Every year at Christmas, my family has a tradition. After hoovering up every scrap of food that’s left after the festivities, we wrap up warm and take a trip to the local park to race our RC Mario Kart toys. It’s mostly to cater for the younger members of the family and to get everyone away from the TV, but by creating our own racecourse, rules and selecting random items like a bin to be Bowser, we’re quickly speeding around our own homemade racing track. So, when the announcement came that Velan Studios and Nintendo had joined creative forces to bring that very experience to our homes in the form of Mario Kart Live: Home Circuit for Nintendo Switch, I was already prepared and very excited.
It’s worth remembering that this isn’t the first time Nintendo has delved into Augmented Reality (AR) territory. The 3DS had a neat feature where you could point the camera at a card that was included with the system to summon a dragon on your worktop or shoot imaginary balloons by tilting the handheld console. It felt a bit silly and, let’s face it, it never really took off. Pokémon Go is also using AR technology, where the mobile app constantly receives updates for new, fancy features. But by creating something that is instantly recognisable, especially with the iconic Mario branding and a racecourse that you can build yourself, Mario Kart is a perfect fit. Given that many of us are spending the majority of time in our homes, coupled with the fact that a lot of people now own a Nintendo Switch, the timing is perhaps a little uncanny.
I live in a small flat/apartment here in the UK. It might not be the smallest (I have a balcony and enough space for a lively cat), but I was relatively pessimistic at the thought of constructing a substantial racecourse for my little Mario to zoom around. I have sofas, a large rug in my lounge and of course shelving to store all of my Nintendo trinkets. “There’s not a lot of room here, this is going to be disastrous,” I thought as I waited impatiently for my parcel to arrive. After rolling up my rug, stuffing it underneath my bed and pushing my footstool out of the way, I was ready and my parcel turned up.
The set-up was simple, fast and straight to the point. You must have Wi-Fi for the Kart to work, so my dream of going back to the park with this was quickly shot down. Having learned what each piece did, I quickly assembled the checkpoints in order of what was shown on the screen and was good to go. As Lakitu threw paint on my wheels for me to mark out the course for the first time, I could feel a smile spreading from ear-to-ear, especially when I saw my cat peer round the kitchen door to check out just what on earth had entered into his domain.
Within 15 minutes, I had the controls down; speeding around my chair legs; bashing into my own feet and drifting through doorways. The Kart stopped in its tracks in real life when I hit a physical object…it was my feet again. Shooting my gaze above my hands to see what the Kart was doing on my lounge floor, snaking around the books I had placed as barriers, the action looked painfully slow. However, on-screen, things seem much faster as the on-board camera shows the perspective of Mario (or Luigi). Of course, with the perspective so low to the floor, the sense of speed is greatly increased, especially in 150cc races or when a chain chomp power-up is ‘pulling’ the Kart forward.
For reference, the play area in my lounge is roughly 16 feet by 4.5 feet. The room gave me the means to get creative: pulling my Nintendo plushies off the shelf to create themed obstacles, using amiibo as a way to keep the kart from veering too far from the main course, and shifting my illuminated Mario Star lamp to create a central area to zoom past was great fun. Simply put, you’ll get more out of this when you put more thought into it. By racing on a flat floor with no obstacles, things will get dull extremely quickly. But utilising household objects or collectables means you’ll have a decent track to travel around. Getting up from the sofa and rejigging the track after every course to keep things fresh does get a little tiresome, though I found that changing portions of the track after every Cup was much more manageable and less cumbersome. Sure, it’s not as simple as firing up your copy of Mario Kart 8 Deluxe, but if you have the time, creative mind and, of course, the patience (and room), you won’t race the same Cup ever.
But what if you only have access to a smaller area to create a track? I moved my setup to the bedroom to test how things would go; the smaller area measured 8 feet by 4.5 feet and the results were promising. So long as all four checkpoints are placed on the floor, your Kart is good to go. The turning circle is quite tight so you don’t have to worry too much about having a wide-open space to create your course, but you will have to get a little more creative. I used some Zelda books and an Xbox One box to create a tunnel and the game did the rest. It worked almost perfectly as I drifted underneath my bed and sped past my en-suite’s door. Weirdly though, my opponents sometimes warped to the finish line, which resulted in losing the race. I’m not sure why this happened but after rejigging my checkpoints a little, the problem didn’t occur again.
I tested the Kart on a few different surfaces for the purpose of this feature; wood, two different types of carpet and the decking out on the balcony. The carpets I have aren’t of a high pile, they’re the industrial type, so the Kart never had an issue with travelling across my hallway or my bedroom floor. The rubber on the wheels gripped well to the floorings I raced on and, for those with pets, hair doesn’t cause too much of a hassle. Just make sure to check those wheels before you race since it can stick to the inside of the wheel and, after prolonged use, I’d imagine some Karts could get in a tangled mess. Plus, folk with long hair may also want to double-check before racing! I made sure to give my apartment a quick once-over with the hoover just to be safe. Another issue I had envisioned were inclines. Don’t expect to be able to create Hot Wheels-style loops and twists, but small inclines worked fine so long as they weren’t too sharp and the lead up to the bump was smooth.
It’s worth noting that the more effort you put into building your courses, placing obstacles and planning, the more strain the Kart will come under, especially on higher CC races. Thankfully, charging the Kart is super quick with at least an hour and a half playtime at hand from a single charge. Plus, you can easily ‘refuel’ in a couple of hours by using the USB-C cable that comes packed in the box.
As I extended the racecourse length though, I ran into a few issues that weren’t caused by any course design. Much like other Mario Kart titles, power-ups are obtained by driving through question mark boxes but they’re also scattered on the track on some races. Power-ups include fan favourites like a boost mushroom and Bullet Bill which effectively drives for you around the track you ‘painted’. Activating the Bullet Bill felt like it never properly worked as it kept crashing me into furniture and other obstacles. Although the game tried to manoeuvre around the track automatically, it didn’t account for items in the way. I found myself controlling this power-up manually as it just wasn’t accurate enough. Another annoyance was some of the overlay effects. Most tracks you play in the Grand Prix are themed (winter, fire, rainbow road, etc.) and the look and feel of the races are vastly distinguished in true Mario Kart fashion. Yet when my Kart was being pushed around by a sandstorm, or the snowy filter across the screen was too dense to see where I was going, I felt things could have been toned down. The way the game places hazards is admittedly clever, but at times it felt like the tech just wasn’t up to scratch. For instance, I would lose the race because of a bomb that was glitching across the ‘road’ or perhaps when the AI simply jumped to the finishing line for no reason.
Frustrations aside, I’m having a blast playing Mario Kart Live: Home Circuit. Having space limitations is understandably going to be the deciding factor for potential consumers this holiday season. With a high asking price and the next generation of consoles on the horizon as well, I’m not too optimistic it will win over audiences. But I can’t help but think that we’re only scratching the surface and the scope for expansion is exciting. With some updates, Nintendo could add special non-racing activities to the game away from Time Trials and Grand Prix’s, Labo could change the way people make their tracks and the title could have potential for amiibo support to extend its appeal. Nintendo is asking us to be creative in a time when we need it most, and this may be the answer, especially for families with youngsters in the household. But, if the price is too steep (it’s currently £100/$100 RRP), you could always wrap up warm and head down to the park – or venture into your garden – with a much more affordable RC Mario Kart toy.
A copy of Mario Kart Live: Home Circuit was provided to My Nintendo News by Nintendo UK for the purpose of this feature.