Mario Kart Month: The Developers Who Tried To Beat Nintendo At Its Own Game
Posted by Damien McFerran
Improving On Perfection
Veterans of the 16-bit era will vividly recall the first time they played Super Mario Kart. Nintendo's seminal racer was a genuine revolution; it took what had previously been quite a staid and serious genre and turned it into something light-hearted, yet immensely challenging and addictive. While Super Mario Kart had an incredible impact on the gaming masses of the early '90s, the ripples caused by its release were perhaps more keenly felt by the developers of the period, many of whom would be so inspired and invigorated by the game that they would devote a significant portion of their careers to bettering it.
"Over time I came to learn all the nuances in the design of the game, how all the different mechanics worked in harmony to deliver such a compelling experience" Charnjit Bansi
However, developers are still gamers are heart, and just like the average consumer, the first thing that hit Nick Burcombe — creator of Wipeout — was the sheer quality of the racer. "Super Mario Kart on the SNES was a revelation," he says. "The thing that is so great about it — and to be fair, a lot of Nintendo games — is that the subtlety in the game design isn't immediately apparent. At 50cc, you race the tracks in one way and you get familiar with the routes, the coin placements, the pickup squares and so on. You end up understanding the course at that speed. Your knowledge of the game is always expanding throughout the 100cc series; you're getting better at using the slide of the shoulder buttons and you’re starting the find little exploits in the track and you wonder if you have found some kind of unknown advantage. Then you're at the top end of 150cc and the racing is intense — the control you require is like Zen mode and you realise that every nook and cranny and feature of the course design is perfectly placed and designed for shortcuts and getting the required advantage. And that’s when you sit back and understand that this game design – everything from the courses, the height of the little hop when you power slide, the importance of the coins, the skewed balancing of the weapons and the AI — all of it has been tweaked within an inch of its life so that you can reach this level of skill. I love it – it’s one of the most rewarding games to master and that's the reason it was such an influence in the development of Wipeout back in 1993."
Former Bizarre Creations staffer Charnjit Bansi feels a similar level of affection for the title, and would try to update the formula for 2010's critically acclaimed Blur. "I can remember being wowed by the fact that I could race as my favourite Nintendo characters," he says. "It was one of the first games that defined split-screen gaming and all the hilarity and mayhem that comes with playing head-to-head with someone on the same console — before the days of online play, this was how we experienced competitive play. Over time I came to learn all the nuances in the design of the game, how all the different mechanics worked in harmony to deliver such a compelling experience. Even if you go back to it today, you can still see all these elements at play."
However, it's surprising to note that not every developer inspired by Mario Kart was fully aware of its charms from day one; ex-Rare staffer Lee Musgrave — who worked on Diddy Kong Racing on the N64 — wasn't sold on the game initially. "My first impression was that this was unplayable and just too hard by far," he comments. "But then you start getting used to it; you find out how to power slide, what the subtlety of the weapons mean and suddenly two player split-screen becomes a killer. It’s probably the most addictive two player game of its era and has a depth of control that is steep to master, but puts you into a fairly select club once you’ve got it. It's endlessly playable and was a real watershed moment for split-screen gaming."
"It's endlessly playable and was a real watershed moment for split-screen gaming" Lee Musgrave
Sumo Digital executive producer Steve Lycett experienced similar downbeat feelings when he first witnessed Super Mario Kart. "Back then I was working in a games shop in Sheffield," he recalls. "We got some copies in and tried it out on the store's demo SNES, and my first reaction was it felt like a bit of a step back from what is still one of my favourite games of all time, F-Zero. I played it in single player and didn't like how half the screen was given over to map, plus compared to F-Zero it all felt a bit light and cartoony. It was only when we plugged in a second controller and dabbled with Battle Mode and multiplayer races that we got hooked. The magic was in the multiplayer. After that I was sold, which yet again just goes to show that graphics don't count for everything."
While the SNES original managed to captivate millions, it's important to remember that subsequent sequels have been just as influential. For Naughty Dog co-president Evan Wells — one of the guiding lights behind Crash Team Racing, the PlayStation's answer to Mario Kart — it was 1996's Mario Kart 64 which really got his creative juices flowing. "It was when it went full 3D that I was hooked," he says. "The track design, the mini-turbos while drifting, the balance of power-ups and the 4-player split-screen just made the perfect multiplayer package. It came out while I was working at Crystal Dynamics on Gex 2. We really wanted to make a racing game that took on Mario Kart 64. It just so happened that Naughty Dog had the same idea and recruited me and my good friend Danny Chan to come down to do work on what would become Crash Team Racing. Mario Kart 64 had a huge influence on the team as we began work on Crash Team Racing. We played countless hours of the game, analyzing the track designs, the feel of the controls, how the AI worked — everything. The PlayStation had very different rendering capabilities compared to the N64, so we had to come up with all sorts of tricks and cheats to build tracks of similar scale while maintaining the high quality of graphics that the Crash Bandicoot games were known for. But more than anything, we knew the karts had to control as perfectly as they did in Mario Kart. That’s something we tuned and refined right up to the last minute."
