Wednesday, January 5, 2011

Mario Kart DS ~Lap 4~ Time Trials, The Introduction of a Princess, and Frogs in the Military

Hey! How's the New Year? Up and down for me. But let's kick it off, anyway!

We'll be going over the rest of the more interesting racetracks in the next entry, but I wanted to take the time to go over another essential part of the Mario Kart experience. It's not unknown that people play games for many varying reasons. Most simply play them for fun, but some take it to the next level. There are those who favor to memorize every facet of the game, as in exactly where to jump, where to turn, and of course, how many frames a second that super special ultimate attack takes and whether or not it breaks through another attack. In short, there are gamers who are more obsessed with being the best (or simply greater) out of everyone else. They want the mechanics of their favorite titles and series to be a part of their very being.

Do I do these things? Not really. I do make it a point, however, to gauge the game's difficulty and decide where my priorities lie. For example, do I HAVE to accomplish every mission an RPG assigns me? Fight every secret boss? Am I going to win every award and master every shortcut in a racing game? Does anyone really give a damn if I'm the best as Super Smash Bros.? Not really. One cannot deny the sense of achievement upon completing these goals in a game, but my point is is that they're not really necessary. I accomplish whatever the game requires me to do and see how far I can get with my skills in other areas. In short, I do as well as the game wants me to.

Admittedly, there is the rare occasion that I do want to push myself. The recent Donkey Kong Country Returns is one such example, but the subject of this post is Mario Kart DS. Despite being a game that's lost most of its competitive luster over the years (as in, people moving on to other titles), I feel a burning drive of wanting to improve myself. How was I when I played the game when I first played it? Not that great, but I'd like to think that the passage of time has improved me.

What does one do when they want to get better at Mario Kart? They go into the Time Trials, which record your time on each and every track. They're also a great way to practice; for example, is there a tough course you just can't race well on? Master your technique while constantly racing on the stage, and you'll know the ins and outs of your most hated courses. There is, however, a main draw to the Time Trials. Once you achieve a certain time limit in any of the courses, a Staff Ghost will be unlocked. What are these ghostly apparitions? They're actually recordings of a staff member's best time on that particular course that you can race. There are staff ghosts for every one of the thirty two racetracks in the game, and while they are not required to defeat in order to move on, they provide an excellent source for those who want to improve themselves.

Namely, me. I've beaten four of these ghastly opponents at Figure 8-Circuit, Desert Hills, Luigi's Mansion and my favorite stage, Delfino Square. And they weren't easy, believe me. None of them make any mistakes, powerslide efficiently, and have a habit of taking shortcuts, no matter how short they may be. If you run into a wall or don't take advantage of the same shortcuts as they do, it's all over. You have to constantly be on the ball and always use powerslides at crucial turns and broad roadways. You must push yourself to the extreme! I'd like to discuss one such moment I had last night with the aforementioned Delfino Square.

We'll discuss why I love this stage so much later, but in any case it was a stage I was having trouble with. The Staff Ghost, who's name is Iwa (horray for being able to read Hiragana!), uses Peach and her classy kart Royale. She is a speed demon, always powersliding to the fullest. I attempted to use my faithful Mushmellow to defeat her, but I soon realized it would be to no avail. See, one of the stats for the karts include Items; in other words, how many items you can carry at a time.

Occasionally, you can get bunches of Koopa Shells, Bananas, and Mushrooms, and in Mario Kart DS that can depend on your Kart's Items stat. Why this matters here is because Time Trials often give you Mushrooms to give you quick boosts if you utilize them efficiently. The Mushmellow's item stat is very low, so this means that it can only carry one Mushroom at the start of the race, and you can gain no other items in Time Trials. Not surprisingly, most of the Staff Ghosts use karts with high item stats. While this can be averted easily in the other courses, it is crucial for Delfino Square, which has a muddy shortcut that only those with Mushrooms can pass through, and of course the Staff Ghost uses it three times. No matter how fast I raced, the fact was that I couldn't beat her (at my current skill level, anyway) unless I had a kart that could carry three mushrooms. I hadn't unlocked all of the karts yet, and I didn't feel like waiting, so I chose the never-used 4-Wheel Cradle.

Too badass for Toad? Maybe, but even though it had cruddy speed, the acceleration was great and surprisingly enough it could powerslide well. Did I do it? Just by miliseconds. The hardest bit about using Delfino Square's shortcut is making sure you don't fall into the water after you use the shortcut, so I gotta slow down a bit and then catch up. After that, it's a serious bout of powersliding and avoiding the grass. Actually, all of my Time Trial records have been by milliseconds. I'll have to change that. I think I'm going to be spending a lot of time playing this game in the next few months!


