Nintendo products have always had a certain magic about them. From the earliest examples, such as the simplistic-yet-addictive Game & Watch handhelds, to more recent offerings like the motion-driven Wii, touch-focused DS or cardboard-based Labo, the Japanese veteran has a genuine knack for creating toys which raise a smile by simply taking existing concepts and turning them into something new or unexpected. Few could have anticipated that Nintendo would take its million-selling Mario Kart series and bring it into the real world using remote control vehicles, but the first time you sit down and play Mario Kart Live: Home Circuit, it feels simultaneously natural and pleasantly surprising all at once.
The concept is relatively simple, but we’d imagine the tech which powers it – courtesy of start-up Velan Studios, which also did much of the heavy-lifting from a software development perspective – is quite advanced. Essentially, you’re controlling an RC car using your Switch, with a live feed being displayed on the console’s screen (or the TV when playing docked). A camera situated on the top of the car delivers said feed to your screen, while the Switch itself overlays virtual elements such as other racers, item boxes, red shells and trackside obstacles.
Using a series of four cardboard gates (Nintendo is clearly putting those Labo production lines to good work here), you can build a track that’s totally unique. The initial setup is a breeze; you pair the car with your Switch using an on-screen QR code and the car’s camera, and, after familiarising yourself with the controls in the game’s ‘Explore’ mode, you can craft your circuit by ‘painting’ the course on-screen and driving through the four gates in order (optional arrow panels can be added to guide you around the less-obvious parts of your circuit). While the gates are integral to the track design, you’re free to snake the actual course in quite complex patterns, even having it overlapping with other parts of the circuit – a fact which allows you to produce quite demanding courses even in small rooms.
Once you’ve made your circuit, you can take part in the Grand Prix mode where your aim is to accrue the most points from three races (there are 24 ‘tracks’ in total, split across various three-race GP events). While the track design is largely set in stone until you decided to rearrange it, each race is given a different flavour via the course-specific selection of gates, which can offer either item boxes, boosts or hazards, trackside obstacles (tornadoes which blow you off-course or even enemies which freeze your car for a brief period) and environmental effects (one course has a strong cross-wind which not only pushes your car in a certain direction but also blows coins and item boxes across the track).
The car itself is surprisingly nimble and responsive and boasts a tight turning circle, which means the actual in-game racing feels very, very close to a proper Mario Kart game – which, when you think about it, is a real achievement in itself. There’s no serious input latency to speak of, and the developers have even managed to include the trademark three-stage drift boost mechanic that’s in the mainline titles; holding the R trigger when rounding a corner pulls your car either left or right slightly, which, when viewed in-game, simulates a sideways drift. While the car looks quite small, it’s able to withstand pretty sizeable bumps and crashes; there’s a rubber strip on the front which protects the plastic from impact, while side impacts are almost always going to touch the soft rubber tires rather than the bodywork. The most concerning element of the car’s design is the exhausts which protrude quite alarmingly from the rear, but even these are fashioned from a hard rubber-like material which hopefully means they will survive most crashes.
Because the car connects to your Switch via WiFi, where your router is located in your home is going to be of prime importance when it comes to getting a stable connection. We noticed that when the car was in the next room, the live feed started to stutter – but, to be fair, we were testing it in a home that’s over 100 years old and has solid brick walls between each room. Taking this into account, you may find that the range is greater in your own property, which will be good news if you’re planning on constructing tracks which span multiple rooms. If you plan on keeping the race contained within the same room where your wireless router abides, then you won’t have any problems with connection stability.
The camera doesn’t give a totally clear view of the action – presumably because streaming live footage from the car in HD is beyond the tech at this stage – and it’s worth noting that the Switch’s screenshot and video capture functions are disabled during play, a decision that was likely made to prevent unscrupulous individuals from using the vehicle to spy on members of their household. The car’s internal battery is charged using a USB-C connection which is located on the side of the vehicle, behind a slide-up cover. Battery life is around three to four hours, based on our tests, although it’s worth noting that the speed at which the car is running will impact this figure, so it could potentially be less if you’re racing constantly at 200cc.
Speaking of which, 50cc, 100cc, 150cc and 200cc speeds are on offer here, with higher speeds unlocking when you’ve won a certain number of Grand Prix events. Though the car moves quite slowly in the ‘real world’ at 50cc, the on-screen action always feels faster; playing at 200cc in a cramped environment is going to lead to a lot of crashes. We tested Mario Kart Live in several locations – the roomy Nintendo Life office, a smaller dining room at home and a child’s bedroom (it belonged to our own child, before you become too concerned) – and it goes without saying that slower speeds are better suited to smaller locations. We were able to hit 200cc in the office but that speed felt too fast in the dining room, and made the game almost impossible to play in the smallest of the environments, the bedroom. Suffice to say, at 200cc the car is seriously rapid, and you have to keep in mind that speed boosts and mushroom increase its pace further.
