Nintendo's Hideki Konno: On Mario Kart, Ice Hockey And The Possible Return Of Wart
The longtime Mario Kart director discusses his previous titles, and how working at the publisher has changed his perspective on gaming.
Shigeru Miyamoto has been one of Nintendo's more popular employees, and for good reason; he did create Mario, after all. At the same time, Hideki Konno also played a critical role in the publisher's success. Over a span of 26 years, he's worked on some of the company's most important games, including Super Mario Bros. 3, The Legend of Zelda: The Wind Waker and Nintendogs. Perhaps his biggest contribution, though, has been his involvement with the Mario Kart franchise, where he's served as both director in the earlier days, and now producer.
We caught up with Mr. Konno at this year's Electronic Entertainment Expo (E3) to discuss his past achievements, and how being a Nintendo employee shaped his approach to game development.
You've been with Nintendo since the days of the NES. How has this experience impacted your life?
Yes, it's been 26 years that I've worked for Nintendo with Mr. Miyamoto, and all this time, if I am asked how I've grown, I guess a lot of it has come from ways I've been influenced by all of the ideas around me. All of the know-how of working on different types of games influenced me dramatically.
This is something a lot of people say, I think, that you have to approach game design from the perspective of the player. You have to constantly put yourself in their position and think about how they will react to what they're seeing. Even though we all said this to each other quite often, I don't know that the full realization of what that meant had necessarily hit me if we're talking 26 years ago, but over time I've gained a deeper and deeper appreciation of what is required to take yourself out of your role as a designer and start to think as a player for a more objective viewpoint.
I think that's something common to all creators. Any time you're making something, it's very easy to get that tunnel vision where you're focusing on one particular aspect and trying to follow it through all the way to completion without considering other things going on around you, but of course, that's a bad way to be. I think the full realization of what it takes to pull yourself out of that mindset took me a full 26 years to gain a deep realization of.
A lot of companies create kart racing games, but Mario Kart remains the most popular. Why is that? It can't simply be because of Mario, right?
That's an interesting question that sometimes I wonder if I know the answer to, but I think we may have set something of a standard in terms of the very core concept of what makes for a fun, competitive experience. Sometimes we think of Mario Kart on the development side as a communication tool, because if you think about the way people play it, with their friends and siblings sitting down together and talking while they play, creating those opportunities for communication is really close to the core concept of what makes for fun competition. Perhaps hitting upon that concept is one of the secrets of its success.
You were one of the original designers of the NES game Doki Doki Panic. Did you find it odd that Nintendo eventually replaced those characters in Super Mario Bros. 2, and why haven't we seen more of Wart?
[Laughs] You know quite a bit. On Doki Doki Panic, I worked with Mr. Tanabe, who you may know from some recent installments of the Metroid series as well. On that project, it was his first time as a director, I believe, and I was the assistant director. As you said, there were no Mario characters in the original game, but through conversations with Mr. Miyamoto, we decided to use Mario characters for the release of this game in the United States. I wouldn't say I was surprised by that development, but rather, I was involved with the process throughout.
As for why we haven't seen a lot of Wart lately, I wonder why that is? Do you think maybe he doesn't have as strong an association with the Mario universe as other characters?
We're not sure. We haven't seen him for so long, it's a difficult question to answer. Older fans would remember him. Perhaps there's a game where Wart returns to take over the Mushroom Kingdom, but winds up angering Bowser, since it's his goal to do the exact same thing, so that we have competing villains.
That's all good stuff. I'm going to have to take notes on this. But if we're going back to Doki Doki Panic, I would have to say that the character that jumped out of that game was Shy Guy, because he's been used in so many games since then.
What led to Nintendo's decision to let fans download New Super Mario Bros. 2 and also purchase it in stores?
We're putting more focus on digital distribution these days, as that has become a strong area of interest for us. Also, it does represent some convenience for users, who, if they're able to download a bunch of games, don't have to swap out game cards, which is kind of nice.
You also worked on Ice Hockey for NES. Does anyone at Nintendo talk about creating a sequel with Mario characters?
Yes, that's something that absolutely could happen, but I would have to be closely involved with such a project. You may remember that in that game, there are three distinct body types: the big one, the normal one and the skinny one. A lot of the gameplay ideas came out of the different body type characters that you were playing. We would have to take a look and think about how to apply that to a different set of characters, and see what gameplay ideas would come from those differences.
Of all the games you've worked on, which is your favorite?
It's really hard to pick one. I've worked on a lot of games and I've really enjoyed the experience, so it would be too cheap an answer to say that I like absolutely all of them, so maybe it's best to say that some of the more recent projects are so fresh in my mind that I have really good memories of them, so in that case, I would have to say Mario Kart 7. What stood out was the feeling of gliding through the sky or cruising underwater. It felt like a totally new expression in the game, and was something I felt paired so well with the 3D visuals.
How did you arrive at the decision of putting gliders on the karts? Was that an idea Nintendo had from the beginning?
I think we had the image in mind fairly early on, but it did take a lot of programming work to figure out how to make diving and flying feel so good in that game.