There are moments in some games that instantly bring a smile to my face, transporting me back to my childhood while the rest of the world melts into the background. That’s what taking control of Mario Kart Live: Home Circuit’s augmented reality RC kart for the first time felt like. The joy of driving around my living space from a worm’s-eye view while familiar Mario characters zoom by and Koopa Shells fly across the screen is refreshingly different – at least when everything is running smoothly. All too often, frustrating technical limitations can throw a banana peel into the works.
Mario Kart Live is a wild hybrid mix of a traditional Mario Kart video game and a physical, remote-controlled toy. You use your Switch to control an actual RC car around tracks you set up in your own home, viewing the action through the car’s camera. Each course is made by placing the four included cardboard gates (no more, no less) which the camera on the car reads as you go through each one in order, but any additional loops and turns you take along the way are entirely up to you. An augmented version of that camera feed is displayed on the Switch itself, overlaying 3D item boxes, opposing AI racers, and all the other things you might expect from a regular Mario Kart game. It’s incredibly novel, though not always as smooth as that sounds.
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House Turned Racetrack
Setting up Mario Kart Live for the first time is a delightfully simple process. All you have to do is point the kart’s camera toward a QR code on your screen, spend some time learning its controls, and set up the cardboard gates. This tutorial phase takes just a few moments, but I found myself taking my time with each step – not because I needed more driving practice, but because it was so freaking cool to zip Mario around my living room, through my kitchen, and under my sofa as my cat playfully followed this strange new device. It’s genuinely magical even before you set up your first real course.
Bringing a race track to life requires an ample amount of space and has some restrictions in order to maintain a good connection. Nintendo recommends a room of 15 x 15 max and 10 x 12 for 150 CC speed with the kart never going more than five meters away from your Switch. The console and kart are connected through Wi-Fi, so if you have slow internet speeds you could run into problems.
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That said, most of the connection issues I had were limited to being too far from the Switch – or one time from having the course gates separated by walls, which Nintendo does not recommend doing for this very reason. Occasionally the framerate could drop while at long distances, and I had a few anomalies where the on-screen gameplay would halt and then skip ahead to where the real-life kart actually was. These issues weren’t common enough to be a major concern, but when they did happen it served as a harsh reminder of the practical limitations of this otherwise impressive technology.
The Space Race
I’m fortunate enough to have a pretty spacious communal area in my apartment which gave me a lot of options for setting up different tracks. When pushing Mario Kart Live to its absolute limits, I was able to create a course that was 112 feet long – though some frame drops did occur since I had it weaving around my open living room and kitchen space as well as the adjacent hallway.
My favorite course was 80 feet long and had a figure-eight design that went from the living room to the kitchen, looped around the island, went behind the sofa, and finally cut behind the couch to close the loop. It was fun to drive, though it wasn’t just the layout that left me beaming but all the extras I decorated it with. I made it a Halloween-themed course with pumpkins, ghosts, candy, and plastic cups meaningfully placed throughout for a manageably chaotic challenge. And when combined with all the in-game magic of Rainbow Road-style ring boosts and Piranha plant infested gates it was a thrill to drive through.
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On the opposite end of the spectrum was the track I made in my admittedly large but extremely crowded with furniture bedroom. In contrast to the more spacious living room, there was only a small perimeter around the two desks in this room where a track could fit. This 36-foot track did work, but it also left zero options for course variation and additional real-life obstacles. If I was stuck with only this smaller space for where I could play, I don’t imagine I would enjoy Mario Kart Live much at all.
My fondest memories playing were only possible when I had enough room to embrace Nintendo and developer Velan Studios’ invitation to get creative. The gameplay systems they built into the digital part of Mario Kart Live met my own imagination halfway, and this collaboration turned otherwise simple courses into something I loved making and racing on as an adult – and would’ve absolutely adored as a kid.
