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The Blue Shell and its Discontents

May 30, 2014 Article Start Page 1 of 2 Next
 

"The Blue Shell is everything that's wrong with America."

Ok, nobody said that, but you can imagine someone having done. The Blue Shell steals progress from a rightfully earned win on behalf of the lazy and the incompetent. The Blue Shell wrests spoils from leaders' fingers just as they reach for the laurel. The Blue Shell is the cruel tax of gaming, the welfare queen of kart racing. God damn you kids today. We used to have to win a race to win it.

I'm talking about Mario Kart, of course, whose Spiny Blue Shell power-up has taunted players since its second iteration in 1996-7. It's the pickup sometimes given to players far behind in a race, which homes in on the leader, bringing delight to the inferior player and torment to the superior one. Just as you were about to cross the finish, there's a Blue Shell, spinning you out so that Mario or Donkey Kong crosses the finish just ahead of you. And, conversely, just as you thought yourself too far behind to catch up, there's a Blue Shell to help put you on the winners' podium.

1996 is a long time ago - 18 years, to be exact. In some sense, metaphorical though it may be, that makes the Blue Shell an adult. A lot has changed in those 18 years. When Mario Kart 64 first appeared, the Amazon.com IPO hadn't yet taken place. Bill Clinton was starting his second term as President. Mark Zuckerberg was planning his Bar Mitzvah. You probably didn't have a mobile phone, but you might have had an AOL account. The Macarena was a thing, as was the Sega Saturn. It's easy to forget, to lump today's Blue Shell in with yesterday's like you'd lump today's internet in with yesterday's, forgetting that yesterday was an entire lifetime ago.

While all of us refer to the Blue Shell as such, it's actually called "Spiny's Shell" in the Mario Kart 64 manual. This difference makes a difference, because it re-connects the shell's name to its origins and its function. A Spiny is a quadrupedal Koopa with a spiked shell. They've been around as long as the original NES Super Mario Bros. Back then, they served as the ammunition of Lakitu - that begoggled, cloud riding Koopa who hurls them from the air in some overworld levels. Spiny shells are red, and thanks to their spikes they cannot be jumped atop to defeat, nor can they be bumped from below to flip on their backs as can an ordinary Koopa. Only a fireball wrought by a Fire Flower-emblazoned Mario brother can defeat the Spinies - or a hero emboldened by the temporary immunity of an invincibility Star (or maybe a kicked Koopa shell, but such a resource is unlikely in the barren wastelands where Lakitu rears his head, at least in the original SMB).

The Spiny Shell is the most profoundly existentialist element of the Mario canon. It disrupts the entire logic of this familiar fantasy universe. We were told we could jump on things to destroy them! We were told we could flip them asunder! But no - all promises are tentative, even in the Mushroom Kingdom. Spiny Shells are chaos, unfairness, injustice. For those of us who were kids when Super Mario Bros. arrived, the Spiny Shell taught a lesson, and the lesson was: you are alone in the universe. Enough with your childish expectations. This is the real world, and just when you think you've mastered it, it'll pull the rug out from under you. You have to find your own way.

The blueness of Blue Shells comes from elsewhere - half a decade but an entire generation later. A Koopa Troopa with a blue shell first appeared in Super Mario World, the launch title for the Super Nintendo in 1990-1. Blue-backed Koopas move faster than their blue or green-clad brethren. Super Mario World also marks the introduction of Yoshi, and ingesting a Blue Shell immediately causes the dinosaur steed to sprout wings and fly. Some things come easy. 

"The Spiny Shell is the most profoundly existentialist element of the Mario canon."

The Blue Shell didn't appear again in a traditional Nintendo platformer until the triumphant return 2006 of 2D Mario, in New Super Mario Bros. for the Nintendo DS. Here, the Blue Shell takes the same form as it had sixteen years earlier, but as a power-up for the benefit of our heroes. Collecting the Blue Shell turns Mario into Shell Mario. By ducking, he becomes invulnerable under his azure armor. Shell Mario can also perform a "shell dash," enacting the familiar destructive power of a Koopaless shell sent flying by foot, but under the control of the player via his plumberly counterpart.

In contrast to the Spiny Shell - a hazard that strips certainty and authority from the player - the Blue Shell has always been associated with speed, power, and security. Despite its rarity, the Blue Shell is a conservative bonus, a feature that entrenches the comforts of Mario, Luigi, and their human pilots rather than wresting it away. Would it be too much to say that Spiny Shell was a Gen X'ers lament, an NES-bred slacker's plaid, tortugal sigh, while Blue Shell was a Gen Y transitional object, a comfort blanket - blue with calm like Linus van Pelt's - that proffers assurance to the SNES milksop every time, no matter how infrequently it might appear? Probably so.