 This is Princess Peach.

Mario's main squeeze. Peach is the doting monarch ruler of the Mushroom Kingdom, with a personality so sweet it could rot teeth. Unfortunately, her lack of sufficient defenses make her an incredibly common target of kidnappings and kingdom takeovers by Bowser and other villains, and as such it it falls onto the Mario Bros. to rescue her. Despite this, Peach holds no grudges and will gladly cooperate with anyone in order to get the job done. She's also known for baking cakes. That said, it is rumored that deep inside this candy-coated princess burns a passionate, roaring flame for competition, and will waste no time in setting up karting/sporting tournaments so she can get a piece of the action. Watch out, boys...

-Peach's original name in North America was Princess Toadstool. In Japan, her name was always Peach. Back in those days, American localizers had a habit of changing names in order to suit their own tastes or to provide a better fit for the American market. "Toadstool" stuck with the character until 1996's Super Mario 64, where she regained her original name of Peach. -Peach's Castle is one of the distinguishing landmarks in the Mario franchise and has been featured in nearly every title since its appearance in Super Mario 64, whether as a background piece or a central part of the game. Most notable are in the above Mario 64, where it was the main setting of the game, and Paper Mario, where it was shot up into the sky and Peach joined up with Twink the Star in various misadventures while held captive. It also serves as the setting for various courses in Mario Kart, most notably in Mario Kart 64's Royal Raceway and Mario Kart DS's Peach Gardens, where you race through her rose bushes and avoid the Chain Chomps and Monty Moles. -Believe it or not, Peach has proven herself to be a commendable fighter. She first starred as a playable character in Super Mario Bros. 2, where she could famously float her way to safety. She joined the traveling party in Super Mario RPG, where she used not just healing powers, but bombs, frying pans, and even a parasol. She is also a participant in Super Smash Bros., finally able to brawl with the rest of the Nintendo heroes and villains with the advent of Melee and Brawl. Not only can a flex of her hips produce a heart-shaped explosion, but she can also use Toad as shield, who when hit will throw damaging spores. She finally gained a starring role in 2006's Super Princess Peach, which reversed roles with Peach having to rescue Mario and Luigi! In Mario Kart, Peach is a character who has fluctuated in the Light and Medium weight classes over time, but is mostly known for her sharp speed that rivals Yoshi's. A fan favorite even amongst the guys.

Wanna know an example of my entangled relationship with games? Then again, I wouldn't be surprised if other people have this too. Here's one: I can recall exactly what was going on with that time when I was playing most games. I can remember what I was feeling, what I was doing, and what was happening around me in that time. These experiences, whether they be books or cartoons or toys or games outside become melded with our memories and become part of our game experiences. When we play these games again, those elements can rise out immediately no matter how long they've been detached from our modern lives and bring us back to to those days. I'm talking 'bout nostalgia, yo.

Obviously, one such example is Mario Kart DS. The only thing I really enjoyed doing aside from playing that game was my newfound interest in manga, or Japanese comic books that were translated in English. One of my gateways into manga was a quirky nut by the name of Keroro Gunso, or as its known in America, SGT Frog.

In the series, a bipedal frog-like alien named Keroro leads his five-man platoon to invade the Earth, but bumbles in a household investigation and is held prisoner/friend/guest by the house occupants (Fuyuki, a boy into the occult; Natsumi, the freakishly strong/athletic girl; and Aki, mother and manga editor). Keroro hatches many harebrained schemes in his confinement, but they all seem to fall apart when he grows accustomed to such earthly customs such as building Gundam models all day. Joining him are Tamama; a young soldier who not only has a Multiple Personality complex, but wants to have a gay love affair with Keroro; Giroro, a hardboiled frog who wants nothing more then to take over "Pokopen" (Earth) and grows infuriated with his captain's distractions; Kururu, the mysterious team technician who is a jackass to everyone; and Dororo, a ninja assassin who falls in love with the Earth's beauty.

Episodic adventures ensue. SGT Frog probably tied with Mario Kart DS as one of my favorite escapes from reality back in 2005. It wasn't just the appealing design of the frogs (and for that matter, the series itself) that stuck out at me, but the youthful energy and conventions that bounced off in every page. I can't tell you how many times it helped when I'd experience another day of bullshit in 8th grade, and then I'd go home, flop open a random volume to find, say, Keroro telling horror stories about multiplying sweets taking over the earth. It always brought me up immediately.

