What We Talk About When We Talk About Mario Kart 8

What We Talk About When We Talk About Mario Kart 8

"Nintendo, man," my friend Jeremy said to me. "You'll fall in love with them. But then they will break your heart."

I had just shown up at his apartment to lend him my Wii U for the week or so I was going to be in California last month. Watching as I opened my bag and placed a pile of games and gadgets on his couch-side table, his eyes lit up with a hunger I'd never seen before.

"Are you trying to kill me?" he asked, looking down at the feast I'd just placed before him. This was an eagerness I was only just beginning to understand.

See, I wasn't a Nintendo kid growing up. As much as I begged and pleaded with my mother, she never caved in to buy me an N64. She didn't let me or my brother have any consoles, but not having the N64 hurt the most. It was the gold standard among my friends, and there was no game more inescapable than Mario Kart.

Ok, maybe Super Smash Bros. But Mario Kart had a unique charm that even Smash couldn't approximate. It was like watching the Super Bowl — whether or not you actually enjoyed it was irrelevant. Everybody had to get in on the action in some way. Turning down an invitation to take a spin on Rainbow Road was like breaking some unspoken, sacred vow.

What other video game has achieved that level of cultural ubiquity? It's all the more impressive given that Mario Kart did so in a place so far from its point of origin.

Flash forward 18 years, and gamers the world over are waiting on the next great Mario Kart (8, to be specific) with bated breath. But many others like Jeremy have given up on Nintendo. His tangible excitement shifted to talk of heartbreak after I boasted that I wasn't only going to play the new Mario Kart in less than a week, but I was actually going to get to talk to some of the great minds behind the legendary series.

He was surprisingly unimpressed. When I asked why, his answer was simple: he'd grown tired of waiting for several years every time he wanted a new one.

Part of my job as a journalist is to serve as a sort of conduit between these two bodies — the teeming masses of anxious fans and the developers who want to do right by them. This is always a delicate balancing act. But it's one that's become particularly fraught any time I sit down in front of someone from a core Nintendo franchise. As Leigh Alexander recently remarked in a thoughtful piece for Gamasutra, the company's current financial vulnerability has inflected all of these conversations with a special kind of emotional urgency — one I don't remember feeling whenever I've sat down with someone from Sony or Microsoft to talk about their next-gen console plans.

The stakes only get higher every time a new Wii U game comes out and doesn't immediately translate into a significant boost in sales for the flagging console. And that's despite titles like Super Mario 3D World, Pikmin 3, and Donkey Kong Country: Tropical Freeze all receiving high marks from critics and fans alike.

What We Talk About When We Talk About Mario Kart 8

The people at Nintendo clearly understand the tenuous position they're in right now. Barely two months ago, CEO Satoru Iwata took it upon himself to personally apologise for the Wii U's less-than-auspicious debut. Concerns about the console's ambiguous future sit there stubbornly in the subtext of every casual conversation and formal interview I have about the company. It was something I was planning to ask about in my one-on-one phone interview with Kosuke Yabuki and Hideki Kono, the game's director and producer respectively. I didn't end up bringing it up, but that was because my interview was rearranged to be fit into a roundtable with a handful of other journalists.

Nintendo interviews have always been hard for me. There are logistical hurdles — the reliance on a translator, the time difference between a place like New York or San Francisco and the company's Japanese headquarters. But there's a profound cultural difference there as well.

I still can't tell which of these factors is more persuasive. But by the time I walked into a small room in San Francisco's Intercontinental Hotel last month, I could tell that the circle of journalists I joined weren't happy. We had all gathered around a speaker placed on a small coffee table to hear from Mr. Yabuki and Konno. Two Nintendo representatives sat behind us. They'd closed the windows to shut out any commotion emanating from the street below us, so the room felt uncomfortably warm. Stagnant even. Everybody shifted back and forth in their seats quietly.

I suppose this is the point where I'm supposed to start digging into the minutiae of what we discussed. The reason the two of them offered for why they chose to include all seven of the koopalings. The improvements they felt they'd made from previous iterations of the series. The sheer HD-ness of the visual splendor thanks to its new home on an HD system.

