Tag Archives: Mario Kart

High(er) Fidelity

High(er) Fidelity

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When the word “fidelity” is laid bare, it has a strange connotation. When you speak of fidelity, it almost always refers to the singular concept of a love, whether a marriage or fresh relationship, and the marred face of it when a physical connection breaks the emotional one. It’s no wonder we hold it in lofty realms of implied meaning and consequences.

The word really refers to nothing more than the faithfulness to a thing, or a loyalty to an ideal. Speaking of high fidelity and the contrasted low fidelity—or hi-fi and lo-fi, respectively—is actually speaking about the faithfulness of a reproduction of sound through a stereo system. (It could also be talking about the Nick Hornby novel/John Cusack film of the same name, but we won’t go there for now.) Is it a fuzzy approximation of the once live performance of a song or is it as close to being there without building a time traveling DeLorean?

What generally concerns us as gamers in this area, though, is the idea of fidelity in graphics. For so long, we chased the rabbit’s tail of photorealism, the belief that when games are impossible to discern from our everyday lives that we’ll have reached the endgame of the art form. We fantasized about the seeing the drool drip out of Donkey Kong’s mouth as he hauled a frightened Pauline from the individual hairs of Mario’s mustachioed upper lip. We wanted to see the mug glisten and shimmer as it slid in Tapper.

Luigi Death Stare

Surely you’ve all seen this GIF by now. You’ve at least seen the Ridin’ video, right? (Side note: consider that at over 5.6 million views with ads turned on, YouTuber CZbwoi has earned enough scratch to buy a new car.) If you haven’t, here’s the quick summary in case Know Your Meme isn’t sufficient: Luigi, when he overtakes you with an offensive move in Mario Kart 8, gives you a glaring death stare, highlighted by the fact that the game has a cinematic replay mode.

It is perhaps one of the best, most nonsensical, and organic things to emerge from the already absurd world of video games. Kotaku, the best cataloguer of industry pop culture, even has a roundup of the fad’s superlative output. However, once the glitz and glam of making a silly game sillier wears off, it does bring to light a startling realization.

The chase—the hunt of high fidelity—has led us here. When Luigi first started hurling shells out of the side of a go-kart in hops of clambering to the top of a podium, we didn’t get much beyond an aural blip of recognition and the self-satisfaction of a job well done. Even if Super Mario Kart had the theatrical presentation of a replay mode, the system itself hardly had the capabilities to show the emerald brother’s sinister pleasure of sadism.

Super Mario Kart

It all largely occurred in our minds, or if someone was playing with and against us, face to face. For the moment, Luigi’s giant eyes and bulbous nose were our decidedly more human eyes and nose. We cackled as we snatched a win away from our once closest friend. But this increase of graphical fidelity in Mario Kart 8 has moved us beyond the empathetic projection to a reproduction of it.

A reproduction of our emotions, thrown onto the digital face of a character we’ve actually only recently gotten used to seeing in so many polygons amidst karts and shells. Every character, as it turns out, has his or her own reaction to making the same racing takeover. It just happens to be that Luigi’s is the funniest of them all, fiery yet dead in an otherwise lighthearted game.

This contrast of imagining and mimicking this reaction—or rather its intent, since you hopefully are not as grave—to seeing it performed for you on the screen brings to the forefront an intriguing question of when is enough actually enough. Especially as Nintendo’s reputation for having art design overcome its hardware’s processing shortcomings, where does fidelity go when its necessity runs dry?

Pong

I truly and honestly have no idea. Granted, some games benefit from an increase in fidelity to reality and are even designed around it mechanically and graphically, but it does invite the consideration that for any game, there exists a point on the spectrum between Pong and a hologram impossible to distinguish from reality where gains in the fidelity are worthless. Once all the returns are diminished, there is nothing left.

As these new consoles mature and developers figure out to optimize and cheat its discrete systems, the answer will hopefully become clearer. We will collectively inch along said spectrum, marching diligently towards the end, and we will discover together if that point exists, or if the endgame is merely the start to another.

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SXSW Gaming 2014: A Change in the Wind

SXSW Gaming Expo 2014

Not much has changed since last year. There’s still the massive GEEK stage near the entrance, tented for an unintended air of mystique. There’s still an inexplicable collection of people congregating around the corner where an inscrutable collection of Lego bricks exists. There’s still a bar where of-age adults buy overpriced beers and forget their 12-year-old burdens.

