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Why Mario Kart's most controversial item, the Blue Shell, is also a necessary evil

By Aaron Potter. Posted

The Mario Kart series, often lauded for how fun and approachable it has made the racing genre for all, actually has a dark side: the Blue Shell. Picture the scene: there you are, ahead of the pack by a country mile, counting down the last remaining turns needed for you to secure first place and win the cup by gunning it across the finish line. But oh no, what’s this? Suddenly an erratic beeping has appeared out of nowhere, until a flying overhead shell comes into view and blasts down on you. You’re robbed of your coins and forced to come to a complete standstill, while other Mushroom Kingdom racers whizz on past and potentially claim the cup. I say… what a cruel price to pay for being too good at tearing up the Rainbow Road.

There was a time when we as players associated this spiny turtlewear with the strong-type Koopa Troopas from Super Mario World and little else. Ever since Mario Kart 64 sped on the scene to cement the series as an all-timer via its first full 3D outing, however, sight of the dreaded Blue Shell has come to send shivers down our collective spine.

In fairness, its mainstay appearance in Nintendo’s colourful karting series is well-intended, and even purists know this. Because while its abrupt appearance can frustrate those who have mastered the act of drifting, turning, and boosting across the franchise’s several crazy courses, it’s also a lesson in being humble.

You see, the Blue Shell might be annoying for those who like to hog first place, but there’s no denying that it’s a smart game design workaround, made to keep said players on their toes; otherwise, karting with friends (or even the AI, for that matter) wouldn’t be fun for anyone. Whereas trying to stay ahead felt like a challenge in Super Mario Kart, largely due to the awkwardness of the D-pad, the analogue stick in Mario Kart 64 means you’re fighting with the controls less, letting you focus purely on navigating the track.

This added comfort, though, means that it’s all too easy to zoom off and put great distance between you and the other seven contenders. The Blue Shell ensures that those bringing up the rear always stand a fighting chance at clawing it back.

The Blue Shell is right up there with Bullet Bill, Golden Mushroom, and Piranha Plant in terms of items that are dished out to players at the back of the pack. Meanwhile, on the less interesting end of things, it’s almost always endless banana skins and squid bloopers for racers in first, second, and third position edging it out up front.

It’s a tough balancing act for Nintendo to strike, sure, yet it’s arguable to say that most Mario Kart entries are a more interesting arcade racing experience when duking it out somewhere in the middle. When that Blue Shell flies in to wreck your streak, therefore, think of it as the game’s way of saying, “OK buddy, you’ve had your fun. Now it’s time to play with our other fun items”.

Not having an effective, reliable way to avoid being hit by a Blue Shell only plays into their mystique and controversial reputation among Mario Kart fans. Only with an impeccably timed hop of the kart do players even stand a chance (before Mario Kart 8’s Super Horn item). They differ wildly from, say, how Green Shells can be dodged quite easily, and even Red Shells – which home towards the closest racer in front of you – are warded off by keeping a banana or Green Shell at your back for protection. The director of Mario Kart 7 and Mario Kart 8, Kosuke Yabuki, is even in on the joke himself. He recently told Eurogamer that while he and team “want to avoid those feelings of frustration”, Blue Shells are important to the game’s overall balance and that “sometimes life isn’t fair”.

That thrilling feeling of dominating first place, only to have it instantly thwarted by a flying Blue Shell with your name on it, isn’t going anywhere anytime soon then. And not just because Mario Kart 8: Deluxe continues to sell up a storm, giving Nintendo absolutely no reason to rush in releasing a new instalment. When that inevitable ninth entry does release, however, it sounds like the infamous Blue Shell will be there, continuing to teach veteran players to stay humble.

Until then, whether it be in a classic game of Mario Kart 64 via the Nintendo Switch Online + Expansion Pack service, or any of the fresh tracks rolling out as part of Mario Kart 8: Deluxe’s new Booster Course Pass, the only thing players can do is sit back and embrace the destructive blast of blue each time that beeping begins.

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