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Comments


Otto Ruefrak
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One of the biggest problems with the Blue Shell (and it's hard to nail down just one) is that it rarely, if ever, really helps the person who launched it. Usually the Blue Shell will be launched by someone so far behind the leader that they have no hope of catching up. It just allows the person in 2nd and 3rd to get ahead. It also creates an incentive for NOT being in 1st place at all until the very end.

Fabian Fischer
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Yes. Especially your last sentence highlights a really fundamental problem with the game. The way items are distributed induces degenerate play. The game kind of reduces itself to absurdity.
At its core, it's a racing game, so that naturally suggests that being in first place is a good thing. But due to items like the Blue Shell, it actually isn't. It's optimal to NOT be the best racer throughout the majority of a match. This really screws with the positional heuristics.

Christian Nutt
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You know, call me crazy, but I don't think Nintendo considers Mario Kart for an audience who cares about "degenerate play" or "positional heuristics." The game is for a bunch of people to screw around with and have fun.

In the end, I think what people who complain about this from a game design standpoint tend to fail to understand is that this is a feature that is working as intended, for the audience Nintendo created the game for.

Of course, Nintendo has become aware of how hardcore its audience is, and MK8 has race modes that allow you to turn off some or all items. I'm not sure if you can exclude the blue shell specifically and only, though.

Scott Lavigne
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@Christian

I'd be okay with your assessment if the games didn't have unlockable content that essentially requires you to get 1st place in every race of a series on the hardest difficulty. It's really awkward to have to skirt 2nd place for 90% of the race in order to achieve this unless you essentially want to roll the dice and lose up to half an hour to chance.

Steve Peters
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it would be better if there was some possibility for the racer who fired the shell to catch up, or swap places with the leader, but some kind of major risk involved for firing it as well, but then we'd have an entirely different item, one probably not rooted in Mario canon. It'd be some sort of teleporter that requires lots of skill, and a bit of luck to use, but if you fail, it drops you to the beginning of the map... or something.

Michael Silverman
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I disagree. There is a small sweet spot where being ahead just that exact amount is a bad thing but usually its possible to gain enough of a lead that the blue shell serves its purpose, a vote of no confidence for the current leader who has perhaps gained enough distance from the rest of the pack to ensure victory.

In double dash, there was an explosive radius that also combats this issue because if the leader is not very far out in front, the entire leader-board is blasted allowing the person who launched the blue shell to catch up, assuming they are a competent racer who perhaps just made a small mistake early on. The blue shell is a fine piece of design that works for both casual and hardcore players imo, though I can't speak to 8's incarnation.

(Edited slightly to respond to Christian as well.)

Sam Stephens
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@Christian Nutt

"In the end, I think what people who complain about this from a game design standpoint tend to fail to understand is that this is a feature that is working as intended, for the audience Nintendo created the game for."

What's wrong with criticizing the design of a game? As far as I am concerned, there is no such thing as game design for a "casual" audience. Pokemon, Smash Bros., and even elements of Mario Kart prove that it's not difficult to make a game that appeals to both competitive and non-competitive players. Balancing is an important design issue, and we should not write it off just because the target audience does not care about it as much. I think Mario Kart is a great series, but that does not mean there can't be improvements while retaining the core audience.

Ian Richard
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Of course there is such thing as designing for a "casual" audience and we SHOULD focus mostly on what the core audience cares about. There is no such thing as universally "Good Design" because everything depends on the situation, your intentions, and who is playing it.

Despite disagreeing with you on that, I do find the item distribution to be less than ideal. I find that many Mario Kart races are full of metagaming to avoid blue shells and get powerful items... despite interfering with the core racing mechanics.

But the game obviously works for its core audience. The randomness and player screwage of the blue shell do a good job of enhancing that its not a serious competition. It's not about who wins, but about the crap that your buddy just pulled.

Sam Stephens
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@ Ian Richards

Oh, I agree. I don't think their are any universal design principals (but I do think there are guidelines that work in most situations). I was addressing how Christian was getting down on those who want to discuss the design elements about Mario Kart in depth, including both aspects that work and those that do not. Some developers may create games for a casual player-base, but that does not mean that everyone is going to play that game "casually" (if there is even such a thing). Mario Kart has issues when it comes to high level competition and I don't see much of a problem with trying to fix those issues.

