Game Reviews

Mario Kart Live: Home Circuit Review

by Kyle Hanson

Remember when you were a young kid playing with an RC car or Hot Wheels in your room? Remember how your imagination ran wild, picturing race tracks with loops, twists, and turns all on your plain old floor? Those days may be long gone, but with Mario Kart Live: Home Circuit they can be back and in a big way. The game uses some truly impressive augmented reality (AR) technology to put a Mario Kart track right in your house. But once the shine of a new novelty wears off, is there still a solid Mario Kart game to be found here?

Watching the announcement trailer for Mario Kart Live: Home Circuit brought out my inner skeptic more than even the loftiest of gaming reveals. An RC car that’s controlled by the Switch makes sense, but it showed off some really insane AR features that I just didn’t believe would work in the real world. Now, after almost a week spent with the game I can say that my skepticism was mostly unwarranted. Mario Kart Live: Home Circuit delivers what it promises, with only the slightest of caveats to mention.

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Opening up the Mario Kart Live: Home Circuit box may be a bit intimidating. The kart rests inside, but so does a bunch of cardboard that will likely take you longer than you think to get out and set up. Pairing the kart to your Switch and downloadable game is as easy as scanning a QR code, but now the hard part begins. Four gates are the key to crafting the biggest and best Mario Kart track you can imagine, with the game recognizing the numbered arches and using them as checkpoints along the track. So your first task is to locate a somewhat large open space to build this all first.

Setting up the four gates and the turn arrows, all of which are included and can have replacements printed if necessary, takes some time and effort. The kart will work on most surfaces, including carpets, but can have trouble with changing floors or real-world obstructions. The Switch can stay connected to the kart over larger open areas, but I’ve had issues when my tracks steer around larger furniture or under tables. A stuttering video feed has led to a few crashes, so now I try to keep the tracks more contained and open than I might have liked.

Mario Kart Live: Home Circuit delivers what it promises

But for the most part that video feed remains solid, streaming a live view of my house from a tiny remote controlled kart’s perspective. This alone is really cool and is a truly enjoyable use of AR tech that takes the experience of Mario Kart Live: Home Circuit to a different level than any other racer out there. However, once it starts layering in-game elements on top of the real world environment the game takes on a whole new life and offers up its most impressive innovations.

Each gate can be customized, layering on different themes and abilities such as a magnet or boost. The arrows that you litter around your track are immediately recognized and highlighted, adding to the immersion. Enemy racers take the form of the Koopalings and will quickly fill your screen with their karts and weapons. This can get overwhelming at times, especially when the items are flying, but even after hours with the game it’s still fun to watch in action.

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Racing around the track feels much the same as a normal Mario Kart race, to the game’s great credit. Using or being hit by items will affect your actual real-world kart, pausing it or speeding it up as the situation warrants. Watching your kart speed up when you use a mushroom or get jerked along the track when you trigger a Chain Chomp is endlessly entertaining. There is a drift mechanic as well, but it does suffer in the transition, mostly acting as a slow turn rather than a real drift. These drawbacks are understandable and permissable though, given the effectiveness of the novelty on display here. I hate to call the AR implementation a novelty or gimmick, as that feels like it cheapens the tech, but that is what it ends up feeling like after a while.

Setting up your track takes a while, drawing the map out for the game by driving through the four gates. Once it’s set though, that’s it, there’s no saving the track for reuse later, or adding second or third courses to run through. So entering a Grand Prix style race wears out its welcome pretty quickly, even with the amazing work done to layer new themes on top of the courses. After you run through the race a couple of times you then have to ask yourself if you want to do the setup process again to start a new race, or just pack it up and call it a day. Even though repeated play unlocks new difficulty levels, themes, and Mario costumes, many will choose the latter, unfortunately.

There are many areas in which Mario Kart Live: Home Circuit could be improved, if the tech can work it out. For instance, once you set up the gates and create a track it feels like you should be able to save the configuration. If that didn’t work, how about a multi-track setup process, where you put the gates down and drive through them in different ways to craft multiple tracks at one time. Also, adding the ability to create tracks with a definitive start and end point would be great, allowing for more options and expanded play spaces. All of this would have made the game feel more like a true entry in the venerated series, rather than a fun side project.

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In case it wasn’t obvious already, Mario Kart Live: Home Circuit won’t be replacing Mario Kart 8 Deluxe on your Switch any time soon. It’s not trying to, of course, instead just adding a new way to experience the series in your real world home. And at that it succeeds to a surprising degree. The game works great and adds a lot of cool things to increase immersion and make the game come alive. But those benefits do come at a cost.

Setup is a roadblock, with already a few moments where I wanted to play but decided not to because pulling out the cardboard gates and getting it all running seemed like too much. The tech works better than I imagined, but some flaws still remain, including video stream issues that cause real problems during play. And overall the game just doesn’t hold up beyond 30 minute sessions of play (though the kart’s battery life goes well beyond this). Still, those 30 minutes will be more fun and unique than almost any you’ve had with other video games, even in the AR space.

The Verdict

Mario Kart Live: Home Circuit is a gleefully successful experiment for Nintendo and Velan Studios. The AR tech on display here is breathtaking and delivers on the promise of what this game could be, though some minor elements hold it back from exceeding expectations. Instead what we end up with is a fantastic toy in all the right ways. In fact, the most fun you’re likely to have is when you put the game elements aside and just race around the house, viewing it through the augmented reality of the Switch screen and skipping the actual racing mechanics. With a few tweeks here and there this could be a must-have accessory, but for now it’s a fascinating novelty that anyone with young children or an interest in new tech should experience for themselves.

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Mario Kart Live: Home Circuit

  • Available On: Nintendo Switch
  • Published By: Nintendo
  • Developed By: Velan Studios
  • Genre: Augmented Reality Racing
  • US Release Date: October 16th, 2020
  • Reviewed On: Nintendo Switch
  • Quote: "Mario Kart Live: Home Circuit is a gleefully successful experiment for Nintendo and Velan Studios...though some minor elements hold it back from exceeding expectations."
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