Mario Kart Live: Home Circuit Almost Justifies the Augmented Reality Rat Race

Mario Kart Live: Home Circuit Almost Justifies the Augmented Reality Rat Race

Nintendo's experiments with AR and Toys-to-Life games don't pay off in full here, but there's still some fun to be had.

I'm not sure which I encountered first—World 4 in Super Mario Bros. 3 or Honey I Shrunk the Kids—but I've had a soft spot for shrunk-down perspectives ever since. God knows how many hours I spent playing Counter-Strike in 24/7 de_rats servers, and half of the appeal for me in games like Katamari Damacy and Skatebird is in seeing tiny things made to look huge.

So, when I started up Mario Kart Live: Home Circuit for the first time and saw my living room from the low-down viewpoint of the tiny RC car, there was an initial jolt of excitement. By controlling a small camera-equipped car with the Switch, you can see your home at floor-level from just over Mario's shoulder. With overlaid animations, other racers, and course elements defined by the placement of cardboard gates, a few minutes of set-up time can get you an experience approximating a typical Mario Kart race set in your own house or apartment.

It's a natural next step for Nintendo's years of dabbling in Augmented Reality [AR], dating back to the card-based games that launched with the 3DS. Home Circuit also makes sense as another way to build on the ways the Switch lends itself to weird peripherals, as seen with Ring Fit Adventure and Nintendo Labo. Unfortunately, I think Home Circuit's demands on floor space, the still-rough nature of AR tech, and the basic single-player mode both speak to a lack of imagination compared to Labo, and will keep it from being a hit anywhere near Ring Fit's level.

The Little Kart That (Mostly) Could

The actual RC car is probably the first thing a user will pull out of a Home Circuit box, and it's suitably impressive and cute. It's built well, looks great, and once you get it set up and driving, it does have some real zip.

I'm not a person who goes in for Amiibo, Funko Pops, or anything like that, so I mean it as a huge compliment when I say I'd be pretty happy to keep this thing on a shelf somewhere, even with the creepy camera poking over Mario's head. The RC car is about as long as a Switch tablet (without Joy-Cons) is wide, and even with the camera up top, it's low-profile enough that I can almost drive the thing under my couch.

A little dusty from zooming under the couch, but still looking sharp. | Mathew Olson/USG

In-game, you can change what your driver (Mario or Luigi, depending on which kit you buy) and kart look like with unlockable cosmetics, which overlay pretty seamlessly on the physical kart. That stuff works very, very well, and has all the style and panache you'd expect from a Nintendo release. While looking at the screen, you can easily buy into the fantasy of little Mario zooming past your feet and crashing into stool legs like they're telephone polls.

The kart can go faster than I expected, but until you unlock 200cc you won't really get a sense of just how much you can push it. Even at 100cc speeds it can haul ass across a nice, smooth floor, but it does slow down over surfaces (especially fabric or a rug) with any degree of texture. I don't have any plain, short-pile carpeting to test on, but it is designed to work on that material. That said, I did have to roll up my living room area rug to clear space for little Mario, as the kart simply couldn't deal with a patterned, uneven surface.

Short of throwing the car or letting it tumble off a table (Nintendo advises using Home Circuit's car indoors and on floors only), it seems sturdy enough to withstand most bumps and collisions. I experimented a little bit with sending it up and off of shallow ramps, and it seemed to handle them okay, but there doesn't seem to be much point in setting up such obstacles for anything beyond free-roaming play—at least, when it comes to single-player races.

Driving a Lonely Road

Nintendo provided USgamer with just one Home Circuit kit, meaning single-player is all there is to enjoy. There's no form of online multiplayer, and local multiplayer requires having another Switch paired to a separate RC car (you can use up to four cars in one race). The single-player modes are styled after regular Mario Kart: you can race and do time-trials on courses you've created, or enter into three-race cups that overlay distinct themes and obstacles over whatever physical course you've laid out with the provided cardboard gates, which are in turn read and interpreted by the AR tech.

Mario or Luigi's opponents in single-player are Bowser Jr. and the Koopalings, who all appear in-game with hover carts. You're only doing races with five characters and five laps per race in single-player. Too many AR opponents would probably be too chaotic, and few laps would make for dreadfully short races with most feasible course setups. To make a course layout that's really creative and that plays nicely with all the AR features, you need lots of space and time. My living room is almost exactly the size Nintendo recommends for Home Circuit (10 feet by 12 feet) and, not wanting to remove everything from it, I had to get creative to make interesting courses.

You can't capture screenshots (i.e. take photos) with Home Circuit. Wish my place looked like this. | Nintendo

Thankfully, the wireless range on the kart isn't too bad—it's supposed to be around 15 feet, which is enough to allow me to pretty much drive the RC car from one end of my small New York apartment to the other without getting up from my desk in the living room. This allowed me to place the cardboard gates throughout my living room, hallway, and kitchen to create some more interesting courses.

Even so, there's only so much that Home Circuit does to make each course feel distinct. There are different world themes that are overlaid on the video feed, like falling snow for ice levels and colorful stars for Rainbow Road, and each gate can have a particular attribute assigned to it. Some will spawn item blocks, others can have boosts, and there are even new additions like music note paths and kart-attracting magnet gates to mix things up. Still, there are only ever four gates to work with, and short of placing other physical obstacles in the course, having only four points of interest feels lacking compared to the intricate course designs of modern Mario Kart games.

