Review: Mario Kart Live: Home Circuit (Switch)

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Mario Kart Live: Home Circuit is a stroke of genius. I can’t be the only one with fond memories of playing with Mario Kart toys as a kid—both a kid-sized kid and an adult-sized kid—using everyday household objects to build Micro Machines-esque courses and have my little karts “race” around them, shooting imaginary shells at one another. Mario Kart Live, with a clever application of augmented reality, is a game that lets you do this for real.

It all starts with a radio-controlled kart—available in either Mario or Luigi variants—with a built-in camera. A bluetooth connection between the kart and your Switch turns your console into the RC controller, and lets the kart send its camera feed back to the screen in your hand or to your TV. All the other vital pieces of a Mario Kart game—the item boxes, the coins, the shells, the different road effects, the AI players—all then get layered over the camera feed to create a fully-fledged Mario Kart game, only one where your living room can be the course.

To play Mario Kart Live is an experience that’s not quite like any other. Whatever course you create (more on creation in a moment), it’s going to be something that’s uniquely yours—it’s your home that you’re driving around, your furniture that the race weaves through. Though the physical kart can’t spin or do the big animated crash like its digital counterpart when you get it with a shell, it slows down and stops as necessary to manifest the digital augmentations in a real way. Likewise, a speed burst in the game comes with a speed burst for the kart, and track effects like ice and wind alter your RC steering capability accordingly. There’s an almost surreal quality to the mash-up of cartoony Mario Kart racing and a live-action video feed for the course you’re driving, which only helps to drive home the playful joy of Mario Karting around your home.

Four numbered cardboard gates, each decorated with special icons that the game can recognise in the kart’s camera feed and use to trigger AR effects, form the backbone of the course you create. But beyond the requirement to pass through the gates in order, your course is yours to create however you see fit: wherever you position those gates and whatever route you drive to pass through them while you’re in creation mode will become your racetrack. Want to have some big loops between gates, rather than just going direct from one to the next? Go for it. Want to have the course double back on itself, and pass through a gate a second time from the other side? All yours. Want to find a bunch of objects lying around to create obstacles to dodge? By all means. If you’re feeling especially creative, why not get some cardboard and use it to create ramps and add some elevation to your course? 

The one potential limitation here is how much space you have to work with. Nintendo recommends at least 12 x 10 feet for a good play experience; you can get away with less if you need to, but the smaller you get, the more constrained the possibilities become. That said, imagination can help—even a smallish room can make an interesting course if you’re happy to rearrange your furniture for a play session. On the other hand, the bigger the space you have, the more creative freedom you get. I can imagine parents renting out halls for kids birthdays and just going all out on the most elaborate course imaginable.

With your course created, you can start to play Mario Kart Live for real. In classic Mario Kart fashion, Grand Prix mode has eight different cups to conquer, each one made up of three races (instead of the usual four). While the layout of the course is determined by what you’ve created, each different race has its own unique quirks that come to life through the augmented reality layer. Play an underwater level and you’ll see cheep-cheeps swimming around; play Bowser’s Castle, and in lieu of the castle itself (unless you build one!) there are lava plumes jumping around. Some levels will see gusts of wind pushing your kart around, the effect on screen mirrored in the physical kart with lopsided steering feedback; others will periodically mirror the whole course by flipping the camera feed and inverting the kart’s steering to match.

Those aforementioned gates are the source of many of Mario Kart Live‘s interactive elements, from item boxes and speed pads to objects that you need to avoid. Each one is marked with special decorations that the game can recognise, allowing it to identify its position and facing and create a digital version of it in the same place with whatever hazards or pick-ups the level in question requires.

Multiplayer is there too, though it requires each player to have their own kart and Switch to control it with. With how much the game depends on the camera feed as a core game mechanic, that makes sense—the game could, in theory, let a digital-only player race using just the saved layout info, but it really wouldn’t be the same. But as driven by necessity as it is, it still feels like Mario Kart Live is missing something in not having the readily-available multiplayer that something like Mario Kart 8 has. You can rock up to a friend’s place with a Switch and a couple of extra Joy Con and have everything you need for a great multiplayer session in Mario Kart 8; to do the same with Live, you’d need four Switches and four karts, which folks are much less likely to have just lying around.

But even if you’re limited to single player, there’s plenty of fun to be had with unlockables. Winning cups unlocks new race environments and course elements that you can use free-play mode, while the coins you pick up during each race gradually unlock different kart designs and outfits for your racer. There are different unlockable difficulty levels in the form of different kart speeds, classic Mario Kart style, which translates directly into how fast the physical kart goes. Once you get up to 200cc, the kart can really move—I was honestly taken by surprise at the speeds these little karts can get up to.

It’s good, then, that the karts are sturdy. They seem designed to be able to take a bit of a hit, to the point that the game actually has mechanics for that in the form of crash animations and lost coins. I’ve crashed into many a wooden bookshelf and table leg, often at full tilt, without getting so much as a scratch on my kart.

Mario Kart Live: Home Circuit is one of the best case studies in augmented reality I’ve seen yet, at least as far as pure entertainment is concerned. It’s the Mario Kart you know and love, but with your home as the course—something that could have easily fallen flat or come across as a shallow gimmick, but instead manages to hit every note near-flawlessly. There’s nothing quite like racing around your own living room, throwing shells every which way and hitting those boost pads while weaving through your furniture and trying to dodge the cat that keeps trying to catch your kart. 

Score: 4.5 stars

Mario Kart Live: Home Circuit is developed by Velan Studios and published by Nintendo. It’s available now for Nintendo Switch.

A review copy was provided to Shindig by the publisher.

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About Author

Matthew is a writer based in Wellington. He loves all things pop culture, and is fascinated by its place in history and the wider social context.