The Mario Kart series has remained popular over the past two decades because each instalment has managed to capture that magical element which seems to appeal to gamers of all ages and skill levels. It's almost impossible to understate this almost universal quality. "The Mario Kart series is the perfect multiplayer game that can be enjoyed by hardcore gamers and casual gamers alike – even in the same race," says Wells. "The controls are easy to pick up, but have a great deal of depth as you continue to play. The power-ups — while occasionally crossing the line to frustrating — create the ideal leveller. Even if you aren't as experienced as your opponent, the game does an awesome job of giving you the right power-up just when you need it most to get back in the game. And of course as mentioned earlier, Mario Kart is the poster child for how much fun local multiplayer can be. There’s a time and a place for online multiplayer, but there’s something about taking on your friends in the same living room that can't be matched with a headset and a camera." Lycett is in agreement. "Anyone can learn to play the game in minutes, and due to the nature of the weapons balancing, even a novice can beat an experienced player. It’s also very light-hearted; you're racing in fun colourful locations, so it’s ideal for little kids just as much as for big kids."
"Anyone can learn to play the game in minutes, and due to the nature of the weapons balancing, even a novice can beat an experienced player" Steve Lycett
The finely-balanced gameplay and addictive multiplayer of Mario Kart play a huge part in its enduring appeal, but it's important to not underestimate the intrinsic allure of Nintendo's star-studded cast. "It’s got Mario and a fantastic ensemble of the Nintendo characters," says Burcombe, who now runs his own studio called Playrise Digital and has recently celebrated over 5 million downloads of Table Top Racing. "Take out the characters and clearly you'd still have the same game, but the front-facing power of the word 'Mario' on it is clearly the biggest draw for a lot of people."
Acknowledging and understanding greatness leads to the very human desire to create something superior, and all of the developers we spoke to have at one point in their careers tried to topple Mario from the top of the podium with their own racing titles. Given that Rare worked closely with Nintendo on the N64, it should come as no surprise that its output was often directly compared to that of the Kyoto veteran. Diddy Kong Racing was — in the eyes of many fans — the first time that Nintendo was outpaced by another company. "Diddy Kong is where we first got to go up against Mario Kart," explains Musgrave. "We did everything we could to out-do them: more levels, more finessed controls, nicer artwork, a real adventure element that melded races with Super Mario 64-style elements and of course, water and air-based vehicles. I think we did a fairly good job of expanding everything to the point where the game was a real hybrid between Mario Kart and Super Mario 64, but back then, there was not much that can compete with the weight of a franchise like Mario and even though it was simpler — or maybe because it was simpler — it outdid us on sales."
More recently, the Activision-published Blur was a clear attempt to update the Mario Kart theme for the Xbox 360 and PS3 masses. "We had a very tight set of power-ups that were as much about defence as they were about offense," says design director Bansi. "I spent many a late night with a core team balancing, tuning and iterating the power-up functionality to make sure that each one provided unique mechanics that added to the depth of strategy between each of them. We also had a robust, sticky multiplayer mode that kept players hooked long after the game was released; you could have epic races with up to 19 other players." While Bizarre Creations' racer was seen by many as the spiritual successor to Mario Kart, it didn't perform as well at retail as was expected. Bansi has his own views on why this was the case. "Blur fused real-world racing with power-ups — we were trying to appeal to the racing and action segment of the market," he explains. "Having real-world licensed cars was a double-edged sword; on the one hand it gave players instantly recognisable brands and cars but then others were somewhat confused with the believability of the power-ups as it was never explained how they came to be." Blur tried — and, it's fair to say, succeeded — in capturing some of the Mario Kart magic, but by removing the whimsical setting of the Mushroom Kingdom and replacing it with realistic courses and proper cars, some of that message was arguably lost.
"The roster feels slightly padded, especially when you have Metal Mario and Pink Gold Peach as unlocks…why not Link and Samus?" Steve Lycett
Sonic & All-Stars Racing Transformed is an even more recent Mario Kart challenger, and Sumo's Lycett has a pretty solid idea of what makes it a genuine rival to Mario Kart. "We tried to capture that Sega spirit of speed, drifting and flow," he reveals. "Mario Kart is a weapons game with racing added on; we're more of a racing game that also happens to have weapons. For us it’s more about picking the right lines, drifting, stunting at the right time and then using the weapons in addition. As a side effect, I think we tend to attract players who feel skill should have more impact on the race results. We also get to play in all those lovely Sega universes, so we're not locked to just one game as source material. So you get to visit more than just Sonic locations in All-Star Racing Transformed. I’m not sure why Nintendo don’t expand the cast and locations to be more of a Super Smash Bros. Karts, as sometimes there is a real sense of deja vu when you see old tracks reused. Plus the roster feels slightly padded, especially when you have Metal Mario and Pink Gold Peach as unlocks…why not Link and Samus?"