Course Design Meets Game Design
While course design played a crucial role in the fun I had with Mario Kart Live, it would be doing it a disservice to say my enjoyment was limited to that process alone. Unlike Nintendo’s cardboard Labo kits, the fun isn’t primarily bound to the process of building – instead, it begins with it.
Course building is a labor of love and the fruits of that labor are cool custom tracks you then get to race on. But keep in mind that I failed at making fun courses a lot before making one I wanted to drive again and again. I made the turns too tight to take; I left fabric on the floor that was hard to avoid and even harder to back out of; I made course loops that were too hard for the kart’s camera to read, causing my laps not to register at all; I put too many real world items on the course, or I didn’t put enough.
While there’s some helpful info in the menus, Mario Kart Live offers little guidance in creating courses or considering the real-world issues players may run into. I didn’t mind troubleshooting this on my own, and I imagine inundating players with too many hand-holding guidelines would be off-putting in its own way, but being left to figure it out for yourself can be frustrating at times – especially when Nintendo proved it can do creativity-based level design tutorials so well in Super Mario Maker 2.
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Once your designs are complete, beating your digital AI opponents isn’t too hard on its own. It can be trickier when you’ve made a course that gives you a proper challenge, but it doesn’t feel great to put yourself at an intentional disadvantage just to make things interesting – even if it’s more about having fun than winning, who doesn’t want to win? This is where local multiplayer might shine, but Nintendo only provided one kart for this review so I didn’t have a chance to try PvP out as there’s no online play. At $100 per kart and the need for player two (and potentially three and four) to have their own Nintendo Switch, that makes playing multiplayer a huge investment.
My Apartment Grand Prix
Following in the footsteps of past Mario Kart games, Mario Kart Live has 8 different cups to complete. Like Mario Kart 8 Deluxe, all cups are unlocked from the beginning, which makes sense when every course is designed by you to begin with. You can even use the same setup for every grand prix, but each cup and course still manages to have a distinct flavor and style determined by the different weather conditions, gate types, and iconic songs that are added in-game.
Tracks like World 1-1 were bizarre futuristic nostalgia trips littered with 8-bit Goomba obstacles that I welcomed with open arms (and often with my front wheels). And Magikoopa Mirage stands out as an absolute favorite with Kamek swooping down to turn everything into Mirror Mode. It was wonderfully disorienting to drive through a reflection of my own home, and clever gimmicks like this helped make a single room feel far more varied.
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However, other track concepts fell short. For example, Freezie Frost is littered with so many Freezies they felt more like an inevitable halt to the action rather than a thrilling thing to dodge. The wind-based courses were bittersweet as well – while I loved the added challenge of being pushed left or right along the track, and found it technologically impressive, it kind of sucked to be potentially thrown into real-world objects when my AI opponents never ran that same crash risk.
Attempts to bring back old favorites like Rainbow Road also felt limited by the mixed reality setting. The iconic (and often deadly) boosts were scattered throughout, but it’s hard to imagine something that could capture the sweat-inducing leaps, impossibly tight turns, and glitzy presentation I’ve come to associate with every past iteration of the course.
The RC kart itself controls incredibly well. It’s not quite a one-to-one with the smoothness of traditional Mario Kart games (to be fair, it actually has to obey the laws of physics), but it’s easy to forget this is a real, physical kart when zooming through a level while looking at your screen.
The fact that you can execute the iconic Mario Kart drift is a pleasant surprise, a clever trick made possible by having your on-screen kart be a digital representation of the physical one. The strength of your boost is even determined by the amount of time you drift as usual, but complex courses crammed into a smaller living space could mean a big boost of speed can easily backfire. I often found it easier to skip drifting, while normally I’d be looking for every opportunity to do it.
Since Mario Kart Live doesn’t come with a real, living Lakitu to pick you up when you spin out (what a shame), avoiding crashes is usually more beneficial than going as fast as possible. I admit, it’s a bit disappointing to lose that part of Mario Kart’s usual depth, but it didn’t stop me from having fun and feeling challenged on a properly built track.
