Feature Article

How Nintendo Uses Luck To Make Games Fun For Everyone

Luck be a blue shell tonight.

This article, originally posted on March 29, 2019, has been republished to amplify black voices in GameSpot's support of Black Lives Matter. Donate to the effort to fight systemic racism here.

Since its pre-video game years as a Japanese playing-card company, Nintendo has designed games that combine strategy, competition, and luck. This mixture takes competition-centric pressure off players, making the game less about winning and more about having fun.

Franchises like Mario Party, Mario Kart, and Super Smash Bros. are designed to put advanced players and novices on a more equal footing. These games are easy to pick up and understand, can be played alone or with others, and have high replay value.

However, some players rebel against luck in video games, arguing that skill and technical prowess should be the ultimate arbitrators of who wins or loses. They see games as a meritocracy and view luck as punishing some players for being good, while unjustly rewarding other players who didn’t put in the time and effort to improve. But for many Nintendo games, the focus on competition isn’t the point.

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Dr. Nicholas Bowman is an associate professor at the Interaction Lab at West Virginia University. He researches interactivity and media psychology, analyzing how people react to media on screens. Bowman says Nintendo games such as Mario Kart, Mario Party, and Super Smash Bros. use elements of luck to downplay cognitive aspects of gaming (strategy, reflexes, choosing what button to push at the right time, etc.) to enhance the social experience of playing.

"In some ways, they take after board games, which always have that element of luck, whether you are playing Monopoly or even something like Dungeon and Dragons," Bowman explained. "No matter how good you are, you still have to roll the dice."

What Nintendo knows is that an important part of having fun is those around you also having fun. Adding dice rolls to Mario Party, or items based on your place in a Mario Kart race, or stage obstacles to Super Smash Bros. creates an element of surprise that makes each playthrough unique and offers novice players a chance to win. Bowman argues that these Nintendo games are meant to allow players of varying experience levels to have fun playing against each other.

"You know that if you had five friends come over, and they never touched a video game in their life, you could have them play one of those games and they'd be fine," Bowman continued. "But the most important thing is they think they have a chance of winning."

Bowman also studies video games and nostalgia, and said the ease and casual nature of these Mario multiplayer games facilitates greater levels of social connection.

"What you find out is people aren't nostalgic for the game itself, but the game reminds them of the people they were around when playing it," Bowman said. "Putting Smash Bros. on 100 lives is ridiculous--unless you want to spend hours with your buddies--then it's awesome. The things that are most nostalgic are things that have these social connections with them."

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But many casual gamers, for whom competition isn't a big motivator, often feel the broader gaming community looks down on those in it for the "play." In his book, "The Toxic Meritocracy of Video Games," Dr. Christopher Paul is critical of the ways in which gaming culture has come to over-emphasize meritocracy at the expense of enjoyment. He writes that, as games became more popular and the community sought to carve out space as a legitimate sport, gaming culture uncritically accepted the idea that "success in video games is something that is properly earned by players through effort and labor."

Paul, an assistant professor at Seattle University, argues that this thinking and other cultural assumptions underlie toxic in-group versus out-group dichotomies of who gets to be called a "real" gamer. Those who accept this framework are likely to think luck has no place in a game, because randomness erases complete control and makes the game "unfair."

The logic goes that if a game is easy to learn, it takes less skill and less time to learn that skill; therefore it isn't a good or fun game, and those who play games like Mario Kart or Party are not serious about gaming or are "not real gamers." If luck makes it so that "anyone" can win, why play the game?

Super Smash Bros. is the traditionally considered the most skill-based of the Nintendo games previously mentioned; there are tournaments such as EVO, where items and certain stages are banned in order make the battles solely about skill. Mario Kart, meanwhile, has gotten some of the worst flack, mainly for what critics feel is the unfairness of the "blue shell." Many advanced gamers are critical of Mario Party, seeing it as too random, as opposed to being a genuine test of skill.

These critiques are indicative of what many more advanced gamers feel about Mario spin-offs, but also highlight that they are likely conflating skill, competition, and technical mastery on one hand, and "fun" on the other. Not being able to see the value of games like Mario Party is overlooking and diminishing the social intent behind them.