But doing that would feel dishonest. Not because anything they said was untrue — you don't have to look any further than our preview of the game to see that Mario Kart 8 is breathtaking. There's a certain kind of joy I've only really felt playing these core Nintendo games. But trying to capture that same sense of elation when I was given this rare opportunity to hear from the people who actually made me feel this way proved much more difficult.

I don't have any easy answer for why that's the case. But I know I wasn't the only one who left that room feeling frustrated. At one point during the roundtable, one of the other writers stood up, silently motioning to the Nintendo reps that he had to leave.

That put me in a tight spot. I had rushed to the interview from an already more-than-full day of racing back and forth in a massive convention center and chugging coffee between meetings, so the moment I sat down for the roundtable I realised I was going to spend most of the hour I had with them fighting the urge to run to the bathroom.

A few minutes later I gave in and excused myself. Opening the door, I ran into the other writer, who was returning to pick up something he'd left behind.

"You're leaving too?" he asked. I said no. There was something I'd always wanted to ask the Mario Kart team, and I didn't know if I would get another chance.

"I just couldn't take it anymore," he said, sighing. "All the PR bullshit."

What We Talk About When We Talk About Mario Kart 8

I could see what he meant. Before he left, he'd asked them about the game's TV features that could let players capture gameplay footage and potentially share it with one another.

There was a pause as the question was translated. A few minutes of chatter on the other end of the line. Then the translator responded, speaking for Yabuki.

"We're not going to focus too much on some of the stuff you asked about, but I'll tell you what I can."

Yes, he continued: players will have a degree of flexibility when it comes to recording their races. They can choose what character to focus on. They will be able to choose how long they want the videos to be. And they can adjust the sound levels for the clips.

"We haven't implemented features that allow the user to go in scene by scene and do really finite adjustments to the camera," Yabuki explained. "But we set up the overall system to focus on what we think the players will enjoy seeing. And I think what we've come up with will, again — with adjustments by the player to the character, the sound, the length of the video and whatnot — create a highlight reel that they're happy with."

Then Konno jumped in. Of course they could have made the system more intricate, he said. But they wanted to make "nice and simple, to get as many people to use it as we possibly can."

That final point — opting for the simplest user experience possible in order to optimise the accessibility of the game — came up a lot at the end of their answers. I've only interviewed Nintendo developers a handful of times, but I've heard that same refrain every single time. Regardless of who was speaking or what game we were discussing, they made many of their design decisions because they wanted everyone to be able to play the game and enjoy it. If not literally everyone, then at least as many people as humanly possible. The only exception was with Tropical Freeze, a game that's so brutally difficult I have trouble imagining how parents and children would play the game together. But even then, the developers told me that they made it that way to keep with the series tradition and not disappoint longtime fans.

There's something touching to this logic — both in Nintendo's universal aspirations and in the concise, technocratic way everyone from Shigeru Miyamoto to a third party PR person explains it. But it's hard to keep having the same warm fuzzy feeling after hearing the same response over and over again. By the time it came to my second turn to ask a question in the roundtable, Konno and Yabuki must have felt pressed for time to keep hammering that point home. Or something else had come up on their end of the line. I can't really say for sure what was going on halfway across the world. In any case, they stopped short in the middle of answering my question.

I knew we were getting close to the end our allotted time, so I wasn't even trying to ask anything particularly pressing. Really, I'd just always been curious why they'd never revisited the buddy system from Double Dash, the GameCube's Mario Kart instalment and one of my personal favourites.

I was speaking more as a curious fan at that point than a writer with a job to do. But Konno's answer still came across as one of the most surprisingly unscripted parts of the interview.

"It wasn't just a simple case of: 'Hey, we're not gonna do that again,'" Konna replied. They were happy with Double Dash, and thought it worked really well in that game.

"So we've got that in our pocket," he continued. "If we come up with any cool new ideas that involve two players racing together, we'd definitely grab that and bring it back out."