Christian Nutt
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My point is not that you shouldn't criticize the design of a game, but perhaps it's better to recognize what Nintendo's aiming to create when saying they've got it unequivocally wrong.

Sam Stephens
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"My point is not that you shouldn't criticize the design of a game"

Why shouldn't we criticize the design of a game? That's like saying film critics shouldn't consider cinematography and editing when trying to write critically about a movie. The design of Mario Kart is Mario Kart and there is nothing wrong with trying to articulate how it could be a better game.

Brian M
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I think you missed the "not" in that sentence

Sam Stephens
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Oops. It seems I did. Still, Christian clearly said that those who criticize Mario Kart on the grounds of design "fail" to understand the product. His opinion is also based off the assumption that balancing is not an issue for "casual" play, which I don't think is the case.

Dan Felder
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You're continually missing Christian's point. It doesn't matter if the game doesn't suit a certain audience if that audience isn't what it's intended for. A my-little-pony game will likely make choices (including the aesthetics) that will turn off wide swathes of the hardcore shooter audience. However, that's fine because it isn't trying to fulfill that audience.

Dark Souls has punishing mechanics that are VERY unfriendly to a casual player's experience. Eve Online has design decisions that are VERY unfriendly to casual gamers. That's fine, because they're serving hardcore markets. Similarly, Mario Cart is intended for the casual gaming audience and has design elements that are great for casual play and are terrible for hardcore gamers. That's fine too.

Christian is arguing that the blue shell serves Mario Kart's design goals, which are not all-inclusive for all audiences. If you want to argue that it doesn't, great, but saying that it sabotages optimized racing strategies and thus undermines hardcore play isn't a great argument - because hardcore play has never been its goal.

Sam Stephens
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Perhaps you have missed my point, which is that the distinction between these audiences is not very interesting or helpful to saying whether a game is good or not. For example, many would say Wii Sports is a "casual game," yet it is well balanced and almost perfectly designed. Likewise, there are a lot of "hardcore" games that are not particularly well balanced or designed.

My argument is that balance is an issue that affects all levels of play be it high or low. I feel that sometimes, as more knowledgeable gamers, we forget that so called "casual players" do care about balance, even if they are not really articulate about it. I have met plenty of casual players that absolutely hate the blue shell with a passion. So by saying that the blue shell is a bad design decision (which I am not) I am saying that it is bad for everyone.

Dan Felder
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Okay, got it.

Personally, I think that the Blue Shell is by far a net win for the game experience. Lots of players hate it, the way lots of players hate getting screwed by luck in TCGs or similar things, but the presence of the gameplay element actually helps the overall experience anyways. The catchup mechanic is essential and it's important that players never feel bored or completely safe.

That said, I believe the blue shell *seems* unfair and that the design could be improved in such ways that the same role is provided with fewer negative reactions.

However, I don't find your argument compelling. First, you have yet to define 'balance'. Technically all players have equal opportunity to get the blue shell. That would fit most definitions of balance. Does the became become imbalanced once one player acquires the shell, due to superior weaponry? If that's the case, you could say the game becomes imbalanced the moment anyone pulls ahead in a race to begin with.

The issue with the shell isn't that it's a powerful item given to losing players, lots of powerful items are given to losing players. It's the way it directly punishes the guy in the lead and there is nothing that guy can do. It feels *unfair*, and that there was nothing you could have done about it - to most players at least.

I believe that the reason you don't like the blue shell is because it creates these negative emotions, not because of a perception of sudden imbalance.

"So by saying that the blue shell is a bad design decision (which I am not) I am saying that it is bad for everyone."

I don't understand this sentence at all. You're not saying that it's a bad design decision, but if you were - you'd be saying it would be bad for everyone? What exactly are you disagreeing with.

Sam Stephens
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I actually don't have a problem with the blue shell (though I don't think it's a good idea either). I was just playing devil's advocate for those who do see it as imbalanced or an example of poor design. Those concerns are completely legitimate and are in no way inherently expressive of "hardcore" gamers not understanding the game's target audience.

Rafa Del Riego
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I agree with Dan.

I believe that the leader could avoid being hit if he carries a Mushroom and is good enough at timing the exact moment to use it (just when the blue shell is about to crush you), so technically there *is* something that can be done, and that is not so hard. Even if you cannot avoid it, if you are close enough to the 2nd or 3rd players, it would be wise to brake a little to have the blue shell impact them too, so you don't let them take all the advantage.

