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A Sign of the Times


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#1 Afterburner

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Posted 21 February 2013 - 20:53

So, a few weeks ago, for nostalgia's sake, I decided to hook up my old Super Nintendo and boot up Super Mario Kart. Even considering the obvious shortcomings of the hardware available in those days in comparison to what's around now, I was mightily impressed with how entertaining I still found it to be (the 'Princess' was just as annoying as I had remembered, as well, haha).

But after about an hour or so of power-sliding my two-dimensional kart around Donut Plains, Ghost Valley, and the seizure-inducing Rainbow Road, I picked up on another difference--one that wasn't initially apparent to me until after years of playing modern-day racing games.

Super Mario Kart was incredibly difficult.

I'm not talking about the 'fake difficulty' that comes from graphics or physics glitches. The game itself punished mistakes and lack of car control quite severely. Steer too hard into a corner, and you'll watch yourself go spinning into the wall. Forget to use your brakes, and you'll scrub off too much speed through a turn and get overtaken by three or four AI racers. Overreact to an item and swerve off-road, and you'll lose a ton of time. Bash others around, and you'll lose your coins and in turn the elusive top speed that keeps you in the hunt for the win.

The karts were fast and out-of-control, the items were basic no-nonsense weapons, and the tracks were narrow, precarious, and punishing. Fast-forward to today's Mario Kart Wii, and instead we have wide-open tracks, slow and easy-to-control vehicles, and computer-controlled gimmicks like stunt-turbos, Blue Shells, and Bullet Bills (autopilot catch-up for those behind the leaders) to spice up the racing.

I think you can tell where I'm going with this.

Super Mario Kart came out in the early 90's. At that time in sportscar racing, the incredibly-powerful Group C monsters were still running at Le Mans, and F1 was in the midst of the Senna/Prost rivalry coming off the back of the turbo era (Ayrton Senna is actually mentioned in the game's instruction booklet). The cars were fast, the rules were a little more relaxed, tracks were loaded with gravel/grass run-offs that punished mistakes, and the cars had more power than was probably suitable for them.

Mario Kart Wii came out in the late 2000's. Around the same time, we have increasingly tight power regulations in sportscar racing, and the implementation of KERS, DRS, and artificially-degrading tyres in Formula One to make the racing 'more interesting'. The races take place on wide tracks with plenty of asphalt run-off, the cars are essentially glued to the road, and contact of almost any kind is often punished.

Isn't it funny how arcade-style racers--more so than sim racers, in my opinion--give us a hauntingly accurate-yet-unintentional picture of how racing has changed over the past few decades?

Back in the day, even arcade racers reflected the demanding nature of motor racing--you had to put in some effort to keep the car on the road, let alone win, and the pace of the vehicles and nature of the tracks were fast and difficult, respectively. Nowadays, in favour of this, we've moved to slower vehicles, wider tracks, and arguably artificial gimmicks to improve the racing.

If you're an avid player of racing games in general, as I am, I would suggest to you, as an interesting waste of time, to look at the sort of racing games that have been released to the market over the past twenty years. The entries in the Mario Kart franchise alone provide an interesting slideshow of how racing has changed. Somewhere along the line, the qualities of 'fast', 'unpredictable', and 'difficult' were eventually phased out, in favour of 'slower', 'controlled', and 'forgiving'.

In a way, this saddens me. I remember when arcade racers served as that sort of surrealist escape into a world where the consequences of the dangers found in real racing didn't exist. The high speeds, the sharp turns, and the inevitable wrecks were all okay, because the only thing they hurt when things went wrong was the player's ego. Now, even this fantasy playground is disappearing--if you want the high-octane, out-of-control excitement of days gone by, you can't even find it in most arcade racers produced these days, with only a few exceptions.

The point of this rather long-winded post is quite simple: has the safety/entertainment crusade in the racing world actually become so vigorous that it has managed to alter even the layman's perception of racing by manifesting itself in games targeted at casual audiences? Is the invasion of this mentality into arcade racers a sign that we've forgotten what it means to push the limits of willpower and technology in machines built on the cutting edge of what we're capable of--that we've forgotten why this whole racing thing started in the first place? What does all this mean for the longevity of motor racing itself?

I'd love to find out if anyone other than me has ever noticed this before, and to hear everyone else's opinions. Thanks for reading, if you have. :)

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#2 SPBHM

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Posted 21 February 2013 - 22:53

I don't think it have any relation to real racing,
but just how the gaming industry has evolved, nowadays there is a lot more people interested in playing games, but also more casually, so many games try to be a lot more accessible...
also perhaps related to the reduced influence on games from the real arcade, the one which was hard to take your coins!?
It's not something only visible on racing games
I think

Edited by SPBHM, 21 February 2013 - 22:57.


#3 Tony Mandara

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Posted 22 February 2013 - 09:32

As games have evolved and become much more mainstream the compared to say the eighties/nineties, they have had to become more accesible and cater to a much wider audience. There's a thread here about the first racing game that you played and for some of us (apparent :cry: ) dinosaurs this goes back to the late seventies!! One particular game mentioned is called night driver. This game was ab-solutely nails! The easiest setting lasted for 50 seconds and it would take literally weeks of diligent practice to last 50 seconds!!
So yes, it's a sign of the times, but as SPBHM pointed out, it doesn't only apply to racing games.

#4 The Kanisteri

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Posted 22 February 2013 - 16:59

I'm happy those 80's sport games doesn't exist anymore. Plenty of innocent joysticks has died because Track N' Field.

Edited by The Kanisteri, 22 February 2013 - 17:16.


#5 Wander

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Posted 22 February 2013 - 23:33

I don't think it have any relation to real racing,
but just how the gaming industry has evolved, nowadays there is a lot more people interested in playing games, but also more casually, so many games try to be a lot more accessible...
also perhaps related to the reduced influence on games from the real arcade, the one which was hard to take your coins!?
It's not something only visible on racing games
I think


This is absolutely right. The connection the OP is drawing to modern real racing is purely coincidental as far as it exists. Video games in general are more beginner friendly and forgiving these days as while in the early 90s gaming was generally aimed at the "hard-core gamers" who were willing to devote a lot of time at getting good at a game, the biggest market today are the more casual gamers who need to be able to play a game with little effort. Or that's the theory anyway.

I once read on a gaming magazine that according to some research, most people don't actually complete the games they buy. This is part of the reason for the industry leaning towards easier difficulty these days. They want everyone to be able to enjoy the whole experience. It doesn't make sense for half of your game's content to never get seen by most of your customers due to too much difficulty, does it? On the other hand the lack of challenge can be somewhat disappointing for an active gamer, so it is a bit of a balancing act obviously. The genre in question matters too. Target audience and all that, you know..

#6 Zippel

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Posted 26 February 2013 - 02:23

I grew up in the era of Super Mario Kart and while it did take some skill to master there were still quite a few beginner friendly games out there at the time, including racing games. The Nigel Mansell games, Need for Speed, Street Racer, etc. Micro Machines was harder than Super Mario. :p

My experience with later racing games is somewhat limit but I have tried the last couple of Sega All-Stars including that last one with Danica Patrick and they are easier. I keep getting told by friends I should skid in corners as its faster but I just take the classic racing line and seem to do well out of it. :D

Edited by Zippel, 26 February 2013 - 02:26.