Mario Kart 64 – 1996 Developer Interview

Mario Kart 64 – 1996 Developer Interview

In this interview from the official Japanese guidebook, several members of the Mario Kart 64 team discuss their roles during development and the new challenges they faced working with Nintendo’s new 3D hardware, the Nintendo 64. The writing prompt for these essays was: “what has changed from Super Mario Kart to Mario Kart 64?” The team stresses the under-the-hood programming improvements that made Mario 64 a more analogue racing experience.

Shigeru Miyamoto – Producer

So you want to know what changed from Super Mario Kart to Mario Kart 64, and what stayed the same… hmmm… that’s a tough one. Mario Kart, you see, was meant to appeal to a wide audience. We wanted to make a game where anyone, from age 3 to 100, could jump in and start competing right away, regardless of their skill level. So in making a sequel, we decided that we didn’t want to change most of the basic elements of the game. People have been saying “video games are evolving”, and while there are some things that surely have to change, the truth is, keeping things the same does make it easier for the average person, doesn’t it? (laughs)

I mean, of course, if you play Mario Kart 64 I think you’ll understand this, but I’m not saying we kept everything the same. It’s just that this time we focused on changing the internal processes—the things under the hood which the player doesn’t see. 4-player was one of our development themes, so we spent a great deal of time and effort on technological challenges: how to make 4-player a stress-free experience, how to utilize the N64’s power to that end, etc.

The 4P battle mode is really amazing, and I was pleasantly surprised we pulled it off. (laughs) It was very difficult balancing it, as we wanted it to be as accessible as the standard race mode. And each of the split screens has to do its own 3D calculations for that screen, which meant 4x the processing power was needed.

The N64 CPU is quite fast, and doing those kinds of calculations is one of its specialties, but even so, at first the programmers said “this is impossible.” But as the producer, I can say the results turned out pretty much just as I had hoped. (laughs)

Shigeru Miyamoto
Birthday: 11/16/1951
Sign/Blood: Scorpio/A-type
Hobby: Raising Hamsters
Favorite Track: Peach Circuit

The N64 CPU is quite fast, and doing those kinds of calculations is one of its specialities, but even so, at first the programmers said “this is impossible.” As the producer, I can say the results turned out pretty much just as I had hoped. (laughs)

Also, with 4-players, each player’s individual screen gets very small, and the danger is that the image quality and resolution will be too grainy. But the N64 has some tricks that address this very issue, and we relied on that a lot. 4-player mode feels like you’re playing on 4 separate little TVs, thanks to that. It’s another one of the “behind the scenes” improvements that is actually quite an impressive bit of technology. I don’t think other consoles can imitate it right now. Even if they try to make a kart racing game like ours, there’s no way they’ll be able to, so please rest easy in your purchase. (laughs)

One other thing that hasn’t changed, now that I think on it, is that we’re still using the ROM cartridge format. As with other N64 games, Mario Kart 64 could not have been accomplished any other way. The fact that you have 8 different karts, 4 players, and 16 tracks, all available at once, is thanks to the way the ROM prepares (pre-loads) the image data. Character animations, voice samples, all that can be instantly accessed from the ROM in real-time. Every second, Mario Kart 64 needs to draw about 30 different images, and the speed required for that can only be accomplished with cartridges.

CD-ROMs just can’t cut it. The ROM data has to be transferred from the CD to the console hardware itself, and the game runs off that internal memory. Even though CD-ROMs technically can store a lot of information, the amount of data you can pre-load into the console at any given time is limited, which accordingly limits the kind of games you can make. Structurally, it’s similar to the old Famicom Disk System—and that means one is liable to repeat the same kind of mistakes with CD-ROM games as one made with Disk System games. I keep saying this, but people don’t seem to understand. (laughs)

In that sense, Mario Kart represents a piece of cartridge game history. The Super Famicom version used a special DSP chip, which is another special feature of carts which can’t be reproduced via CD-ROM or Disk System games.

However, even with this newest Mario Kart, there are still aspects of that game that could stand to be improved. For example, we’ve had people ask when there will be better animation of Mario when he’s steering, or more combat abilities, and at the moment we can only say “Not yet.” (laughs) But this is simply a question of memory, and once we are working with 128Mbit or 256Mbit carts, those things should be possible to add. The code and graphics assets are already done, so I think we’ll see stuff like that in the near future—not long at all now, I think.

Hideki Konno – Director

It’s definitely true that, at a glance, not much seems to have changed from Super Mario Kart to Mario Kart 64. And while even I think that we ended up making a relatively “normal” game, making something normal that anyone can enjoy playing is a lot harder than it looks!