Well, I guess the giant Mario Kart racing track outside is new.

It’s a largely inconsequential addition, though. Texas’ fickle weather patterns saw fit to drench Austin with a mild downpour half of the SXSW Interactive weekend, ruining the Nintendo-Penzoil dream collaboration(?). It’s also incredibly boring. Walking by the track, it dawned on me that the racers I was passing weren’t warming up but already in the midst of a heated competition.

Mario Kart racing at SXSW Gaming 2014

At least it looked cool. And the idea is quite interesting, translating the items of Mario Kart to patches on the track that actually affect a kart’s speed. But given that you had to also pass a breathalyzer to suit up, I’m sure insurance was a huge factor in making sure nothing too exotic happened. Unfortunately, that also meant nothing fun happened.

For as bombastic as putting a real life analog to your video game product in front of an expo hall is, it still wasn’t the most noteworthy change, though it did make shuttle access kind of a chore. Surprisingly more remarkable, actually, was that the second floor was reserved for LAN-centric activities.

There was still the gaudy display of hubris and yelling at the tournament stage in the main exhibit hall, but the consequences of this move is interesting. Many of the Gaming panels were held upstairs before, but this year they’ve been upgraded to the main and surrounding halls in the Long Center, which is an incredibly classy performance hall for the arts.

Dumping the Alien panel at SXSW Gaming 2014

Though I’m sure it’s likely because the organizers didn’t think it would be kosher to have a bunch of rowdy gamers in the gorgeous Dell Hall, but it does send a subliminal message: the industry has grown up. We’re no longer gaggles crowding around glowing, blinking screens and subsisting entirely on pizza and Bawls but instead hold intellectual discussions about digital literacy and advancements in artificial intelligence.

There was a talk about accessibility for disabled gamers from the founder of The AbleGamers Foundation; HopeLab and Games for Good discussed a game aimed at fighting cancer within the realm of brain science; and panels regarding racial and gender diversity in the industry were hits of the weekend. We are growing up, and it shows.

Of course, this sentiment was here last year, just dormant. Local indies like White Whale Games and Minicore Studios and Stoic Studios were among the heavy hitters then with Nintendo and Xi3 dominating the expo floor. But joining them this year were what can only be referred to as major out-of-towners.

Tales From The Borderlands panel at SXSW Gaming 2014

That and major indie developers. Brendon Chung of Blendo Games was there with Quadrilateral Cowboy, which, if you haven’t heard, is exceptional. Josh Larson and Ryan Green were there to show That Dragon, Cancer and give a talk about what makes its interactive cutscenes so compelling and engage the audience in existential discourse.

(Son Joel Green, the inspiration for the game, passed away last Thursday, and if you’ve played any amount of That Dragon, Cancer, well, you know. I can tell you in that moment of discovery and this one of writing, my eyes are far from dry and my heart far from empty.)

And they go alongside Gearbox Software and Telltale Games breaking new tidbits about their previously announced Tales From The Borderlands. And Palmer Luckey discussing the future of virtual reality with his trademark confusingly grounded yet hyperbolic zeal. Marvel put on display its upcoming slate, Geoff Keighley talked with Microsoft Studios’ Phil Spencer, and Noah Robischon interviewed EA CEO Andrew Wilson.

SXSW Gaming Awards 2014

So it may not just be that gaming is growing up but it’s also just simply growing. SXSW Gaming last year was littered with apathetic crowds, unsure of what to make of the incredibly tiny local developers and their booths. This year, I rarely found myself not at the end of a four or five-person line just to see what was being shown, let alone play it.

It’s weird saying I loved waiting. But it told me that more and more people were starting to care. And more than that, people were starting to care about the right things. Emblematic of both of those were the first SXSW Gaming Awards, hosted by Justine Ezarik of iJustine and Ian Hecox and Anthony Padilla of Smosh. Pretty big gets, sure, but check out the winners.

Brothers: A Tale of Two Sons beat out The Last of Us and Super Mario 3D World for Excellence in Gameplay. Tearaway overcame BioShock Infinite and Grand Theft Auto V in Excellence in Design and Direction. And Papers, Please won for Cultural Innovation while the nominees included Gone Home, Guacamelee, and Year Walk, more than a smattering of niche awareness.

Naughty Dog's awards at SXSW Gaming 2014

While we still have our problems as an industry, failing to diversify and include rather than exclude, this marks progress that other, much older mediums have enjoyed and endured long before. It is a sign that we’ve grown to a critical mass and vital core that we are capable of nuance and no longer only make headlines for games about hidden sex and overt violence and psychotic lawyers on Fox News.