The rationale behind critiques of these multiplayer Mario games can be a bit contradictory. The stigma placed on luck or randomness is often at odds with how unexpected moments in games are often the most enjoyable. If you flip through Fortnite highlights on Youtube or Twitch, a constant thread is moments where players, even professional ones, get lucky. It doesn't mean these players didn't have skill, but shooting an opponent from a distance so far that you can barely see them is as lucky as hitting the first place driver with a red shell right before they cross the finish line.

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Also, some gamers defend gaming as a sacred space of competition in ways they would find unacceptable in more traditional sports. If you and your friends went to shoot some hoops, and someone came over to say what you all were doing wasn't "real basketball," what would your reaction be? So why do we do this--either implicitly or explicitly--in the gaming community? Bowman thinks sometimes our competitive drive can bring out the best and the worst in us.

"Most people don't realize, it's not the in-group that's dangerous, it's once you start calling other people out-group," he said. "It's okay to be proud of who you are or the time you put in, but when that means other people who aren't you can't be proud, that's a problem."

What may be overlooked is the fact that the chance and probability elements of these games are meant to alter and augment player strategy, not diminish it.

There are scenarios in Mario Kart games where the best position to be in is second place, but if you are in first, you may want to hold on to a Super Horn to neutralize attacks from possible red and blue shells. After a few times playing Smash Bros. games, you understand how going after items is both an opportunity and a distraction. The randomness of their appearances forces players to constantly adjust their strategy and to see offense and defense as simultaneous choices, not separate ones. In Super Mario Party, players can take a risk and roll their special dice to move around the board faster, but also have to account for the probability that buying a star can help an opponent as well, since it moves the Star Space to another place.

Good players learn how to not only navigate the balancing elements of these games, but use them to their advantage. But while these games use chance as a way to even the odds a bit, they don't overcorrect to the point where skill and strategy are no longer vital.

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For example, being good at mini-games gives you a big advantage in Mario Party. Anyone who has played Smash knows that the random item appearances or the obstacles on different stages aren't going to help a novice opponent who doesn't know how to block and dodge, or who hasn't learned how to overcome edge guarding. Mario Kart's director and producer Hideki Konno previously noted that Nintendo wanted an experience where "everyone was in it until the end," but the "best" player is still going to win most of the time--like they would in pretty much any other game.

On its website, Nintendo's marketing for the Switch includes phrases like "keep the focus on fun," "connect and make memories," and "something for everyone." These Nintendo favorites don't eliminate the incentives for mastery or autonomy, but they do place a premium on social interaction. Nintendo designs its games for families and those who want to have fun social experiences.

Skill and technical prowess will always be a key aspect of gaming. Wanting to win isn't an inherently bad thing. But adding a little bit of luck can make each playthrough unique and give players of different skill levels a chance to compete--all of which place more emphasis on the "fun" and not the "win."

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nintendians

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nintendo always make game fun since then and it hasn't die off yet.

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SystemOverload

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Edited By SystemOverload  Online

Smash Bros. without items is like easy mode for Dark Souls.

Both game’s gameplay and combat is so simple that the games would be boring.

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JustPlainLucas

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For those that don't understand the toxic meritocracy concept, I'll just revert back to the Dark Souls easy mode rumor. I don't know if anyone remembers or not, but there was a rumor that From Software was going to add an easy mode to Dark Souls and some people lost their minds. They went about attacking people who got excited that they could finally finish a Dark Souls game, thus the "get gud" mantra arose, a saying that I'm sick to death of hearing about. For one, someone playing a Dark Souls game on an easier level in no way invalidates your accomplishments in the game. You're still better than them at Dark Souls; you don't need to make them feel like shit because they can't beat it on Normal/Hardcover or whatever. That's the toxic part of meritocracy, although I personally would drop the toxic adjective entirely as it's redundant. Meritocracy itself is toxic.

I'm of the belief that gaming is for everyone. So people who bully/troll/demean the lesser skilled players are the ones that's actually ruining gaming and giving other people negative stigmas about our culture. There's no defense for people who act like this. If you're upset about this article, there's a good chance that the shoe probably fits you.

