The new Mario Kart for Nintendo Switch features a real remote control car and some highly imaginative use of AR technology.
Although it’s destined to be overtaken by Animal Crossing, currently the best-selling game on the Nintendo Switch is Mario Kart 8 Deluxe. Which is slightly awkward as technically it’s not really a Switch game but a port of an older Wii U title, with only a few new extras. That’s led to much speculation as to whether there’ll be a Mario Kart 9 specifically made for the Switch, despite the fact that there’s usually only one per console. There’s also the fact that it’s hard to come up with new ideas and gimmicks for the series, or at least we thought it was before seeing Mario Kart Live.
Mario Kart Live is certainly not Mario Kart 9 but, despite being developed by unknown New York indie team Velan Studios, it is the most Nintendo concept since the cardboard creations of Labo. In this Mario Kart you don’t drive a virtual kart in-game but a real remote control one. Except there’s a camera attached to it and so you can control it via your Switch, which adds AR opponents, power-ups, and trackside details to your race. Which is… a fantastic idea.
It’s a shame that coronavirus is still causing such havoc though as we’re sure under normal circumstances Nintendo would’ve organised a press event where we could play other journos – since up to four cars can compete at once – but as it is we’ve only been able to play around on our own. Although perhaps that’s for the best as that makes it easier to see how much fun the game is with just what you get in the box, which is likely to be how most people will experience it.
Those box contents are pretty straightforward: one kart and charging cable, four cardboard gates for you to race under and mark out the course, and two arrow markers for the game to imprint AR visuals onto. The software to play the game is free and you can download it from the eShop whether you own the car or not, although it doesn’t really do anything on its own. All that costs £100, which is a lot but also not really when you consider the cost of ordinary video games and remote control cars.
You can’t help but laugh just having the concept explained to you, but the obvious question is whether playing Mario Kart in real-life is anywhere near as fun as in the video games. After all, a game doesn’t have to confirm to the laws of physics and while the remote control car is cool and all it’s not like it’s got proper suspension or anything. And yet it is surprisingly responsive and fun to drive, and by tricking your eye with the on-screen animations even manages to give the impression you’re able to drift.
The game also does its level best to make the races look as interesting as possible and while you have to physically lay out the course there are distinct cups to work through in single-player, just like the regular games. Each track has its own theme, from a retro one based on Super Mario Bros. to traditional ice and desert stages. The attempt to recreate Rainbow Road doesn’t really work in context but the ones where wind is simulated as pushing you off course is a really clever mix of AR and mechanical feedback.
The power-ups are just as inventive, with not just classic koopa shells and mushroom turbo boosts but new items like a P Switch that helps you collect more coins and increase your speed. The attention to detail is wonderful and while there might not seem much point in continuing to race on your own completing cups does unlock extra character and vehicle skins, as well as more AR extras to use in your custom courses, so there is some tangible reward on offer. Although competing in time trial mode is obviously limited by the fact that it’s very hard to exactly replicate a track if you put all the gates away when you’re finished playing.
The AR effects are very impressive, with Piranha Plants and sandstorms getting in your way and instantly transforming your house into a regular Mario Kart course. Although what you see through the camera is often subject to jittering and interference, depending, it seems, on whether there’s a wall between you and the Switch and how fast your Wi-Fi is. Although everything seems to work fine if you can avoid those problems (and obviously you can chase after the car, to keep it in range, in portable mode).
There are two main limitations with Mario Kart Live, one of which is entirely dependent on where you’re going to play it. If you’ve got a small house that doesn’t get a lot of light then you’re going to have a lot more problems with inconsistent AR than if you live in the giant pretend house in the official Nintendo videos. Plus, if you’ve got a lot of rugs, or your floor is otherwise uneven, you’re going to have to clear a path for the car before you start.
There’s also the fact that with only four gates the amount of variety the game is able to offer in terms of track design is limited. At first that doesn’t matter because driving around your house, upsetting the cat, is hilarious but, especially if you’re playing on your own, that novelty does begin to dissipate eventually. (Unless you’re a NASCAR fan, we guess.)
It’s not even really a question of whether you’re any good at designing tracks as, disappointingly, the karts have trouble getting up any kind of ramp and the instructions make it clear you should really only be designing courses on a flat surface.
A lot of these problems seem unavoidable, at least without making the whole thing much more expensive than it already is, but expectations certainly need to be tempered for any kids asking for one for Christmas. But as long as they know what they’re getting themselves in for the magic is real.
You can dismiss it as a gimmick if you want but the amusement at seeing your house transformed into a Mario Kart course, and the fact that the car does handle surprisingly similarly to the video game version, is exactly the sort of unconventional use of technology that is so quintessentially Nintendo.
There’s no indication of whether this is a one-off experiment or not but in the world of video gimmicks someone’s going to have to go to considerable effort to ever beat this.
Mario Kart Live: Home Circuit review summary
In Short: A wonderfully inventive attempt to bring Mario Kart into the real world, whose mere premise is enough to amuse and delight, despite some unavoidable practical limitations.
Pros: An inspired use of AR technology and a very well made remote control car. The variety in course themes is impressive and creating your own track is a lot of fun.
Cons: Course layout is limited in complexity and to flat surfaces. The inability to play with anyone else out of the box is unfortunate. Much of the fun depends on the layout of your house.
Formats: Nintendo Switch
Developer: Velan Studios
Release Date: 16th October 2020
Age Rating: 6+
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