What We Talk About When We Talk About Mario Kart 8

I leaned forward.

Having multiple characters on a single vehicle did come at "a pretty high cost in terms of processing power," Konno explained. But they were also working with a more powerful piece of machinery than they ever had before. So if they could figure out "some ways to get around that cost," they'd certainly consider revisiting having two characters. Heck, they'd even consider three.

Then, all of a sudden, he stopped. A moment later, I heard him talking to the translator again.

"Mr. Konno believes that that answers your question, Yannick," the translator said. "But he also has a question for all of you: During your time with Mario Kart, were you able to hear the background music pretty well?"

I looked around at the other writers, who all shrugged and shook their heads.

That's too bad, the translator said, because this was the first time they had recorded live music for the game. The team had challenged themselves to get real instruments and time in the studio this time around. It wasn't in every single course, but "definitely more than half." The team knew that it's been "highly documented" in the media that other franchises like Super Mario and The Legend of Zelda used live orchestration, so now they thought it could be Mario Kart's turn.

"So that's my brief advertisement for the music," he concluded. "And that's everything from Mr. Konno!"

I wanted to hear more (a lot more) about playing with three different characters at the same time. But time was up. Konno and Yabuki said their goodbyes, and we all shuffled out of the room. That was that.

I don't want to read too much into this moment. That wouldn't be fair to Mario Kart 8 or to all the people who made it. And really, I enjoyed playing the game enough that I'm not really sure it even matters. But it did tell me something about just how hard it is to genuinely communicate with someone when you're trying to speak to them from halfway across the globe and in another language.


Comments

    I still think it will be a sytem seller.
    the wii + mario kart bundle was for me a.few years back.

      If they can include this and maybe something like Nintendo Land in a bundle for roughly the same price they are going for now, I'm there.

        Good idea. Wiiu has great games and i own only 24 of them but they are not system sellers like mario kart or super smash bros.

        Also! Did any one else see the MRKtv in the backround of that pic? Maybe streaming?

      Oh man I played mario kart 8 at a Nintendo demo booth, I really want a Wii U now... and I love my Xbox and PC, but my god that game looked and played great

    The WiiU is killing me.

    It’s now got quite a few good looking games that I want to play but I just can’t quite find it in me to go out and buy one and I’m not sure if it will ever get to that point.

    Super Mario Land WiiU or whatever it’s called looked great but not quite worth buying a console for when I’ve got a similar game on the 3DS.
    Mario Kart looks great but I don’t want to play multiplayer online and forking out for decent controllers makes in a large expense now that it doesn’t support GC controllers.
    Ditto Smash Brothers possibly?
    I love the Virtual Console idea but it’s WAY overpriced and WAY understocked. The porting of Wii VC games is clunky and again… I play my Wii VC games with a GC Wavebird. Are any GC games up yet and if not, why not? Why be interested in the WiiU VC when it offers nothing more than the Wii VC, requires me to pay extra to re-download the same titles and then doesn’t support the controller I already use.

    The Xbone and PS4 are both must owns this gen IMO. They don’t have backwards compatibility so I’ll be keeping my old consoles around, the Wii is still the best choice for playing old VC games…. I’m just not sure if I can find room or justify the cost of the WiiU for what it offers.

      Wii U is finally getting some good games. It's taken a while, but it's starting to come good. Super Mario 3D World, Donkey Kong Country: Tropical Freeze, Wind Waker HD, New Super Mario Bros Wii U, soon Mario Kart 8 and the new Smash Bros around the corner.

      I'm probably looking at picking up a Wii U very soon. I would have done it already had a retailer actually had a console+DKC bundle. Guess I'll wait another month or so and see if there are any console+Mario Kart bundles and I'll grab DKC while I'm at it. Maybe that FTA that Abbot just signed with Japan could bring the price down a bit too. Maybe.

        I don't like your chances of a price drop at all.

        I'm in the same boat as you though, I can see myself spotting a good bargain one day and just biting the bullet. They just need the right game to bundle.