Seeing how this element changes the behaviour of players adding more depth, I think it is a rather good addition to the game, and something to learn from as designer.

Terry Matthes
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Deep article bro :)

Nate Moody
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I never really had an issue with the blue shell myself: it became a new sort of meta challenge. Either you avoided being in 1st place, but strategically lagged enough behind in 2nd (which, carries the risk of getting hit by other players with the rest of the Mario Kart arsenal), OR you can try to race so far ahead that one or two blue shells won't even change your position.

The main balance issue, from my perspective, is that the player who fired it doesn't clearly benefit from it, especially compared to a Bullet Bill. Maybe a combination of the two? It air lifts the last place player to the middle of the pack, at a high speed, effectively bringing them into the competition again, AND knocks out the leader pack.

Bob Johnson
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Part of the design might not be getting the last place guy to first so much as giving him some satisfaction and solace. Satifaction from being able to affect the outcome of the race. Solace from being in last place.


Also reeling in the leader with a Blue Shell often has an indirect domino effect. I mean anytime racers catch back up to me from a blue shell or other item then the chance that I get shuffled farther backwards goes way up. And then its either I get payback or I go backward another spot or two.

Sam Stephens
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The blue shell can be frustrating, but I don't think it is nearly as big of a problem as some gamers make it out to be. I think the bigger issue that ties into the blue shell is that the opportunity to gain items in a single race is too frequent and/or contains too little risk.

Nate Moody
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I think some of that low-risk is what makes Mario Kart by definition "Mario Kart", as opposed to an extremely high risk racer like Wipeout.

Sam Stephens
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I did not mean to imply that getting items should be a difficult high-risk endeavor as that would dramatically lower the value of many of the items. What I was trying to get at is that making items require just a little more effort (such as defeating weak enemies) and not have them lined up across the tract would reduce the amount of items in effect at any given time. This is just one solution to the problem. Others include reducing the "item lines" from five or six per track to two or three per track or spread the item boxes out but make them finite. I think all of these changes would still keep items as a fun and chaotic element for low level players while adding more strategy for higher level players.

As it stands, I don't have a huge problem with the items themselves. They range from genius at best (green shell, thunder cloud, banana) to a manageable minor nuisance at worst (thunderbolt, blue shell). However, between the fifteen to eighteen item opportunities per race and twelve racers, there is just too many items in play.

Bob Johnson
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... if MK had alot fewer opportunities to use items people would slap it with the opposite complaint of yours.

Plus I'm sure they have tested MK with less item opportunities. Probably one of the first things they worked on when they made the original. HOw often should we have the item blocks appear?

And they found the rate (range of rates) which was most fun and gave them that feel they were looking for.



Sam Stephens
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@Bob Johnson

In the original Super Mario Kart, item panels turn red and deactivate after a player runs over them. The items in the older games are also not as powerful and the tracks have fewer environmental hazards to worry about. In the more recent games, some of the items are big game changers, which is fine but, when they are being used three or four times a race (as is usually the case), it begins to take the focus away from some of the other elements in the game.

Mario Kart 8 seems to rectify these issues in a few ways. There are generally fewer item blocks per track. The chances of getting a powerful item has been lessened. Recovery times from being hit and falling off the edge have been shortened. Only one item can be carried at a time and it is always visible on the player like in Double Dash. It's strategic to hold on to some items, so players may pass up the opportunity to use it and pick up another one. The changes made over the last two entries show that Nintendo is trying to fix some of these problems while continuing to keep items as a big part of the game (which is what they should do).

Bob Johnson
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They always make some changes to the game. And in this case many of these subtle changes probably had to do with the crazy layout of the tracks than some grand plan to fix your perceived problems with the game.

The game has played like Poker. IN the short run anybody can win. In the long run the best win.


Jed Ashforth
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I got the game yesterday and I've played maybe 2 hours on it. I've had the Superhorn LOADS of times. Genuinely. Journos reporting it came up once in the entire campaign - I don't believe it one bit, and I've only seen this mentioned in Chris Kohler's Wired piece, so definitely one to take with a pinch of salt. What was your personal experience of the Superhorn distribution, Ian? Seems like a good addition to me, fairly implemented.

