After getting an online preview of Mario Kart Live: Home Circuit just over two weeks ago, I was pleasantly surprised at how robust the actual ‘video game’ component looked in this new twist on the toys-to-life genre. Now, having had the awesome opportunity to get some hands-on time with Nintendo’s new wonderfully wacky idea, I’m happy to report that once again Nintendo has managed to make something rather special. By combining one of their trademark franchises, some interesting use of AR tech and physical toys they have produced a really exciting “video game brought to life” that I’m sure both kids and the young-at-heart would love to play with. Unfortunately, while the tech is impressive and the toys are well built, the size of your living room and, more importantly, of your wallet will really be the deciding factors when it comes to whether or not it will be racing into your home any time soon.
Nintendo’s amazing scalex-‘trick’
The technology used in creating Mario Kart Live: Home Circuit is pretty complex. It may seem like just sticking a camera on a radio-controlled kart and painting it red or green and driving through some LABO gates. However, there’s a heck of a lot going on. The gates and kart must actually be seen and recognised by the (AR) Augmented Reality camera in order for the video game part to actually work. (If you want to get technical it’s probably actually ‘Mixed Reality’ in that the virtual objects are anchored and can be interacted within the ‘real’ world). The Switch must also almost instantaneously send information to the kart to control pretty precise turns, while the camera is sending back visual information just as quickly. So you’d think you be getting a component-filled box and seemingly endless scrolls of text. But no. The box is clean and relatively simple. It just includes the kart (in my case a fun, well-built replica of Luigi’s standard kart with a special Formula 1-like Halo addition) which was probably slightly larger than I was expecting, a short USB-C cable and a few small sheets of already connected, easy-to-fold cardboard sheets that quickly unfurl into four gates. And that’s it.
A real Mario Kart game – that your dog or cat become a part of. Now, how cool is that!?
After a quick visit to the eShop (there is no cartridge in the box and the MK Live software is a free download), you’ll quickly be using the kart’s camera to scan a QR code generated on the Switch (only needs to be done once) and be driving around your bedroom in a matter of minutes. The Switch provides a quick set up instruction video, but by the time I noticed this my wife and I had already done most of the work ourselves. You’ll then be directed by Lakitu to drive through the four gates in order to set up a track. Straight after that, you’ll be thrown into your first race against the digital Koopalings now floating above your kitchen floor. Both my wife and I were really impressed by how fast and simple the whole process is.
The racing itself takes some getting used to. At first you can’t quite decide whether you want to look at the screen or the kart. While at lower speeds (50, 100CC) I found that you’re going to want to only look at the Switch/Tv screen to avoid crashing constantly. However, after completing some cups and unlocking the higher speeds, I noticed that in 150 and particularly 200CC I actually enjoyed following the physical kart a little more closely and swapping between the Switch screen and the ‘real world’ controlling it like an RC car made the most sense to my brain. However, what will immediately entrance you is the how magical it is to see a video game version of “yourself” (as Mario or Luigi) racing in your own home. As you drive, you collect coins which will then unlock costumes, karts and horns and while this was a nice addition – I sorta felt a little unimpressed because I couldn’t really show it off anywhere.
The low camera angle and the subsequent giant size normal household items and inquisitive pets take on is something I’ve never quite experienced before and the first time I’ve seen AR used in any really fun way. The only thing I can sort of compare it to is a mixture of the old Scalextric slot car racing sets you may have played with as a kid, and one of my strange fever dreams starring cartoon plumbers. Of course, if you’ve never had one of those dreams you’re just going to have to take my word for it or play the game. Also, content-wise even though there are multiple cups and three races in each cup – because your track stays mostly consistent (unless you’re rebuilding after every race) you’d think the gameplay would get boring. However, as every track is themed they all feel different as the gates and environments themselves change the whole track feels different. In one track you’ll face green pipes that spew coins, then in another, Bowser’s castle walls will flame in anger or Kamek’s magical inverted portal through which left is right and make completing a race nigh impossible. The environment changes are also so interesting. While gusty winds and ice blocks make driving that much harder – electric shocks, traditional power-ups and even the ability to drift using the R button just give each level enough of its own personality to keep it feeling like a ‘real’ Mario Kart game. A real Mario Kart game – that your dog or cat become a part of. Now, how cool is that!?
