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The Blue Shell and its Discontents

As the latest Mario Kart hitting store shelves this week, author, professor and game developer Ian Bogost draws lessons from the franchise's most (in)famous item.

"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.

blueshellpic.jpgWhile 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.


No matter, when the two forms merge in Mario Kart 64, those forces struggle against one another. Chaos and comfort, futility and control all bound together in blasphemous profanity. You see, the original Blue Shell didn't just seek out the leader, not back in 1996 it didn't. Things were stranger then, less certain, less predictable. Save for the leader, any player was eligible to receive the Blue Shell. But when fired, it would first speed away like a normal shell, susceptible to any obstacle that might destroy it, whether friend or foe. After a few moments, it begins following the track, destroying anything in its path on its way to its final target: the race leader. But during this pursuit, drivers in the Blue Shell's path who hear its banshee's wail can dodge out of the way, avoiding calamity for the moment, at least.

In Mario Kart 64, the Blue Shell reveals both sides of its split personality: the chaos of an indifferent universe is embodied in the first few moments of prospective squandering, while the comforting dominion appears in its certain destruction of the leader. In between, red spiny indifference and blue comfort blend into an invisible violet: power actuates and squeals its siren but remains inherently impotent, easily outwit by a well-timed dodge. The universe may not care, but that very unconcern can be focused, leveraged.

But perhaps most poetically, in Mario Kart 64 the Blue Shell punishes hubris. A player who happens to collect a Blue Shell and store it until reaching the leader's position is rewarded only with woe. After teasing the thrower with its initial straight shot, the shell reverses course and strikes the unsuspecting leader. Perhaps one goes a step too far in reading allegory into a Mushroom Kingdom-themed kart racing game, but surely we can all marvel at the fact that 1996 still believed that an arrogant winner could be hoist on his own petard.

By 2003, everything had changed, and not just in the Mushroom Kingdom. The dot-com crash had come and gone. We blogged now, and we Googled. PlayStation 2 and Xbox had stolen the thunder from the cute, cubical GameCube, on which Mario Kart: Double Dash!! made its appearance. 

The eager double-exclamation in its name underscores how desperate for attention and approval Mario Kart had become. It was willing to do anything for our love. Those of us who had cut our teeth on Lakitu's rage were too old to care about Mario ourselves and too young to have kids with whom to start caring again. We'd made and lost fortunes by then, we'd E*Traded YHOO, we'd gone to war for no reason. For their part, the former SNES tots were now adolescents interested in a different kind of magic mushroom, screeching through Liberty City rather than prancing across Donut Plains.

Here, amidst the despair of longing, the Blue Shell gave up, taking on the familiar form we know to this day. In Mario Kart: Double Dash!!, racers in fourth place or worse can receive the item as a pickup. Wings allow it to fly rather than glide past obstacles and other drivers on its inevitable race to the would-be victor. While some hazard still faces middle-field drivers who might happen into its lofty path, such accidents are newly rare. Dejected, the Blue Shell now hisses instead of wailing its earlier klaxon. Even it doesn't want to be here. There is only shame underneath the cover of a Blue Shell.

"This is the Blue Shell of collapse, the Blue Shell of financial crisis, the Blue Shell of the New Gilded Age. This is the Blue Shell in Facebook blue."

For a decade now this shame has entrenched. Through Mario Kart DS, through Mario Kart Wii, through Mario Kart 7. In the latter, the Blue Shell was even stripped of its wings, although inexplicably it can still fly - a cruel illogic meant to wrest its last faculty from its brainless husk. And with the release of Mario Kart 8 for Wii U, the Blue Shell's impotent entrenchment is only further affirmed by an insulting band-aid. A new item, the Super Horn, allows the leader to destroy the Blue Shell en route. But so rare is this pickup that early reviewers reported having seen it only once, if at all, during the game's entire campaign. Victory and defeat are just lies told out of two sides of the same mouth.

This is the Blue Shell of collapse, the Blue Shell of financial crisis, the Blue Shell of the New Gilded Age. This is the Blue Shell in Facebook blue, where anything you'd do with it already will have been done anyway on your behalf without you knowing it. To lead or to fall behind, to turn the tables or to evade one's fated fortune, these are just roles we play. Really the decision has already been made, as if by barrels in a slot machine pre-ordained by cosmic odds tables. Gone is the chaos where once terror and comfort intertwined like smoke and sex in the darkness, where all options seemed possible even if some seemed less likely. Some hope remained, that a world of uncertainty might still afford tactics even as it also eluded them. That outcomes hadn't already been determined on our behalf behind closed doors or in data centers.

mk8.gifToday, winner and loser alike know that the real winners aren't even in the game, aren't even on the course. Real winners need not even bother with Mario Kart, for they have managed to master a real Blue Shell in the interim, a trump card against the universe. This week, as the newbies and the nostalgic and the neotenous power up their Wii Us for the first time in months to pilot cartoon apes and dinosaurs once more in Mario Kart 8, Sergey Brin has launched his prototype Google Autonomous Car. He's already turned all of Mountain View into one big, real-world kart race - and he's coming for your town too. How charming that you would pilot toy cars in mimicry of the future.

For its part, Nintendo is more like us than it is like Google. It needs a Blue Shell more than anyone. Hemorrhaging money, the company punctuated a year of disappointing sales by flubbing the launch of Tomodachi Life in the West, failing to notice that those NES and SNES kids of yore are now adults, and that they might just as well like Daisy to be Peach's prince. Its last-ditch effort would count as irony if it weren't so tragic: the Mario Kart 8 Limited Edition Set. Those who pre-order or race to retail day-one will receive a box with the game and a Spiny Blue Shell collectible, a molded plastic trophy celebrating the futile dream of victory and the final incarceration of chaos. Now, at long last, both victory and defeat can be definitively brought to a halt, forever suspended in inaction. There, the Blue Shell participation trophy overlooks the grey pavement of your cubicle—if you’re lucky enough to have one—where you labor quietly under the false impression that someday you too will be a victor.

Ian Bogost is a writer and game designer. He is the Ivan Allen College Distinguished Chair in media studies and a professor of interactive computing at the Georgia Institute of Technology.

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