Mario Kart Month: A Brief History Of Mario Kart Item Evolution: The Shell

When spiny blue shells grow wings

If you thought Donkey Kong’s banana-throwing antics were foul play out on the circuit, Koopa Troopa is probably worthy of mention as well – no doubt coming under fire from various animal rights groups for the exploitation of his own species. Although shells have been one of the many foundations of Mario Kart since the series’ beginnings, it’s hard not to question how turtles throwing turtle shells even became a thing in the first place. No doubt Nintendo itself drew inspiration from previous Mario platformers – but still, the whole concept of it all is just a wee bit alarming in the context of Mario Kart.

If that thought alone wasn’t disturbing enough, to further instil fear in racers the shell itself has always had quite an oppressive nature out on the track – being able to deny racers of success with a swift and sudden blow. It’s certainly one of, perhaps the most aggressive projectiles available in the Mario Kart series, disrupting the flow of individual racers or even the entire race. Quite simply, it makes the rules. Despite this, the shell’s evolution has unfolded in a very similar fashion to our previously discussed item – the banana – with a lot of ongoing tinkering to the intricacies of this absolute weapon over the years.

From the series’ beginnings, the 1992 entry Super Mario Kart featured a single shell firing system, which was then followed with Mario Kart 64’s triple shell combo. From there on out, Nintendo made subtle modifications to the item, with the fundamentals always remaining intact. One particularly interesting pathway taken was during the 2003 experimental phase with Mario Kart: Double Dash!!. Much like the Giant Banana, Bowser’s Shell was the first of its kind; intimidating, destructive and exclusive to a few select characters. These racers included Bowser, Bowser Jr. and, of course, King Boo and Petey Piranha. When thrown at the right time, Bowser’s Shell would leave a path of destruction, obliterating anything that got in its way with its sheer size. In many cases, Bowser’s Shell was completely immune to certain other items.

A less commonly known fact about Bowser’s Shell was its scheduled appearance in Mario Kart DS, in the game’s 2005 release. Although it never did make the final cut, the sprite for the shell is still hidden within the game’s files (pictured above). The item did however qualify for Namco’s Mario Kart Arcade GP 2. Interestingly, there was also an unused texture in the DS version of Mario Kart for a purple Koopa Shell. Its inclusion within the game’s files remains unknown, much like information regarding Bowser’s Shell and if it is modelled after his own, or actually one of his spares.

Refocusing on the harsher realities of the series, the slightly less glamorous Green Shell and Red Shell is where the whole turtle shell phenomena in Mario Kart all began. Whilst both shells deliver the same blow to rival racers, each has a considerably unique trait – with veterans often preferring to test their skills with the manual lock-on thrills of the green shell in preference to the auto-tracking predictabilities of the red one. Double Dash!! once again paved the way in terms of any serious differences when it came to this base item – depriving the majority of racers of the reliable shell trios. These items instead became exclusive to Koopa and Para Troopa (and Petey Piranha and King Boo on the side). In Double Dash!! the shells no longer rotated around karts, either. The characters instead balanced the items whilst dealing with the pressures of the race – although this was the same for other items.

In contrast, Mario Kart DS’s Wi-Fi mode completely removed the triple shell combo to enhance online stability and performance. In the 2001 Game Boy Advance title Mario Kart: Super Circuit, red shells also took on a slightly different nature for a short time, being able to be laid behind a player, acting as a sort of land-mine, and chasing after a kart passing by – including the user who had originally placed the shell.

This brings us to what is arguably the most iconic item within the Mario Kart series – the Spiny Shell (though commonly referred to as the Blue Shell). Call it what you want, it’ll still deliver the same devastating blow to each and every racer out on the track. For racers who have been muscled to the back of the pack, the blue shell is the perfect item to unleash hell on the often impressive competition. Whether it’s the speedy ground type, or the agile aerial version, the spiny shell goes down as one of – if not – the most feared items in the Mario Kart series. It might seem unfair for players in first, but if they are too often displaying super-natural qualities, the blue shell can be the ideal weapon to bring them back down to earth.

The spiny shell first popped up in item boxes during the Nintendo 64 iteration of Mario Kart, and had absolutely no issues swiftly navigating itself through each course seeking out its eventual victim. Later on in the Mario Kart series, not only did the spiny shell grow wings, but it also was gifted an explosive surrounding perimeter – a blue orb as such. The player targeted would be launched upwards when hit, whilst surrounding racers would spin out if caught in the blast zone. At key points during a race – or in particular, the dying seconds of a final lap – this item has always been able to deliver a devastating blow. It’s amazing how many times players of Mario Kart will tell you they’ve held first place for an entire race, only to be completely knocked out of it within seconds due to an explosive blue shell attack metres out from the line. As the spiny shell developed over the years, so have ways to counter it – with each entry in the Mario Kart series often including either a special manoeuvre, trick, or exploit allowing the player in first to avoid the bad blue shell.

Based on the recent Mario Kart 8 Direct, it appears Nintendo has put an end to the blue shell’s tyranny. Whether this is a good thing or not, we’ll soon find out, but it’ll be sad to know there is a chance of the player in first escaping the once seemingly unstoppable item. The item being referenced here is the Super Horn. It’s able to blow away “everything around you” with a powerful shockwave, according to Nintendo. This includes protection against shells, and even the infamous Spiny Shell. Much like past games, there’ll probably also be some other workaround, but for now, we’ll all just have to wait until the wider community gets its hands on Mario Kart 8.

And on that note, this brings us to the end of part two. The shell continues to be a significant part of the Mario Kart series to this very day, and it would honestly be hard to imagine the games without it. Even if the shell does originate from a bit of a weird concept – much like the beloved banana — it's become an integral part of the Mario Kart experience over the years, often highlighting why the series is so much fun. Join us next time for a full-throttle breakdown of the mushroom. So until then, in the words of Mario himself: See you next time!