Road to Joy
The first night I raced online in Mario Kart 8, Minarchist had eluded me on every track. I could only watch as he sped into the distance on one of his motorbikes, vanishing on the horizon to claim first place. He may as well have been continuing his time trials, the rest of us left in the dust to combat for lesser glories.
The second night I crept closer, occasionally seeing him far on the track ahead, as if demonstrating to me the proper way to drift those tight corners and snag those coins. I never really was able to keep up, but just seeing him ahead of me was a delight. I was starting to keep up, and I didn't need to sink hours into racing ghost data on time trials to do it.
The third night I neared him, almost overcoming him in first. I had struck him with a properly timed shell and began drifting into a corner, my Larry Koopa cutting on the inside edge, ready to hit that boost and surpass him. Even if it was going to be for five seconds, I was going to be in first place. My heart lifted. I was about to achieve a personal goal set back when joining the Goodjers with Karts tournament online.
And then Manach crashed right through me with his starman, sending me into third place and stealing my victory — no matter how brief it would have been — away from me.
That's okay. Revenge is a dish best served by a raging, heat-seeking red shell.
I'm developing a theory that, upon the advent of spring and closure of those chill winter months, a series of storm clouds sweep into the mind and begin to heavily rain upon us. Our autumn and winter habits are cleansed away, but our clothes become soaked and heavy. Our familiar desires, those to stay inside and game, are suddenly washed away and our outfits, those that identify us as gaming enthusiasts, seem to weigh us down.
I would say my slump took a bit of a darker turn, however. Feelings of hostility, lashing out violently against my own abilities and doubts, only to be followed by complete distaste in that current state of games journalism. I could find no savory succor from this medium, and the urge to sit down and jam my thumbs onto buttons had all but vanished.
Yet there is always a game that brings me back. Everyone has a game that brings them back to the passion of this hobby of ours. This time, though, it was a snowballing avalanche of games and presentations that swept over me and carried me to the heights of enthusiasm once again.
My excitement for Mario Kart 8 was mild on its release day. Yes, I was eager to see how it turned out, but I was more afraid that I'd play it for a single weekend and then forget about it for five months. I almost forgot to pick it up on my way home from work, even, my nose buried into the pages of a book. The story of Otherland distracted me from games, and most particularly stole the full excitement for Mario Kart 8 that I was yearning to feel. You'd think burrowing myself into its high-tech, virtual-reality cyberpunk would kickstart some deeper love to play for me, but no such lever was kicked.
I looked up in time to pick up my copy of Mario Kart 8. Still, there was no holy ritual to removing the shrink wrap of the game, no time taken to open the case and breath in the "freshly opened package" scent of a newly minted disc. I merely inserted the game into my WiiU, sat down upon the couch, and expected to have my fill in a mere thirty minutes of gameplay. "It's pretty good," I'd note on the forums, and casually make observations about whether that dreaded Blue Shell was still a nuisance or mercifully uncommon.
Thirty minutes ticked by on the digital clock, yet instead of having my fill, I invited my roommates to join in on the next cup. The numbers continued to change on the clock, and we played yet another race together. Then another, and another. Like adults, we chose to go to bed at a somewhat reasonable hour, but as the sun rose, so did I, and my first act in that morning was to power the WiiU back up and resume my quest for golden trophies.
It is, perhaps, a most clever scheme that Nintendo released such a game shortly before E3, so that my heart was pre-filled with love and devotion towards their console. Upon witnessing their digital presentation I found myself hungering for more content, eagerly seeking out products whose prices have not only been slashed, but fully gouged in an effort to clear shelf space for "the new hotness." For me, the WiiU had become my next-generation console — the one that I primarily cared about — and that was all due to the renewed vigor of electronic romance birthed by Mario Kart 8.
That's the funny thing about my gaming slumps. The least likely games tend to lift me up, straighten my posture, and aggressively shove the controller back in my hands with a stern "get back in there" yelled into my ear. inFamous was one such game, a title I was only really playing because my friend insisted it was really, really good. Nier was another, a title in which I knew almost nothing about except that Japan had a variant of the game where the protagonist was a much younger, teenaged boy rather than a fully grown man. These games are not perfect, and are in fact flawed, but each of them provided something that felt new and fresh for me, to remind me of why games can be so satisfying.
For inFamous, it was being able to complete so many missions, to level up so fast, to make such progress in only an hour of play time, despite the large, open world. For Nier, it was the variety of gameplay styles, the love-letter that each dungeon was to a past genre of games that had fallen out of the cultural zeitgeist. Sure, each of these games had more to them that I also loved, but it was that sense of being newness for me — that fresh departure from my typical gaming experiences — that brought me back in.
It is for this very reason that Mario Kart 8 comes as a surprise for me. It doesn't do much that is different from what I've played in the past, or at least not at first. It is a familiar game that I've played previous iterations of, minor variables and adjustments that have refined the experience to be as pleasurable as possible. It is still not perfect, no, and extended play begins to reveal the broken seams within the knitted tapestry that is gameplay balance, but being struck by an opponent's weapon is an exciting inconvenience once again. Unlike the previous incarnation, it no longer feels as if the game has malice towards the skilled player, seeking to tear success away from their grasp at any sudden moment. Instead, a drab race is given life by a road peppered with banana peels and sudden lightning strikes blasting from the sky.
Yet every game that calls me back, draws me into this hobby once more, has one significant element that feels new and fresh. It has been a few years since I regularly played games online with other friends, primarily focusing on co-op titles like Left 4 Dead, Gears of War or Halo. Once I started working regularly, my daily romps through online gaming hit an end. Mario Kart 8 is the first game since then where I found myself coming back each night to see who was online, who I could race against, and to see how much I've improved.
Well, for the first week, at least. Online play has certainly slowed down, but only because I have been reinvigorated to get back to my pile. Within three nights' time I had finished The Wind Waker HD, Fire Emblem: Awakening and Super Mario 3D World, games I had been working on for months now. I've gone from having my fill of games to browsing the buffet, piling a serving of everything I can find onto my plate. Yet throughout it all, I'm still seeking nights to go back to Kart, eager to obtain those remaining gold cups, to unlock mirror mode, and to try my best at climbing the ranks of the community racers.
Good weather brought about a foul disposition within me in regards to gaming, but Mario Kart 8 sped in and blew those moody storm clouds from my mind at high speed. Perhaps the one pattern in recovering from these gaming slumps is also the pattern in identifying them. Each time I stop playing, each time I grow tired, it is because I've been approaching games in a fairly uniform way. This time, an excellent game changed my play to bring in my roommates and my friends online. That broke my rut and reminded me of all the things to love about this hobby. Perhaps there lies the secret.
After all, there's really nothing better than imagining the look on Minarchist's face when you strike him with a red shell and speed on past into first place. Even if you know you won't be holding on to that position for long.