You also need to think about something, too. Gaming is the only entertainment medium that some people cannot enjoy completely because they need skill to finish some games. You can pick up any book and read it from start to finish. Same with movies and music. You can be a horrible person at sports but go to and enjoy a sports game of which you paid 60 dollars for a seat... But games, an average player will probably not even make it a quarter of a way through Sekiro. They bought the game thinking that "I can just practice and get better", but they found out they don't have the skill for it and just ended up wasting their money. I'm not saying every game needs an easy mode or a ton of luck added. I'm just saying that options are always a good thing, and it's ridiculous to make someone who wants to use those options feel ostracized because of your "get gud" mentality. The sooner we start becoming a little more empathetic with each other, the sooner our culture can earn some more respect. But it's not just gamers who have empathy problems, it's humankind in general.

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Thanatos2k

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Edited By Thanatos2k

@JustPlainLucas: Gaming is for everyone, but not every game should be for everyone. That ends up with a watered down experience for all. Games that are laser focused on their target audience usually end up being the best at what they do, even if not everyone will like them.

"Gaming is the only entertainment medium that some people cannot enjoy completely because they need skill to finish some games."

Really? Ever done a puzzle? My grandma can put a 1000 piece puzzle together pretty fast, but the puzzle doesn't assemble itself. You can absolutely fail to be able to assemble one, and give up, like people do with video games.

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lionheartssj1

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@Thanatos2k: Focus is good, but I don't know if adjusting hit points and damage would necessarily hurt the quality of a Dark Souls.

Personally, I would kill for some difficulty sliders in Cuphead. I absolutely love the art, music and overall aesthetic of that game, but for the life of me...I can't get further than the first couple bosses.

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Thanatos2k

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@lionheartssj1: Of course it would, because Dark Souls is about accomplishment and satisfaction.

I loved Cuphead, because it was hard. Cuphead is also about accomplishment and satisfaction.

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lionheartssj1

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@Thanatos2k: Yea, but I don't see how me playing on an easy mode takes away from your accomplishment of playing on normal or hard? I think even Ikaruga had an option for infinite lives/continues or something like that. It didn't take away from those people who beat it without continues.

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P00DGE

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4 player smash, or smash with items, is boring. Even when my group of 6+ gets together for smash nights, we cant play anything but 1v1 with no items. Its far more fun to watch a fun, skill based, luck free match and wait your turn, then to play a 4 man chaotic free for all. Whenever we try that, we all get burnt out on the game after a couple of matches because it is just too random. So even from a social standpoint, luck just doesnt make games fun, but rather boring.

So yeah, this article is retarded

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Thanatos2k

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Edited By Thanatos2k

@P00DGE: 1v1 stock no items is the most boring mode you can possibly play in Smash.

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P00DGE

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@Thanatos2k: That's going to be a hard no from me. It is the ONLY fun mode in the game. All the other chaotic BS is boring because it usually just robs you of control of your character, and sometimes even vision of your character. Fun is when everything is down to your skill and your opponents skill. Not some BS that hits you from a blind spot.

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Thanatos2k

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Edited By Thanatos2k

@P00DGE: There are many facets to skill, and restricting yourself to most boring mode just to pretend like you're only having fun when "skill" matters is just sad.

I bet you turn the stage hazards off too. I wonder why you even bought the game at all when you could have just kept playing Melee.

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P00DGE

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@Thanatos2k: and I dont think its boring at all. Boring to me is 4 players throwing bombs and pokeballs, and getting blindsided by random explosions and having vision obscured by 6 different sources of bright light. At that point, im playing an interactive cutscene, amd it gets exhausting quickly.

No need to turn off stage hazards, I only play on battlefield and FD versions of stages. I hate stage hazards, or really anything that randomly changes the tide of battle that is outside of either player's control. It doesn't make games interesting, it makes them feel frustrating if you are on the losing side of a random thing blowing you up, or makes the game feel cheap if it happened to your opponent.

Ive never cared much for melee. I mean it was okay in its time. I really like the physics in this new game, and the new characters are fun. That is far more than enough of a reason to buy the new games. The best part about the smash games are the really refined controls and battle mechanics, and they are all but hidden when items are turned on and random chaos is happening every few feet of a stage.

