Nintendo has delivered a wide range of quote, unquote, ‘traditional video games’ on its Nintendo Switch console but every so often along comes a real curveball. A creation that tries something new and different. Back in 2018 that came in the form of Nintendo Labo while last year saw the far more successful Ring Fit Adventure turn our living rooms into home gyms. So, with 2020 comes Mario Kart Live: Home Circuit, an experience that aims to combine physical RC cars and video games. On paper (and in trailers) it certainly sounds and looks intriguing but how well does it work in practice?
Mario Kart Live: Home Circuit feels fresh but familiar, the familiarity coming from how the game plays and controls while the freshness deriving from the actual real-life aspects of the game. After downloading the game from the Nintendo eShop, setup is super simple requiring little more than a quick scan of a QR code on the screen using the camera of the RC car. Once you’ve done that, you’re pretty much good to go.
Aside from the RC car, the package also includes a charging cable, four cardboard gates and two cardboard directional signs. The car itself feels well-built and sturdy and after taking a number of bangs into all sorts of hard surfaces (table legs, chairs and more) aside from a few minor dings in the bumper, the vehicle didn’t seem affected. We also didn’t run into any issues when racing on the carpets in our house. It may have moved a little slower than if it were on hardwood flooring, but never did it get stuck.
First things first, you’ll need to actually build your racetrack, a simple process and one that proves just as exciting as the racing itself. Lakitu will cover your tyres in paint (in-game of course) where you’ll then be free to trace out your track. While your design will need to pass through all four gates, you’re free to manoeuvre the route between in any way you like so whether you want a simple loop, figure eight or even a recreation of Yoshi Circuit, the limit really is down to your imagination.
While the two directional signs included with the game doesn’t offer much in the ways of decorating, of course you’re free to use anything in the real world too. Our dining table made for a great tunnel while our son’s toys worked wonderfully in adding a bit of flair to our creation. Much like other games that give you the tools to make what you want (think Super Mario Maker 2), the level of fun to be had from stretching your racetrack designing skills here proves a real draw whether you’re a kid or adult. Of course, the amount of space you have in your home is going to impact just how creative and complex your track can be. Fortunately for us we had a healthy area to mess around in but for those dealing with a smaller space, this will likely impact the staying power of the game. There’s only so many times you can ride a basic ring before you start to want a bit more from your track design.
With the track designed you’re ready to race. I was pleasantly surprised with how similar the game feels to a more traditional Mario Kart experience. Yes, you are driving a small RC car around your room, but as far as handling and feel goes this is straight up Mario Kart. Getting hit with shells or slipping of banana peels will slow you in your tracks while mushrooms will give the car a boost of speed. It’s silly to say but it does feel truly magical watching this real RC car being influenced by things that are happening in-game. While the kart might look a little slow moving in the real world, the action on screen feels much faster and handles just like a traditional Mario Kart game. Even at 50cc the game has a decent pace to it and by the time I’d gotten brave enough to take on 200cc, well let’s just say the number of crashes certainly increased dramatically.
Grand Prix is handled a little differently to past Mario Karts, each cup consisting of only three tracks and these tracks completely left up to the player to design their layout. The theme and obstacles will vary between each race offering things like boost pads, enemies to dodge and even sand storms forcing you to fight against the wind. Layouts though, are reused for the entire Grand Prix, disappointing since the only thing that really changes then are the digital obstacles. Your opponents come in the form of four Koopalings, a significant drop down from the usual dozen you’d normally find in a Mario Kart game however it doesn’t make races any less chaotic with shells, bananas and all sorts of items being thrown around throughout.
Time trial is also included, however your best times for a track are deleted the moment you rebuild. It’s understandable – replicating a track design exactly being pretty much impossible – but no less disappointing rendering time trial a weaker mode as a result. Still, it makes for a decent way to challenge others locally (rather than springing out for another kart) as you compete for the best time.
On the topic of playing with others, unfortunately Mario Kart Live: Home Circuit stumbles in this area. While the game does support up to four players locally, each will require their own RC car and with each costing £99.99 each that’s a massive ask of any gamer. The series was built on multiplayer so to see this feature require such a large investment is disappointing.
While your choice of character is limited to the package you choose (Mario or Luigi) the game does allow you to at least change their appearance in-game. Every coin you collect during races goes toward unlocking new cosmetic items that alter the look of Mario/Luigi themselves, the kart and even the sound of the horn. You’ll find a few familiar outfits including the doctor’s coat (from Dr. Mario) and builder’s gear (of Super Mario Maker fame) along with a few unexpected ones too.
The game’s presentation is clean and polished with characters looking arguably the best they ever have in a Mario Kart title. Watching Mario animate such as knocking on the screen – and essentially breaking the fourth wall – is always a delight. It is a little disappointing that nearly all the music is recycled for Mario Kart 8 Deluxe. Don’t get me wrong, it’s easily the best soundtrack the series has ever had, however it would have been nice to see some original tracks too. The main theme feels like the only new piece of music which is a shame because it’s brilliant.
As impressive as the technology at play here is, I did run into some limitations. Firstly, I was unable to build any tracks that involved any form of ramp or slope, since the car itself didn’t have enough horsepower to make it up. We also ran into a few connection issues, the action on screen hitching infrequently when playing handheld and more often when having the Switch docked. We also ran into a few confusing moments where the track digitally painted on the floor would shift before our eyes on screen. Far from ideal. So, Mario Kart Live: Home Circuit isn’t perfect and to be honest it would have been truly astonishing if it was, but these problems don’t hurt the end result enough to ruin the fun.
Mario Kart Live: Home Circuit is undeniably impressive in its execution at combining Augmented Reality and Nintendo’s popular franchise. There’s a sense of magic to creating your track in the real world and watching as it comes to life on the Switch. However, at nearly one hundred pounds the price of entry is a tough pill to swallow especially since multiplayer requires you drop another hundred on top. While this isn’t the true sequel Mario Kart fans were hoping for, it’s still an exciting experiment and one that’s worth checking out so long as you have the necessary space and the money.
Version Tested: Nintendo Switch
Review copy provided by Nintendo