Q&A: Nintendo’s Kosuke Yabuki on the making of Mario Kart 8

Kosuke Yabuki

Since he joined Nintendo in 2005, Kosuke Yabuki has worked on The Legend Of Zelda: Twilight Princess, Mario Kart Wii, Mario Kart 7 and Nintendogs + Cats. Here, he discusses squeezing HD visuals out of Wii U, designing Mario Kart TV, and the decision to remove arenas from Battle mode.

How did being freed of gravity’s restrictions change your approach to course design?
We had tracks that rose and fell a little in previous Mario Kart titles, but essentially they were designed on a level plane. With the introduction of the antigravity mechanic, we started designing tracks to make use of all three dimensions. We built Mario Circuit and N64 Rainbow Road so players will catch some great views of castles or skyscrapers in the upper portion of the screen, heightening the sense of racing upside down.

Was it a challenge updating these classic courses?
A lot has changed since these courses first appeared, from kart behaviour to the camera and even the number of opponents, so we had to redesign the courses both in terms of their spatial layout and even the width of the tracks. We’ve also added in the antigravity, gliding and underwater mechanics, too, and the graphics and sound are all remade from scratch. But I hope these courses will still bring back some fond memories.

The Wii U incarnation of Nintendo’s much-loved racing series is the best yet, we said in our Mario Kart 8 review.

Mario Kart 8’s vehicles handle beautifully once acclimatised to, but did you ever worry about the risk of making the game less immediate?
This time around, we really did add in a lot of new elements, but we also aimed to do away with explanations or tutorials as much as possible. The Mario Kart series cherishes both depth and breadth of gameplay; it’s broadly accessible and anyone can pick up a controller and start playing, but at the same time the games are also deep enough that players can achieve greater results through practice. Each time we make a Mario Kart, we make everything from scratch: programming, graphics and even the audio. Even if we’re making something similar to what was used in a previous title, it will be different because of the person doing it. We think this subtle change is crucial.

Why did you reinstate the D-pad control option?
The Wii Wheel supports both [D-pad] and motion controls. We’ve honed them so that they both give a great racing experience, and users can select whichever they prefer. We did the same for the right stick on the GamePad as well. Letting users move the right stick to accelerate gives them a different feel to pressing the A Button. Having said that, it’s not simply about the quantity of control options; we experimented with a lot of different control methods, and only the ones that we found worthy made it through.

How far do you think you’re pushing the hardware?
Our aim was to create a game that used HD graphics and played at a smooth 60fps. We pushed Wii U’s capabilities to their limits to achieve this. [But] I think it still has a lot of potential left, and I suspect there are more ways to make use of its capabilities that we haven’t even imagined.

Tabuki on Wii U’s power: “I think it still has a lot of potential left, and I suspect there are more ways to make use of its capabilities that we haven’t even imagined.”

Mario Kart TV’s AI editor has a keen eye for drama and framing. How difficult was it to design?
Mario Kart 8 automatically creates highlight reels based on a number of elements, including the way the race develops, the way items are used, as well as changes in position. It may look fairly simple, but we spent a lot of time to make it what it is. In twoplayer multiplayer, the AI focuses on moments that show the relation between these two players… I think it creates a really nice, enjoyable video, even if it does look simple.

The YouTube upload feature suggests a change of thinking at Nintendo. What made you decide to support sharing videos this way?
When we were preparing the automatic highlight reel feature, we wanted users to share these videos with others, not just watch them by themselves. For example, after uploading a reel to YouTube, you can re-watch the highlights of your online battle the next day in your office, or at school or even on your smartphone. It will definitely encourage people to keep playing, and may be a great way to invite others to join you for a game.

Why did you replace arenas with tracks in Battle mode? It’s naturally suited to an enclosed space.
We’ve changed the style of Battle mode for Mario Kart 8 to use circuits that lots of people can play on. Players won’t know when a rival will appear from around a corner, which will bring a new sense of excitement and strategy to this mode. In terms of rules, we designed it for playing with 12 players, including the CPU. In the beginning, you have to defeat the CPU players and earn your score, and towards the end it becomes a battle between just human players. That’s the real thrill of it! It should also be a fresh experience for users to be able to race backwards around the circuits they are familiar with. I’m sure there will be a few people who aren’t so sure about us moving away from how we’ve done things previously, but I hope they try it out for themselves first. I’m sure it will be a new experience for everyone, [and] like no other battles in Mario Kart before.