If that's your thing, cool. I find it mind numbingly boring, and whenever I have to play that way, I grow tired of playing smash after about 2 rounds.

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Thanatos2k

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Edited By Thanatos2k

@P00DGE: So you only play on one stage in a game with dozens. You have a multiplayer game that supports more than four players even, but only play with 2 people at a time even when more are present and must sit and watch.

That is the most boring thing imaginable. I would just go home. I can only imagine the simmering resentment of the other people there forced to kotow to the system owner who enforces such boredom.

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P00DGE

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@Thanatos2k: the 7 of us that play every Friday night all frequently take turns hosting and we all swear by only these rules. I enjoy watching intense 1 on 1 matches more than taking part in aggravating chaos, and we all share similar feelings.

By all means, continue enjoying your casual play. There isnt anything wrong with it. But the article is wrong in assuming that competitive playstyle are not good fits for social gatherings, because our group, and many other groups, do just fine.

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ticktockman1979

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@P00DGE: How you play SMASH sounds like the antithesis of how the game was meant to be played by the developers.

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Poodger

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Edited By Poodger

@ticktockman1979: Good lord, you do realize you are responding to a comment that is 14 months old? Why are we dredging this up again?

Anyway, don't talk to me, talk to EVERY SINGLE competitive Smash tourney... at all levels. It is the accepted way to play, and for good reason.

Nothing wrong with wanting to play it casually if that's your thing. That's the great thing about Smash. It can be treated simply and casually, but it can be a test of skill and reflexes if you wish as well

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Thanatos2k

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Edited By Thanatos2k

@P00DGE: And there's the delusion that only 1v1 stock same stage no items is competive. It's that attitude that prevents you from having fun.

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P00DGE

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@Thanatos2k: im not prevented from having fun though. It is fun, for the people who play like that. And there are a lot of people who play like that, and have fun.

And if we are strictly talking about competition, and not casual fun, then yes, the less RNG the better the environment for competition. Playing competitively isnt the only way to play, but it is the only way some people have fin with the game.

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Thanatos2k

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@P00DGE: If you were designing Magic the Gathering, you would change the rules to be "At the draw phase of your turn, select a card from your deck and add it to your hand."

You know, because then it's pure skill based and no RNG! But what a miserably boring game it would be. And yet, the game is still played very competitively. So much for that.

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P00DGE

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@Thanatos2k: In Magic, players still create and stack their own deck with the cards they want. When cards are drawn, there are few surprises, and just about everything works together, so you arent drawing anything bad. Deck construction is even more important than the actual draws and plays themselves. Players arent just playing with decks built by random number generators.

I liken items and stage hazards in Smash, and allll the BS in Mario Party, to a game of Magic where every turn, a random event card is drawn that just damages one of the players randomly. That isnt fun. It is aggravating and cheap, and lessens the impact of decisions and strategy.

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Thanatos2k

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Edited By Thanatos2k

@P00DGE: Saying draw RNG is unimportant and you can't draw bad is insane.

Stage hazards are predictable. Items can be avoided. You act like you can do nothing, when that is patently untrue. There are a few items with no counterplay (pokeballs, assist trophies and stuff like the star), but you can selectively disable those.

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P00DGE

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Edited By P00DGE

@Thanatos2k: stage hazards are annoying, some far more than others. I am mostly talking here about pokeballs and assist trophies, which are trash for the same reason, and because they only reward simplistic gameplay (who can reach the item first, or who does it spawn closer to).

For the rest of the items, they fall into 2 categories. 1) useless and in the way. You try to do some sick setups and approaches, and instead you pick up an item, interrupting your attack or blocking the opponent accidentally. Or 2) too strong and often spawn nearer to one player than another, tilting the advantage heavily to the other side. Sure, this is funny for players during casual encounters, like a drunken party, or playing with novice nephews or something. But for two players on equal footing and skill, trying to best each other, it is annoying and saps the match of any fun when a hammer spawns next to the other player.

Some items, like bob-ombs can even spawn right in front of you when attacking, causing you to explode and die out of nowhere. This kind of unfair RNG is exactly the reason people HATED tripping in Brawl.

