Sunday, February 13, 2011

Mario Kart DS ~Lap 8~ Memories and Trials of the First Online Foray

Hey!! We'll be doing this particular post in a much different format this time around..I think you'll like what I've offered here.



For what seemed like forever, Nintendo was, for whatever reason, strongly opposed to including online play in their games. The Playstation 2 and the Xbox were already making strides with introducing non-PC gamers to the wonderful world of online gaming. While Sega's Dreamcast was the first notable frontier in online gaming on consoles, it was those two systems that made the mode a standard. Unfortunately, Nintendo once again refused to move with the times and instead made use of the LAN network, which involved a complicated process of connecting several Gamecube consoles. Obviously, no one bothered with it.

Personally, I believe Nintendo's stubbornness involved with decisions such as sticking with cartridges, no DVD playback, and being late to the online party had to do with their confidence in their own titles. Online play is one thing, but perhaps they felt customers wouldn't be swayed by such flashy appliances and would instead flock to their familiar brand titles. As we can all guess, it didn't work out. BUT HEY, NOT LIKE IT'S A PROBLEM ANYMORE, EH?

Still, Nintendo's initially hostile feelings toward online gaming befuddled many gamers, and was without a doubt the biggest criticism of the company during the Gamecube days. I guess they made enough of an outcry, because within a few months after the launch of the DS, Nintendo announced the handheld would feature online play. This announcement excited gamers, but it was risen to the next level when we learned that Nintendo's first foray into online game would be with the upcoming DS versions of Mario Kart and Animal Crossing. The internet went nuts.

As for myself, I was pretty excited. My only real online experience before hand was dipping into my friend's copy of World of Warcraft, but it wasn't quite my thing. A Nintendo game being online, however, would definitely be a totally different story. I remember Nintendo's choice of incorporating LAN as their substitute for online gaming completely baffling me, and yearning for favorites such as Kirby Air Ride, F-Zero GX, and Star Fox Assault to be avaliable for online play. No matter how much fun it was to discuss these games with my online-only friends, it wasn't quite the same as playing with them.

Now we would have the opportunity to do! The more we thought about it, the more hyped we became. The announcement came right as the DS began making big waves. Kirby: Canvas Curse was critically acclaimed by both critics and fans alike and was hailed as one of the most innovative games ever made. Capcom's Phoenix Wright: Ace Attorney was an immediate cult hit upon release, and everyone delighted in its charming premise and instant internet memes. The various iterations of Nintendogs caused a humongous splash amongst casual gamers, and remains one of the best selling series of all time.

Everyone knew the DS was a risky move, but Nintendo pulled it off. And soon, we would have our hands on their first online video game.

How did it work?

Note: Just to let you know, we will have a shortage of screenshots today. I love you, Mario Kart Wii, but you're hogging all the Google Image Search love, man!


I remember it like it was yesterday.

The online community sprung up immediately. Internet message boards dedicated to the game made their way via Google Search. "Clans," or groups of friends that had decided to band together, populated the Mario Kart DS board on GameFAQS, ignoring the fact the game did not even recognize such groups. Avatars, which you could design in the game and could actually IMPRINT ONTO YOUR KART, exploded in the same manner as they had previously in Animal Crossing and were readily avaliable to anyone too lazy to design one for themselves. Racing techniques unique to the game were discovered daily and were picked up by virtually everyone. Friend Codes, soon to be the notorious example of Nintendo's "failure" of their online structure (more on that later), flooded forums everywhere.

Myself? I didn't even know where to start. I was just surprised at how easy it was go online. Once you had set up the Wi-Fi on your DS, going online and joining a match was as simple as clicking a few buttons. You had four options: Rivals, opponents who hold similar Win/Loss ratios as you; Regional, where you could race anyone in the country; Friends, private games where you and your registered buddies could race against each other; and finally, Worldwide, where racers all over the world could be fought at the press of a button.

Despite its simplicity, I was immensely overwhelmed. Where should I go? What option should I focus on? A new player should naturally dive into Rivals, but the allure of racing people worldwide was far more enticing! And then there was the whole game itself!

My friends, of which included my buddy Vaztor, formed a group known as the 8-Bits, and all of our avatars reflected NES sprites. Myself? I had a small Kirby sprite from Kirby's Adventure with a blue background. We all came up with names for our online handles. Vaztor went with his usual namesake, and decided my name: Alagunder. We both thought it was hysterical and the name's stuck to this day.