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What Nintendo and Velan have accomplished here is impressive, though some power-ups don’t translate quite as well to an AR format. Throwing digital Koopa Shells and dropping banana peels behaves as you’d expect, but the Bullet Bill item automatically driving you along the course isn’t much help if it steers you straight into a furniture leg. Likewise, smart steering will automatically guide you along the center of the course but since it can’t account for physical objects this aid to novice players isn’t as useful as it initially sounds.
In addition to those classic power-ups that make Mario Kart Live feel right at home among other entries in the franchise, new ones like P Switches have been drawn from other Mario sources. This addition in particular fits right in as a great way to let players rack up coins, which are used to increase speed on the course and unlock cosmetics between races.
Earning trophies through grand prixs will give you new radio stations, gate types, and weather conditions to use when designing your own custom courses too. The faster 150 CC and 200 CC modes are also locked behind getting five and 10 cup trophies, respectively, which are the most enticing reward offered. They increase the speed of the physical kart itself, which unfortunately means they’re practicality is tethered to the space you have available. If you’re making a small course with tighter turns, you’ll need to knock it down to as low as 50 CC, but more spacious courses can take full advantage of the breakneck speeds.
Time trial mode adds an additional competitive angle. It lets you play against your own ghost to try and beat your time, or pass your Switch or controller to a friend and challenge them to beat it instead. This can be a cool hack to create an element of multiplayer with only one kart, but it still wasn’t as interesting as just doing a grand prix against AI drivers. Plus, once you put the gates away for the day, it’s unlikely you’d be able to replicate the exact same course again.
The biggest drawback of Mario Kart Live in my experience has been the maintenance. I’ll admit that I don’t sweep or mop my floors enough, but between my hair, my roomates’ hair, and my cats’ hair, the kart’s wheels have quickly become visibly dirty and, more importantly, clogged by strands.
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The kart is relatively small and weighs only half a pound. Only the front wheels pivot to let you steer, but after just a few hours of play turning became a real challenge. I had to remove the rubber tires and painstakingly pull the hair strands out with tweezers to get it to function smoothly again. But after this pitstop and a swift sweep of my apartment, I was back on the road (at least for a while). It’s hard to expect much better from a kart like this, but it is a notable drawback in terms of playing Mario Kart Live in real-world conditions. And as cool as it is to drive under the sofa, I’ve stopped doing it altogether to avoid the risk of any additional debris.
As for battery life, the kart charges with a provided USB-C cable – the same kind that powers your Nintendo Switch console. The battery lasts a few hours and takes a good while to become fully charged when dead. But it’s a decent battery length even out of the box, and as long as I charged it between play sessions it didn’t impede my racing prospects.
There are some other limitations I ran into that are worth taking note of. For starters, the kart can’t handle elevation well, so you’re limited to driving on a flat floor. Nintendo claims it can be driven on carpet, and while I can’t test that out on my hardwood floor, I can confirm that moving from floor to rug is a no go (that may be due to the slightly elevated bump between them, but it didn’t work well regardless).
Another small nuisance is the fact that you need to weigh down the cardboard gates – crashing into them can otherwise make them spin out and potentially render your course undrivable since it uses the gates as AR markers to keep track of the layout. If you don’t hit the gates you can get away with a lazier setup, but having done it a few times I can say I don’t recommend leaving them unweighted.
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So while making courses is a blast, it’s also cumbersome and time-consuming. Whether or not needing to set up and tear down courses every time you play is a positive or negative will be entirely dependent on how much energy you’re willing to exert and how much of an inconvenience you find it to race behind your housemates’ ankles while they do dishes. Three-fourths of my housemates are gamers, and all four understand my job/interest in games, so it thankfully didn’t bother any of us. But this could easily be a point of frustration in some households, especially in a smaller space – and doubly so since Mario Kart Live can’t be played outside if don’t have Wi-Fi outdoors (and Nintendo doesn’t recommend it even if you do).