Mario Kart is one of Nintendo's most recognisable series but back in the early '90s the idea of the famous mascot hopping into a car was quite unique, and was even seen as something of a risk for the developer. With the benefit of hindsight we can clearly see Super Mario Kart as a moment of typical Nintendo genius, but it's worth remembering that at the time, many felt that Mario was stepping outside of his comfort zone for the sake of it.
In 1992, an interview took place with the development team which would be printed in the official Super Mario Kart strategy guide in Japan. Shigeru Miyamoto (producer), Hideki Konno (director), Tadashi Sugiyama (director), Masato Kimura (programmer) and Hajime Yajina (programmer) took part, and covered a wide range of topics - including the evolution of the drift controls and the fact that battle mode very nearly didn't make the cut. That interview has now been translated into English for the first time.
Miyamoto reveals that development on the title began in 1990, and Mario wasn't the focus in the beginning:
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…? 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)
Karts were chosen over more glamourous motorsports because the team wanted to avoid the idea of the racers being in any kind of peril:
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 test play 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 cornering, 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.
On the topic of the game's modes, the team reveal that the iconic battle mode was very nearly removed from the game due to memory issues:
Miyamoto: 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…
Super Mario Kart is also remembered as one of the first racing games to incorporate the idea of drifting around corners. Again, this aspect of the title underwent quite a bit of development:
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 every time, 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!"
Weapons and items also cropped up during the interview. This element of Super Mario Kart was also incredibly innovative, and Miyamoto talks about the "tension" such weapons bring to the experience:
Miyamoto: Miyamoto: It's kind of like in kimodameshi [Kimodameshi is a name for an informal game played in Japan where a person "tests their courage" by going into someplace scary: for instance, walking alone at night through a forest would be kimodameshi] – 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 indeterminacy, knowing that something "might" happen, is the most fun.
At the conclusion of the interview, Miyamoto makes an interesting comment about game design - a comment which feels quite at odds with his legendary status as an "ideas man":
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)
As with all of shumplations' translations, the full piece is well worth a read.