The Moneyless Gamer: Mario what now?

I’m breaking away from my usual role as reporter on the free-indie-games-for-the-skint frontlines, to bring you… free demos for the skint. There’s been something of a rush recently on the 360 Marketplace. I say rush, you see, as a pun. For these are games containing fast vehicles and weapons. It’s a formula that’s gone oddly untouched in the wake of Mario Kart’s success. And then, like those proverbial buses armed with energy-weapons, three come at once.

We’re talking Blur‘s public beta, Split/Second and the catchily-titled
Sonic & Sega All-Stars Racing.
Including S&SAS Racing in that threesome is cheating, really, for two reasons. One, it came out a while back now. And, two, it essentially is Mario Kart. Nevertheless, if you’ve got a ‘Kart craving and no Nintendo, it is a still-available free fix, which puts it firmly within my remit.

It’s really nice to see a high-def version of Mario Kart: the colours are sharp, the sounds are spot on. And, apart from the odd addition of a (mildly annoying) commentator, it literally is a hi-res Mario Kart: the weapons are exactly the same, reskinned. Example? The three red homing shells in Mario become three red homing rockets. Green non-homing shells become green non-homing boxing gloves. The banana skins, oddly, become traffic cones.

Thing is, it serves mostly as a lesson for those who’ve forgotten on just how tight the Mario Kart games are. It’s an exact clone, but like any sci-fi fan will tell you: clones come with defects. Making it just that tinier bit easier to drift? The track feels like oiled rubber factory. Letting the cars continue in motion after getting hit by a weapon? Makes almost every single weapon in the game ineffective and not-fun to use. Reducing the inconvenient downtime after hitting an obstacle? Removes the entire challenge. As John Travolta once said, it’s the little differences.The Orb of Death

From Bizarre, the Project-Gotham boys, Blur is basically Mario Kart rendered in Microsoft’s ‘gritty realism’ house style. The way S&SAS Racing just steals the weapons and the concept, Blur takes the ideas behind that, rubs its chin, and reinvents them as sci-fi tech for its shiny real-cars world. And it doesn’t look like it or function quite the same, but the same gameplay ideas are at work. So, say, the red shell becomes a huge glowing orb, that homes but can’t take corners, creating a sub-game of ‘dodge the orb’ or ‘save the orb for the long straight stretch’.

I can pinpoint the exact moment (or, aha, the split second) I fell in love with Blur. One of the abilities (Blur‘s three-green-shells equivalent) allows you to fire non-guided purple ‘bolts’ which resemble nothing more than the ammo for Halo‘s needler. I’m chasing a guy, trying to choose my moment to swerve round and overtake, and he fires three bolts, in quick succession, backwards at me. They whistle satisfyingly past me, just missing, and I realise my head is cocked a good few inches to the left, trying to dodge. Blur really fulfills that promise of a high-definition, next-generation Mario Kart. It’s karting for the Gears of War set, replacing joyful cartoon oddity with pulse-pounding authenticity. These weapons, you feel, would fuck you up.I think this power's called 'Shaft'. This is an apt description.

And so they’re terrifying to dodge, and beautiful to unleash. There’s less of a feeling of precision to Split/Second, which replaces weapons with simply being able to explode the track. You press A, stuff goes BOOM. That’s satisfying, no doubt, but there’s less of the X-Wing-pilot c’mon c’mon c’mon BAM! feeling you get with some of Blur‘s weapons. Split/Second is very much an arcade racer, Burnout next to the Gran Turismo-isms of Blur. It’s faster and slippier and more colourful and that makes up for its shortcomings.

In free-demo world, the primary shortcoming being its span. Split/Second is a brief sampler course to whet your appetite before the full-priced main course, whereas the Blur beta is an all-you-can-eat buffet. Nevertheless, if you’ve got an urge for Mario Kartisms on your 360, it’s a two-horse race. And when both horses have rocket-propelled engines, and twin mini-guns strapped to their flanks, it really doesn’t matter which horse you back. You will be the winner.Shit go BOOM!

after getting hit by a weapon? Makes almost every single weapon in the game ineffective and not-fun to use.

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