of disappointing sales by flubbing the launch of Tomodachi Life in the West, failing to notice that those NES and SNES kids of yore are now adults, and that they might just as well like Daisy to be Peach's prince. Its last-ditch effort would count as irony if it weren't so tragic: the Mario Kart 8 Limited Edition Set. Those who pre-order or race to retail day-one will receive a box with the game and a Spiny Blue Shell collectible, a molded plastic trophy celebrating the futile dream of victory and the final incarceration of chaos. Now, at long last, both victory and defeat can be definitively brought to a halt, forever suspended in inaction. There, the Blue Shell participation trophy overlooks the grey pavement of your cubicle—if you’re lucky enough to have one—where you labor quietly under the false impression that someday you too will be a victor.

Ian Bogost is a writer and game designer. He is the Ivan Allen College Distinguished Chair in media studies and a professor of interactive computing at the Georgia Institute of Technology.

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