Super Mario Kart – 1992 Developer Interview
In this vintage Super Mario Kart interview from 1992 (which first appeared in the official jp strategy guide), Shigeru Miyamoto and the other lead developers discuss the design choices behind this seminal kart racing game. The choice of karts over cars, the drifting mechanic, and the item system are all covered in detail. It’s fascinating to read about these early systems with the hindsight that they would continue to be refined with each sequel.
Shigeru Miyamoto – Producer
Hideki Konno – Director
Tadashi Sugiyama – Director
Masato Kimura – Programmer
Hajime Yajina – Programmer
—To begin, please introduce yourself and tell us what your role was in the SMK development.
Miyamoto: I’m Shigeru Miyamoto, the producer. For Super Mario Kart, my role as producer was pretty relaxed because I didn’t do any directing. It was completed by the twin-directing team of Sugiyama and Konno. In fact I don’t know if I can really say I “participated” in this development… it was more like I “observed” it. (laughs)
Sugiyama: As director, I oversaw the course design, backgrounds, and characters. I also drew some of the art. I would get an idea for the general design of a course, draw it up, and then show it to everyone: “here, make something like this!”
Konno: My role, to put it simply, was to direct the overall presentation of the game. I was reponsible for deciding to set the game in Mario World, to have items, which characters will be in the game, etc..
Kimura: I oversaw and directed all the programming. Before this I was a part of the F-ZERO development team, and that game also involved a lot of cars racing on-screen, so overall I would say this work wasn’t too tough. Of course the hardest thing was getting the controls for the karts to feel right.
Yajina: In Pilotwings, I handled the DSP (digital signal processing). In simple terms, DSP helps the program run by doing extra calculations. They knew they would need that for Mario Kart as well, so I was brought on the team.
Miyamoto: I just walked over to his desk, tapped him on the shoulder, and said, “Let’s work together.” (laughs)
—When did the development begin?
Miyamoto: We started doing some early experiments in Fall of 1990, and when it looked like we were on to something fun, we chose the directors. The main development really got started around April of last year.
Kimura: I can’t remember, when did we first come up with that guy with the big helmet on…?
—What is that?
Kimura: Before we used Mario characters, the driver was just a normal racer with a helmet.
Sugiyama: At the beginning of the development we did a bunch of research. I read an introductory book on kart racing, and a video called “Drift Contest.”
Miyamoto: The biggest extravagance of all was taking everyone to the Nemu no Sato amusement park for a day of go-kart racing. We could have made this game without that bit of “research”! (laughs)
Sugiyama: Oh no, it was very helpful. (laughs)
—Why did you choose karts instead of cars?
Miyamoto: That was our first idea, actually: a fun, lighthearted game where you zip around unrealistically in cars. It wouldn’t be the life-or-death, dangerous world of F1 racing, but more the atmosphere of screeching wheels as you zip around an amusement park. From those ideas, the concept eventually evolved naturally from cars to karts.
When people play this game, they have a big smile on their face. That was a big goal for us: a game where both players and onlookers would be laughing and smiling. It does seem like there’s a boom in the popularity of actual go-kart racing right now, but that wasn’t really related to our choice to switch from cars to karts.
Konno: When we saw the recent new stories, about the boom in kart racing thanks to famous drivers like Senna and Aguri Suzuki doing it, we thought “wow, lucky timing for us!”
Miyamoto: As I said, this isn’t the world of F1 racing: it’s more like going to an amusement park. To be more specific, we wanted to make a game where there was more fun to the driving than simply cornering. That’s why, during the development, it was decided that no one would be allowed to testplay the game in 2-player mode. That was something the whole staff agreed on actually. In a 2-player race, it’s the competition itself that is fun—overtaking your opponent with skillful cornerning, for instance. That’s why, when we were making Super Mario Kart, we were very careful not to lead ourselves astray in understanding what makes the game fun. We focused our efforts on the 1-player experience: if that was fun, then 2 players would automatically be fun, too.
—The lack of any kind of speedometer also contributes to that amusement park mood.
Konno: It does. And almost every other racing game out there has a speedometer. But it’s really a foregone conclusion, with go-karts, that you’re going to try to go as fast as you can, and if you viscerally feel like you’re going fast during the game, then there’s really no need for a meter. Also, since Mario Kart has to display the item slot and coins already, we didn’t want to clutter up the screen with unnecessary information. You also get a sense of your speed from the sound of your engine.
Sugiyama: Plus these are go-karts, with a top speed of, what, 80km? That’s not an especially exciting number. (laughs)
Miyamoto: Mario Kart has four game modes: Grand Prix, Match Race, Time Trial, and Battle Mode. But Time Attack was really more of a bonus addition. I know that ultimately, a racing game must include a time trial mode, so it was something we had to add, but it was a part of the game we figured we could leave to the end. The thing we spent the most time thinking about was the Battle Mode.
The very fact that Battle Mode has nothing to do with racing is what made us want to add it, and give it special attention. It helped strengthen the image of the game: it’s not, “you get to become a world class racer!”, but rather “you get to race around and play in this go-kart with your friends!” To tell you the truth, I think we could have made a couple more games around that basic concept. Maybe a game where you use poles and compete in slalom skiing, or something with a jump platform, and you see who can get the highest jumps.
Konno: The Battle Mode was completed at a very early stage in the development. Interestingly, though, it was completely different in the beginning. Originally, there were no obstacles in the battle field, and you could drive around freely trying to hit your opponents with a standard “machine gun”-like, rapid-fire ball attack. You’d get a point for every time you hit your opponent.
However, spinning around and around in this open field with no obstacles or landmarks, after 5 minutes you’d get really dizzy. (laughs) We then decided to add walls and other features in the hopes that it would prevent that.