My other problem with items, ESPECIALLY when item frequency is high, is that they start to drown out the personality of each characters move set and the battle mechanics, and matches devolve into mad dashes for items, and spectacles of light and explosion all over the place. Just thinking about it exhausts me and makes me want to do something else.

Like I said, people arent wrong for enjoying this stuff. It is a game that can cater well towards a casual audience looking for a party game. But a lot of it has no place in competitive play, and people arent wrong for enjoying competitive play either, and the game is balanced well for it. It was even a huge focus from the developers this time around. I think competitive play is a blast and never get tired of it.

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Thanatos2k

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Edited By Thanatos2k

@P00DGE: I know you're extremely desperate to justify your identity, but your version of competitive play is not definitive. There's a reason video games are not chess. You're obviously never going to convince me the only competitive play is to strip a game of all variance.

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P00DGE

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@Thanatos2k: yikes dude, Im not the one desperate here, you are the one fighting against the established rules of EVERY competitive tournament. I never said you had to like it, but that's how it is, and for good reason. If you can't accept that, well get over it in your own way. Competitive rules arent changing anytime soon, and ALOT of people enjoy those rules.

Not quite sure why you are so worked up over what the rules for competitive play are. You clearly seem to be more interested in "fun" matches (or what fun means to you), so let competitive players be. We are enjoying our "stripped game" (lol) very much. Hope you are getting your enjoyment of the game in your own ways too.

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Thanatos2k

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Edited By Thanatos2k

@P00DGE: They don't play basketball one on one. (PURE SKILL!) You're purely referring to 1v1 fighting games, the most boring type of game to watch others play. There are countless other games played competitively in the world that thankfully ignore such a narrow sighted and flawed definition of competition. Plenty of RNG and variance exists in Dota, for example, and few would say that game is not competitive. They rightfully recognize how you react to variance is also a facet of skill.

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Poodger

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@Thanatos2k: Boring for you, perhaps. It is a huge esports genre that MANY people watch. 1v1 is not boring for the many many people that watch and play in Smash Tournaments. I hate team games myself, Basketball is horribly boring to me. Boxing/fighting is also a big RL sport, and that is 1v1, so yeah. Not everything bends to this weird idea you have about what competitive gaming should be. I also don't quite know why you brought basketball up... the rules, skills required, and audience for all sorts of things are different. Not everything follows the same template. Just because it works for something like basketball doesnt mean it invalidates what works for smash.

I can think of handfuls of other types of games I wouldn't want to watch others play, but I find watching competitive 1v1 smash to be quite entertaining. I can't quite think of anything as RNG as randomly spawning items in mobas. Most of it follows a pretty predictable path and pattern of spawning. There are rarely ever any moments of "hey, that's not fair, you just got lucky" moments in competitive moba gaming. Team fights are what decide games, and those come down to reaction time, aim, strategy and skill. Not RNG.

You have some weird, stubborn, thickheaded resistance to accept that people enjoy playing this game in a way that you dont. Oh well, your problem, not mine.

Its also silly how much you think items add to the game. If smash were like a pizza, removing things like items and stage hazards would be like taking off toppings on the pizza. In the end, it is still a pizza. One of the most popular pizzas around is a straight cheese pizza. I personally can't stand onions, no pineapple, on my pizza. When I remove these items from my pizza, it makes the pizza better for me. Items and stage hazards are just like those extra toppings. They add a different flavor to the game, not strip the game down by excluding them. And it just so happens that a lot of people who take the game seriously, like their "pizza" without items and stage hazards.

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Thanatos2k

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Edited By Thanatos2k

@Poodger: Did you just switch to an ALT? Wow, I knew I was being trolled.

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Edited By Poodger

@Thanatos2k: You know someone is out of arguments when all they have left to say is "you're a troll".

My PC is tied to one account, while my phone is tied to another. Oddly, they both seem to send notification to the same email, so I respond to stuff depending on which device I am using my email on atm.

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Poodger

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@Thanatos2k: Do elaborate how. If that is all you have to say about it, you are reaching for anything to keep your trashy opinion afloat.

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Thanatos2k

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Edited By Thanatos2k

@Poodger: I don't need any, you just massively contradicted your alt's points with your whole pizza argument.

