Something strange happened the first time I played Mario Kart 8 online. I had finally convinced my friend Francis to get a Wii U. Once his console arrived, we decided to take Mario Kart's online multiplayer out for a spin.
Things were going swimmingly, at first. He created a room for me to join, and the two of us debated which racers, vehicles, and tracks to go with. I was able to talk to each other simply by using the Wii U's GamePad. I'd say something with the large tablet-sized controller on my lap, and hear his voice trail out from the speakers on my TV. It felt natural and futuristic at the same time. As we were going through the motions, we both flexed our respective Mario Kart muscles with taunts about how we'd crush one another once the race got started. Verses from rap songs were quoted. It was silly. It was fun.
Then, the race started. And suddenly both our voices cut out. There wasn't silence, exactly -- the rest of the voices in Mario Kart 8's chorus still rang strong. But it felt like silence, coming after several minutes of playful posturing.
What the hell was that? Francis asked once we returned to the virtual waiting room our Miis sat patiently in between races. But first, I had some far less polite things to say about the way that he had smacked me with a red shell right when I was about to pass the finish line. We tried another race, but had to stop playing because of some problem with the connection.
"Let's try later, possibly with Skype," Francis texted me. Then, a minute later: "Not being able to talk trash is NOT next-gen."
I chuckled and didn't think much of it. Nintendo made it clear before the game came out that you'd only be able to chat online with friends in Mario Kart 8's lobby area, so I didn't expect much. But as I've sunk more time into the game's online multiplayer, this dynamic has started to feel weirder in turn.
Like many other stellar Nintendo games, I started playing Mario Kart 8 with friends sitting right beside me. There's always a lot of screaming in joy and indignation throughout a race when I play the game this way. We grit our teeth and curse at one another, but we also recognise that we're getting into heated arguments over a bunch of cartoonish characters chucking brightly-coloured turtle shells at one another. It's a big part of what makes Mario Kart so much fun.
Nothing about the core gameplay changes when you go online with Mario Kart 8. But this human element is strangely muted. If you step into the general Nintendo Network (either regionally or globally), the only interactions you can really have with other players outside of the actual racing, shell-throwing, and horn-honking is a series of dialogue prompts that are available in the lobby between levels. The Miis can say things like "I'll give it my best shot!" and "I'm using tilt controls!" to one another. If you're feeling feisty, the most aggressive response available is to ask to race again -- which you're presumably planning to do already if you're waiting in a lobby anyway.
I'm usually terrified of facing seasoned gamers online, let alone ones who've developed a swagger to match their experience level. So I understand why it works this way if you're going against any other Mario Kart player online. But does it have to be the same when I'm playing with friends? Aren't features like in-game chat meant to serve as stand-ins for those times when you can't gather everyone together under one roof to play?
For a while after Mario Kart came out in late May, I thought Francis and I might be the only ones who were frustrated about this. Plus, it's not like we had many chances to sow any seeds of dissent across the Miiverse. Then yesterday, I came across a thread on Reddit full of Mario Kart 8 players who sounded similarly confused.
Much like me, the player who started the thread came to the Wii U from a background in PC gaming and was feeling confused by the sudden lack of options as a result.
"More than half the reason to use voice chat is when you are in mid game," Reddit user Scurro wrote. "Anyways we had to resort to downloading skype on our phones and just using that for voice chat. Is there a better way?"
Many of the gamers in the thread jumped in with their own jerry-rigged solutions. Others used it as an opportunity to blast Nintendo for a number of things. Some saw the lack of mid-race chat as an "oversight" or an arbitrary, unsuccessful attempt to keep the game kid-friendly.
"Definitely not an oversight," one person argued. "I think they're aware that people (like me) are screaming 'FUCK YOUR RED SHELLS, THIS IS FUCKING BULLSHIT!' every lap. Good awareness, Nintendo."
Others suggested it was a symptom of the company's overall deficiencies when it comes to online multiplayer.
"Online is where Nintendo really lacks, you can't even join worldwide with your friends in a lobby," one person wrote.
"There's a workaround for that: Have one friend join a worldwide, regional, or tournament game. Then everyone join that friend from the friends page," another player responded. "Not exactly convenient, but it works. No chat option though. We just use Google hangouts on our phones."
I don't want to assume that all these players are concocting clever mechanisms just to be able to trash-talk one another when playing Mario Kart 8 the same way Francis and I do. But regardless of what they want to say, the fact that they're resorting to Skype and Google Hangouts is a sign that they want to say something to each other while scooting along Rainbow Road.
I hope that Nintendo finds a way to let all of us Mario Kart fans do that.