In retrospect, however, our clan didn't actually do much except bear our avatars, which only polished a nice touch on our karts. While Vaztor proved himself to be a notable member of the online community, it was clear the clan itself had no presence on both forums and the game itself, and as such had no point. The clan dissolved maybe three-four weeks after release, and we found no difference in playing the game upon doing so.

As time went on, the nuances of Wi-Fi came to light. It was discovered the online mode actually took note of your rankings in Grand Prix. See, the game records how well you perform in each cup (As in, how many times you hit obstacles/walls/items, how long you stayed in first place, etc.), and gives you a ranking from a C to three stars. If you finished all cups with at least one star, the star was present on your username during a race! The same went for two stars or three stars, so when people saw those star rankings, they knew you meant business.

But was everyone as receptive to the other elements of Wi-Fi?


While everyone delighted in the fact that they were actually experiencing an online mode in a Nintendo game, players gradually began to complain about other factors present in the mode. Some of these proved themselves to be only minor hindrances, but others completely ruined the game itself for certain people.

For starters, there were some obvious limitations in Mario Kart DS' online. Not all of the stages were avaliable, and unfortunately the stages omitted were some of the most interesting in the game (Airship Fortress and Waluigi Pinball!). As opposed to the eight racers found in standard play, you could only have a game of four racers. Even in-game mechanics were affected, as the infamous trick of holding an item behind you to block an incoming Red Shell was gone.

Then, of course, you had the complaints regarding THE BLUE SHELL. Introduced in Mario Kart 64, it's quite different from the Green and Red shells in that it targets whoever is in first place. Upon reaching its target, it causes an explosion and hinders the player for several moments. Over the years, many people had felt the item was becoming a nuisance, but it was taken to the next level with its use in Wi-Fi. Many felt the item had robbed victories they could have won, and thus labeled the item as cheap.

However, both of these were small potatoes in contrast to what supposedly plagued the online mode. A certain technique soon filled the Wi-Fi crevasses and caught on with the Mario Kart DS populace. Remember how I discussed powersliding, a technique that involves holding the R button at an angle, giving you a boost? Well, people were (okay, and are) taking advantage of Mario Kart DS' version of the powerslide and executed a technique known as snaking. See, snaking works by constantly abusing the powerslide maneuver and performing it in a crisscross manner, essentially copying the movement of a snake. Since you're constantly gaining boosts of speed in such quick movements, it eventually became the key to winning an online race, particularly on the broader courses where the long, wide tracks were just begging to be snaked on.

Many Mario Kart DS players cried foul against this newfound technique, claiming that it was cheating and that those who could not (or in some cases, outright refused to) snake wouldn't have a chance. Advanced, competitive players, however, couldn't understand the fuss and defended the technique as being an evolved form of a basic technique and naturally taking advantage of it. It was a bitter debate that lasted for quite a while, and left a permanent stereotype on Mario Kart DS, much like Super Smash Bros. Melee's wavedashing.

Check out the video below for a demonstration.

Then had the dreaded, awful, downright scary Friend Codes, which are Nintendo's system of registering friends. See, in just about every other online service, you just simply add a name of another player to your friends list and that's it. On Playstation 3, Xbox 360, and the Steam service, once you add a friend, that addition is ubiquitous for every game you play on that console/service.

Not for Nintendo's games! For games on Wii and DS, Nintendo requires you to fill out a twelve-digit collection of numbers/letters for every friend in every game. Nintendo's reasoning for this relates to their policy of parental controls/child safety. The Titantic-sized bitchfest regarding these codes have varied from taken too long to input, having to register too many times, being the sole factor as to why Nintendo's online services are so empty when compared to other games, or perhaps just for the sake of complaining (a common facet of the gaming world).

What did I think of these complaints?

My views of these aspects mirror the same views I had back then, so I guess I'll be switching between past and present tense. On snaking, I'll have to agree with the competitive players (with the exception of one element to it..but we'll get to that later). It does get tedious just holding the A button and performing the occasional powerslide, so people are going to deviate, and that deviation gave birth to snaking. It's an advanced technique that takes advantage of a defined technique labeled in the game, and it's not as if it was born out of a glitch people exploited (Hellllooooo, Smash Bros.!). In other words, it's not cheating. It's just how experts play the game. Personally, I don't, or rather didn't, snake against new players since it's not fair to them, but I take the gloves off against someone with a high Win ratio. All in moderation.