On the subject of putting physical obstacles in the way, there's little point in doing so unless you're playing multiplayer. Bowser Jr. and the Koopalings won't crash into a stray slipper or a foam roller on the course, and they'll only steer around it if the player-drawn course weaves around it. They'll never stop and hit a table leg, so for the purposes of winning single-player cups (which helps you unlock more course and character customization options) it makes little sense to design courses that are in any way difficult to navigate in real life.

This is where I feel Home Circuit really could have learned from Ring Fit: to make a more compelling single-player experience, developers Velan Studios and Nintendo could've layered in activities and progression hooks beyond earning cups and unlocking items. Maybe it's blasphemy to suggest a Mario Kart release could branch out beyond racing, but free roaming with the car is pretty fun on its own, and it's easy to imagine other sorts of challenges that could build on that simple, joyous kind of play. Puttering around while listening to classic Mario Kart tunes on the in-game radio is, weirdly, the closest that a Mario game has ever felt to playing GTA, and I'll probably still get some more fun out of doing just that. I'm not saying there should've been a Mario Kart RPG or an AR-enabled open world, but hell, just print some AR symbols on a stack of playing cards and let me make a scavenger hunt or something.

Craft Your Own Fun (Help Not Really Included)

Thankfully, because the free roam mode does exist, there's nothing to stop folks from simply enjoying it and coming up with external rules however they'd like. I suspect that folks with two Home Circuit karts (which does sound more enjoyable and chaotic) might prefer having elaborate multiplayer races in that mode anyway.

Nintendo recommends using books to keep gates in place. I recommend using books you don't like. | Mathew Olson/USG

With what's provided in the box, Home Circuit won't get your creative juices flowing on its own. The four necessary gates for setting up courses and the two included AR turn markers are all pre-made and require minimal folding to get set up. This is not like a Labo product where building the included cardboard stuff is half of the fun.

Again, because this is an AR product, that does make a degree of sense: you want players to get the thing up and running as quickly as possible so they can see their homes transformed through the kart's camera. On the other hand, consider the strengths of the Labo Variety kit, which encourages users to create their own games; Home Circuit tells users to get creative with their course set-ups, but as far as the AR stuff goes, the only thing that truly matters is where the gates are placed.

Single-player would be much more interesting if, with just a bit more cardboard, you could place obstacles that the A.I. also has to avoid between gates. Instead, track obstacles like that are left solely to AR overlays, and that's the stuff that feels like it works the least well. You can kind of forgive the other A.I. racers looking a bit floaty on-screen (the hover karts are a smart touch), but seeing AR pools of lava and ice enemies jitter around can be both distracting and annoying, as you are supposed to steer to avoid them.

No matter how elaborately decorated your course ends up being, won't change how Home Circuit plays all that much. The RC car can also knock stuff around pretty well, so there are arguments against getting too fancy lest a stray item block the course or make a mess.

I'm all for Nintendo minimizing the amount of plastic it produces while coming up with new uses for cardboard, and I appreciate that it does let people print off free gate markers and turn indicators for Home Circuit, but even the recyclable packaging shows a lack of ingenuity. The box Home Circuit comes in is fairly big, sturdy, and worth keeping around if you want to pack it all up, but Nintendo also could've printed additional AR turn indicator markers on the inside of it and let people cut those out. Instead, you'd have to print and paste them on yourself or try to draw them out accurately enough for the AR to recognize them. I tried to eyeball one in five minutes with a permanent marker, and it worked with the AR overlay for just a split second.

Pablo here hates the kart. He thumped away (a bunny sign of annoyance) almost immediately. | Mathew Olson/USG

Once most folks tire of annoying their pets with the cars, I suspect we will see a few people making some pretty amazing courses for Home Circuit. Especially for multiplayer races, I'm sure that some kids and kids-at-heart will spend hours carefully laying out and decorating their courses and then get hours of fun racing on their hard work in return. I would love to watch that kind of content. That said, I think it's worrying that the most creative use Nintendo's shown for Home Circuit so far is an elaborate recreation of Mario Circuit 1 from the original Mario Kart game.

Would I like to play Home Circuit on that course? Sure! To make it myself, I'd need lots of time, printer paper, foam, and more space than my apartment has. If I had a big house and money to burn, I could see getting really into creative Home Circuit set-ups, but as it stands, if I want to play Mario Circuit 1, I can load up Super Mario Kart for SNES on a Switch just fine. Home Circuit is neat, but it doesn't do enough to make AR Mario Kart feel like more than a novelty.

Mario Kart Live: Home Circuit costs $99.99 for either the Mario or Luigi kit. The software needed to play isn't included but is available as a free download on the Nintendo Switch eShop—so, even though it's also built only for local play, you will need to connect to the internet once to get Home Circuit up and running.

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Mathew Olson

Reporter

Mathew Olson is a writer formerly of Digg, where he blogged and reported about all things under the umbrella of internet culture (including games, of course). He lives in New York, grew up under rain clouds and the influence of numerous games studios in the Pacific Northwest, and will talk your ear off about Half-Life mods, Talking Heads or Twin Peaks if you let him.

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