You’re in first place and the finish line is in sight. Everything is going just fine until you hear that weird electronic whirring coming from behind. Someone’s dropped a blue shell and you think you’re doomed when all of the sudden it hits the person just behind you instead. Sacré bleu!
If you’ve been playing Mario Kart 8 on the Wii U or Nintendo Switch for any length of time, you might have witnessed this rare and exceptionally perverse form of race car lottery. One player certainly did in a clip that’s been making the rounds on Reddit. Link is clearly in first place and the blue shell is ready to pop when it randomly and inexplicably juts back to hit the second place player instead.
Players hypothesized that in online play the blue shell is at the mercy of different players’ pings. As MBCnerdcore suggested, “This happens online because you are not synced due to high ping. Your screen says you are ahead but the blue shell AI still thinks Peach is. That timing had to be perfect though to trigger the ping check at the right point in the animation.” Whatever the reason, it proves that blue shells have only gotten more cruel and unusual with time.
In many ways Mario Kart’s blue shell has become iconic. Unlike the regular old green shell, or the red homing one, the “Spiney Shell,” as it was originally known, is both sinister and elegant. It goes after whoever is in first place, making it especially frustrating for people who are great at Mario Kart and equally satisfying for those of us who are not.
The great equalizer in a way, Bernie Sanders could have designed it himself (a more stalwart socialist would have engineered the blue shell to hit everyone in the upper bracket of the race, not just the driver in first).
Back when it was introduced in Mario Kart 64, the explosive shell was an unavoidable kiss of death. It could strike at any time and was more or less unavoidable, with a player knocked back into third or fourth place at the mercy of endless banana peels as they tried to claw their way back into first.
Lately, players have perfected the art of dodging them. In Mario Kart 8, a number of different tricks, including using a mushroom at just the right moment to make yourself immune to the blue shock wave it exerts. But even so, they hit more often than not, leading them to be seen by some as emblematic of Mario Kart’s trend toward being a party game first, racing game second; a manifestation of participation trophy culture in video games, where winning is more about being in the right place at the right time than hard work and skill.
Several years ago, one of the series original creators, Hideki Konno, told Kotaku that the blue shell was originally a tool to help keep races competitive as the Nintendo 64 version naturally separated players due to the memory constraints associated with having every racer on the screen at once. But the mechanic has persisted, long since hardware limitations have stopped being a concern, because its now part of the game’s very essence.
“I’m often asked, hey, in Mario Kart, could you please make a mode where there are no items. Let us race,” Konno said back in 2011. “But personally I think Mario Kart without items is not Mario Kart. Our goal, of course, is to keep the items in but just balance it well.”