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JustPlainLucas

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@P00DGE: Well, my friend and I got bored with just one on ones. So we played 4 player with items and suddenly, it was far more entertaining. It was refreshing to see players come in using different characters with completely different play styles and having to adjust to people you weren't familiar with. And items gave matches a level of unpredictability that always kept everyone on their toes. I've watched matches where two players knew each other so well, it just went on and on and on. Waiting for someone to die so you could get next... that's boring to me.

So when you say something like "this article is retarded", you may want to consider that your perspective is not definitive.

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P00DGE

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@JustPlainLucas: well the article certainly seems to try to make the idea of RNG more fun and social come across as definitive, which IS retarded.

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Sepewrath

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Edited By Sepewrath

To say that luck is punishment for being good, is idiotic.

However, thing is I wouldn't qualify the items in Mario Kart as luck. It would be luck if you could literally get any item at any time. Meaning you could get a star and a lightning bolt in first place. Its a design to keep a race fun an hectic, what fun is it to get out to first place and never see anyone again for the remainder of the race?(even though that can happen still even with the item algorithm)

In smash items are not luck, what happens to be in a pokeball or a capsule is random luck, but using those items is not luck. And a skillful player can defend against them, it does give people a chance who aren't as good to steal a KO or two, but ultimately its not the end all be all. I don't mind playing with items, because if your good you'll win most of the time anyway.

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Thanatos2k

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Edited By Thanatos2k

@Sepewrath: "Meaning you could get a star and a lightning bolt in first place."

No, you cannot. There is a very specific set of items you can get when in first place, and items have quality buckets that you pick from based on distance from the first place player. But it is also completely random which one you get from those buckets, so yes, it is luck.

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Sepewrath

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@Thanatos2k: You might want to reread that, reading comprehension is your friend.

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Thanatos2k

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Edited By Thanatos2k

@Sepewrath: I know what you said. You tried to say luck doesn't matter in Mario Kart because they don't let you get any item at any time, but it very clearly does to those who have played the game. The difference between a golden mushroom and a star, for example, is massive given how many things a star protects you from while providing nearly the same ground coverage. Golden Mushrooms also block the second item slot from being used and prevent you from picking up another item to fill its slot which the star does not. Both are in the same quality bucket, so races (or vastly increasing your place near the end) are often decided by which one the game decides to give you, which is luck.

A bullet bill from the second-to-last item can often flat out win the race, but again, only if you're lucky.

Whether you get a sound box in first place to fend off blue shells often wins races, and that's pure luck. At what time on the final lap the game doles out a blue shell to a player (if at all) decides races. Again luck.

Mario Kart is one of the most luck based games Nintendo makes.

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P00DGE

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@Sepewrath: I disagree. Many of the items in Smash, with assist trophies and pokeballs being the biggest offenders, simply turn the stage into far too much chaos to be anything but a cinematic pong cutscene in which you are blasted around. It just isnt fun.

Blue shells in Mario Kart are the only item that is absolute BS.

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nintendians

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nintendo always have pure good luck.

NINTENDO POWER!!!

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GambreGoemon

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I despise luck-based games, mostly because I have consistently terrible luck. I don't play local multiplayer, and I avoid online multiplayer because online gamers are petty, vindictive and will do anything to increase their gamer scores and leader board ranks. So social appeal is lost on me.

I prefer skill-based games. I like feeling "in control", being able to determine my own outcomes. Nothing enrages me while playing games more than that feeling of losing regardless of my controller input. To me, it's the mark of a poorly made game.

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Sepewrath

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Edited By Sepewrath

@GambreGoemon: Outside of Mario Party, which is built like a board game which is in fact designed around the luck of probability(You cant be "good" at Monopoly) But Smash and Mario Kart are not luck based, its not even luck in Mario Kart. Its an algorithm to give losing players a shot at coming back, just because you get a lightning bolt and bullet, doesn't mean your going to win. Smash is even more skill based, because a more skilled player knows the stage hazards and items and how to use them and counter them. The items just give a novice player a chance to not be absolutely hammered, but it wont replace skill.

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Daian

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Edited By Daian

Tell this nonsense to anyone who's ever played or seen Mario Party or Mario Kart.

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