Lycett also feels that Sumo's title has a greater variety of racing styles thanks to the transformation aspect of the game. "I think we've pushed the bar with regards to racing on water and we have actual flight, not slow gliding," he continues. "The transformation in our game is more of a change in play mechanics, rather than slight alterations to the driving. I'd argue we had a lot more gameplay content, especially if you are playing on your own. I love the Grand Prix mode as much as the next man, but I also like a nice campaign to chew away at, either by myself or with friends."
However, for others, Mario Kart is an inspirational piece of software which has pushed them to new heights but simply cannot be beaten — or perhaps they are just too humble to think they best Nintendo at its own game. "I never think of any of my games in any way superior to Mario Kart, as it’s one of my favourite franchises," says Burcombe. Wells is equally reluctant to claim superiority. "I'm not even going to try to pick and choose elements that work better or worse in either game," he says. "We were just happy to be able to provide a fun multiplayer karting game to the millions of PlayStation owners that didn’t have access to Mario Kart. We wanted to leverage the crazy cast of characters and environments that we'd developed over the course of the first three Crash Bandicoot games and provide a wide range of racing, battle and adventure modes to keep players entertained for a long time. I like to think we succeeded. It’s still one of the games I worked on that I can actually go back and enjoy."
"There’s a whole generation that grew up with the PlayStation being their first gaming console and for those gamers, Crash Team Racing was the karting game they knew best" Evan Wells
Of course, when you seek to emulate the glory of something which is already famously successful, it's almost inevitable that your product will be endlessly compared to it. Some developers could find this annoying, but for Wells, it was never an issue. "We were both exclusive games on different platforms so our audiences were pretty distinct," he says. "There’s a whole generation that grew up with the PlayStation being their first gaming console and for those gamers, Crash Team Racing was the karting game they knew best. That’s rewarding in itself. And if you have any of your games mentioned in the same breath as a Mario game, you could be doing a lot worse." For Musgrave, the comparisons were never a problem because Diddy Kong Racing was able to provide something different to Mario Kart, even though it was trying to tap the same user base. "Lots of people owned and enjoyed both titles," he explains. "I think they both offered slightly different angles on the kart genre and although we were certainly inspired by Mario Kart, we diverged to the point of not being a one hundred percent like-for-like comparison in the way some other clones were."
To Burcombe, comparisons are flattering purely because of the standard of Mario Kart and the talent at Nintendo. "The fact that people considered us within the same thought process means that we largely achieved what we set out to achieve." Lycett is equally humbled to have his work spoken of in the same breath as Mario Kart, but can't help having a cheeky dig which harkens back to the good old days of Sega vs. Nintendo. "Whenever we see comparisons I actually take it as an honour," he says. "We're being compared to one of the most well-loved game series of all time by one of the greatest game makers in the world. Plus, it gives me the chance to remind people that we were there at the Wii U’s launch — it’s taken Nintendo two years to catch up!"
Mario Kart 8 is of course the latest entry in the long-running and beloved series, and could prove to be one of the most significant in the history of the lineage — primarily because many Nintendo fans are hoping it will be the game that finally gets the Wii U's engine running and gives hardware sales a much-needed speed boost. Musgrave isn't convinced. "It feels like it’s too late," he says. "Times have changed and I think online play has removed much of the sheen that came with the novelty of multiplayer split-screen gaming in the '90s. From my own experiences now as a parent, kids are more likely to want to play Forza 5 online in a photo-realistic McLaren P1 than try to clout Bowser with a Red Shell. Kids have moved on."
"Nintendo need to create experiences of the same calibre as Mario Kart 8, and at a steady cadence — that will be key to getting back on track" Charnjit Bansi
Wells also feels that the game has perhaps come too late to save the struggling system. "Mario Kart 8 looks gorgeous, and there’s no doubt that it'll be a blast to play, but the Wii U has a lot of ground to make up," he says. "It’s the first Nintendo console that I've yet to buy. And frankly, no matter how much of a Mario Kart fan I am, I still don't think that it'll tip the scale for me. I hope I'm wrong." Bansi shares this sentiment, to a degree. "The Wii U is struggling in the marketplace at the moment and I think Mario Kart 8 is the strongest title we've see in the Wii U line up for some time, but I don't think a single title is going to be the golden ticket for Nintendo. Nintendo need a solid and steady stream of quality entertainment that can't be found on other platforms, titles that can build momentum and turn the tide. Nintendo need to create experiences of the same calibre as Mario Kart 8, and at a steady cadence — that will be key to getting back on track."
However, not everyone has such a dismal outlook. "I don't think you can ever rule out Nintendo," says Lycett. "A lot of people expected the 3DS to fail after the first year or so, but once the software started coming, it’s now one of the most successful handhelds of all time. I think the same will prove true with the Wii U. It’s had a shaky start; software-wise there’s been a little bit of a drought. But if you look at the software library recently, it’s becoming a more attractive proposition all the time. I know I've been waiting for the system to have five must-have games to make it a purchase, and between Mario Kart 8, Super Mario 3D World, Super Smash Bros. and all those lovely cheap launch titles — All-Star Transformed included, of course — all Nintendo need to do to steal sales is hit that magic £150 price point, and they'll have this Christmas sown up in my household, at least."