And hey, how could you even beat the Staff Ghosts in Time Trials without snaking? I mean, really, good luck with that.

As for Friend Codes...yeah, I didn't see the problem with it back then, and I still don't see the problem with it today. Is Nintendo's online flawed? You bet it is, but these things aren't the reason why. Come on, is it really that big of a deal to take less then twenty seconds out of your day to fill in these numbers? "Oh oh oh but you'll have to do more then twenty seconds consecutively-" Shut up, it's not that painful. For the record, I also don't really see why people pin the blame on Friend Codes for everything that's wrong with Nintendo's online service. Lack of voice chat? Nintendo just didn't include it in most of their games. Lack of features? Same deal. Lack of leaderboards? Same-well, you get the picture.

So, I guess online back then was just about perfect. For me, anyway.

But how long did I play?


I played for a couple of months.

I guess one of the defining factors in Wi-Fi was the Win-Loss ratio, which is what appears when you're listed as an opponent on someone else's screen. It works like this: The game decides who wins and who loses by whatever place a player is in. For example, if I get second place in an online race, I'll gain a loss because I lost to whoever was in first place, but receive two wins because I beat the other two players. So, you can get as many as three wins or three losses during a match.

I obsessed over this for a while, and I came to various conclusions regarding this feature. On the plus side, without a doubt it served as a motivator for me to improve myself. I practiced constantly in Time Trials, I attempted to get more Star rankings. I even raced with Vaztor constantly, losing every time as he achieved stardom. Still, I didn't give up. Many say this is what leaderboards and player scores are for: A source of motivation for low-ranked players to strive for and continue to push themselves past their set limits. Practice. Losing. Winning. These elements swirled into my head throughout Winter 2005, and I longed to be a great player.

The more I thought about it, though, the more I became uncomfortable with my Win/Loss status. There was a noticeable gap between my huge collection of losses compared to my meager amount of wins. Did I feel inferior because of this? Not really. I mean, you just gotta accept that there are players who will, and always will be better then you. It's a fact of life that goes with everything. But I began to feel a little insecure about my status, and worried that opponents would judge me based on my score. Sure enough, some high-ranked racers quit the moment they realized they were pit against a group of low-leveled scrubs.

Was it really worth it to be one of the best?

When I received Animal Crossing: Wild World for Christmas, I just about quit. I came to the conclusion that being the best at Mario Kart DS wouldn't mean anything. Sure, I would earn some flattering prestige from the fanbase online, but was it necessary? Would I win anything? It may have simply been a fun pastime, but it got to the point where I was frustrated and not having fun, and that's the signal to drop something. I much preferred the lax nature of Wild World's online chats.

Did I still play the game? Of course. I just didn't dabble into Wi-Fi anymore, that's all.

In an ironic twist, Masahiro Sakurai intentionally left out leaderboards for Super Smash Bros. Brawl due to the very reasons I gave above. The man knows his audience (clam it tourneyfags).

Despite all that, somehow more positive memories then bad ones emerge when it comes to the early days of Wi-Fi. You know what my favorite memory of Mario Kart DS' online is?

The sound.

This song really takes me back. This is the very song that defines Mario Kart DS for me, and to an extent can even make me forgive all of the online mode's flaws.

You know something? I can point to this song and say that it's the symbol of what Nintendo attempts to get across with their method of online service. It doesn't try to overwhelm with its features, and wants to get the player situated right away in an online match. It's been Nintendo's doctrine for ages: Focus on only pleasing the player and nothing else.

This music symbolizes all of that. It's soft, soothing, and guarantees the player of a smooth transition to online. I remember huddling up on my bed in the dark, relaxing to this song as my DS attempted to search for other players. I remember how even when I was angry at losing again, this song would calm me down until I was ready to jump back in again. When my friends played other Wi-fi games on DS, we were disappointed that they didn't follow the Mario Kart DS route of employing soft online music. It left that much of an impact on us.

And don't forget the ringing when you find an opponent!




