Mario Kart Live Review: A Blazing Trail Of AR Accomplishment

Mario Kart Live: Home Circuit is an ambitious attempt to bring the fabled racing series into your home, pairing a physical, camera-equipped RC kart with an AR-powered Nintendo Switch game. But does the game get take first place or stall at the starting line? Here’s our Mario Kart Live: Home Circuit Review.

Mario Kart Live’s premise is crazy, almost too crazy to be pulled off reliably — it’s a physical Mario Kart RC, controlled by a Nintendo Switch, which then displays the kart’s POV with a camera that’s mounted on top. As if that weren’t enough, the game overlays graphics onto the camera view to present an AR experience capable of fully recreating the Mario Kart experience. The catch is that courses are designed by you, and you race through your own home.

It may sound too good to be true, but for the most part it’s not. Mario Kart Live works incredibly well most of the time, provided you have the right setup for it. It’s a barrel of fun and has all the bells and whistles of a normal Mario Kart game — nothing is left behind here. It’s Mario Kart as you know it, except with your own custom AR courses mapped however you like across your home.

What you quickly realize is that there’s just as much fun in creating your courses as there is in playing them — you can make a course any shape, any size and decorate it with household items. It’s amazing to watch a game that’s as iconic as Mario Kart be played out around you, surrounded by a course made up of your own possessions.

The pairing process is quick and easy, and within minutes I was laying out the bones for wacky courses around my coffee table, peppered with household decorations for good effect. One night, I even went all out and set up disco lighting around a course peppered with game controls sitting at camera’s eye-level for decoration. The results you can get from being a bit creative, even before properly playing the game, are impressive.

What’s included

In the box is one Mario or Luigi kart, a small USB-C to USB-A charging cable, two cardboard direction indicators (that come to life with AR, animated to indicate a sharp turn up ahead) and four collapsible cardboard gates, which you’ll use to mark out your course. You can place the cardboard gates anywhere you want, provided it’s within the signal range, but you’ll need to use furniture or heavy items to hold them in place. Even just a small nudge that misplaces them slightly can throw off the AR tracking.

You’ll also need a Nintendo Switch or Nintendo Switch Lite console, which is not included. There’s no way to control or connect to the Kart without a Switch and the accompanying Mario Kart Live software from the eshop, which is free to download.

AR Technical Stuff

In terms of the technical side of things, the AR technology works better than expected and is overall pretty good, with a few nitpicks. Given we’re talking about a Nintendo Switch paired with a physical, camera-equipped Mario Kart, it’s a remarkably impressive use of custom AR technology. It certainly works better, and is more fun, than any other AR game I’ve personally tried.

Before starting a race, you drive your kart through each gate to create a course, which is then displayed on the floor as an AR overlay. Plus, despite all races taking place in real life, Mario Kart Live uses AR to theme each race in a similar manner to traditional Mario Kart games. Each race has AR overlays that appear on the gates and are peppered over the racing track itself, with an impressive amount of AR assets and obstacles for each theme.

For the nostalgic World 1-1 track, for example, the gates are appropriately themed in the colors and pixelated style of Mario’s first ever 1-1 level, as pictured above. You even have to dodge 2D pixelated Goombas that move across the track.

However, there’s a lot more at risk here — if you bump into a Goomba, you risk veering off course and bumping into furniture, which can really set you back. The use of physical karts really points out how much work the regular Mario Kart games do to catch players up when they get sidelined.

Speaking of furniture, there’s no AR occlusion either, which means that real-life obstacles you place around or in the middle of your course might look odd in-game at times. For example, when I used a footstool in the middle of a course to act as an obstacle to loop around, there was no AR occlusion for the AI enemies, so they don’t disappear when they move behind it.

Gameplay

Let’s get one thing straight — this may be a toy, but it definitely isn’t a simplified version of Mario Kart. Mario Kart Live has almost all the features of the series’ mainline games, except it’s in your living room. There are all the staples like items, environmental obstacles and, of course, absolute chaos. When playing single player with just one physical kart, you can play in a Grand Prix mode against four AI Koopalings, or you can do a Custom Race mode where you can pick the theme and customize each gate.

