I’d like to think that I made a reasonable request of the man behind Mario Kart.
Hideki Konno has been the director of Super Mario Kart and Mario Kart 64, the producer of Mario Kart DS and Mario Kart Wii. Get this guy in a room and you’ve got to ask him something about one of video game’s most-loved series.
Often, he told me last week during an interview that was mostly about the Nintendo 3DS, people ask him if he can make a Mario Kart that includes a mode with no items.
I was simply asking him to justify the Mario Kart blue shell. Isn’t that item, the one that seeks and crashes the first-place racer in a Mario Kart game, a little bit unfair?
“You know, with [Mario Kart] Wii, at least you can avoid it,” he said through a translator, laughing. “The timing is tough, but at least you can avoid it.”
The Mario Kart series is one of the most successful multiplayer experiences created inside or out of video games, rivaling chess, Trivial Pursuit or Halo as a good time to have with friends. The balance of the game changes with each iterate since the original Super Mario Kart’s 1992 release. The blue shell, I’d found, was controversial since it debuted in 1997's Mario Kart 64.
I wanted to know its origin story and to understand better how Nintendo’s top Mario Kart creators saw its place.
“Fundamentally we’re always playing while we’re making adjustments [to the games,]” Konno said, beginning to explain. “We usually have some sort of theme to direct what we’re looking at. With [2008's] Mario Kart Wii, it was to create a race where, up until the finish line, you didn’t know. We wanted to create a race where everyone was in it until the end.
“With Mario Kart 64, we wanted to have the same thing where everyone was in it until the end, but some of the processing problems occurred that didn’t allow us to do that. And what I mean by that is once you’re in a middle of a race you’ll get that natural separation. What we were trying to do was push them back together with 64, having eight racers on the screen all the time, didn’t work all that well. So, because the processing power didn’t exist, we weren’t able to create the racing environment we wanted.”
Ask a game designer a specific design question and beware that the answer could be above our head, and hampered by the time pressures of scheduled, translated interviews. We have to unpack this a little, maybe infer that Mario Kart 64's blue shell wasn’t avoidable because the developers, while wanting to keep people from perpetually being in the lead, also wanted to knock everyone off the track to keep the N64's processor from getting jammed up. By the release of the Wii, such a technical concern would have been irrelevant.
“Going back to the blue shell, it sounds like maybe you have some issues with it,” Konno joked during our interview. “I’m not trying to project or anything. I think in our next Mario Kart, we’ll be looking at the balance and I think we’ll come up with some answers and some solutions to make the game fresh and exciting as we move forward.”
The next announced Mario Kart is the 3DS edition, which doesn’t yet have a date. While keeping specifics of the game to himself, he did say that his Mario Kart teams always have new ideas they want to get out there. I predict, however, that none of those ideas will be an item-free racing mode. That’s that thing Konno said people request.
“I’m often asked, hey, in Mario Kart, could you please make a mode where there are no items. Let us race. But personally I think Mario Kart without items is not Mario Kart. Our goal, of course, is to keep the items in but just balance it well.”