The surface you’re racing on plays a part, too. Again, we tested it on a wide range of floors – wood, low-pile carpet and a room which had a higher pile carpet as well as a rug in the middle – and while the car would happily drive across all three, we found that it has such a low clearance that it would often become stuck when moving from the carpet to the rug, and vice versa. The car moves fastest on a wooden floor, but it’s fair to say that Mario Kart Live is perfectly playable on most surfaces – with the possible exception of rugs with an exceptionally high pile.
When playing solo, you’ll be racing against four Koopalings. If you’ve ever played Mario Kart before, the premise will be instantly familiar; finish the set number of laps in first place to score the most points. Item boxes give you things like red shells, banana skins, coins and blue shells (there are no green shells in this game) which are unleashed using the L trigger. While it’s obviously not possible to physically bump into the Koopalings, you can cause them to spin off briefly if you boost into them (they’re all driving anti-grav versions of their karts as seen in Mario Kart 8, but your vehicle remains resolutely on terra firma). It’s important to stress that this really does feel like a proper Mario Kart game; it’s incredibly fun to play and we lost count of the number of times we were so convinced we were in a ‘proper’ game that, when the RC car came into our peripheral vision, we’d be reminded that the race was taking place in both the real world and a virtual one – an impressive trick.
Like the mainline games, Mario Kart Live does an excellent job of drip-feeding content as you play. Items such as new karts, outfits, horns and even radio stations are unlocked as you earn coins; only the coins you currently hold at the conclusion of each race go towards your total, so avoiding hazards and not getting hit become of prime importance. The karts and outfits are purely cosmetic and don’t influence the performance of your vehicles, but other unlockables – such as different gate types or special environments – add more variety to proceedings and extend the game’s longevity. Later, you even obtain the ability to play the game in mirror mode, which is as challenging as it sounds.
While Mario Kart Live certainly captures the spirit of what makes the mainline games so compelling and enjoyable, there are elements which make it stand apart – in both good and bad ways. Because you design the track yourself rather than Nintendo’s team of crack coders, not every circuit you concoct is going to be up to the same standards as those witnessed in other Mario Kart outings. This might not necessarily be your fault, as you’re almost certainly going to be limited in your creative endeavours by the size of the room you’re playing in, but it’s fair to say that, while racing around a real-world location is exhilarating, it’s harder than you might imagine to come up with a course that has the right mix of tight bends and fast-paced straights.
However, therein lies a lot of Mario Kart Live’s appeal; just as building Labo kits is at least 50 percent of the fun, painstakingly designing the perfect Mario Kart course like a Mushroom Kingdom Hermann Tilke is also a jolly good time – especially if you’ve got kids or a younger sibling involved. Tweaking the circuit mid-race is possible to a degree, so the track evolves as you play and discover its weaknesses (or accentuate its best bits). Players are encouraged to add trackside obstacles such as cardboard boxes and the like, which lends the experience even more challenge – although it’s worth noting that the game can’t actually ‘see’ those elements, so it’s not unusual for the Koopalings to cut corners you can’t because they’re not impeded by those massive shoeboxes you’ve littered around the sides of the track. Even so, it’s all part of the challenge – and while not everyone is a fan of Mario Kart’s rubber-band AI system, it works well enough here; you never feel like you’re running away with the race, while massive crashes don’t necessarily means you’ll never catch the lead car (and that’s important given that there’s no Lakitu to pick you up should you spin off the sides of the course – you have to manually return to the track).
There’s plenty of enjoyment to be had here simply creating new courses and experimenting with your designs, but we’d imagine that Mario Live Live’s true longevity lies in its multiplayer potential – which we haven’t been able to test at present, as we’ve only been sent a single car for review (we’ll be updating this review and adding a score once we’ve fully explored its multiplayer potential post-launch).
Even with just one car, there’s still the opportunity for a little bit of human competition, as the Time Trial mode allows you to race against the ghost data of a fellow human, but it’s not exactly a replacement for the thrill of actually going wheel-to-wheel with another player (the game supports up to four players at the same time, which naturally requires four RC cars and four Switch consoles, too). That’s worth keeping in mind if your budget only stretches to a single RC car, although there’s nothing stopping you arranging multiplayer meets with friends who own their own RC cars. You can mix and match any combination of Mario or Luigi karts, as well.
As much fun as Mario Kart Live definitely is, it does fall foul of the same issues that limit Labo’s long-term enjoyment. Being able to create bespoke tracks means that hypothetically, you’ve got an infinite number of courses at your disposal. However, you’re always going to be limited by your environment (room size, distance from the wireless router, etc) and because you can’t add massive, sweeping hills or anything like that, the tracks never feel quite as unique as those in other Mario Kart game (with the possible exception of the SNES original and Mario Kart Super Circuit, of course). Actually setting up a game of Mario Kart Live is more time-consuming that a typical race in Mario Kart 8, too, which means that, like Labo, you’re less likely to pick this up for short gameplay sessions. Factor in the lack of online and you could argue that Mario Kart Live’s long-term appeal is damaged further – although the game is clearly intended to be an experience that’s enjoyed locally rather than over the web. Still, comparing this to what has gone before is perhaps a little churlish, as Mario Kart Live is intended to represent a whole new way to enjoy this esteemed franchise.