One of Nintendo's big surprises at last week's E3 was the first playable demo of the next game in the "Mario Kart" franchise, "Mario Kart 8." The first (and likely only) entry on the Wii U has Mario and his friends defying gravity, as their karts can now travel anywhere the course takes them - even upside down. This new gameplay proves that there are still some new things left for a series that has been around for a couple decades.
Late last week, we had a chance to catch up with the man that has been working on the series since the first game, Hideki Konno, who is now serving as this game's Producer, as well as Kosuke Yabuki, "Mario Kart 8"'s Director, to ask them some questions about where the franchise has been, what it's like to work on such a cherished title, and where we can expect things to go from here.
Multiplayer: How's your show going so far?
Mr. Hideki Konno: We're glad to get an E3 demo on the floor, and have everyone playing it. It seems like everyone is having a good time, and so are we.
Multiplayer: It looks great, and there's a lot of new stuff going on with it. "Mario Kart" has evolved over the years, when you first started working on the game did you think it would end up in a place like it is now, with anti-gravity and everything else?
Mr. Konno: How long ago was that? Maybe twenty-one years ago now? Of course we had no idea it would be anything like this.
Multiplayer: Where did the idea of anti-gravity playing into the game come from?
Mr. Konno: Let me have the Director, Mr. Yabuki address that.
Mr. Kosuke Yabuki: Well the first thing we were considering, with the Wii U's new hardware, it's really become more powerful than what we did with the last one on the 3DS, "Mario Kart 7." With the graphics and the screen you can make a much more smooth experience, and with the upgraded hardware, instead of doing a course on a 2D plane as we've done before, we wanted to use the whole 3D area of that courses' space. Not the stereoscopic 3D, but the whole area of the screen, and so the courses we are developing now are courses that nothing like them has been seen before.
Multiplayer: You spoke of the hardware, was there ever any consideration of using the GamePad differently than it ended up in the game?
Mr. Yabuki: Well, we always wanted to do off-TV play. We had a lot of experiments with different ideas, but we finally hit upon the idea that we had now as the best one.
Multiplayer: It seems like one of the things that I've always run into playing "Mario Kart" was always being able to cheat by looking at the other person's screen, was using the GamePad's screen for multiplayer was ever thought about?
Mr. Yabuki: We always have lots of ideas, and that was actually one that we considered. What we finally figured out was that it was more fun to have everyone on the big screen, playing against each other that way.
Multiplayer: In terms of the multiplayer experience for "Mario Kart" as a franchise, is it best experienced in the same room, or do you think it works better online, since there are extended online capabilities with this one?
Mr. Konno: Back in the day, when the original "Mario Kart" came out there was no such thing as online play, so talking about the series as a whole, we've always felt like it was a lot of fun to play in the same room together, and that has become one of the basics of "Mario Kart."
But the key fundamental is, of course, playing with your friends. The online play just adds to that element, so even if your friend is located far away from you, you can jump into the same game and have a great time. Of course it's also great to have the ability to go online and compete against pure strangers too.
Multiplayer: "Mario Kart" was originally one of the first Mario spin-off games. Looking back, were you worried about creating a successful game based off of such an important franchise?
Mr. Konno: I've talked about this before, but in the original prototypes for the game, it was just a normal human being racer in the karts, with an oilcan and a banana for his weapons.
Mr. Miyamoto came in and evaluated the prototype, and thought that it wasn't really unique enough. But what he did focus on was the banana element, and he said, "Use the banana," which sent us in the direction of Donkey Kong, which then snowballed into using all those Mario characters from the other games. And then when we hit upon that, it was like "that's it, that's the way we have to go."
Multiplayer: Is that why the banana is still in the series after all these years?
Mr. Konno: Exactly.
Multiplayer: I didn't happen to see if it was in the demo for "Mario Kart 8," but one thing that has found its way into the series for a few years now has been an item that is loved and hated - the blue shell. Where did that idea originally come from, and does it appear in this latest game as well?
Mr. Konno: It's not in the demo out there, but it will be in the final version of the game. It's actually a question that I get a lot, talking about balance, or where that idea came from, we often get that in interviews. One of the things that we always think about when making a "Mario Kart" game is the replay value for the customer. When we made that game, we thought it added something to that value, for people to play over and over again. When you just want to play one more game, one more match.
So actually the original idea, that we had back in "Mario Kart 64" where we hit upon this idea for a Blue Shell weapon, was that it would enable even whoever was in the back of the pack to still want to continue the race, to still want to keep going. Something that would allow them to still have that feeling.
The first one we made would go straight up the middle of the course, so anyone that was in the way would get damaged as it flew. Then we changed it to the one that flies over and hits that person in first place, and you know, takes them out of their game a little bit. Every time we make a new game we want to challenge ourselves to adjust it a little bit, with something new.
We're always having this battle of whose side do we take? The person in the back obviously they want something that hits, because that's their chance to influence the game. The person in first, of course, wants to have some kind of chance to get out of the way. That's always something that the designers have to think about, and make small adjustments to figure out the best thing for that particular game.
That's part of the reason about why it's not out on the floor, because we're still thinking about that balance and what we're going to do with the blue shell. We'd like your opinion actually, what you're idea would be to have that thing go at you.
Multiplayer: My problem with it has always been when I'm in second place, and I get hit. If I'm in second, I want whoever is in first to get hit, but I don’t want to get hit.
Mr. Konno: That's probably because you're a little too close.