The truth is, most of the development staff (including myself) loves cars. If we were left to our own devices, I’m sure we would create a game that would be way too hardcore and niche for general audiences. We (and again, myself especially) had to really repress that desire during the development (laughs). It was something we had to constantly remind ourselves of—no, we’re not doing that, and we’re not doing that either—and it was very hard.

We experimented a lot. Mario Kart 64 features a 3D analog stick, right? That analog stick is actually very similar to what you’d use to control an RC vehicle, so I bought a few RC vehicles to get a feel for it. The programmers did a bunch of research on the mechanics and physics of cars, too, and even created a computer simulation of those RC cars. Somehow it just didn’t feel like go-karts—it was too realistic, too niche. We had some girls try it, and it was totally unplayable to them.

We knew this wouldn’t work, so we then spent a lot of time talking things over and making adjustments. Almost nothing remains, therefore, of that first prototype we made. I guess that, ultimately, the controls we came up with were more straightforward, but on the positive side they were much easier to understand, and even a kid could more-or-less figure things if you let him play for 10 minutes.

Hideki Konno (director)
Birthday: 5/13/1965
Sign/Blood: Taurus/B-type
Hobby: Golf, Collecting Sneakers
Favorite Track: Luigi Circuit

However, leaving it at that would have been boring, and we didn’t want the gameplay to feel shallow, so we added a bunch of mechanics like the mini-turbos. At first, the mini-turbos were a hidden feature, and the color of the smoke didn’t change either. With their addition, the developers had satisfied themselves, and they now had fun playing the game. (laughs)

But, you know, we still wanted to give players some kind of tangible reward for racing well, so we made the smoke change color to red to impart a sense of speed, and we made sure that feature would be explained in the game manual.

There were many things we had wanted to add to the Super Famicom Mario Kart, but were unable to. For example, in Super Mario Kart, you can only have 4 bananas on-screen at once. I suppose it’s not the kind of thing players really noticed, as the bananas were continually getting dropped and then cleared from the map in turn.

As the creators, though, we had our ambitions, and we thought it would make for some super-fun battles if 100 bananas could be dropped. I feel like those ambitions have been vindicated in Mario Kart 64. We’ve been able to add lots and lots of stuff we couldn’t before. If you want, now, you really could put down 100 bananas!

The enemy AI, also, is so much better than before—there’s really no comparison there. Enemy racers will drift now too, which is another thing we couldn’t do before. It would be pretty boring if you could drift but the enemy couldn’t, right? So now we’ve got a system where enemies can drift and maintain their speed, and try to take the inside-track and cut you off. With little things like this, I feel we’ve actually made a pretty solid racing game that should satisfy people who are looking for that experience.

In fact, originally we had a “no item” racing mode too. It was our attempt to appeal to F-Zero fans, who feel that items are a distraction to the racing. (laughs) It allowed for serious races, where you’re trying to edge someone out for fractions of a second, with all the racers clumped close together in the final lap. As it turned out, however, almost everyone who demoed Mario Kart 64 chose not to play that mode, and we ultimately dropped it. In a traditional racing game you would of course include a mode like that, but Mario Kart without items somehow felt kind of cheap. (laughs) So we cut it out. I guess that for people who just want to race, there’s always the time attack mode. You can now save your best times in the controller pak, so I’ll be happy if players can find new challenges for themselves in that mode.

Tadashi Sugiyama – Visual Director

I did most of the course designs for Mario Kart 64. The ability for the tracks to vary in height was definitely the biggest change from the first game. The fear you feel, for example, when racing along a mountainside is a huge step up this game. I think we really pulled off that thrill of racing along an uneven, undulating road.

Now that we’re using 3D models, we can have shadows, and things can be hidden behind other things, and you can look up or look down on your opponent. It makes the strategies in battle mode very different from the first game. Of course all that is obvious stuff, but it’s things we had really wanted to include in Super Mario Kart.

One important point for us, though, was to remember that no matter how good the 3D looks, this is a racing game, and therefore the camera view should not be too shaky, or rotate too much. That’s why we couldn’t really change the third-person (behind the player) view.

In that regard it looks a lot like the previous game, and if you ask your random old man on the street, sure, maybe he’ll say it looks like the same game… in fact, we really did struggle to find ways to differentiate this game from Super Mario Kart.

