Nintendo Classic Mini: SNES developer interview – Volume 4: Super Mario Kart
Hello, everyone! I'm Akinori Sao, a writer in Kyoto.
This series of interviews was done to commemorate the release of Nintendo Classic Mini: Super Nintendo Entertainment System. My topic for this fourth interview is Super Mario Kart.
The latest instalment in the Mario Kart series – Mario Kart 8 Deluxe – recently released for Nintendo Switch, 24 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 unique 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!
Volume 4: Super Mario Kart
Congratulations on the 25th anniversary of Super Mario Kart!
You both served as directors of Super Mario Kart. Much earlier, Sugiyama-san, you were involved with the development of Ice Climber1, so you’re also the father of Popo and Nana, right?
Yes. I designed them.
1. Ice Climber: A vertically-scrolling platform action game for the Nintendo Entertainment System (NES). Originally released in Japan in January 1985, and in Europe in September 1986.
Konno-san, what was your first job?
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 for NES. Originally released in Japan in January 1988, and in Europe in April 1988.
I see… (laughs) What were each of your specific roles on Super Mario Kart?
I was in charge of design, so I did planning and background design and so forth.
And you also oversaw the characters, didn’t you?
How about you, Konno-san?
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.
Exactly how many people made Super Mario Kart?
A total of eight people.
Does that include Shigeru Miyamoto, the producer?
Yes. For the time, that was quite a lot! (laughs)
Just eight people was a lot?
Ice Hockey only had five!
Oh… How long did development take?
About one year?
Yes, I think so.
You made such a memorable game in just one year?
F-ZERO for two players
How did you come to make Super Mario Kart in the first place?
Miyamoto assigned us the task of making F-ZERO3 for two players.
F-ZERO was a racing game for a single player.
3. F-ZERO: A racing game for Super Nintendo Entertainment System (SNES). Originally released in Japan in 1990, and in Europe in 1992.
Super NES had two controllers, so I suppose he wanted to make use of them both.
But if it started as F-ZERO for two players, then it had nothing to do with Mario!
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 kilometres per hour along incredibly long straight lines, but we realised that splitting the screen into upper and lower portions for two players to do the same thing was out of the question.
Due to hardware constraints, it was impossible to display tracks with long straight lines in two windows on the screen.
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.
Due to hardware constraints, you had to make sort of squiggly, tightly-woven tracks?
Yes. And about the only vehicle that made sense within such tightly-woven courses were karts.
I see! Because of track design, it was only natural for you to adopt karts, which run much slower.
When I thought about why you chose karts, I imagined it was because you wanted to show the characters who were driving!
No, that had nothing to do with it!
Early on, we had young men in overalls driving the karts.
We put helmets on them and used different colours to differentiate between them. But looking from behind, we couldn’t tell who was who.
They were all wearing overalls, so they had the same form.
And it’s pixel art, so…
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.
We wondered what kinds of characters would be recognisable from behind and gave Mario a try.
You put in Mario as a test.
And it looked like it just might work!
A 10th-anniversary special appearance?
Didn’t you consider completely new characters instead of Mario?
Well, it needed to be someone anyone would recognise from behind, so…
You would be able to tell immediately whether it was Mario or Luigi by the colours red and green. They looked good visually, and we were able to clearly differentiate their characteristics, so we thought it was a good choice.
Thus, you decided to have Mario and Luigi show up. How did you decide on the other characters?
Since it had to be clear who was who from behind, we decided on Yoshi, Peach, Toad, Koopa Troopa, Bowser and Donkey Kong Jr.
Did you decide quickly?
Even Koopa Troopa?
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.
We never even tried rendering Goomba. (laughs)
Well, he doesn’t have hands, so he couldn’t grip the wheel! (laughs)
Which basically left only Koopa Troopa! (laughs)
I wonder, though, why did you use Donkey Kong Jr. and not Donkey Kong?
Yeah, why was that?
In an interview with Miyamoto-san in a Super Mario Kart strategy guide from 25 years ago, he said it was because it was the 10th anniversary of the Donkey Kong Jr. game.
Oh? Really? (laughs)
I think another reason was that Donkey Kong Jr. wears a shirt, so he would be easier to design.
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.
Yes, I suppose so.
It was that plus the 10th anniversary! (laughs)
Eight guys in overalls
One of the big features of Super Mario Kart is the ability to throw items like bananas and shells as obstacles to your rivals. How did those items come about?
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)
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…
Oil cans became banana peels. But why bananas?
Because of Donkey Kong Jr.! He likes bananas, and the peels are slippery, so they got the okay.
In the original game, the only CPU-controlled character who throws banana peels is Donkey Kong Jr., which was a way to characterise the characters.
You made it possible to use banana peels, and then you started thinking about other items.
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)
We wanted something that could home in on opponents, and that turned out to be the Red Shell.
There’s also Lightning.
We added that in the final stages of development.
We wanted an item with the potential for a sudden upset.
So Lightning is an item that’s likely to appear for the player racing in last place.
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.
And aside from playing the game, I hear you actually checked out real karts, didn’t you?
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.
What was the goal of that research?
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
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.
And it was helpful, wasn’t it?
Very much so!
The kart goes kaboom!
What about the recreational resort proved informative?
Riding in an actual kart, we could feel considerable g-force. And it helped give us a sense of the low perspective.
The greatest objective was experiencing drift.
You realise 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…
Those karts were tuned so they wouldn’t slide much. (laughs)
And they weren’t high-speed enough to spin.
So how did it work out?
We zoomed around the track and said, “Well, that was fun!” (laughs)
But we learned that karts are fun in general.
That was the main benefit. (laughs)
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!
We also paid attention to their internal construction, so we actually built a remote-control kart.
Right, we did! (laughs)
You did? (laughs)
It was the real deal, with an engine rather than just an electric motor.
It was big – over 50 centimetres, I think.
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 colours. We have always been into mechanics. We gave it a test run at the head office and it was really fast!
And very loud! (laughs)
That engine, huh? (laughs)
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.
And in five seconds it crashed into a wall! (laughs)
(raising both hands) Kaboom! It was pulverised… And that was the end of it. (laughs)
It was beyond repair. (laughs)
That was the end of it! (laughs)
So it wasn’t useful at all. (laughs)
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”
I’d like to change the topic. Sugiyama-san, what was Super NES like for you?
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.
But compared to NES, you could do more, so it was also fun, wasn’t it?
Yes. We could use many more colours compared to NES, so we could do quite a lot more.
It must have been like getting a new toy.
Yeah, it was like that.
How about you, Konno-san?
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.
Super Mario Kart came out within two years of the release of Super Famicom5, so I was surprised to hear that development only took one year. And it started as a two-player version of F-ZERO!
5. Super Famicom: A version of the Super NES released in Japan on November 21st, 1990.
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.
Then Super Mario Kart would never have been born!
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!
And the oil became banana peels, and you brought it all together in a year.
And you went to a recreational resort and even smashed up a remote-control kart! (laughs)
After all that, Super Mario Kart became the top-selling game in Japan for Super Famicom. And it’s amazing how it became a series with many instalments.
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.
What’s more, Miyamoto didn’t upend the tea table on us!
That’s a miracle, too! (laughs)
Miyamoto-san was satisfied with the course of development?
I believe so. (laughs)
Look forward to volume 5 of this interview series, coming soon: Super Mario World and Super Mario World 2: Yoshi’s Island!
Find out more about some of the classic games included in Nintendo Classic Mini: Super Nintendo Entertainment System in our developer interviews!
Nintendo Classic Mini: Super Nintendo Entertainment System is out now. Please check with your local retailer for information on current availability.