Miyamoto: I remember I ignored the progress of the Battle Mode for awhile, and then one day I came back and saw it was gone from the game! (laughs)
Konno: Hah, that was actually due to memory limitations we were having at the time. We couldn’t add the other characters then, either…
—Kimura, you mentioned earlier that replicating the feel of go-kart controls was the hardest thing for you in Super Mario Kart.
Kimura: I spent a lot of time studying the physics of speed, friction, inertia, but I soon learned that if I followed the rules of physics faithfully, the controls didn’t feel like a game at all. It comes down to this: in a real car, the feel of the steering wheel is like an “analogue” device, but the SNES control pad uses digital on-off switches. Because of this fundamental difference, I had to go back and tinker with the controls over and over until I approximated something that felt right.
Miyamoto: It was an extremely difficult process. Imitating a real car didn’t work at all. The only way forward was for us to keep meeting, talking it over, and revising again and again. I’m afraid I also made matters worse with my advice that didn’t make a lot of sense. (laughs) “Oh, this part feels good here, but it’s kind of weird physics… hmm, I don’t know though, yeah, we should change it.” All that back and forth just worried and annoyed Kimura.
—How did you come up with the drifting?
Miyamoto: One of our core ideas was that you’d be able to have fun driving these karts in ways that you couldn’t in real cars; in that sense, it wouldn’t be much fun if the karts couldn’t drift, would it? At the same time, if they slide around too much you can’t drive, so we had to give them some grip, and strike a complex balance between the two. The drift idea was there from the beginning, you see. We continually refined the idea with the goal of making it a technique that any player could do.
Konno: In the finished version, you press L or R to do a little hop, then you drift as you turn. But in the beginning we didn’t know it would actually work. In real driving, you drift by counter-steering the wheel in the opposite direction when you corner. We tried implementing those controls, but the majority of people couldn’t do that technique. They’d overdrift everytime, so we abandoned that idea. After a bunch of research we hit upon the idea of drifting by holding down the L/R buttons. Most people could do that at will, once they got used to it.
In a real car, drifting actually happens at slow speeds. Our drifting controls were different from F-ZERO, and I thought they were cool, so I thought we should incentivize players who had learned the technique by making drifting a little faster.
Sugiyama: Konno and I did some races together when we were playtesting. He decided to drift, and I just raced normal grip style. It was there that decided we should make the drifting a little faster.
Konno: Still, drifting isn’t really implemented perfectly in Super Mario Kart, so people who drive really well without it will still be faster.
Miyamoto: That’s because of the corners. Drifting in SMK is sort of like “PR” for people watching the game. It’s to get them excited: “see, you can race this way too!”
—Items play an important role in both Grand Prix and Match Race mode. How did you come up with that idea?
Yajina: Recently, in Pachinko and similar games, features that change the statistics and odds of the game have become really popular. In Super Mario Kart, the lower your rank, the better the items you get. I actually wanted to make those calculations more complex, but in truth I’m not sure the extra effort would have been reflected on-screen anyway.
Konno: I think we struck a good balance. If you’re in the lead, you can’t get lazy, or you’re going to get it! The items introduce an element of luck into Mario Kart. No doubt, for some people who played F-ZERO really seriously, the whole idea of “luck” in a racer would be anathema, so originally we had an option to turn items on/off for the Grand Prix mode. That was our quick fix for that problem. But I think that as you play with the items, you come to realize they’re implemented in a balanced way: they give some hope when you’ve fallen behind, and allow for the thrill of an upset victory. So on further consideration, we opted for a flow similar to Dr. Mario, and ultimately took the “No Item” option out.
Miyamoto: Miyamoto: It’s kind of like in kimodameshi 1–you experience fear even if nothing happens. It’s precisely because you don’t know what’s going to happen that makes it intense. If you knew to a certainty that nothing was going to happen, you wouldn’t be scared at all, right? I think that’s very important to the tension we experience in games. I think that indeterminancy, knowing that something “might” happen, is the most fun.
—Can you give some more details about the actual development process?
Konno: We all worked on the same floor together. We all sat close to each other, too. The beginning was mostly just sitting at one’s own desk, grinding it out.
Miyamoto: We didn’t have a rigid master design document or anything like that.
Kimura: For the programing, it was all left up to us, and we were relatively free to do what we saw fit.
Konno: The meetings were very informal, too. They were more like “chat sessions”, actually.
Miyamoto: Yeah, I think 30 or 40% of it was just us talking.
Konno: I took almost no notes during those meetings. Since we all sat near each other, it was faster to tap someone on the shoulder and ask directly, “we’re doing it like this, right?” I really only took notes for the things I knew I’d be likely to forget.
Sugiyama: The early part of the development was mostly a process of repeated prototyping. Someone would suggest a new idea, we’d quickly prototype it, then gradually refine and add more detail to it.
Miyamoto: Game design is often thought of as work you do with your head, but in reality, it’s real labor like anything else. You really have to draw everything out: it isn’t ideas that finish games. To middle and high school students, game design probably seems like some cool job where you sit around smoking cigarettes while great ideas just come to you. In reality, game design is steady, hard work–I want young people interested in a career in games to not have any misunderstandings about that, because lately, we’ve been seeing a lot of people like that. Consider this my word of warning, I guess. (laughs)
They couldn’t be here today, but in addition to the five of us, there were three other key members who handled the music and character modeling. They did an excellent job too.
—What kind of character modeling?
Konno: All the art for the characters, like when Mario spins, or shrinks, or gets hit. That was an incredibly difficult job, truly.
—In closing, I’d like to give the last word to the producer: how do you think this team did?
Miyamoto: They had excellent teamwork as a group. Everyone knew what the goals were and worked diligently to accomplish them. I don’t want to give them too much praise though. (laughs)
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