|Dev: Velan Studios|
|Release: October 16, 2020|
|Players: 1-4 Player|
|Screen Resolution: 1080p-4K||Mild Cartoon Violence|
by Jenni Lada
Know what’s fun? When Nintendo decides to do something crazy. Like this is a company that gets wild sometimes. Which gives us stuff like the Power Glove, R.O.B., the eReader, and the DK Bongos. (That leads to things like people playing Dark Souls and Super Smash Bros. Ultimate with DK Bongos.) Since the Nintendo Switch is its newest darling, that means more experimental stuff. Like the last reach was the Labo line of toys, which led to pianos, robot costumes, and VR experiences. Now, we have Mario Kart Live: Home Circuit and yet another delightful, albeit not entirely perfect, experience.
Before we can get into how Mario Kart Live: Home Circuit plays (like Mario Kart) and works (surprisingly well, in the right circumstances), this is the sort of item that really needs to be explained. The short explanation is, it turns the Switch into a controller for a remote control car with a camera on it that can be used in free-roaming and a game mode. The more complicated take is that it lets you, within reason, turn an indoor space into an actual Mario Kart race track. So the course you see on-screen adds augmented reality elements that implement things from your home, themes from different courses, Koopaling enemies, power-ups, and music from the series into tracks.
The core gameplay is similar to all the Mario Kart games you have known and loved before. Mario (or Luigi, depending on which version you get) is off to the races. In the tutorial, Lakitu walks through crafting your first track, which involves placing gates 1, 2, 3, and 4 in places around your home and initially driving through them in order to create the layout. (You also have two AR arrow pieces, to add for extra ambiance.) After you set up your first course and run it to get the pattern and confirm you can drive the virtual car, Bowser Jr. and the Koopalings show up. They are now your virtual competitors for races, with four randomly showing up for each one when you go against AI opponents in Grand Prix or Custom Race. 50cc, 100cc, 150cc, and 200cc speeds are available, with latter ones unlocked as you succeed. Power ups, like shells, coins, bananas, and Bullet Bills are available. Collecting coins gets you customization items like costumes for Mario and Luigi, different karts, and different horns. Essentially, you go through the eight Cups, each with three tracks, in Grand Prix, go for a top time in Time Trials, race once on your Custom Course, or drive around your home in an Explore mode.
There are a number of little niceties that help make it entertaining. You can set the radio station as you drive, with lots of Mario Kart music available. Mixing and matching costumes is fun. The optional Assist Mode will keep your premade track in mind and help with driving, which is especially handy on 150cc and 200cc. (200cc is wild in Mario Kart Live: Home Circuit—I didn’t expect it to be so fast.) The main screen always shows your battery life, represented by a little gas pump, and the current connection between the system and kart. It was easy to pair, since it involves pointing the kart at a screen or system to read a QR code. Getting set up is rather effortless.
But, the game also very often reminds you of its limitations. I tested Mario Kart Live: Home Circuit in two situations. One was an ordinary home that was primarily carpeted. There was no shagginess to the carpeting, so it was flat, level, and allowed me to make one course that was a large oval and another that was a figure 8 in the living room. Here, the races worked fine. I didn’t have many connection errors, though it did perform best if I was in handheld mode and sort of following the kart around the course, and I was able to actually win races. Times were good. If a connection error did happen, it was only a few moments of lag or jumbled images and the kart would continue on its way.
In a more limited apartment setting, things didn’t work as well. This situation meant actually having the track in an odd shape. Courses would go through the living room and kitchen, with there being a wall between things, many more obstacles, and transitions between short carpet, rugs, and kitchen tile. While it went from the different sorts of floors well, connection issues happened every race and I was lucky if I could get third place. Going above 100cc wouldn’t work well. Turning on the Assist option would often make things worse, as the smaller doorways meant it would catch and I’d slip even lower in the rankings. Though, in both situations batteries drained rather fast and I found myself charging my Kart for about two or three hours after using it for about an hour or so.
But while that particular apartment situation, where I was limited to about a 300 square foot living room that also had a couch, entertainment center, two chairs, a table, and two shelving units, meant for a not great time, Explore mode still worked just as well. In fact, I feel like this free roaming option is when Mario Kart Live: Home Circuit can really be fun. I enjoyed seeing things from Mario’s point of view. I loved exploring and seeing ways I could maximize space in both the bigger and smaller environments, taking advantage of that for the actual raceway preparation. I enjoyed creating hypothetical courses and seeing what could possibly work.
It also meant I could test out the pet situation. As you’ve probably realized from the many accounts online, people are digging seeing how animals react to Mario Kart Live: Home Circuit. In my experiments, I had a cat as an assistant who, honestly, was kind of into it. He followed the kart around. He didn’t try to attack it. When it was paused while I was preparing for a race, he would come up out of nowhere to stare at the camera. It was constantly amusing and I could see it being an unintended bonus. Unfortunately, the game does not allow you to record brief gameplay snippets or screenshots, which means you can’t chronicle your experiences.
Mario Kart Live: Home Circuit feels like a technology and toy that can work in the right conditions. If you have a home with a large living room or an office with some empty space, I could see you having a good time making a constrained course in a single room and racing around. The less space you have and more types of flooring, obstacles, and creativity you employ, the odds increase that you’ll be hit by constant and performance-hampering connection issues. Still, it seems like a step forward for remote control cars and like this could lead to something bigger and better down the road. For now, it’s a novelty that can sometimes feel like the best times come from using it to explore your home.