Power, the vacuum and inner space
Of course, that doesn’t mean it was all imagination and bliss. The battery for example was one of my early concerns. However, even starting out, I only gave the kart a quick 30-minute charge and that gave me enough juice to make up my first track and get through several laps. And after a full charge (I left it charging for about three hours but it could’ve been done a little less time than that) I was able to race for the next 2-3 hours with no issues. And when I finally decided to call it a night the gauge indicated I still had around 1/3 of battery left in the tank. Plus, charging can be done connected to or independent from the Switch so odds are as long as you plug it in before playing you’ll be able to enjoy a full racing session without too much hassle.
I couldn’t help but feel a little hard done by as Iggy phased under the fridge door and raced through my sleeping dog and my kitchen cupboard and took the win.
The range isn’t too shabby either. The in-box recommendation is to keep it within 5 metres of the Switch and only play indoors. I’ve already seen some videos online of people seemingly breaking these rules, but in my experience, unless you’ve got a pretty big place and want to sit in your in-house cinema room while the kart races through your conservatory or in-door gymnasium I think you’ll be ok. I only ran into some connection problems once and that had more to do with a big thick brick wall that was hampering the connection than physical distance. However, while connection won’t be an issue – the actual hazards you face may be. While this is mostly a problem in the single-player races – what is a little frustrating is that digital racers can avoid hazards (like fallen cardboard chevron signs) and take tighter corners than you can – because you’re in the real world of physical objects. And while this doesn’t seem like a big issue – I couldn’t help but feel a little hard done by as Iggy phased under the fridge door and raced through my sleeping dog and my kitchen cupboard and took the win.
Also, unfortunately while the box tells us this game is suited for both big and small areas – as I’m sure you can imagine, having a nice big, flat area in your home enhances the experience substantially. I was able to “borrow” some space to really spread out on one occasion, but setting up a track in my rather small home was a challenge. Of course, it was possible by moving a couch around, lifting a vacuum cleaner over a bookshelf and getting a little creative with my track design. However, I did notice that in smaller spaces where turns are tighter a very irritating issue kept popping up. In my one track design, the first (and therefore also final) gate was just after a tight hairpin turn. Often if I took the turn too sharply the AR Camera would not get a good look at the gate logo – and would there be unable to log my arrival. That meant even if I arrived first – I usually had to reverse and ride through again to register my finish – by which point Lemmy had almost always taken my first place spot.
Companionless Coin Kart
Mario Kart to me has always been a game to play with friends and unfortunately, this is again where the new game falls a little short. I’m usually rather conflicted about mentioning price when reviewing a game. Because what a particular game is “worth” (both in your time and money) is such a subjective thing to analyse. However, in this case I feel it does bear mentioning. As it stands a single unit of Mario Kart Live: Home Circuit will set you back at least R2,000.
I cannot see parents being able to easily afford one of these boxes and buying more than one for a family just seems impossible.
And while I understand and even appreciate how creative and how tech-heavy this product actually is – I also think it skews to a slightly younger audience and perhaps an older audience that plays video games with friends on regular basis. Not only are these audiences very specific, they also highlight the issue with the price. I cannot see parents being able to easily afford one of these boxes (particularly here in SA) and buying more than one for a family (or for playing with friends – who will also need their own Switch) just seems impossible. Because of that, I suspect (a little like LABO) it just won’t sell well. And sadly usually even when it’s bought, it won’t be played to its full potential. Even as a reviewer – I couldn’t play the multiplayer games because I didn’t have anyone close enough to play with. This has no online component. Tracks are unique and need to be shared in the same physical space. And while the Time Trials do offer a pass-the-Switch multiplayer – I definitely feel like I missed out (and suspect I won’t be the only one).
So, what’s left to say? This a remarkable piece of tech. This is a magical toy – that brings something to the table that I think almost nothing has in the past – it’s that special. However, it’s also made for bigger homes. And priced for bigger wallets. And sadly during a global pandemic and in a country where several other factors limit Nintendo product purchasing power – I sadly predict that it will be lost to the sands of economic times.