The physical kart is well built and seems sturdy enough to take some wear and tear. This is a good thing, because you will bump into every piece of furniture in the house. It has a remarkably tight turning circle that matches the feel of existing Mario Kart games, and while it’s not particularly fast in real life, it feels it in-game.

The kart also reacts to in-game events — if you use a mushroom in-game, your kart will speed up in real life. If you get hit by a shell, the physical kart will stop in its tracks too. Surprisingly, the kart can even drift, which will give you a speed boost, as you would expect. Technically the real kart doesn’t actually ‘drift’ — it just slows down and does a very tight turn — but in-game your avatar will adjust to a drifting position, which is an effect that works really well.

There’s a fairly decent, if expectedly shallow, progression system in Mario Kart Live that sees coins collected from races go towards unlockable cosmetics and rewards for your karts. There’s kart skins, Mario/Luigi costumes and kart horns. Plus, the 150cc and 200cc modes are initially locked — you’ll have to win a few trophies in the Grand Prix mode to unlock them.

Multiplayer

Of course, the big multiplayer draw is playing with two physical karts in a local multiplayer race. Sadly, I only received one review unit so I can’t comment on how well it works or how fun it is, but other UploadVR staff members who bought two units remarked that it worked well enough for them without any major problems.

There is also a time trial mode that will let you pass the control between players and take turns to see who gets the best time on your course, but let’s be honest — two karts will be where the real multiplayer is at.

Connectivity, Reliability and Areas of Play

For the most part, in good conditions, I found that the connection and reliability of the game was pretty remarkable. I did experience some lag in certain sections of my living room, but after some testing it seems that this is specifically a quirk with my playing space. When the Switch is positioned slightly above ground, within 5m of the kart and with good line of sight to all areas of the track, I had no problems.

It’s worth noting that the connection seems to be between your Switch and the kart, and the position of your wi-fi router is (mostly) irrelevant. It doesn’t matter if the router is in another room without line of sight, as long as the Switch and the kart are in the same play area, you should be good to go. I was even able to take the Switch and kart out to my garage and play reliably in there, despite being ages (and several walls) away from my router.

When it comes to the size of your play space, obviously the bigger the better. The amount of space you have will affect your experience, but you can make do with an area that’s relatively small. Nintendo recommends at least 3 x 3.5m, which is around what I had, and it felt a little cramped but still worked fine.

You also don’t need smooth floors — the kart works just as well on short carpet.

Nintendo says the kart is for indoor use only so, naturally, I ignored their warnings and tried it outside anyway. Sadly, the warning isn’t just for safety purposes — the AR camera must be calibrated for indoor light, because the kart’s surroundings showed up as an over-exposed white mess in-game when used in bright light outdoors. This doesn’t just affect the picture quality either — the over-exposure means that the game can’t pick up the diagrams and markings needed to recognize each gate, so you can’t plot a track or take part in any races.

In more overcast weather you might get away with it, but don’t expect to be setting up outdoor races anytime soon.

Mario Kart Live: Home Circuit Review – Final Thoughts

Mario Kart Live: Home Circuit is an amazing achievement — it’s an application of AR technology that seems too good to be true, but actually makes good on its promises. It works incredibly well, but more importantly, it’s so much fun to play. There are times where you might experience the odd glitch or connection interruption, resulting in lag, but those don’t get in the way of just how amazing the whole kit is. It’s nothing short of astonishing that Nintendo has invented a toy that lets you race a physical Mario Kart around your house in an AR-supplemented version of Mario Kart with all the gameplay bells and whistles you would expect. The odd technical glitch is far outweighed by the impressive technical achievements.

Mario Kart Live takes a concept you know and love, and makes you think about it in a new way. The races are fantastic, but there’s just as much fun to be found before you even get to the start line. The game gives you the power to make and decorate your own Mario Kart race tracks, and that unlocks the kid inside of you, no matter your age.

 

For more on how we arrive at our scores, check out our review guidelines.

Mario Kart Live: Home Circuit is available now for Nintendo Switch for $99. 

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