In a year, Nintendo would have demoed, in person, Mario Kart Live: Home Circuit. The company would have invited select members of the press into some rented event space and let us experience the game first-hand, like it had with Labo and Ring Fit Adventures. It’s 2020, however, and that’s just not how we do things.
Watching someone else play an RC game over teleconference software is not ideal. But it’s nothing if not extremely of the moment. And more importantly, it’s probably a testament to what Nintendo has built here that it translates so well with a less than ideal setup. Granted, I won’t feel comfortable offering a proper review until I’ve played the game on my Switch, but I can confidently say that Mario Kart Live makes for one hell of an impressive demo.
Like the recently released Mario Lego sets, this is the kind of toy that makes me jealous of kids today. It also, frankly, bums me out that I don’t have more space at home to lay out a track. I’ve heard it was a buyer’s market, so maybe I’ll go buy a house. Whatever the case, bringing Mario to a real-world RC car is one of those no-brainer ideas, and the execution looks great.
The game also finds Nintendo embracing augmented reality in a really convincing and clever way. We’ve seen some AR from the company, most notably in the form of Pokémon GO — which, to be fair, was more of a Niantic joint and, as plenty will happily point out, not really proper AR. And like that title, Nintendo worked closely with a third party. In this case, it’s the New York-state based Velan Studios, which was started by brothers Guha and Karthik Bala who also founded Vicarious Visions, an Albany-based game developer now owned by Activision.
“It started as an experiment by a small team at Velan,” the startup said in a blog post today. “Like many prototypes, the main goal was to “find the fun”. We built an RC car by kitbashing together drone parts, cameras, and sensors to create a unique third–person view driving experience. It gave us the exhilaration of speed and allowed us to see the world from a totally different perspective.”
The execution of Mario Kart Live is a perfect bit of synergy in that it leverages the Switch to really bring the whole thing to life — in a manner similar to what the company has already done with Labo and Ring Fit. Of course, much or most of the real magic here comes courtesy of the racer. Currently limited to Mario and Luigi (no word yet on additional characters), the cars feature both a camera for FPV on the Switch and all of the requisite sensors.
Nintendo declined to answer specific questions about the on-board sensors and other hardware, but one assumes depth-sensing plays a big role here. There’s no calibration out of the box. You can pretty much start it up and start driving around. Once you actually unfold and set up the three gates to create the circular course, however, that will require some driving to generate the lay of the land. Nintendo’s employed a clever graphic for that, with Lakitu dropping a bucket of paint the character drives over and tracks with his wheels.
The game also employs some clever physics, with game action impacting speed and steering. There’s a range of top speeds, from 50 to 200 cc. A demo stripped of AR shows how in-game elements impact the actual kart speed. Other elements, like the sudden occasional sand storm, cause the kart to drift to the sides. The game will also react, if, say, you crash it into a table leg — sending coins flying just as it would in a Mario Kart game.
On that note, the company tells me that the karts are quite robust, with a bumper that’s essentially designed to run into stuff. That shouldn’t cause any damage, given the top speeds here. Though the company notes that if, say, a heavy book falls on top of the kart after it jostled it loose from a shelf, that could ultimately be an issue. Nintendo says there will be a way to repair the karts, but offered no specifics on warranty.
Races can be played with up to four, though a kart is required to play. In fact, the actual game will be free to download from the Nintendo store, but is essentially worthless without a kart. Until that’s set up, the only thing you’ll be able to access is a game trailer. At the moment, the in-game opponents are just the Koopalings.
Like the karts themselves, however, it seems likely — or even certain — that the company will introduce additional characters down the road. Perhaps we can look for expansions along the lines of what the company has done with Smash Bros. Also, like Mario Maker, you can customize both your character and car for the in-game FPV AR overlays (though these won’t be visible to other players).
Mario Kart Live: Home Circuit arrives October 16, priced at $100 a kart. You’ll need either a Switch or Switch Lite to play.