Tadashi Sugiyama (art director)
Birthday: 5/13/1959
Sign/Blood: Aries/A-type
Hobby: Sleeping
Favorite Track: Wario Stadium, Bowser Castle

We therefore tried to fill the stages with lots of little details, and lots of moving objects in the background, like the steam train in Kalamari Desert. In any event, I think people who actually play the game will be able to appreciate all the differences… so we mostly ignored the aforementioned complaints of cranky old men. (laughs)

There were a number of courses we had to drop, too. One was a big, multi-story parking garage-like structure, which you’d race around and around as you ascended it. At first, we thought it would be a nice, realistic track, and that it would be really fun, but when people actually played it the constant turning and turning as you went up quickly made them feel sick. (laughs) We also made a big city track, with a castle, and a nice pond, where you got to race around all these different houses and buildings. Unfortunately, it was a very large map, and it took too much time to race through. So we cut it.

As for the courses I think came out well… hmmm. That’s a tough one. I would probably say Bowser’s Castle. We really gave our all on that one, with all the little details… maybe we went too far! It’s very difficult—too much for me as a player, I’m afraid. (laughs)

Masato Kimura – Main Programmer

“Main Programmer” may sound like a pretty cool title, but in reality, my job consisted in far more mundane, managerial requests to the rest of the staff: “remember everyone, if we start running out memory, we’re going to have to reduce the RAM we’re using somewhere, so let’s all work together on that.” In Super Mario Kart, I programmed the handling for the karts, but the scope of the N64 system is incomparably larger than the Super Famicom, so this time those tasks were left up to other staff members and I took on a more supervisory role, overseeing the overall progress of the development.

Our big goal for Mario Kart 64 was to have a 4-player mode that felt fun. Usually in racing games, if there’s a 2P mode, you can only race on maps designed specifically for that mode, right? And graphically the maps are usually stripped down to their bare essentials so the processor can handle it. We didn’t want multiplayer in Mario Kart to feel that way. We wanted multiplayer to feature the exact same courses you could race on in single player.

On that point, the N64 made it easy: that’s partly thanks to the high-powered graphics chip, but really the CPU power is incredible. It’s just my opinion, of course, but I think we managed to create a game that could not be recreated on any other console right now. So it’s my hope that players can play Mario Kart 64 on the biggest screen possible, to fully appreciate the 4-player mode.

Masato Kimura (main programmer)
Birthday: 9/2/1963
Sign/Blood: Virgo/A-type
Hobby: Baseball
Favorite Track: Bowser Castle, Yoshi’s Valley

I’ve had this thought before, but when you play with a live opponent, they’re kind of like the ultimate console “accessory”, aren’t they? (laughs) No matter what you do, they’ll respond in kind. They’re like a peripheral accessory, attached by a controller. With Mario Kart 64, you can now have three “peripherals” to enhance your experience. The experience of competing with a live human opponent still cannot be replicated by a computer, and I think we’ve created a solid platform for players to enjoy that experience.

The most difficult thing to program was the collision detection. On the Super Famicom, everything is flat, so it’s like everyone is racing on a flat sheet of paper.

But this time it’s 3D. And on top of that, the maps are not simple and they allow for a lot of freedom in where you race. In a lot of traditional racing games, there are walls that delimit the boundaries of the tracks, with maybe some dirt sections between the road and the walls, and that’s it. We didn’t want to impose those kinds of limitations on Mario Kart, and it caused us a lot of problems.

When the designers first told us they wanted to do multi-level intersections… well, as a programmer, as a matter of pride, you don’t want to just say “That’s impossible.” (laughs) So by hook or by crook, we resolved to figure out a way to calculate all the different collision detections, but… if you do all those calculations exactly, it bogs down the processor. On the other hand, if you cut corners you lose accuracy, and the characters start to overlap each other. Finding the right balance was honestly more art than science. I’ve got an analogue mindset though. (laughs)

I’m especially proud of how the shells came out. This was another area that required a lot of CPU power, and a lot of collision detection has to be performed for every shell. While the green shells fly according to the normal laws of physics, for the red shells and the blue shells we ignored those laws and aimed for something that just felt right. I guess you could say that good games are made from “good lies”. For a programmer, when you’re able to “trick” players like this, there’s no better feeling!

Kenji Yamamoto – Programmer

My job for Mario Kart 64 was the kart handling. And yeah, that meant using a lot of actual physics. Thankfully, now that we’re working with the N64, those kinds of calculations are easy—or rather, they can be done quickly now, which was a great help. It’s not something you can visually see, but in terms of the programming, there are a lot of very detailed psychics calculations being made in Mario Kart 64.

