This article contains spoilers for The Prestige.
For people born in the mid-80s, Mario Kart is one of the key life skills it’s okay to be shite at, along with pool, Laser Quest, and Dance Dance Revolution. Mario Kart, though, is the one that’s stayed with us the longest.
You can play it at home more easily than the others. It’s sociable, pretty easy to pick up, relies less on button mashing than Super Smash Bros, and doesn’t make anyone picture a statue of Luke Goss made out of instant mashed potato. It’s been around since 1992, but unlike Push Pops it’s been a constant in our lives. Even if, like me, your major achievement was that one time you managed second at Moo Moo Meadows because your wife drove into a cow, Mario Kart has been a regular feature of Christmases, post-pub all-nighters, and sleepovers for most of our lives.
Socrates once said “The unexamined life is not worth living”. I don’t think I have to explain why Mario Kart is a worthy addition to your life, even if you’re as mediocre at it as I am, but if you examine it then it appears to be a borderline Dadaist venture eschewing logic and reason. The original Dadaist movement was in response to the society that led to World War One, and the Mushroom Kingdom is also in a state of erratic government (Peach keeps getting kidnapped), political upheaval (Peach keeps getting kidnapped) and teetering on the edge of warfare (Peach keeps getting kidnapped).
The original tournament was apparently organised by the competitors just to see who’s the best racer ever in the Mushroom Kingdom (Mario has a time machine, as fans of the 1993 educational game Mario’s Time Machine will attest to, so can definitely check this). However, it’s tricky to see this as a reaction to the constant political upheaval as the racers in the game are all the key players in said constant political upheaval: Princess Peach is taking time out from being kidnapped by Bowser in order to race him in a series of increasingly whimsical go-karts.
Realistically though, it’s hard to see who else but the authority of the realm could organise such an event. Consider the logistics. It must cost an absolute fortune in money and labour, and there are cheering audiences in attendance for some races. Are they genuinely excited or is something more sinister going on? Why is everyone so cool with the Princess racing against the guy who keeps trying to kidnap her and take over the Kingdom?
A student of Socrates, who you may remember from a previous paragraph, developed Ethical Hedonism, a theory concerning the pursuit of pleasure – the highest good – stating that everyone should experience more pleasure than pain. Some philosophers have probably cited Mario Kart as emblematic of a Hedonistic philosophy. Shortly after the advent of writing, Sumerian epic poetry offered pleasure in the simple things as an alternative to questing for immortality, and so it is in accordance with these teachings we find ourselves playing a game where we race Italian plumbers against the amoral childhood rivals of Italian plumbers (who are also Italian plumbers) and a toadstool, and a turtle, and a sort of dragon-dinosaur-turtle hybrid. Simple. However, if the entire Mushroom Kingdom was given over to Hedonism as a governing morality it would explain a lot.
If everyone understands, and agrees with, the idea that pleasure is the greatest good, then an exciting racing tournament for the masses to watch (probably a public holiday thrown in as well) would explain why everyone’s so chill about Bowser driving around Peach’s castle and being provided with weapons. The audience get pleasure from watching the thrilling competition, made all the more thrilling by the prospect that the Princess could get kidnapped at any second (though presumably everyone’s sort of used to that by now), while the competitors get to compete for the pleasure of being crowned the best racer ever in the Mushroom Kingdom.
Alternatively, you could read Mario Kart as reflecting the struggle between the rational and chaotic. Superficially, it seems to be quite a simple racing game that is designed for entertainment and nothing more, but the most cursory examination reveals a warped and confused logic. In this respect it could be seen as a Nietzschean, descriptive response to the more normative ethics of the Super Mario series, where it is quite clearly acceptable to punch Bowser in the face. In this respect, it seems that it is Mario Kart rather than Grand Theft Auto or Doom that is deserving of controversy, in that under this reading it subtly condones a tyrannical regime, legitimising it through the tournament platform.
Hopefully everyone reading this has taken this deeply weighty and important article incredibly seriously. Philosophy is very important, and deserves to be treated with respect. While there are multiple interpretations offered here, I hope that there is one absolute truth about Mario Kart that we can all agree on, and that is: Rainbow Road is a dick.
Rainbow Road is a great big floating whimsy that perpetually spurts the unwary into an infinite abyss, decked out in the colours of pride while simultaneously sapping it from your very living being; a kaleidoscopic Sisyphean flibbertigibbet of a racetrack surely designed to bring existential terror to the cosiest of living rooms. As you tumble repeatedly into the void it begs the questions: who built this abomination? Who maintains it? Is it the same person who arrives back on the track who left it? Is there a Prestige-esque dimension full of O-mouthed Luigi’s, floating in seemingly endless vats? Why is it so frequently the final track? Are Nintendo commenting on their role in the transience of all things, offering bright colours and the prospect of a podium finish as a distraction to the beckoning emptiness? Probably not, but still, screw you Rainbow Road.