How’s this for counter-programming? As Sony and Microsoft prepare for a war fought over teraflops and with superfast SSDs, Nintendo’s weapon of choice this Christmas is nothing more complex than a remote control car, neatly folded cardboard and a camera that’s probably been ripped straight from the Nokia that got you through your university years. It is peak Nintendo.
Mario Kart Live Home Circuit is indeed a brilliantly Nintendo thing, a piece of inspired lateral thinking built around a moment of pure delight. It’s also, as is Nintendo’s way, technically limited, frequently frustrating and a touch on the expensive side. As per so many other Nintendo experiences, that magic makes suffering through those shortcomings just about worthwhile.
In Mario Kart Live Home Circuit, that moment of delight is a Lilliputian tour of your living room, seen from the viewpoint of a small, speeding remote controlled car. Setting it up is surprisingly simple; just grab the 1.1GB download from the eShop, boot up the software and then scan a QR code on your Switch’s screen using the car’s camera and you’re good to go (maybe give the living room a good sweep too, and whatever you do don’t go underneath the sofa because my mop can’t reach there and I assure you it’s disgusting).
Even after a dozen hours that magic hasn’t really dimmed, and lead developer Velan Studios builds out on it in some fascinating ways. You’ve four cardboard gates – easily folded away, in case you’re having flashbacks to having your house overrun by oversized Labo contraptions – which can be placed in order to construct a circuit. Drive the kart to the first gate, complete a lap of your new creation and there you have it: your very own Mario Kart Live track.
From there, it’s a lot like any other Mario Kart game you’ve played. You unlock custom items by spending the coins you pick up along the way, can take part in a series of Grand Prix races across four different speed classes, with each new event overlaying familiar filters – the underwater, summertime vibes of Cheep Cheep Beach, the bustle of Toad’s Turnpike or, in a fun addition, a World 1-1 themed environment. Even if the track layout might remain fixed – until you can be bothered to get up and rearrange it all, that is – each new environment throws in its own wrinkles. Items and booster pads are repositioned, and there’s even neat tricks like virtual wind blowing your kart gently sideways across the floor, or magnets on gates drawing your kart within their pull. It’s remarkably smart stuff.
It is, by its very nature, a more chaotic take on Mario Kart. You compete against virtual Koopalings that rebound around the track like pinballs, and take the series’ rubber-banding to a ridiculous extreme – at times they’ll simply stop on-track and wait for you to catch up. On the more condensed courses Home Circuit’s design dictates, the noise of power-ups, booster pads and obstacles becomes an absolute din. Chaos is Mario Kart’s calling card, though, so Home Circuit at least nails the essence of the series – just be warned, it can be a little unruly at points.
That a remote control car scooting around your floor can get so close to the Mario Kart experience is still quite the thing, though, and there’s more than one inspired touch. The staple Mario Kart drift boost is replicated amply thanks to some camera trickery, while red shells – and, yes, blue shells – work just as they would in-game, slowing down your kart when it’s been struck. The sense of speed, too, is astounding, that low-slung viewpoint making the sedate pace your real-life kart trundles along at feel positively superstellar when you see it on the screen.
The racing is a way off the polish of mainline Mario Karts – as you’d expect, really – but the hardware itself displays some premium details. The kart itself is an evenly weighted, handsomely sculpted thing – the camera extends over Mario’s head like the overstated airboxes on 1970s F1 cars, which is as surefire a way as any to my heart. Just like a real kart there’s no suspension, the travel coming through the chassis and some super sticky tires that’ll run over hardwood or carpet – so sticky, in fact, that over an afternoon’s racing they’d picked up an ungodly amount of dirt and needed a serious scrub. It doesn’t reflect too well on the cleanliness of my own front room, but it also suggests these things will need a little maintenance over time.
Even the cardboard gates are beautiful things, adorned with updated takes on Yoichi Kotabe’s ebullient artwork, and what you do in between them is up to you. Like Labo, you’re only really limited by your imagination when it comes to what’s possible, though you’re hemmed in by some of Live Circuit’s limitations too – or, indeed, the limitations of your own living space. I live in a modest house so couldn’t go wild with course creation, though I’m not sure how wild exactly you can get given the limited range of the kart – it’s advertised at 15 feet, but in my experience it glitched a good five feet before then. The Switch’s WiFi performance has always been a weakness, so it’s not too much of a surprise – even if it is disappointing.
It’s disappointing, too, that to enjoy Mario Kart Live Home Circuit as Mario Kart’s always been intended to be played – with friends by your side as you fire off red shells and expletives at one another – you’ll need multiple karts, which means multiple kits. At £100 a pop, that’s an investment too far to really recommend.
The core thrill of Mario Kart Live Home Circuit is just about strong enough to shade those issues, though it does come with sizeable caveats – about the size of your house, for one, as well as your own creativity and, if you want to play Mario Kart with friends, the size of your wallet too. Check a couple of those boxes and this is a knockabout, slightly creaky but always well-considered thing – a neatly crafted gizmo, and a fresh reminder that Nintendo remains a toymaker at heart, and a reminder that it’s still capable of making some of the most magical toys around.