I think one of the things that appealed to me most about the series back then was just how expressive the characters were. Each character felt defined and never really felt like they were rotting on a spot in the roster. For example, at first glance Natsumi falls right into the "angry girl" stereotype often found in the medium, but as the series moves on, we steadily grow to learn about her personal life and the trials and tribulations of keeping a household together with an often-absent mother. There's other fantastic touches too, with each character taking your usual comedy manga stereotypes (shy girl, mysterious "out-there" character, and lame, scrawny kid) and add their own twists on it. Perhaps its thanks to the localization job, but each and every character, no matter how minor, made an impact. It was if I was witnessing a close-knit community come together, something I lacked back then in real life.

As a result, it's strange reading SGT Frog five years later. I've been rereading the series up to volume seven, and it's clear that I overlooked a ton of flaws as a 13/14 year old. Plotlines have a habit of either ending with a confusing conclusion or abruptly while the iron's hot (Most notably during the "invasion" in volumes 10/11). Certain "vague" elements that are obviously meant to have a future impact in the series are gently built up when introduced, but are either almost never brought up again or are reintroduced for a fleeting moment, then once again dragged back into the abyss. This has its advantages for some things (The identity of Fuyuki's/Natsumi's father), and to be honest it does add a charming mystique that fits the series well, but it grows annoying with the mysterious underwater denizens or Keroro's "life back then." Other flaws are present, but they are the most nagging.

However, it may not be entirely unfair to criticize these shortcomings given the series' comedic/episodic position. If I'm not mistaken, I believe the serial version switched from a normal weekly schedule to a more sporadic one over the years (which might explain why a 11 year old manga only has 20 volumes), and then eventually become overshadowed in its home country by the inferior anime adaption; which has its moments, but sacrifices key staples of the series for running time and is obviously aimed at a preschooler demographic. In short, not a good fit for a episodic comic. *click on the manga scans for a bigger view*

Have I outgrown the series? Not really. I'll be giving the dub of the adaption another shot later, but that's a story for another time. What's important is that what I've always loved most about the series is underneath the comedic outbursts and temper tantrums of the characters lies a warm sense of friendship between the characters and their surroundings. Fuyuki in particular is probably the most interesting character of the bunch, as he's hit the age where we contemplate the meaning of our lives, which is boosted by his belief in the occult and friendship with Sergeant Keroro. He can look through every corner of life and find wonder, whether it's out of this world or down to earth. Every essential character in the series has their own similar moment, whether it's a story of their past or engaging in new friendships (Tamama and the soccer player/Giroro and the cat come to mind), and provides a new dimension I've never seen achieved anywhere else. One of my favorite moments in the whole series is when the crew finally reunites with Dororo, who has grown to adore the very planet he is to invade and suggests a plan to invade Earth by means of filling up their town with flowers.

Despite the initial gall of such a simple plan, it grows on the invaders and they team up with their human counterparts to carry it out in the night. While alone, Keroro states the following exclamation out loud: "To be honest, I wasn't sure about this operation...but planting seeds like this, things really take on a whole new meaning! I can just imagine the expressions on the Pokopenians' faces this morning when they see these flowers! They'll be surprised at first--but then the expression will change to: "I'll give it my best again today." I'm going to love saying, "Hey, I did that!" I just can't wait! There's been so much bad news and horrible happenings on Pokopen these days. As a senior cosmic fellow, this will be my contribution to Pokopen's well-being."

I've always come to regard the theme of SGT Frog as "Enjoy the simple pleasures of life, but don't forget to add a dose of comedy every now and then." I think it fits well. Many say the manga wore thin as time went on, but I'd like to think that I still enjoy reading it now, and I'm always excited for picking up a new volume in a blue moon (speaking of which, I gotta pick up volume 20!). SGT Frog probably remains one of my favorite titles today. Whenever I play Mario Kart DS, I can still evoke that same, warm feeling I had when I read the comic so long ago, and I gotta say it's a bit of a nostalgia bomb combining the two today.


 Alright, get ready, because that review of Donkey Kong Country Returns arrives next time! See ya later.

*The scans of SGT Frog were taken from Mangafox, but were lifted from my computer. If anyone there (or Tokyopop, for that matter) has a problem with my use of them, please let me know and I'll remove them immediately.

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