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The design origins of drifting in Mario Kart

Take a look back at the design decisions behind some of Mario Kart's biggest game features.

"I soon learned that if I followed the rules of physics faithfully, the controls didn’t feel like a game at all. It comes down to this: in a real car, the feel of the steering wheel is like an “analogue” device, but the SNES control pad uses digital on-off switches. Because of this fundamental difference, I had to go back and tinker with the controls over and over until I approximated something that felt right."

- Masato Kimura, programmer on Super Mario Kart, explaining how he discovered the best controls for the first Mario Kart game.

The Mario Kart games have always struck a unique niche in the pantheon of racing game series—too fantastic and playful to be considered a racing simulator, but still tightly designed enough to be considered one of the most popular competitive racing games on consoles. 

It’s useful to be able to get some sense of where the series started, and thanks to the archival site Shmuplations, we now have a little more insight. 

In an interview for the Japanese player’s guide of Super Mario Kart in 1992, posted by Shmupulations, the Super Mario Kart development team shares stories and some of their design choices for the SNES racing game. Shigeru Miyamoto, who produced Super Mario Kart, is among the interviewees, though many of his answers are jokingly self-deprecating and pointing out how hands-off he was in the process. 

“In fact I don’t know if I can really say I ‘participated’ in this development,” Miyamoto says. “It was more like I ‘observed’ it.”

Two of the most intriguing design details in the interview are the origins of Mario Kart’s battle mode and the series’ drifting mechanics. Miyamoto says the addition of battle mode required extra attention from the design team because it had nothing to do with go-kart racing. “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!”

Hideki Konno, director on Super Mario Kart, says battle mode was completed earlier in development, but it had to be revised after playtesting, when they discovered that after spinning in an open field with no obstacles or landmarks, players would get dizzy after a few minutes. 

When it came to drifting, Konno says the development team was trying to implement realistic drifting controls at first, by having players counter-steer the wheel in the opposite direction of the corner—but most players couldn’t perform this technique. “After a bunch of research we hit upon the idea of drifting by holding down the L/R buttons,” according to Konno. “Most people could do that at will, once they got used to it.”

You can read the rest of the interview over on Shmuplations for insights on how the design team approached the game’s infamous item system, and some of the unused design concepts that may have made Super Mario Kart look like a more realistic racing game. 

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