While it’s likely still a little too early to tell, Mario Kart Live: Home Circuit feels like it has the potential to be more than just a toys-to-life mixed reality (MR) tech demo.
During a virtual preview session hosted by Nintendo that expanded on some of the upcoming MR title’s features, I finally saw it in action. In various ways, Home Circuit is the kind of game you need to see to understand.
I remember watching Nintendo’s still recently released trailer and not grasping how the Home Circuit worked. Am I really controlling the physical kart? Is it all just in-game, and the karts don’t move? Is this just a very expensive amiibo?
First off, Mario Kart Live: Home Circuit really does allow players to turn their home into a real-world Mario Kart course. The setup process involves placing four gates and two arrow signboards to create a custom track. It’s worth noting that given the game’s expensive price tag, it’s disappointing the gates consist of what seems like flimsy cardboard.
The size of your play space can vary significantly, with tracks extending to a maximum of 4.6m and players being able to race at a total of 9m away from the course.
You then download Home Circuit from the eShop and scan a QR code on the back of the physical Luigi or Mario kart to sync the toy with the Switch. While Mario Kart Live is available for free in the eShop, it requires the kart toy to be playable.
After a quick setup lap around your custom track involving painting the course with a virtual kart, you’re ready to race in one of the title’s several modes, including Grand Prix circuits, time trials and local multiplayer with up to four players.
There’s no online multiplayer featured in Mario Kart Live, but that’s to be expected, given its focus on mixed reality. However, Nintendo says the game disconnects the Switch from Wi-Fi entirely to connect to the kart.
To be clear, your actions in the mixed-reality portion of the game affect the real-world kart. This means that when you turn a corner in Home Circuit on the Switch, the actual physical kart turns in the real-world. Also, if you hit an item box and get your hands on, for example, a Green Shell, shooting it successfully at an opponent will result in their kart slowing down both in the game on the Switch and in the real-world. The same can be said about accidentally hitting a table leg or couch.
In some ways, this is similar to Anki’s Overdrive line of modern-day slot cars. With Overdrive, you set up your own course using track pieces, and then control your vehicle via your smartphone. There are abilities, attacks and other features that come into play with Overdrive, but your attention is always on the physical cars whipping around the track you created. With Home Circuit, your attention is divided between the real-world kart and the actual game running in mixed reality on the Switch.
San Francisco-based Anki shut down in April 2019 after running out of money, but Digital Dream Labs eventually purchased its assets in January 2020.
Though Nintendo says all the Mario Kart series mainstays are in the game, it’s difficult to tell if Mario Kart Live will feel like a proper entry in the iconic series, especially since the in-game perspective is so close to the kart that it’s almost in first-person. With that in mind, there are 50cc, 100cc and 150cc karts. There are even 200cc races where the physical cart can drive at 10km/h when hitting a boost.
If you’ve been watching the Fast and the Furious movies and you’re looking to race at 150cc or 200cc, Nintendo suggests using a much larger play space because otherwise, the kart is challenging to control.
The game also features the ability to customize gates with AR obstacles like Piranha Plants, Thwomps, Item Pipes, Music Notes and several other options. Still, I’m concerned that beyond being fascinating technology, after a few hours, Home Circuit‘s mixed reality novelty will wear off.
For example, to play multiplayer, you need to buy two Mario or Luigi karts, which is an expensive proposition for most people. Otherwise, you’re stuck racing against AI Bowser Jr. and other Koopalings. A lot of the appeal of the Mario Kart series comes from racing against friends.
On the plus side, you can change your course to different mixed reality environments like racing underwater or in a desert, which in turn, subtly shifts how the kart handles. Further, just like in other more recent Mario Kart titles, coins you collect in the game can be used to unlock cosmetic features for your kart and racer. That said, these cosmetics unfortunately don’t affect how the kart controls.
Most of the game’s fun seems to stem from actually building the course, which you’re able to alter with real-world items. For example, say you decide to place a few small cardboard boxes in the middle of your track. This means you’ll need to navigate around those boxes in AR while playing the game. Nintendo also claims the real-world karts are very durable and can easily withstand crashes.
This is also one of the rare instances where Nintendo is handing the reins of one of its iconic franchises to a North American developer. While a joint project with significant input from the Japanese gaming giant, the bulk of Mario Kart Live: Home Circuit‘s development was handled by Troy, New York-based developer Velan Studios.
Since I haven’t actually played Mario Kart Live: Home Circuit yet and have only watched the game in action, it’s difficult to know for sure if it has the potential to be more than just an impressive mixed reality demo.
The groundwork is there, though, especially if you’re willing to pick up more than one $129 physical kart to play the game. Mario Kart Live: Home Circuit releases on October 16th. MobileSyrup will have more on Home Circuit in the coming weeks.