Warm-up lap: Mario Kart's inspirations and development secrets...
2nd Dec 2011 | 12:50
Next year it celebrates its 20th anniversary, but the story of Super Mario Kart actually began in the year 2560. No, really. Heartened by the success of futuristic racer F-Zero, which launched alongside the SNES, Nintendo decided to follow its blisteringly fast solo offering with a two-player driving game.
This feature is taken from Games Master Presents Mario Kart. You can purchase the full magazine in stores or order it online and have it delivered straight to your door. It's also available digitally through Apple Newsstand as well as Zinio. Also read CVG's Mario Kart 7 review.
Part of the reason for F-Zero's warm critical and commercial reception was down to the console's famous Mode 7 technology, which allowed developers to scale and rotate a game's backgrounds to give a then-unparalleled illusion of 3D perspective. It all looks rather quaint now, but two decades ago many were dazzled by the sensation of speed that this ahead-of-its-time tech had created.
Even so, such high-velocity thrills would have been impossible to recreate on a split screen, and so the development team (headed up by producer Shigeru Miyamoto and director Hideki Konno) opted for a fresh approach. Sensible idea: cramming Captain Falcon into a tiny go-kart would have made it impossible for the spandex-loving speedster to show us his moves.
The hero of the game's first prototype was a man in overalls, though not the man in overalls you might be thinking of. In fact, it wasn't until over three months into development that Nintendo tested it with Mario behind the wheel, and found that the plumber felt equally at home on the track as running, jumping and stomping Goombas.
Evidently his cameo appearance waving the chequered flag in the Game Boy version of HAL Laboratory's F1 Race (worked on by one Satoru Iwata) had given him a taste for burning rubber - or petrol fumes, one of the two. The plumber's arrival meant the oil cans players could lob at rivals to make them spin out were thrown out, and in came banana peels that had a similarly slippy effect.
It wasn't all about the races, of course. Nintendo also wanted a mode where players could compete off the track, and once one bright spark on the design team suggested the idea of popping each others' balloons, the hour-stealingly compulsive Battle Mode was conceived. Further power-ups, familiar from Mario's platform adventures, were tossed into the mix, as well as recognisable characters from the Mushroom Kingdom. An iconic series was born.
Super Mario Kart launched in Japan in August 1992 and in the US a month later to instant critical acclaim and commercial success, selling over 8 million copies in total. Those numbers may have been dwarfed by the likes of Mario Kart DS and Mario Kart Wii, but the legacy of the older game is much more significant.
This was the first time since Super Mario Bros. that Nintendo's mascot had headlined a game in a new genre (sorry, Wrecking Crew doesn't count) and by doing so, the company set a precedent that many have since followed. Twenty years on, the Mario series is the most successful and lucrative videogame-based media franchise in the world - and it's undeniable that Super Mario Kart has been a significant factor in that success.
It is also credited with the slightly more dubious honour of giving birth to the kart racing genre - now there is a baby only a mother could love - and these days no console is complete without a Mario Kart rip-off. From Crash Team Racing to ModNation Racers, everyone has tried to refine the formula, but despite some valiant attempts, no one has quite mastered it like Nintendo did on its first lap. Two decades since Lakitu swooped down to start the first race of the Mushroom Cup, Mario remains champion of the track.
How Mario developed his need for speed...
As far as we know, Mario first got the racing bug in the 1984 Famicom (NES) title F1 Race, where he would make sporadic appearances at the end of each race (alongside Nintendo stable-mates such as Samus Aran and Donkey Kong).
But it took another three years for Mario to make the transition from spectator to participant. The occasion was Famicom Grand Prix, a fun but obscure top-down racer that was released in 1987 for the Family Computer Disk System, an add-on for the NES that was only released in Japan.
A year later, Mario followed up his racing debut with a second title, Famicom Grand Prix II: 3D Hot Rally. As the name suggests, the sequel was a completely different beast; a point-to-point race with Luigi acting as navigator.
Although it was just as obscure as the first Famicom Grand Prix, Hot Rally holds a very special place in Nintendo history. It came with a pair of goggles that allowed its players to experience the tumultuous motocross bumps and troughs in mind-blowing 3D - kick-starting a line of innovation and evolution that would eventually end with the company releasing the world's first glasses-free 3D handheld console...
REINVENTING THE WHEEL
The evolution of the peripheral that steered Mario Kart Wii to pole position
Producer Hideki Konno created the original Wii Wheel prototype during early development of Mario Kart Wii. The original design saw the remote stick out slightly from the first wheel shell.
After researching the steering wheels used on real go-karts, Konno and his team produced a square wheel, with a hole in the back that offered easy access to the B button for drifting.
Nintendo reverted back to a round wheel as the wheel came closer to its finished form, and this time a hole was added so the remote could still be used as a pointer.
An extra B button was added so that younger players could reach it before Nintendo experimented with different looks. A two-tone style was considered but eventually dismissed.
Over 30 prototypes were created in all before the final design was revealed. The blue ring on the reverse of the shell was subsequently used in the game's logo.
KINGS OF THE ROAD
The men, and woman, who made Mario Kart great
The godfather of Mario Kart, Hideki Konno directed the original game and sequel Mario Kart 64, and has produced every other game in the series since (except Super Circuit). He is responsible for many of the series' new additions, including online play in Mario Kart DS, and having pitched the idea many times previously finally got his wish for bikes to be included in MK Wii.
Kenta Nagata and Shinobu Tanaka
Almost every gamer has, at one time or another, had a Mario Kart theme buzzing around their brain, and chances are that one of this pair are responsible for that. Nagata created the music for MK 64, his first major game composition including that memorable Rainbow Road theme, while the pair contributed a fistful of great tunes for the GameCube's Double Dash!!
Like Konno-san, Mario's maker has had a hand in every major Mario Kart release bar one, this time vacating his regular producer's seat for Mario Kart DS. Recently he has been overseeing development of Mario Kart 7, with Metroid Prime developer Retro Studios heavily involved in its creation.
The chief director of Double Dash!! was given a tough task, as he attempted to attract players who hadn't experienced a Mario Kart before by narrowing the gap between veteran Karters and newcomers. It wasn't the most successful entry in the series, but it paved the way for the more weapon-heavy approach to races.