Mario Kart analysis and Nintendo’s process

I was watching all races on YouTube from MK7 (3DS) and MK8 (WiiU), after playing the original one last week, which was probably the first time in a good 10 years. I also played a ton of MK on DS.


It’s amazing how precise and “dumb” development is with this game. Here are some notes:

– The first MK came out of nowhere. I remember reading about it and thinking “why not? but that’s kind of weird”. Then we played it and loved it. Then we played it drunk and loved it even more. What a party game. The concept was good and the game was great. the dev team probably knew by then that they had an amazing thing going on.

– MK 64 blew us away. We went from a 2D game with 2 players to a 3D game with 4 players you guys have no clue. Unbelievably clever and exciting course design. I was scared that they would botch the transition to 3D (tons of games didn’t do well in this regard) but they didn’t because they did it in the most 2D way possible, by that I mean the gameplay didn’t try to do 3D things, it was still the same gameplay, just a ton more fun (unlimited mushrooms were giving laughs like I still laugh about that). And pretty. And fluid. And four players.

In retrospect that transition was one of the smoothest I have ever seen with any game series. Then trouble –aka pressure- begins.

– MK DD! the GameCube version was a bit perplexing. The karts looked lame as hell, the all “let’s swap characters on the kart” was distracting and useless, the music tracks were OK but not as memorable as the previous ones… As usual the course design was great bringing enough novelty, challenges and adorable sights to satisfy our brains.

Could it be the end of a good run? Nintendo was stressed out with the GC sales. But they bounced back.

– MK Wii was ditching the absurd kart look and silly character swap and introduced bikes. It really shows how good Nintendo is at cutting things that don’t work and go back to basics. The course design is as usual fantastic and introduces some platform gameplay and a lot more air in the jumps, although there are some pretty dull tracks. The music is still not as memorable as the original MK and the 64 one, but the Wii being a huge success, MK Wii was  also selling like hot cakes. They also added a big warning sound when a shell is coming too close, a little too stressful.

– MK DS. I couldn’t wait for that one. It was great! Awesome course design –that pinball stage is one of the greatest ever-, great looks… But then the music was… Really not good at all. Not fitting. the little jingle before the start of a race was dull, not dramatic enough. I played the heck out of that one but I was really disappointed in this sound.

Well not for long. Nintendo heard me think.

– MK 3DS aka MK7 and MK8 on WiiU fixed everything about audio. Harder beats and drums when needed including hard house, gabber and drum and bass? Yup. Immediately more punchy, regardless of the melodic motive. More dramatic orchestration and more diversity in the genres? Absolutely. It was due. Doppler effect? You got it, sounds neat and informative. Interactive music? Sure! Cute and making sense with the music-themed race. Annoying warning? Gone. Filtered music underwater? The last lap? Let’s make it faster AND move a major third up etc. I’m showing you the audio but it’s everywhere: Nintendo does polish like a brutal machine and made those 3DS/WiiU versions feel better compared to the Wii/DS because of micro adjustments and added features, all across the board. WorkWorkWorkWorkWork.


Other thoughts:

– The entire series from all points of view –audio, level design, item mechanics, graphic style and so forth- was basically made within the first three games (SNES/N64/GC). Everything else after is tweaking, dialing in up and down (see the UI for that), making copies of what works, reusing and other tweaks. MK8 textures and lighting were a bit too realistic? Turn it off and go back to that cartoon feel in MK8 for the Switch. Great, spiral-ish roads going up feel awesome? Let’s make it one of the hallmark of Mario Kart’s flow.

– I wouldn’t be surprised if Mario Kart is just one single engine since home and handheld versions are more and more likely to be the same since the DS/Wii generation over a decade ago.

1992-2003: 4 versions. 2005-2017: 8 versions. Nintendo is churning out almost a perfect twice as many MK games in the second decade after its creation. Is it sustainable? I don’t think it is. We can see it now with the Switch version, which is just a refurbished WiiU version. Syncing MK games and new hardware is not really possible anymore at that rate.

Nevertheless that’s what I’m talking about when I want studios to copy Nintendo’s method. The relentless tweaking that probably comes from different people in the team and not just from “the boss”. The team grew up through time and tech progress but a lot of people have been on this series for a long time, they know it like the back of their hands.

I feel like a lot of series in western games could have profited from teams polishing to make things more coherent and attractive. Instead usually, we do one to three good to OK versions and then it goes down: the team isn’t the same, some people want to change the entire direction etc. It happens all the time.

Mario Kart is silly. 25 years after its creation it’s still making tons of people, kids and adults happy and that’s remarkable.

2 Responses to “Mario Kart analysis and Nintendo’s process”

  1. marc Says:

    MK DD est le meilleur pour moi, le plus technique et le plus fun une fois bien maitrisé

  2. harold Says:

    C’est la nostalgie qui s’exprime :) je crois que le plus technique reste l’original. Il y a encore des gars qui battent des records de tours de piste aujourd’hui… L’original et le 64 sont imbattables pour ma part mais encore une fois, c’est la nostalgie qui parle… Ils sont tous très bons.

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