Hello, everyone! I'm Akinori Sao, a writer in Kyoto. This series of interviews was done to commemorate the release of the Super Nintendo Entertainment System: Super NES Classic Edition system. My topic for the fourth interview is Super Mario Kart.
The latest installment in the Mario Kart series—Mario Kart 8 Deluxe—recently released for Nintendo Switch 25 years after the original Super Mario Kart, showing that the series has become a classic among classics among Nintendo’s games. How did development of Super Mario Kart kick off? How did the special atmosphere of the game take shape? I will be talking about those things with Tadashi Sugiyama and Hideki Konno, who have long been involved with the development of the series.
And now for Sugiyama-san and Konno-san!
Sugiyama and Konno: Thank you.
Sugiyama: Yes. I designed them.
1. Ice Climber : A vertically-scrolling platform action game released for the Nintendo Entertainment SystemTM (NES) in October 1985.
Konno: Ice Hockey2 for the Nintendo Entertainment System. Sports games are popular overseas, so when I talk to people in other countries and tell them my first job was Ice Hockey, they remember it and say, "Oh, that?!" So I've benefited from that experience. (laughs)
2. Ice Hockey: A sports game released for NES in March 1988.
Sugiyama: I was in charge of design, so I did planning and background design and so forth.
Konno: I was largely the director regarding technological aspects, so I was involved in matters such as gameplay logic. Of course, we had dedicated programmers, but I was also in charge of things related to the game system.
Konno: Not many.
Sugiyama: A total of eight people.
Sugiyama: Yes. For the time, that was quite a lot! (laughs)
Konno: Ice Hockey only had five!
Konno: About one year?
Sugiyama: Yes, I think so.
F-ZERO for Two Players
Konno: Miyamoto assigned us the task of making F-ZERO3 for two players.
Sugiyama: F-ZERO was a racing game for a single player.
3. F-ZERO : A racing game released as a launch title for the Super Nintendo Entertainment System in August 1991.
Konno: That's right. We didn't at all have the concept of a racing game with Mario. We began with experiments for a multiplayer F-ZERO game. In F-ZERO, you race at over 400 kilometers per hour along incredibly long straight lines, but we realized that splitting the screen into upper and lower portions for two players to do the same thing was out of the question.
Sugiyama: Due to hardware constraints, it was impossible to display tracks with long straight lines in two windows on the screen.
Konno: If you look back at the Super Mario Kart tracks, you'll understand. Instead of tracks with long straight lines, the track designs are compact, with lots of twists and turns so they fit well within a square.
Konno: Yes. And about the only vehicle that made sense within such tightly woven courses were karts.
Sugiyama: No, that had nothing to do with it!
Konno: Early on, we had young men in overalls driving the karts.
Sugiyama: We put helmets on them and used different colors to differentiate between them. But looking from behind, we couldn't tell who was who.
Konno: They were all wearing overalls, so they had the same form.
Sugiyama: And it's pixel art, so…
Konno: With eight nearly identical guys racing, it'd be boring. Until then, we'd been focused on the system, so then we began to focus on design.
Sugiyama: We wondered what kinds of characters would be recognizable from behind and gave Mario a try.
Sugiyama: And it looked like it just might work!
A 10th-Anniversary Special Appearance?
Sugiyama: Well, it needed to be someone anyone would recognize from behind, so…
Konno: You would be able to tell immediately whether it was Mario or Luigi by the colors red and green. They looked good visually, and we were able to clearly differentiate their characteristics, so we thought it was a good choice.
Sugiyama: Since it had to be clear who was who from behind, we decided on Yoshi, Peach, Toad, Koopa Troopa, Bowser and Donkey Kong Jr.
Sugiyama: Relatively so.
Sugiyama: I think we decided on him last. (laughs) At the end, I think we weren't sure what to do and threw in Koopa Troopa.
Konno: We never even tried rendering Goomba. (laughs)
Sugiyama: Which basically left only Koopa Troopa! (laughs)
Sugiyama: Yeah, why was that?
Konno: Oh? Really? (laughs)
4. Donkey Kong Jr. : An action game that appeared in video game arcades in 1982. The original Donkey Kong game appeared in arcades in 1981.
Sugiyama: I think another reason was that Donkey Kong Jr. wears a shirt, so he would be easier to design.
Konno: Mario wears overalls because they're good for pixel animation, and I think that line of thought led us to choose Donkey Kong Jr., too.
