Nintendo aren’t afraid to experiment with unique peripherals, with the Switch alone being home to both Ring Fit Adventure and the series of Labo kits. Created in partnership with Velan Studios, Mario Kart Live: Home Circuit is yet another inventive release for the system, combining augmented reality with the chaotic kart racing of Nintendo’s long-running series. It’s an impressive spin on AR gaming, unfortunately held back by technical limitations, physical space requirements, and costly karts.
What you get
For the initial launch of Mario Kart Live, there are two sets: Mario and Luigi — the Mario set was tested for this review. Outside of the actual karts, the contents of each set are identical. There are four numbered gates which are used to set up your track, two directional markers that only serve as decoration, and a short charging cable.
In regards to Mario’s kart, it’s a solidly constructed RC car that mostly resembles the kart designs from Mario Kart 8. However, it’s noticeable bulkier, with Mario looking quite small in comparison, and there’s a camera protruding from the area behind the driving seat. Powering on the kart is as simple as pressing a button on one side, and there’s a panel that can be moved to access the charging port.
Setup and course creation
After downloading the free Mario Kart Live Switch software and pairing up the kart via a QR code, you’re ready to play. A somewhat brief tutorial runs you through controlling the kart, being quite similar to the controls used in modern Mario Kart games.
Obviously, setting up your track is a little more involved. Using the four gates that come with each set, you’ll set up the course before going on a test drive. Riding around your newly built course will map it out, letting you finally get into a proper race.
On the whole, the most time consuming part of setup is making enough space for a decently sized track with a varied layout. There are a couple of issues with course creation that I’ll get into later, though you can at least get a race going even with a relatively small play area.
The meat of Mario Kart Live, as with the mainline games, is its cups. To make up for the fact that all tracks are user designed, each race during a cup can have its own theme. These add different overlays such as underwater and ghost house visuals, accompanied by their own unique obstacles.
A lot has been done to make Live feel like a typical Mario Kart game, even if the AR gameplay stops it from being completely accurate. It’s still possible to drift and build up different levels of speed boosts, though most reasonable track layouts wont allow for long drifts. Items are also present, but in a more limited fashion. Bullet bills do at least make good use of the kart’s ability to drive on its own, charging through the AI racers at higher speeds.
Mario Kart Live also attempts to add some longevity to the single player experience, letting you spend coins gained through races on new costumes and cart designs. It can be a little odd having the on-screen kart be a different design from the physical one, though it’s not noticeable while actually playing. This is the one thing I’d like to see in the mainline games, as unlockable costumes for characters are more interesting than something like new kart parts.
Seeing the courses you have created from Mario (or Luigi’s) perspective is novel, making even the 50 and 100cc modes feel faster than they really are. And yet, after a few races, the limitations imposed by the physical kart become more and more apparent.
For starters, the karts are at their best only when on a completely flat surface. While they can be used on certain carpets and slopes, the karts will often slow down or get stuck. Big tracks are also not recommended, especially if playing docked mode. The wi-fi range on the Switch has never been the best, and this is all the more noticeable in Mario Kart Live. If you stray too far from the console, there ends up being noticeable stuttering on-screen. Playing portably will mitigate this somewhat, though it’s still far from ideal.
Having the game revolve around AR tech also harms the actual Mario Kart gameplay. I already mentioned some of this in the previous section, but there are two bigger issues that are hard to ignore.
The first is that your AI opponents, who take the form of Koopalings, are not as interesting to play against as regular racers. There’s no noticeable collision with them, and there are only four instead of the usual double digit number of racers. Since they’re in-game, the Koopalings also don’t have to worry about physical obstacles. They do stick to the tracks you have created, but if you drop something like a book or box on the course, the AI can just drive right through it.
For most people though, the more direct issue will be how multiplayer is handled. Since players need a kart and Switch each, you’re looking at a bare minimum cost of roughly £300 per person. Add in the fact that getting a group together during current events is not exactly easy, and you’ll probably be stuck playing on your own. Most of the fun from Mario Kart comes from multiplayer, and Live just doesn’t have the longevity needed to keep single player from becoming stale.
Mario Kart Live: Home Circuit verdict
While the tech used for Mario Kart Live is undeniably impressive, most people will get more out of the £100 required to play it by getting Mario Kart 8 Deluxe and a few years of Switch Online instead. The way tracks are created in game limits the designs you can create, and you’re out of luck if your house has a limited amount of useable space, or flooring that isn’t completely flat. Still, there’s fun to be had for at least a few hours before the novelty wears off, and it’s hard not to enjoy seeing Mario speed around track you have made. There’s potential, just not enough for this to be worth it for most Mario Kart fans (though cats certainly seem to love it)
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