“The Blue Shell is everything that’s wrong with America.”
Ok, nobody said that, but you can imagine someone having done. The Blue Shell steals progress from a rightfully earned win on behalf of the lazy and the incompetent. The Blue Shell wrests spoils from leaders’ fingers just as they reach for the laurel. The Blue Shell is the cruel tax of gaming, the welfare queen of kart racing. God damn you kids today. We used to have to win a race to win it.
I’m talking about Mario Kart, of course, whose Spiny Blue Shell power-up has taunted players since its second iteration in 1996-7. It’s the pickup sometimes given to players far behind in a race, which homes in on the leader, bringing delight to the inferior player and torment to the superior one. Just as you were about to cross the finish, there’s a Blue Shell, spinning you out so that Mario or Donkey Kong crosses the finish just ahead of you. And, conversely, just as you thought yourself too far behind to catch up, there’s a Blue Shell to help put you on the winners’ podium.
1996 is a long time ago – 18 years, to be exact. In some sense, metaphorical though it may be, that makes the Blue Shell an adult. A lot has changed in those 18 years. When Mario Kart 64 first appeared, the Amazon.com IPO hadn’t yet taken place. Bill Clinton was starting his second term as President. Mark Zuckerberg was planning his Bar Mitzvah. You probably didn’t have a mobile phone, but you might have had an AOL account. The Macarena was a thing, as was the Sega Saturn. It’s easy to forget, to lump today’s Blue Shell in with yesterday’s like you’d lump today’s internet in with yesterday’s, forgetting that yesterday was an entire lifetime ago.
While all of us refer to the Blue Shell as such, it’s actually called “Spiny’s Shell” in the Mario Kart 64 manual. This difference makes a difference, because it re-connects the shell’s name to its origins and its function. A Spiny is a quadrupedal Koopa with a spiked shell. They’ve been around as long as the original NES Super Mario Bros. Back then, they served as the ammunition of Lakitu – that begoggled, cloud riding Koopa who hurls them from the air in some overworld levels. Spiny shells are red, and thanks to their spikes they cannot be jumped atop to defeat, nor can they be bumped from below to flip on their backs as can an ordinary Koopa. Only a fireball wrought by a Fire Flower-emblazoned Mario brother can defeat the Spinies – or a hero emboldened by the temporary immunity of an invincibility Star (or maybe a kicked Koopa shell, but such a resource is unlikely in the barren wastelands where Lakitu rears his head, at least in the original SMB).
The Spiny Shell is the most profoundly existentialist element of the Mario canon. It disrupts the entire logic of this familiar fantasy universe. We were told we could jump on things to destroy them! We were told we could flip them asunder! But no – all promises are tentative, even in the Mushroom Kingdom. Spiny Shells are chaos, unfairness, injustice. For those of us who were kids when Super Mario Bros. arrived, the Spiny Shell taught a lesson, and the lesson was: you are alone in the universe. Enough with your childish expectations. This is the real world, and just when you think you’ve mastered it, it’ll pull the rug out from under you. You have to find your own way.
The blueness of Blue Shells comes from elsewhere – half a decade but an entire generation later. A Koopa Troopa with a blue shell first appeared in Super Mario World, the launch title for the Super Nintendo in 1990-1. Blue-backed Koopas move faster than their blue or green-clad brethren. Super Mario World also marks the introduction of Yoshi, and ingesting a Blue Shell immediately causes the dinosaur steed to sprout wings and fly. Some things come easy.
“The Spiny Shell is the most profoundly existentialist element of the Mario canon.”
The Blue Shell didn’t appear again in a traditional Nintendo platformer until the triumphant return 2006 of 2D Mario, in New Super Mario Bros. for the Nintendo DS. Here, the Blue Shell takes the same form as it had sixteen years earlier, but as a power-up for the benefit of our heroes. Collecting the Blue Shell turns Mario into Shell Mario. By ducking, he becomes invulnerable under his azure armor. Shell Mario can also perform a “shell dash,” enacting the familiar destructive power of a Koopaless shell sent flying by foot, but under the control of the player via his plumberly counterpart.
In contrast to the Spiny Shell – a hazard that strips certainty and authority from the player – the Blue Shell has always been associated with speed, power, and security. Despite its rarity, the Blue Shell is a conservative bonus, a feature that entrenches the comforts of Mario, Luigi, and their human pilots rather than wresting it away. Would it be too much to say that Spiny Shell was a Gen X’ers lament, an NES-bred slacker’s plaid, tortugal sigh, while Blue Shell was a Gen Y transitional object, a comfort blanket – blue with calm like Linus van Pelt’s – that proffers assurance to the SNES milksop every time, no matter how infrequently it might appear? Probably so.