Konno: It was that plus the 10th anniversary! (laughs)
Eight Guys in Overalls
Konno: Back when the guys in overalls were still driving, they could throw oil cans. Then oil would spread and the karts would slide. Oil cans seemed appropriate for guys in overalls. (laughs)
Konno: And playing that way with eight guys in overalls was fun. When it worked we'd shout things like, "Yahoo! It worked!" (laughs) But then we switched to Mario and…
Sugiyama: Because of Donkey Kong Jr.! He likes bananas, and the peels are slippery, so they got the okay.
Konno: In the original game, the only CPU-controlled character who throws banana peels is Donkey Kong Jr., which was a way to characterize the characters.
Sugiyama: Yes. We wanted something for shooting the karts ahead of you and wondered what would suit the world of Mario, and that was shells! (laughs)
Konno: We wanted something that could home in on opponents, and that turned out to be the Red Shell.
Sugiyama: We added that in the final stages of development.
Konno: We wanted an item with the potential for a sudden upset.
Konno: Right. When it came to that, we put a lot of effort into creating just the right balance. The amount of gameplay we put in for making adjustments was incredible for that time.
Konno: Yeah! We went to Nemu no Sato, a recreational resort in Mie Prefecture. Apparently, the name has changed and it's a different place now.
Konno: The word "kart" immediately calls to mind go-karts, but what we had in mind for the game were serious racing karts. We wanted the programmers to try driving one, get a feel for the physics of the movement, and make use of that in programming
Konno: And the whole staff was only seven people, so it wasn't going to be a huge logistical challenge. But when I went to Miyamoto for permission, he gave me an earful, saying, "Why? Can't you tell what they're like without driving them?" (laughs) But somehow I got the okay.
Konno: Very much so!
The Kart Goes Kaboom!
Konno: Riding in an actual kart, we could feel considerable g-force. And it helped give us a sense of the low perspective.
Sugiyama: The greatest objective was experiencing drift.
Konno: You realize when you actually drive a kart that one little slip-up causes the kart to spin. It's a difficult sport, and no matter how we might have explained that to the programmers, they wouldn't have understood. So we thought we should have them go and actually drive some karts, but…
Sugiyama: Those karts were tuned so they wouldn't slide much. (laughs)
Konno: And they weren't high-speed enough to spin.
Konno: We zoomed around the track and said, "Well, that was fun!" (laughs)
Konno: But we learned that karts are fun in general.
Konno: Yeah. (laughs) Super Mario Kart looks fun, but we tried really hard to make it feel realistic. So much that we tried out driving real karts!
Konno: We also paid attention to their internal construction, so we actually built a remote-control kart.
Sugiyama: Right, we did! (laughs)
Konno: It was the real deal, with an engine rather than just an electric motor.
Sugiyama: It was big—over 50 centimeters, I think.
Konno: And since we were making one, we wanted it to be fast, so we replaced parts and so forth, and didn't hold back tuning it up, and we even painted it striking colors. We have always been into mechanics. We gave it a test run at the head office and it was really fast!
Sugiyama: And very loud! (laughs)
Konno: We wanted the programmers to control it and experience drifting, and we thought it would help with the design work. So we showed them an example and turned it over to the main programmer.
Konno: And in five seconds it crashed into a wall! (laughs)
Konno: (raising both hands) Kaboom! It was pulverized…and that was the end of it. (laughs)
Konno: It was beyond repair. (laughs)
Sugiyama: That was the end of it! (laughs)
Konno: Well, we had built it, so we had learned how karts are constructed, but we barely got to see how it handled before we had to throw it away!
"A Bit Miraculous"
Sugiyama: One selling point of that game console stemmed from its ability to enlarge, reduce and rotate the graphics. It was a struggle figuring out how to use that in making a game.
Sugiyama: Yes. We could use many more colors compared to NES, so we could do quite a lot more.
Sugiyama: Yeah, it was like that.
Konno: I had been making NES games ever since joining the company, so Super NES was the first time I experienced the change from one generation of hardware to the next. I remember I was very excited.
5. Super Famicom : A version of the Super NES released in Japan on November 21st, 1990.
Konno: Yep. If the Super NES hardware had allowed for showing tracks with long straight lines in a split screen, we may have made F-ZERO 2.
Konno: That's right. We could only make twisting tracks, and we adopted karts in order to make that fun, and we found that something was lacking with just eight karts racing around and around, so we tried putting in oil cans and were like, "Whoa! It slipped!" …And that was how it came about!
Konno: That's right.
Konno: Uh-huh! (laughs)
Sugiyama: In that respect, it was a fortuitous project. At first, we didn't at all intend to head in the direction it eventually took, but because of various constraints, it went that way out of necessity—which is a bit miraculous.
Konno: What's more, Miyamoto didn't upend the tea table on us!
Sugiyama: That's a miracle, too! (laughs)
Sugiyama: I believe so. (laughs)