For as little changed from last year, the things that matter have shift course. We’re headed for somewhere good, and I’m glad it’s SXSW that gave me that feeling. Of course, it might also just be that I’m still full of Franklin Barbecue and Shiner.

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An Age of Import

An Age of Import

You never forget your first. Your first time behind the wheel after you get your license, your first broken bone, your first kiss. Major life events are often noteworthy because they happen once or twice over your entire time on this planet, but even the repeated ones get remembered because they have a genesis; an origin. Everything that follows is an epilogue to the weight it bears on your life and the person you become.

Dismissing the maiden voyage of any sort is foolish because you are dismissing precedence and influence. It doesn’t matter if it’s your first Kit Kat, your first pair of shoes with green laces, or first slap bracelet. These set a standard against which you compare everything that follows. And as you regress through your years in your memories, it makes sense that more and more of these seminal events are bundled up with your earlier years.

Those nascent bits are, for the most part, paramount to the later ones simply because they take place in a vacuum. They occupy little space in the grand scheme of things, but when they are the large majority of everything you know, they tend to be important. Picture it as a test tube. It starts out small and empty and you gradually put more and more stuff into it. The volume of the stuff—your memories, your experiences—stays the same but the tube grows longer and longer, able to hold more and more. When the test tube is small, it’s easy to fill it up and each little bit takes up precious space. As it grows, though, it becomes harder and harder to find singularly formative pieces that can fill the void.

That’s why all the video games you grew up with seem to be the most important (and often “the best”) ones to you. Granted, some of those you hold in high regard like Galaga and Super Mario World are actually landmark titles, but the personal value of those games is the important thing here. It doesn’t matter if you grew up on Atari or SNES or 360; what you played as a child will develop your tastes and opinions as you continue to game.

It’s an odd adage of the gaming world that the first Mario Kart you play is your favorite one, but it’s true. While I acknowledge that Mario Kart 64 is a superior product and perhaps the best in the franchise, I will still prefer to race about in Super Mario Kart. It’s way more squirrely than any modern Mario Kart and harder and less pleasant to play, but it elicits a very specific feeling inside of me when I’m puttering around in that Mode 7 world. Sure, it takes me back in the nostalgic sense, but it also reminds me of everything that follows. Playing Super Mario Kart enables me to remember the times I played everything from Mario Kart: Double Dash!! to Mario Kart 7, but it doesn’t go the other way around.

That is, however, a very specific example of a generalized concept. Super Mario Bros. 3, The Legend of Zelda: Link’s Awakening, and Kirby Super Star all hold up to this ideal. Each first not only informs my opinions of future franchise titles but also those of similar ilk. The definition of what feels like a good platforming jump is what Mario felt like back then. The sense of clearing out dungeons and earning rewards for future explorations go back to my time with Link.

These notions are all forward-facing and can’t be directed back. That’s just not the way it works either psychologically or technologically. Information and capabilities advance so aggressively that it would be unfair to point any of it backwards. It’s much like how many important battles were fought before the invention of the gun, but putting modern day warriors into Genghis Khan’s army wouldn’t make a lot of sense.

Our fundamental games would better be served by not calling them landmarks, however, and instead label them as milestones. As time marches forward, more and more of these influential markers are dropped along the way and each one serves the same purpose as those before it. The only difference is that as you go further along, staking each one into the ground becomes harder. You move from open, soft, pliable land that is rife for soaking in anything and everything to hard, cynical tracts of impenetrable dirt and clay. But when you drop them, you can be sure they carry just as much weight because it’s not just about objective quality but about where you are on this timeline and what it means to your remaining trek. This is how you arrive at an undying love for Journey or an impossible or inexplicable passion for Enslaved: Odyssey to the West.

That’s the odd thing about time, I guess. At certain ages, specific things you thought were important may fade as new ones take place, but the idea that they represent never go away. Road trips are undoubtedly fun but they never match the exhilaration of that drive to your friend’s house to show off your brand new license. You may break an arm or fracture a wrist a few more times down the line but that first cast with all its signatures and scratches represents a frozen moment—a snapshot—in your life. And each kiss, well, maybe some things are always special.

