Mario Kart Live: Home Circuit is not a traditional Mario Kart title by any stretch of the imagination. While it features most of the trappings of a traditional Mario Kart game– underwater levels, shell tosses, and even power-sliding — it all comes with the strange caveat that you’re in control of how the races play out, with Nintendo only building on what you’ve created. And while making your own Mario Kart game from scratch certainly sounds enticing — limited space, price of entry, and made-up invisible rules may leave you yearning for a more traditional entry into the Mario Kart series.
First off, let’s start with what exactly this game is, and what’s needed to play it. The Mario Kart Live: Home Circuit bundle will set you back $100 dollars, and comes with either a Mario or Luigi Kart (not both), four gates, and 2 arrow signs. The software itself is free to download on your Nintendo Switch. You use the karts’ internal cameras to scan a QR code on your Switch, which then pairs it. Only one Nintendo Switch can control a kart, which means playing with the max number of 3 friends requires each of them to have their own Nintendo Switch or Switch Lite and $100 kart.
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The gameplay itself boils down to a mix of creating a course using the included cardboard signs and gates — if you’re getting Nintendo LABO vibes you’re not alone — and then racing your remote controlled kart through them. But instead of watching your kart directly, you’re looking at your Nintendo Switch or TV screen in an over-the-shoulder camera view which is mounted on the back of the physical kart. Of the biggest differences between a traditional Mario Kart game and this one, the viewing angle is the most jarring. You’re almost playing in first-person now, and while I never got a chance to play the game myself, power-sliding definitely seems like it will take a bit of getting used to, mainly because we’re used to being able to see our entire kart opposed to just the front section. Spotting racers around you will also take quite a hit, as well as being able to see items being hurled at your backside. In fact, it was confirmed that you cannot drag bananas or shells behind you for defense, and that you’ll have to drop them at the right time to use them effectively. Dragging banana peels behind your kart has pretty much always been a mainstay of these main series, so it’s strange, and a little disappointing to see this idea dropped for no apparent reason.
Creating a race is as simple or complicated as you want it to be. You’re given four gates, all of which must be used, and in traditional Mario Kart fashion, every course must end where it began. After you’ve constructed your course, Lakitu will then paint your tires, and you can drive your course, adding loops and curves as you see fit, as long as you go through each gate. The kicker here is, there’s actually nothing here preventing you from going off course or following these rules. Your only goal is to go through each gate in order, and it’s the honor system alone that dictates whether or not you or your friends actually follow the full course you designed. This also allows you to easily dupe AI controlled racers, as you can build a simple course with complicated made-up loops that they would have to follow, while you just take the shortest path possible each time. I won’t tell if you don’t.
Getting creative with making your own courses is up to your imagination and physical space, but the game does do a few things to mix it up on its end. If you haven’t guessed by now, you’re making the course for the Grand Prixs, but the game will alter the effects and conditions of the course three times to make up a Grand Prix Cup. It may be rainy at one moment or completely underwater the next. Fireballs may shoot from the floor, leaving lava puddles in their wake that you and your friends will have to avoid. We even saw a fun 8-bit level that gets littered with goombas you can accidentally run into. Alongside environment effects are gate effects. Driving through a gate could alter your driving experience, from providing a mundane item drop to throwing you into mirror mode midrace. So yes, playing through the Grand Prix is just playing through the same course over and over (unless you get up and physically change it yourself) but it’s interesting to see what environmental and gate changes can occur to offer variance.
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There is an end-goal however, as playing through the Grand Prix is what unlocks your ability to customize your courses even further. You’ll begin with a pretty basic toolset, but as you overcome the various effects and obstacles, you’ll then unlock them to then be able to add them to your own custom races. You’ll also find coins scattered throughout the courses which unlock purely cosmetic but hopelessly adorable karts, skins, and horns.
I’d also be remiss to not mention the impressive tech that’s on display here. The karts do physically react to what is happening in-game. Getting hit by a shell will cause your kart to actually come to a stop, with the opposite happening when using a mushroom. Driving through a dust storm will make your kart sway in real life and you’ll have to battle those conditions in-game. And yes, a kart driving at 200cc is dramatically faster than a kart running in 50cc. But these are things you’ll need to account for in the real world. Nintendo recommends at least a 10-12 foot space to handle 150cc ideally, mainly because at higher speeds, you can’t take corners as tight as you could in lower speeds. If you don’t have that space in your house, then it may be tough as Nintendo was vehemently against the thought of outside play.
In all, Mario Kart Live: Home Circuit may be the most expensive way to play pretend I’ve ever seen. The tech on display is incredibly cool, and I actually can’t wait to see what my living room looks like completely underwater. But like all augmented reality games, it’s incredibly dependent on the space you have available. And of course as a toys-to-life mixed reality game, let’s also not forget that you’re looking at a $400 price tag to be able to fully race with friends, as the game offers nothing in the way of online support. But with a number of ways to build and design a course specific to your wants and needs, Mario Kart Live: Home Circuit does indeed seem to offer some great fun – if you’ve got the space and the creative inspiration.
Mark Medina is an Editorial Producer at IGN. You can follow him on Twitter @Mark_Medina.