Earlier today, I was elated to see a brand new video from the famed designers/developers/artists behind ExtraCreditz appear in my YouTube queue. As I was at work, I took a break from some other training, and took a listen; it's only a few minutes out of a standard 15-minute break.

While the video was certainly well-written, there were all sorts of points that simply didn't add up. Among them:

  • How does an item that only intentionally affects potentially the top two players in a race count as a 'catch-up' mechanic?
  • If this mechanic is so useful, why does so much of the Mario Kart playerbase revile this mechanic so much? Generally, catch-up mechanics are looked upon as a good thing that makes for more interesting games, not something nigh-universally loathed.
  • The Blue Shell supposedly appears more for players who are doing worse, but only affects players doing the best. Why is doing better in a game penalized?

For once, ExtraCreditz is wrong
In this article, I am going to make my case for why ExtraCreditz is flat-out wrong this time, despite their game development experience (for the record, I'm not without game development experience myself.) Even the most seasoned professional can make flaws in evaluation or judgement; I've done it, they've done it, and future generations of game developer or commentator will do it.

I say this not to personally attack the talented crew at ExtraCreditz, and more to have a better discussion about a more insidious problem in games: the potential for trolling, which is what the Blue Shell is built to do, along with some other powerups in the Mario Kart franchise which do much the same thing, and instead provide a better catchup mechanic.

That said, let's rip 'em a new one; this time they need it.

What Is The Blue Shell?
As the video talks about, the Blue Shell is an item that can be randomly obtained from the question mark blocks scattered around a given race course. While the chances of obtaining one seem random, it is noted that players doing worse tend to get the Blue Shell more often, than players in a leading place.

Upon using the Blue Shell, it acts as a homing missile for the player in first place, hitting anyone in its way. Upon finding the first place player, it unerringly swoops in front of them, dive bombs them, and detonates in a rather impressive nuclear explosion, with a slight area of effect; if players are close to the first place racer, they suffer the same fate (spinning out, dropping coins.)

This was first introduced in Super Mario 64, and has existed in every Mario Kart released since. However, there are other items that are similarly powerful (in the case of the Thunderbolt, more powerful) that achieve the 'catch-up' objective much better than the Blue Shell. That leads me straight into my first point.

Problem I: The Blue Shell Is Not A Catch Up Mechanic
The Blue Shell, as noted above, homes in on the leading player. It does not confer a direct advantage to the player who uses it; if you launch it from 12th place, at worst you will spin out the first place character, who falls behind a couple of slots. Let me re-iterate: you are still in 12th place.

However, in Mario Kart 8, the Blue Shell is a grounded projectile. This means, on its quest to ruin the 1st Place racer's day, it can ruin everyone else's day in one fell swoop. This is the best case scenario. It won't earn you first place, as spin-outs only last for a couple of seconds, but you can gain a slightly better place for a time.

The Blue Shell is also not a catch-up mechanic because it doesn't compensate for weaknesses of local setup or player skill. If you are a weak player, the Blue Shell buys you a temporary edge; more skilled players, or more advanced AIs, will overcome your ability to play sooner or later. Hopefully you get other items to either stave this outcome off, or gain insights as you're playing and evolve your abilities mid-game (this is the best outcome, actually.)

The Blue Shell is not a catch-up mechanic, because if you have a cart with particular weaknesses (e.g. low maximum speed, poor acceleration, bad cornering), using it will not grant you any of these vital physics bonuses. Again, you're buying a temporary material advantage. If you're a skilled player who knows how to handle your cart, chances are you can stage either a comeback, or hold out until you can get to an actual catch-up mechanic. Of course, a truly skilled player probably isn't going to be in that bad of shape in the first place.

TL;DR - The Blue Shell is not a catch-up mechanic because it buys you a temporary edge. It does not resolve any problems of personal practice, or game strategy.

Problem II: The Mechanic Is Punishing/Anti-Fun/Built To Troll
The lack of utility as ExtraCreditz attempted to imply is merely one problem with the Blue Shell: it is not the only one. The reason the Blue Shell is a bad thing, is because it is an inherently toxic item/mechanic, intended to cause pain, and not make the game a more enjoyable experience for anyone.

The shells in the Mario Kart series are weapons, albeit wacky, franchise-themed ones. There is a conflict at the heart of the Mario Kart games: I want to win. To do that, I must cross the finish line first, at the expense of everyone else. In Game Theory, a branch of mathematics revolving around how games play out, there is a name for this sort of game: a zero-sum game (the TL;DR version - only one person can win by fiat of holding the majority of the game's resources.) All of this is to say, pain is somewhat inevitable. The presence of pain, or a feeling of loss, cannot be avoided. However, it can be made fun.