        It's all the follow up costs that annoy me though, the need for controllers because the online sucks and none of my friends own them, the ridiculously priced retail games (Nintendo titles stay at full RRP for MUCH longer than Xbox, PS and PC games), the cost of rebuying my Virtual Consoles games again.... it's hard to justify as a rational investment when I know it's going to get few top quality 1st party games a year and i'm going to have to justify the cost of them over cheaper, better looking games on the other next-gen consoles.

      I'm pretty sure Mario Kart 8 will let you use wii-motes and nunchucks so you can steer accurately. I think I'll have to grab a Pro controller for Smash Bros though.

    If the game turns out as awesome as it's currently looking, I feel like a lot of people are going to finally splash out and buy a WiiU, especially if it's advertised well and comes in a bundle.

    He was surprisingly unimpressed. When I asked why, his answer was simple: he’d grown tired of waiting for several years every time he wanted a new one.

    So he'd rather them churn out cookie cutter sequels every year CoD style?

    I continued to read the whole article hoping there was some kind of elaboration on this point, but there was none.

    I think this statement perfectly illustrates the mentality amongst many gamers these days, a mentality that companies like Activision and EA have installed with their yearly sequel-itis syndrome. It takes years to make a good game and you shouldn't mind waiting if you get a quality final product (which MK8 definitely looks like).

    Last edited 08/04/14 11:47 am

      This was the first thing I thought too when I read his reaction. If they take the time to make a good game its too far apart between games; bring it out sooner and they get accused of doing a CoD.

      As much as I might agree with the timespan between nintendo games, it gives me time to play other games and do other stuff; if youre only in gaming for nintendo games, then of course youre gonna be cursing them for how long it takes to make games.

      Me too. I personally would rather they take their time and release games that they're happy with.

      But I do think releasing the Wii U with so few games in the pipeline really hurt them. They should waited 3 yrs, released a slightly better machine, with 20 titles ready to go.

      While that statement by the writer is weird, I think it’s pretty funny comparing COD and Nintendo in that way.

      In far too many ways, the two release formats are sadly similar.
      Both companies release games that stick far too closely to tired formats, both a renowned for making very polished games, but both could be accused of being ‘cookie-cutter’.
      The only difference is COD goes out every year whereas Nintendo tends to work on something of a 5 years or more cycle for a lot of their games.

      I think it would be tough to argue that the gameplay in Mario Kart has progressed further since Mario Kart 64 than COD has in the same time frame.

      I guess the argument is that nobody MAKES you buy a COD title every year, if you’re happy to skip a few iterations you’ll find that the speed of evolution for the two series is probably in COD’s favour.

      P.S. Just for the record COD still sucks, Mario Kart is a much better game.

      There is a balance to be found. I agree that yearly cookie cutter sequels is bad, but I'd argue Nintendo is guilty of taking years to release games that offer a largely identical experience to their predecessors. Within their major franchises, I think Mario Galaxy was the last title to offer something genuinely novel within one of their big franchises.

        While I agree, there's only so much you can do with Mario Kart to keep it as Mario Kart, and with each iteration they do tweak the formula:

        - The original was the original.
        - MK64 was the first one in 3D and introduced the dreaded blue shells.
        - Double Dash had two riders per kart and unique super weapons for each rider.
        - MK Wii introduced bikes in addition to karts, introduced tricks and wheelies, and the riders affected the stats of the vehicle.
        - The 3DS version (MK7?) allowed you to customise your kart using the coins you collected, glide through the air and drive underwater.
        - MK8 looks like it's taking the gliding mechanic from the 3DS version to a whole new level as well as being able to race along walls and upside down and is obviously the first in HD.

        Each game in the series also has a different way of drifting and boosting, and introduces new powerups, new tracks and new drivers.

        I'm not really sure what else you can really change and still call it Mario Kart. You can make similar comparisons with CoD I suppose as well, but each installment of that does seem a lot more derivative than Mario Kart.