Multiplayer: Yes, but that's because you have to draft. That's another thing that was introduced to the franchise - the drafting, which has clearly influenced how people play the game. Is that something that you actively take into consideration when you're working on a new game?
Mr. Konno: Yes. Part of the reason why it's in the game in the first place is because the team are car fiends as well, so they know about sports racing and things like that, and that it exists in the real world. The reason why it's in there is because we wanted to add in that real element, put it in our games.
But what we think is a really great combination, is having those elements where we have weapons like banana peels so it makes it that much more dramatic for a person to be following that closely, because you know at any time that you could be hit, so it makes things nice and scary.
Multiplayer: I know the fear well. The game is pretty fantastical, are there any other real world elements that have been taken from things like sports racing and rolled into the game?
Mr. Konno: Though it may not seem so at first, I think there are actually a lot of realistic elements in the dynamics of the game - the way everything moves together. Of course it's not super-real - it's not a simulator by any means. Even though it's not a simulator, it's still being made my fans of cars, and fans of racing. We're always kind of looking for elements of real life that we can slip in there to make it more interesting.
It's not like there's any one element, or several elements that we were like, "oh, we like that, we're going to put it in." It's kind of a holistic thing where the most important thing we think about is the feel of it, and how that feel is influenced by the tech, and by the controllers. The realism comes in as an overall thing, but what we want to really pay attention to is the feel you get when you're driving.
Multiplayer: Does the dev team ever go out go-karting together to help recreate that?
Mr. Konno: We haven't really done it lately, but back in the day when we first started making the games, we actually had the whole team go out, driving the actual karts, just to get the feel for them, and how they handle differently from a real car. So yeah, I've done it for sure.
Multiplayer: The "Mario Kart" games that were made by Namco for the arcades, and a different development team, have you ever looked to those to try and take away anything since they are both stylistically different, and in terms of gameplay as well?
Mr. Konno: We never really look at that as a source of inspiration, per say, but back in the day we wanted them to have a free hand when they made it. We wanted them to have their own vision, and so we told them go ahead, go do that on your own.
Multiplayer: Those games in particular feature some of the Namco characters, and the "Smash Bros." series features some third party characters as well. Has that ever been an ideal that's been tossed around for "Mario Kart"?
Mr. Konno: The idea always come up during development of new "Mario Karts," but we believe there's a certain feel that "Mario Kart" has as a series, it's Mario kart, the "Mario Kart" characters are the ones that are going to be coming out. We almost feel like there's a secret rule that Mr. Miyamoto has that limits those new characters to just Mario.
If we did it too much it would be "Smash Kart."
Multiplayer: That would be an interesting game.
Mr. Konno: (laughs)
Mr. Yabuki: Actually, the addition of the Miis is kind of pushing us towards that.
Mr. Konno: Don't tell anybody, but when we put the Miis in, Mr. Miyamoto was even kind of like, "You know, aren't you crossing the line here? This doesn't exactly feel like 'Mario Kart.'" But you know, with the Mii being a basic part of the console, we were able to put it in, and have him actually play it to get his sign off. It's still an unlock, you can't select a Mii from the get-go. So, for some reason it didn't exactly cross that secret line, but it kind of came close.
Multiplayer: Have there been any ideas that have gotten scrapped over the years?
Mr. Konno: We're always looking to surprise our players with something new, and sometimes we will take those ideas that we've tossed aside for one reason or another, and use them as a reference or even put them in future games. So we really can't talk about that right now.
(turning to Mr.Yabuki) Maybe we can give him one little tidbit?
Mr. Yakuki: What about that underground thing?
Mr. Konno: Yes. In "7" we had the glider, and submersion in water, and so when we were also thinking about new ideas for "8," and we thought, "well, since we did all that, why not put a drill on the karts, and have them go through the earth somehow, subterranean racing." But, we kind of thought that's not such an interesting idea, and after that we hit upon the antigravity mechanic.
Multiplayer: In the logo of the game, it looks like you've incorporated a track, and in previous games, you've incorporated the checked flag - where do those ideas come from, that influence the art of each game, which seems to change for every iteration, which is somewhat different than most Nintendo and video game franchises.
Mr. Yabuki: It was kind of an organic thing, we were using the antigravity mechanic first, and we thought that was kind of fun, so they hit upon the idea of using a Möbius strip for the track. Then they made a Möbius strip track that kind of twists and turns, and we realized it looked like an eight, and this happened to be the 8th incarnation - and they said, well, that's the name right there "Mario Kart 8." The style just happened to kind of flow from this one mechanic, the antigravity, that they had gone with.
Mr. Konno: This is a little more abstract, but when we had "Mario Kart 7," we had the idea of calling it just "7," because it was something actually unique to the series - we hadn't used numbers before in any of the previous games, although the N64 had numbers. Mr. Iwata also like the idea of "7" being in the title. Then we started working on this project, and had the idea for this to be "Mario Kart 8" and there were some people who were opposed. They were like "Mr. Konno, didn’t you promise that we would only used the number 7, and that would be it for the numbering thing?"
So then what we did was grab those people, the staff members that were opposed to another numbered game, showed them the idea for the course, the Möbius strip, and how we twisted it into the number eight, and everyone was completely satisfied. "Oh, now we get it."
Someone who just saw "Mario Kart 7" and then "Mario Kart 8" - every day you see something like that, but then when you hear the story behind it, it makes complete sense. But, if you're not going to write that down about the story, then maybe it's not such a good idea to get out there.