Mario Kart has been a family favourite since the early 1990s thanks to its potent combination of cute characters, speedy but simple racing and an array of red shells, banana skins and other eye-wateringly unfair tools of playful sabotage. Nintendo’s latest experiment in the toy world, made in collaboration with Velan Studios, is an actual Mario remote-controlled kart that comes with a game. Instead of confining all the action to a screen, this lets you race a little car around your living room, using a Nintendo Switch to control it.
Mario Kart Live: Home Circuit is a “mixed-reality” game, meaning that what you see on the Switch screen is an enhanced version of what’s actually going on in your living room. In reality, the car is zipping around on the floor, weaving between table legs and under cardboard arches. On the screen are all the things you’d expect from Mario Kart: power-ups, sandstorms that blow the kart around and make it harder to control, and other characters to race against.
It’s easy to set up. After folding out some cardboard arches and placing them down on the floor, you drive the kart through them to define the boundaries of the track. That circuit is then displayed on the Switch screen, and you could go the whole hog and build your own track on the floor out of blocks or cardboard boxes or empty water bottles or whatever else you have around the house as well. (This might sound horrifying to parents already struggling to beat back the endless tide of toys, crayons and abandoned shoes that engulfs the typical family living room, but look at it this way: if the kids want to play Mario Kart Live then the floor has to be clear. That’s got to be some incentive to tidy up.)
The RC cars, driven by a little Mario or Luigi with a little camera positioned behind their heads, are cute and sturdy, and happily withstood frequent collisions around my living room and kitchen and one run-in with the cat. They drive fine on carpet or hard flooring, and on-screen you see a view from behind the character’s head, letting you guide the racer around the room. You might wonder what the point of the toy car is if all you’re doing is looking at a screen anyway; that occurred to me, watching the Switch conjure lightning bolts and weather effects and other things more exciting than what actually happens in my house. As with many toys, it may well be kids’ imaginations that are the magic ingredient here; I am picturing six-year-olds spending all afternoon constructing elaborate courses on the floor before racing them in-game.
It took a little over five minutes to go from opening the box to winning my first race, a timespan compatible with impatient kids on Christmas morning. Rejigging the circuit takes a few minutes each time, letting you change things up in the middle of a series of races if you start to get bored. Racing a championship, you’re given some virtual opponents and the usual array of items and power-ups: munch a mushroom and the kart gets a little burst of speed, get hit by a shell and it stops dead for a second. Each new race has a new theme, from underwater to Bowser’s Castle. I must admit I had more fun abandoning the races and following the kart around my flat with my four-year-old in tow, gleefully enjoining my to crash it into the baby or explore under the bed.
Mario Kart Live is the latest of several intrusions of Nintendo’s brands into the real world. In Japan, Universal Studios is to open a Mario-themed Super Nintendo World whenever the pandemic eases enough to let punters back in. Smartphone game Pokemon Go, which swept the world in 2016, is still the most popular “augmented reality” game around. And earlier this year the company collaborated with Lego to create playable Mario courses constructed from colourful bricks (and, for the grown-ups, an ingenious replica of the Nintendo Entertainment System). As Nintendo games become more intergenerational – the NES players of the 1980s are now parents to the Nintendo Switch players of 2020 – the company seems to have recognised that toys are a surefire way to hit both older players’ nostalgia and kids’ neverending thirst for new stuff.
Mario Kart Live: Home Circuit will be available October 16; GBP99.99.