On a wider view of the Blue Shell, it can arguably appear to be unfair, sure, but I think it's just an element to be managed. If I'm in 1st place and a blue shell gets fired, my choices are (a) keep driving and hope I'm back underway before the pack catches up, or (b) slow down and get someone else into 1st place, or make sure as much of the pack is next to me when it hits so they caught in the splash damage. And now we have (c) Use a super horn. Don't forget the blue shell also wipes any weapons either carried or active in the splash zone, so I'm not sure I agree that it doesn't help the player who fired it. It can be a huge boon if used on a tight pack.

Blue Shell 'problems' have been helped in Mario Kart 8 from what I can see so far. Battle Mode, however - now that DOES appear to have been tweaked to it's detriment in this incarnation.

Eric Finlay
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What did I just read?

Larry Carney
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An exploration of the absurdity found in modern academic writing through the lens of an absurd game where spiked turtle shells are flung around by mascot characters of the company which created the game.

In other words, it's a blue shell to the ivory tower.

Jenn Frank
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As I said on Twitter: Professor Bogost, you are a madman.

You have transcended the form. I'm not going to sit here and explain why this is brilliant, because that would murder it, but this is a scream. And then again, it isn't.

Thank you for all that you do.

George Menhal III
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HA!

What an amusing article.

Bob Johnson
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Battle mode in the new one is going to take play time to see if its only reason for existing is that they cheaper out.

first impression is they cheaped out. You go around and around and never see anyone.

AT the same time I remember that happening in the arenas too. Maybe only less obvious since you weren't doing laps and feeling like you had to go one direction.

Rodney Emerson
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One thing that I agree with this article on, is that the blue shell is full of contradictions.

Both threatening and goofy at once in terms of visual design.
One of the most powerful items in the game, but it is often useless to the one who acquires it. (Not counting spite)
It's filled with nothing but oxygen, explosives and likely some form of pixie dust, but it always knows where its target is.
As despised as it is, it also seems to be beloved. I would not be surprised if the internet went into a rage if it had been completely removed from this iteration.

I won't go as deep into it as was done in this article, but I can surely see that it's as iconic to MarioKart as the Karts themselves.

Declan Peach
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I remember a board game I designed for university had a blue shell... It was a card one would play to knock the winning player back a ridiculous number of spaces.

My thought at the time was not that it would actually help the loser, but inspire dissonance between the players - making them want to compete more.

"Make the winner the least safe" I thought. I wanted to create that feeling of sheer hatred to your fellow players that being hit by the blue shell gives you.

Brendan Young
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This sounds like something Ayn Rand would write.

David Klingler
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In Mario Kart DS and 7 you can dodge the blue shell just with boosting at the right time (7 requires a mushroom), so in many cases the lightning bolt is even worse as it's effects can only be avoided during invincibility.

I feel like Mario Kart Wii was much worse than any of the other games in terms of its item balance. I had a race on Mario Kart Wii online in which I got hit with three blue shells, a bob-omb, two red shells, and a lightning bolt, all in the last lap. It was like all the other players were in a room and decided to sandbag everything until the last lap so that I would finally get 2nd place.

That goes back to the idea mentioned before in the comments: changing the optimal racing strategy because of items. In the Mario Kart world, that's just called sandbagging. You slow down to get good items by being in lower places, and then use the items and whatever racing techniques to be in first when the race ends. I dislike doing that, as I just prefer to try to get far enough ahead that the items don't affect my placing too much, but either way, the blue shell (and the lightning bolt) can be incredibly frustrating in the game. I guess what it does is take away the possibility of the best player winning every race? I suppose that can be understandable, but geez, it can really cause some issues.

Jeanne Burch
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Reading this was an existential exercise. A fun existential exercise, mind you. I had to stop and come back a couple of times to prevent "mind blown" from happening.

And what the heck is a "tortugal"? As in "an NES-bred slacker's plaid, tortugal sigh."

Darius Drake
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"And what the heck is a 'tortugal'? As in 'an NES-bred slacker's plaid, tortugal sigh.' "

My question precisely. I didn't find an explanation on Google or the few dictionary websites I checked. Not sure what plaid means here, either.

Darius Drake
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This was an interesting read. What is the motive of this article? Ian, my understanding is that you mean to say that, basically, Nintendo's good game design is diminishing and that they're in trouble. They fool the player into thinking that they're great, but the Mario Kart experience relies on chance mostly, not on skill. Likewise, the white-collar worker is one cog in a system that--they believe--works for them, when they work for IT.

It's almost like you're satirically lamenting the ignorance of the common American who thinks they're doing something great, when they're not.


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