Mario Kart Live: Home Circuit, the latest Nintendo Switch release, is another entry in the platform holder’s efforts to experiment with what “play” can be. Developed by Velan Studios, a team founded by the minds behind Vicarious Visions, it also fits their long-crafted ethos of physical game interaction. When you realize that the people who brought you the Nintendo DS Guitar Grip and the people who made Labo are behind it, Mario Kart Live couldn’t make more sense.
These elements are immediately on display. Home Circuit comes with one kart (Mario or, if you’re lucky, the much rarer Luigi), a small charging cable and a series of cardboard gates. To race, you must first set up a track. You place four gates and weigh them down with heavy objects, then drive through them with the kart to connect the in-game course. These cardboard elements feel well-engineered, much like Labo creations, as they both stand up and collapse really efficiently.
Controlling the real-life kart works way better than you’d expect. You may regularly find yourself driving under your own chair without noticing. While it can’t do all the slick drifting action of a traditional Mario Kart release, you’ve never been more in control of a toy car than this. The kart is very light and quiet! This is nice for not disturbing other housemates, and leads to, yeah, driving by your feet and not taking notice.
So much of the fun of Mario Kart Live: Home Circuit relies on how well you’ve constructed the track. Nintendo has marketed the game by showing lots of decorations and obstacles around the edge of the track, and that’s not just for an exciting look. Since your “track” is only enforced by the four gates, creating more in-world track elements helps reinforce the dimensions of the track itself. It also helps with your visualization of where to go! Your in-game opponents — the Koopalings — have to follow the track as the tech has figured it out. You’re limited by physics and physical space. When these two conflict, the game loses a lot of balance.
Do you really want to cheat and win all the time? You can set long, winding tracks going fully out of the way, then cut all the corners and get to the gates a lot faster. It does take a lot of the fun out of it, though. And the game doesn’t like it that much! In terms of “balance,” it seems like all Home Circuit has to offer is an abundance of weaponry. In one test, we got hit with three blue shells in one 20-second lap. (We still won, though.)
On the other hand, you can unintentionally put yourself at a disadvantage if you’re not careful. Driving like you’re playing Mario Kart doesn’t apply when mapping out the course itself, since rarely do you try to stay in the exact center of the track when you do that. Straying too close to corners during setup will let opponents drive through walls you can’t. It’s tough to overcome, as well as visually disorienting.
Velan Studios implemented a lot of ways to make the same environments feel different. The “tracks” in the game’s myriad cups add special visual filters and different gate functions to make races feel like they’re underwater or in the jungle or whatever each course needs to be. This is more effective than you’d think! Whether gates have suspended piranha plants blocking part of the action or moving boost pads or item blocks can make the same ten feet of floor space feel like a different race.
You can use the custom track function to add these elements to your own creation as you unlock them, but the existing builds offer enough variety within the main Grand Prix mode. There are even engine classes and Mirror Mode! It feels like Velan wanted to really put its all into variety here, making players feel like the big price tag was worth all the hours of different tracks and items.
You can also customize your racer, to a degree. (At least digitally.) Since Home Circuit animates Mario on your screen and covers up the real kart when it does, it can make Mario wear a builder outfit or drive a cardboard kart. That’s fun, to a degree. It doesn’t affect gameplay, and we do wish we could put some creativity into the plastic thing careening around the room. (We also would love to be another character! They’re never going to make a Koopa Troopa kart.)
As amazing as Mario Kart Live: Home Circuit can be, that experience is highly dependent on, well, your home circuit. First: the game benefits from space. While tracks don’t need to be too long, the more space you have, the more creative you can be in making new courses for yourself. That’s definitely the primary appeal of the game, rather than the driving itself, and you’ll play longer if that remains fun.
Second: surfaces are crucial. The ideal for Home Circuit is a smooth hardwood floor. It can handle some uneven tile and even very short carpet fairly well. Thick carpet makes the light kart bounce around as it moves, progressing slower than computer opponents and causing all sorts of detection problems with the shaky on-board camera. Rugs or inclines? Nah. The kart isn’t powerful enough to manage those transitions without some real help. It could probably do these one-way, but since the game insists that tracks are a full loop, that isn’t enough.
Besides those two main factors, you’ll really need good lighting so the visualizations render well. You’ll need strong wi-fi connections so your camera doesn’t constantly cut out. And, well, you’d do well to bring an understanding that this is a toy. People who enjoyed Nintendo’s Labo releases will probably find fun here too, as both are about the joy of building and enjoying physical interaction with games. There are elements like time trials here (mostly included to allow families to buy one set and still compete for times and play together that way), but gameplay mastery isn’t the big draw here.
Mario Kart Live: Home Circuit is a magical, transformative experience under ideal conditions that works way better than you’d think. When you stray from those conditions even a little, though, it deteriorates rapidly. It’s destined to provide dozens of hours of entertainment for some home-bound players and not last an evening with others. It’s a big step forward for this weird blend of augmented reality tech, while also showing the limitations it has yet to overcome.
Mario Kart Live: Home Circuit is available now for Nintendo Switch. Each version, the Mario Set and the Luigi set, sells for an MSRP of $99.99.