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The Gametrack to Your Life

The Gametrack to Your Life

All it takes is one song. One song and you could be taken back to a time in your life to when you first heard it or—more likely—when it first held meaning to you. I’m sure most kids of the late 90s and the entire 2000s have a very specific memory attached to Green Day’s “Good Riddance (Time of Your Life)”, probably one including a slideshow or a graduation party. Others might be some song that happened to come on the radio the very first time you started a road trip with some friends or how your high school sweetheart would lie with you as she listened to (and you hated but never said anything about) Snow Patrol’s “Chasing Cars.”

This is the soundtrack to your life. This is the aural framework from which influences and memories are tied to your being. Your very existence, whether consciously or not, all sprouts from these little dots along your timeline and builds on each new one. This is, after all, how soundtracks work. Take away the soundtrack to Garden State and you just have 102 minutes of Zach Braff and Natalie Portman being depressing. Take away the Pixies’ “Where is my Mind?” from the end of Fight Club and you are left without that heightened catharsis. It’s sometimes the periphery of something that defines it.

Did you ever consider, though, that you have a “gametrack” to your life as well? It is a concept I first heard during the Giant Bomb GDC 2013: After Hours Livestream Spectacular when Paul Barnett of Mythic Entertainment said that he believed that everyone has a golden age in their lives when they played the most video games. Most of these games would end up having a profound impact on that person’s life because it is when they are most receptive to such an external influence. He called it the gametrack to your life.

I think he misspoke slightly, though; it’s not when you play the most games but when you are most ravenous for them. There is a period of your life when you just don’t feel like you can ever play enough and when you’ve played them all, all that’s left is to stew in them. You go back to favorites and replay them over and over again until you feel like you can (and, probably, did) play with your eyes closed or laying upside-down off the couch or with just one hand.

This era often falls within your childhood for no other reason that most people get their start at that time. It’s a familiar curve most people follow: the initiation, the familiarization, and then the hunger. You consume and consume and consume until almost every game in that period of time begins to replace nucleotides in your DNA. These games, by no other metric, become lifetime favorites and cannot be reasoned with or defended for many reasons beyond “just because.”

Mario Kart is a great example of this. Just reading those words prove this notion; you probably pictured a specific version of Mario Kart. For me, it’s Super Mario Kart for the SNES. For you, it might be Mario Kart 64 for the N64 or Mario Kart: Double Dash for the GameCube. This is probably the first Mario Kart you played, and thus the most important one. Every subsequent release is not only compared to its immediate predecessor but also the one on your gametrack regardless of time difference. I still compare how the hop feels to Super Mario Kart.

The entire SNES catalog may be my gametrack. It was during this time when my father would reward me with good grades with a trip to Blockbuster on Friday so I could rent a game. I would take a game like Bonkers or Animaniacs or Cool Spot or Maui Mallard in Cold Shadow and just completely dismantle it over the course of a weekend. And in the intervening weekdays, I would just think about that game and fantasize about the next one. All of these probably informed my affinity for platformers to this day.

And then the Internet happened. More importantly, Flash happened. You can tell this happened a long time ago because Macromedia was still the name behind the software, but the end result is what’s important, namely old arcade games. When computers were barely sophisticated enough for SkiFree and Chip’s Challenge (add those to the gametrack list), Flash came along and wouldn’t you know it, people started cranking out games. Most often, they were arcade ripoffs because those were simple, so I spent hours upon hours playing Tapper and Pac-Man and Galaga and Robotron 2084 and mostly every other game that came before my time once Atari and Commodore 64 games came around. All of those shaped my love of simple but demanding mechanics.

One particular bit stands out as an oddity that I’m sure some small percentage of you out there will remember: Spikything.com. It was the creation of a web developer and designer named Liam O’Donnell but at the time it was everything. It was home to Super BugHunt, Egg Fighter, and, most importantly, Super Kickups. That, more than anything, crafted whatever predilection I have for super simple, easily engaged, highly addictive games.

That’s not to say, however, that your formative years are everything. My growing interesting in singular experience, narrative-driven games began to emerge in high school, and even modern releases along the likes of Journey and Uncharted 2: Among Thieves are now on the gametrack (as is BioShock Infinite, if you couldn’t tell from last week’s theme). But that time is still important. That ravenous youth. It sets the theme and gives a place for the aural story to start. Soundtracks, much like the movies they follow, establish so much and take you from one place and leave you at another. Gametracks are similar in that way; it’s just that we don’t know where they end up until they’re done.

What’s your gametrack?

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