This symbolizes Mario Kart DS for me. The days of when I would play this game well into the night when everyone else was asleep. The days of when I'd read nothing but Dragon Ball and SGT Frog. The days of when my friends and I practiced day in and day out. The days of when my friend actually beat Azen and always beat me.

They'll always be there.


When I decided to play Mario Kart DS again last fall, the one thing I was most excited to experience again was the online mode. Through a certain circumstance, I now had a clean slate and could start from scratch! No longer would my losses outweigh my wins...I'd now become a force to be reckoned with!

Sure enough, I blazed ahead most of the competition. I could now powerslide effortlessly. My wins outnumbered my losses. I was now able to defeat the Staff Ghosts. I had a much larger repertoire of star rankings then I had previously. I could powerslide and snake ahead of both the CPU and players worldwide. I could actually win! I felt proud.

My current record is 136 wins and 36 losses. It's an impressive record.

...and I've decided to let it stay like that.

But why?

It wasn't an easy decision to quit again. I mean, I had more wins then your average person on Wi-Fi. I was now a skilled player. It WAS the main reason people played the game in the first place. What reason would I have to quit now?

Because there's no point.

The passing of five years has rendered Mario Kart DS' online structure disjointed. The gap between the different types of players is too large. Most people you'll find are just those getting into the game, and even if you find someone good, not only will they always have win scores in the thousands, but more often than not they either hack or abuse the best karts in the game in such a way that they are virtually invincible.

I suppose this requires some elaboration. One of the main reasons why people were so opposed to snaking was that a good majority of snakers made use of two karts: The bumbling Dry Bones' Dry Bomber (pictured above) and Yoshi's Yoshi Egg. These two karts have incredibly high acceleration and handling (in the case of the Dry Bomber, they're both perfect), which are the most vital components of snaking.

This is actually the only complaint I found viable when it came to snaking. For one thing, they are just about impossible to catch up to and it's a pain in the ass to come across them because no other kart in the game can match up to their snaking prowess. In addition, most Dry Bomber/Yoshi Egg snakers will vote the crap out of Figure-8 Circuit, the broadest track in the game, so they can score more wins.

As for the new players, they could be considered to be even worse. Most can't deal with the fact that they can lose and quit the match out of rage. It's not uncommon to witness a race that starts with four racers dwindle down to two in a matter of thirty seconds. Even when I try to go easy on them, pick the stages they want, and stop momentarily so they can catch up, it doesn't matter. They just want to win and won't take a loss for an answer.

Even when considering an objective scale, the online mode still falters. If Rivals promises that you will fight racers who have similar win stats to you, then why is it that I'm fighting a guy with over a thousand wins? Having only four racers and only twenty stages to race on may have been acceptable back then, but feels too jarring and bare today. I suspect Nintendo might have feared the chaos eight players/more obstacle filled stages would bring to Wi-Fi, which does make sense considering they were new to the world of online at the time, but it's just not feasible to overlook today.

And to round it all up? Hackers. Yeah, hackers. I'm talking about the guys who can shoot red shells at the beginning of the match, can transform into a Bullet Bill at the start and fly off, and even make you stumble over when the countdown ends. It's a lose/lose situation for the opposing players for numerous reasons, all of which boil down to one factor: The Win/Loss ratio.

When you disconnect a match, the game responds by registering that you lost the match and as such, you gain three losses. An acceptable punishment for those who rage quit, but what about those against a hacker? A Figure-8 Circuit spammer? There is absolutely no escape, whether you grit your teeth and bear with the pointless race or turn off the DS. No matter what you do, there will be that stain on your record because someone decided to cheat. If people played by the rules, I'd have about 22 losses instead of 36.

What's the point of becoming the best in a broken world of cheaters, abusers, and sore losers? What's the point if my record isn't a genuine reflection of my skill? What's the point of bearing it when the competition doesn't play fair?

What's the point if it's not fun?

I really, really wish it was different, but the factors above are just too much.

Despite its enchanting premise back then and my excitement of starting all over again, Mario Kart DS' online isn't worth the time and effort today. If my record doesn't accurately represent my ability and people won't play by the rules, then there is no point. And unfortunately, not even the music above can make me forgive its flaws.

But did it ruin the game for me?

Not at all. And you'll learn why in the last two Laps.


Wow, long post! Can't believe that I wrote most of it today.

Expect the last two Laps this week.

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