        Last edited 08/04/14 8:26 pm

          Your make a solid point: it may be the nature of the beast. Nonetheless, I think those sorts of changes are similar in scope to what you see in yearly sports franchises. Hardly worth waiting years for - you could make the case it might as well be yearly.

            I dunno...yearly sports franchises generally only update their player rosters and add a new coat of paint. I wouldn't really use those as a valid comparison.

    Three! THREE!? I miss the combo element of DD so much T_T

    All this really points to is that good journalism costs time and money and persistance.
    If you really want proper coverage, you go to Japan, you send someone who knows the language, and you persist until you get a good amount of time with the people you are interviewing.

      I agree. It seemed like a strange article. Of course it's hard talking to PR people who need a translator. How could it not be? But that's the job. Wade through the BS to write articles people want to read.

      I know this is easy for me to say, but I couldn’t imagine becoming a game journalist and not learning Japanese. You would have such a huge edge over so many other journalists.

        Would you though - the argument could be made that you'd be better of learning Polish given the current state of the Japanese studios.

          There are still a lot more developers in Japan and two of the three console makers are Japanese. Also, as far as I can tell Europeans are more likely to know English and speak it fluently than Japanese.

            Obviously all of that's true, but the manufacturers have local branches they'll push you towards anyway. Outside of that, most Japanese titles are bordering on niche at this point - even seminal brands like Square Enix are heavily reliant on their European studios. I think speaking Japanese would be beneficial, but its far from being a massive leg up at this point.

    I saw the DLC announced for Sonic recently on the WiiU with the Hyrule level and was thinking to myself, Mario Kart seems like it would be an ideal game for Nintendo to put out DLC for and how awesome would it be to have race tracks set in Hyrule.

      I'e always liked the idea of a Super Smash Kart. Mario on a kart, Link on Epona, Fox in a Landmaster, ect.

        Will never happen, Captain Falcon would dominate in the Blue Falcon.

          You'd also think that Sonic would outright win any running race in the olympics, or even win a Kart race on foot.

        I'd go for Nintendo Kart! I think I mentioned in another article how great it would be. Although Epona and a Landmaster? Hmmmm....

    The first console I ever got was a N64. Was so excited loved Nintendo, but it just seemed with every iteration like Gamecube and the Wii which I ended up buying when the U was released I've just grown really tired of Nintendo's gimmicky controls. Where the Gamecube nearly ended my family's involvement in Mario Kart and Mario Party the Wii killed it.

    Don't really know how to care anymore about Nintendo... I'd only consider buying their games if they came to other platforms these days.

      The GameCube has one of the best controllers in the history of consoles.

      If you had a GameCube why didn't you plug those controllers in for Mario Kart Wii? That was a great Mario Kart.

      The Wii U GamePad is also a really good controller. Not up there with great, but it's solid. Yeah it has a screen in the middle, but that's not used for Mario Kart and it doesn't need to be.

        I used the Wii classic controller when playing Mario Kart Wii. Worked fantastically.

    I have to start by saying i love Nintendo. So many memories and so many new and great games. But if they were really serious about selling consoles they must, MUST, get a new HD zelda out there. I know its not everybody's favorite game but gee, it would sell a massive amount of consoles. I'm sure I'm not the only person waiting for a new zelda game with normal controllers again. Seeing we haven't seen one bit of footage or rumor of it coming anytime soon, i would expect it to be here at the end of next year. That's 3 years into the console....WAY too long.

    Zelda rant over

    When your kart racing spin-off franchise is up to its 8th iteration, you know the horse you've been flogging for 20 years is quite thoroughly dead.

      I dont think It's not the number of games that is the issue here - franchises like Metal Gear Solid and Grand Theft Auto prove this.
      Problem is the culture over at Nintendo HQ. No desire to change, and living in the past.

    Here's an article about the latest Mario Kart Arcade game. It incorporates something similar to the buddy system from Double Dash. Also states that there will be yearly releases of new content for five years.

    http://arcadeheroes.com/2014/03/25/new-details-mario-kart-arcade-gp-dxs-online-features/

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