Let me try to explain it this way… this is an over-simplification, but on the SFC, everything was very approximate, and if you had a number that fell between 1 and 2, it would have to be rounded up or down. But on the N64, we can work with the decimal gradations between those numbers, and things can be very precise. In turn, that allowed us to make the kart handling much more responsive. Of course, the more freedom you have, the harder things are to work with…

In the beginning we created a prototype that modeled the actual physics of cars, and it was very realistic, but it also wasn’t very fun or conducive to racing, so midway through we reverted to a more standard kart-racing model. We did retain certain physics from those experiments though, things like friction and grip. The road surface conditions, the power of the engine, and other factors determine how much grip your vehicle has on the road, and it’s all precisely calculated by the N64.

But you know, again, if you’re too insistent on realism with your calculations, the racing component suffers, so the physics are pretty loose. In reality you’d probably never be able to drift that hard.

Kenji Yamamoto (programmer)
Birthday: 4/2/1965
Sign/Blood: Aries/B-type
Hobby: Cars
Favorite Track: Mario Circuit, Peach Circuit

But those kinds of lies, or “deformations”, are all over Mario Kart 64. I mean, from a physics perspective, stuff like mini-turbos and jumping karts is all a bunch of nonsense anyway. (laughs)

With regard to the kart handling, I’d have to say that the drifting, unrealistic as it may be, was really well done. I think it feels very natural. The truth is, I had wanted to make it so you drifted naturally just by manipulating the analogue stick—without having to press and hold the R button or anything. Technically that was totally possible, but it would surely have made the controls too difficult. We wanted the player to always know when they were drifting, so ultimately we decided to add the extra button press. It all came together nicely I think, so all’s well that ends well!

For me, I really want players to enjoy the analog stick controls, to really feel connected to the kart through them. The karts will still respond to big, clunky movements of course, but I’m hoping that as players get into the game more, they’ll realize that the karts also respond to very small, subtle movements of the analogue stick. Unfortunately I think most players really just try to drift everywhere and pull off mini-turbos, and I haven’t seen a lot of delicate movements with the stick. That’s a little sad for me, I admit. (laughs)

Tomoaki Kuroume – Character Designer

We used pre-existing Nintendo characters for Mario Kart 64, so my job was simply to render models of those characters (for kart racing) in 3D. These are all well-known characters, so I was especially attentive about not betraying their image, and giving them a nice, clean presentation in 3D.

Mario was the character I struggled with the most. We had CG for Mario from Mario 64, but this time he needed to be riding a kart, so I had to change his model a bit. To create a standing model of Mario, you can get by with a three-dimensional model drawn on paper, but once I tried to take that model and sit him down in a kart, and make his body turn with the kart, and make him grasp the wheel etc, those animations proved exceedingly difficult and all these weird inconsistencies started popping up. I pretty much had to take each body part (hips, feet, knees, etc) and work on them one-by-one… it was a lot of trial and error.

Tomoaki Kuroume (character designer)
Birthday: 2/10/1968
Sign/Blood: Pisces/A-type
Hobby: Tennis
Favorite Track: Mario Circuit

Of course, it wasn’t just Mario who was challenging… all these characters have their weird little quirks that don’t really fit with kart racing, like wearing a skirt, or you know... having a tail. (laughs)

For Yoshi, one of our ideas was to put a hole in the back of the kart (where the muffler would be) and have his tail coming out of there, but we ended up deciding on a slightly bent posture for his back that would let his tail show all the time. Of course, I’m not sure how much anyone will notice those details on-screen when playing the actual game.

We had to create a ton of animation too. Since you basically can view the karts from any angle, that meant creating animation for every perspective, and I’m talking thousands, or maybe even tens of thousands of different animations. Creating and then rendering the animation was a very time-consuming process. Then we had to hand it off to the programmers, who would implement it in the actual game, then we’d have to re-check it again ourselves… submit, check, revise, submit, check, revise… it was really a lot of tedious work.

Actually, halfway into the development of Mario Kart 64 there was a little accident. You know how on the player select screen, Mario and the others are all animated? Originally, we hadn’t planned to make them blink or anything—and the models we had made up to that point weren’t capable of doing that kind of animation at all.

We wanted them to have that ability though, and as we were mulling over whether to spend the time re-making all the models, it so happened that our hard disk crashed, and all our work got erased. Of course we had back-ups, but not everything could be recovered. We had no choice but to remake everything from scratch. I remember Hideki Konno saying, “well, it looks like it’s been decided for us now…” (laughs) So in the end, about 80% of the character models ended up getting made twice. But I think the remakes turned out better than the originals, so I guess it was a blessing in disguise!

A commemorative photo of the Mario Kart 64 development team.

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