Mario Kart 8 attempts to rein in the Blue Shell with the most basic item in the game: the humble boost mushroom. There is an extremely tight window where, by boosting, you can outrun the nuclear shell-splosion. It requires cracker-jack reflexes, and is briefly telegraphed by the shell's homing animation, which makes the shell, admittedly, slightly fairer (that's all the praise I've got for it.) Alternatively, you could go invincible. Invincibility means invincibility where the Blue Shell is concerned.

Extra Creditz claims this is to make the Blue Shell not entirely horrible in professional-level play, and that may well be one reason for the visual tell and (slight) window to react, if you can at all (remember, mushrooms are a random question-block drop, too!)

The problem is, this is still not fun. If you reach first place, you're entirely reliant on the RNG (random-number generator) for specific drops (the mushroom or the star, two out of a number of possible items). If you don't have them, you can brake your cart and try to get the 2nd place racer caught in the blast - that's always fun! (Not really. You jerk.)

If that's not good enough, let's take this to its logical conclusion, shall we? Let's make an entire strategy around the blue shell. It's simple: the ingredients are, being in a low place to get a better blue shell drop rate, our minimap, and enough practice to have a sense of predicting where the 1st Place racer is. Even if that racer has a boost mushroom or star, it's perfectly useful to make them waste it by forcing a boost into a wall when they're in a difficult turn, or to waste invincibility when no one is close.

We've already established that the shell does not confer an appreciable competitive advantage unless we get darn lucky. The point of this play is because we know we're going to lose. We want to screw with someone's head while we're doing it.

We're a troll, the bane of a good party game.

This item is a troll's paradise. Everyone already hates this item for their own reasons. By a simple bit of reverse psychology, this 'humble' item is a cudgel with which we can wreak havoc on a good-natured social interaction. It's built with us in mind - nearly undodgable, intended to be harsh to the most successful...this item is the crystallization of what a troll strives for at any given time: something near completely useless that elicits a deep emotional reaction, for the sheer lulz of the matter.

Alternatively, if the troll gets in first place, the troll knows they will probably see one of these. That 'braking' mitigation strategy mentioned earlier (y'know, the one that doesn't work?) is now prime just to irritate someone else. Enjoy laughing yourself silly.

This leads me to the final point of why the shell is not a good or useful mechanic...

Problem III: The Shell Penalizes Good Play
We've established a few facts about the Blue Shell:

  • It is built to affect the first place player
  • It has an AoE to affect any nearby players
  • It confers no significant strategic advantage
  • It only causes pain

The worst one is that you stand a better chance of surviving the shell if you're not in a leading position. Given that anyone can pick up this nuke at any time, you're better off being mediocre until right before the end of the match...if you dare to be that.

See, the way cups in Mario Kart games work, is you gain an amount of points for the place you finish each track in. First place gets the most, followed by second, third, etc. If you want to win the cup, you need the most points. However, being at the front of the pack means you're the primary, and nearly guaranteed target of, a blue shell. It's a simple summation at the end of any track to determine how many points you need to edge out another player to win. Here's a hint: 1 point is the difference between losing a battle to win the war, or the opposite way 'round.

While this is as old as the Mario Kart series itself, and is a well-implemented mechanic to avoid penalizing players unduly, this unwittingly helps make the Blue Shell an even more potent weapon, because the worst player has indirect control of the game. That's right, if you're doing well, you have less control over your victory than someone doing worse than you.

Think about that for a second. Let it sink in.

Instead of the game 'providing a series of choices in pursuit of a clear and compelling goal', the opposite is happening. This is anathema to the point of a game. It is a game design anti-pattern. By making a good decision, you put yourself at unusually high risk of being taken down violently, with nearly no way to counter (unless the RNG gods really like you. But, they don't.)

Conclusion and Suggestion of Correction
ExtraCreditz is fundamentally wrong on why the Blue Shell is 'needed.' It is not, it is a game-design anti-pattern that strips the value of control from the game. It is of no value to the user, causes pain, and more tellingly penalizes good plays. This can be seen even within their own video, as the narrator himself can only use negative language when talking about the Blue Shell, particularly at the end (specifically, "whether you hate it, or really hate it...")

ExtraCredits should pull their video, re-do their play-testing and other key parts of their research, and not play up their ficitional 'positives' of this mechanic. None of those are truly there. They should re-post a different video that, correctly, criticizes this malicious game mechanic, in pursuit of reinforcing to the AAA game industry that anti-patterns like this are bad, and should not be added in games, period.

TL;DR - If you polish a turd, all you have is a shiny turd.