Mario Kart Home Circuit Review: Nintendo push AR further with an inventive new way to play

Anyone can see what Nintendo is trying to do with Mario Kart Live: Home Circuit, and for all it’s faults, the experiment feels necessary as we move forward in the gaming industry.

The console wars between Xbox and PlayStation are just about to explode, and from what we’ve seen, the competition will be fiercer than ever. Already we know that PlayStation is leaning heavily on a new kind of controller and an improved map of haptic feedback and adaptive triggers, conceived as the DualSense – it just might prove their biggest weapon in this confected battle between Sony and Microsoft. The DualSense may be the deciding factor.

This is important because PlayStation’s DualSense seemingly comes straight from a blueprint written by Nintendo in 1997, when they introduced the Rumble Pak to the world and starting playing around with multisensory gaming. The concept has, of course, moved in plenty of directions since then, from the Wii remote to the Joy-Cons. The point is that Nintendo is always at forefront of these hardware innovations, and if PlayStation win this upcoming war, it’ll be because they drew from that well of creativity and constant experimentation.

That’s just a long way to say this. Nintendo is creative. It is perhaps one of the most innovative and forward-thinking entities in gaming, and no one should never ignore their often cutesy hardware adventures. Yes, it’s easy to write it off as novelty, but when it becomes influential further down the line, you often have people looking back, slapping themselves for laughing in the first place.

Mario Kart Live: Home Circuit is the latest in the company’s long line of innovation, playing into the toys-to-life sector that inspired Nintendo Labo in 2018. This time, the playful cross-section of AR, toys and gaming feels much more relevant since it is bringing to life one of the most beloved and popular racing titles of all time. You can guess what that is.

To commemorate 35 years since the original Super Mario Bros., Home Circuit is but one of a few self-mythologising releases Nintendo has lifted the lid on this year. It’s easily the most head-turning, but also the most time-consuming.

You simply download the (free) Mario Kart Live: Home Circuit software onto your Nintendo Switch via the Nintendo eShop, quickly turning your trusty hybrid console into a RC car remote. It’s truly one for the nostalgia feels, and should keep kids very happy come Christmas time.

Lets-A Go

Set-up is simple. After the software is downloaded, Toad walks you through how to use the tiny camera that’s built-in on top of the toy kart that came in the Home Circuit box – it’s either Mario or Luigi, for now. The camera can can a QR code from the software to easily connect the two and ensure the process works in concert. Needless to say, it’s ideal if whatever home circuit is set-up where the WiFi signal is strongest (or you can get a mesh WiFi system).

Anything the kart sees is beamed to the Switch, albeit in a less than ideal resolution. It’s actually quite cool being able to see the toys POV, especially when it’s on the move. The controls are very responsive, sporting all the basics of racing so you can race through whatever DIY course you come up with. It is rather basic though, with the software’s Grand Prix mode offering only four engine classes and an unlockable expert mode that’s attainable after you’ve won a few trophies. Notably, the speed isn’t to scale; while it may seem the Kart is speedy on screen, the toy moves slowly – although that’s preferable so you aren’t crashing into any furniture (or pets) along the way.

The game’s real challenge is not inside the game at all. And that’s a cool comment on how far gamification has come over the years. In the box, you’ve got four cardboard gates – coloured and numbered – and two arrow markers. They require some simple folding to get them to stand flat on a surface, which brings in the Labo element. All six constructions can be used to build absolutely any course you want, with all the decorations and curious pets your imagination can handle. All that’s required is for the Kart to be able to travel through each one in numbered order to complete a full lap.

The problem then lies in the amount of space available in your home. You also need to keep in mind your signal strength so the Kart can’t venture off too far; for this reason, playing the Switch in portable mode. It’s recommended that you keep the Kart within 4.88m of the Switch at all times.

Nintendo recommends setting up around a 3m x 3.5m space with flat surfaces for the best and smoothest experience. I tried that, it’s fine. I also tried mixing it up by ringing the circuit across rooms so that it would be racing between my lounge room and kitchen (separated only by one wall). Also fine. The real fun here is getting various bits of furniture involved, and watching it all come to life on the Switch’s display as your Mario/Luigi wanders around your house.

There are eight cups in total for players to compete in, which should be more than enough content to keep switching things up for at least a few months. There is, however, a short self-life for entertainment value if you’re only playing single player.

And that’s the real issue here. There’s an ongoing expensive involved if you really want to make the most of it, which means buying numerous Home Circuit kits for multiplayer fun. Keep in mind that each player would also need their own Switch, and given that there’s only two characters available, some kind of way to distinguish the drivers.

The AR element keeps things fun. The software feeds you virtual items and a few animations to create the world of Mario Kart, even going so far as to include Goombas smashing down all around you – if you hit one, the Kart stops. The live camera feed is augmented with all types of virtual assets one would expect from a usual Mario Kart level, including additional scenery in case your living room is too dull, competing racers, and virtual items that have a real-world effect your toy Kart. Use a mushroom, for example, and the Kart will actually speed up as if it’s just been given a boost.

What Nintendo have done with AR is remarkable, and even if Home Circuit has its shortcomings with occasional drop-outs and technical glitches, it’s far and above one of the best innovations the company has produced in years. I mean, you can even customise the gates to perform different functions when you pass through them, an example being one giving you a quick boost in speed while the other flinging you an item.

Replay value comes down to your imagination and how you use the cardboard gates to build the best course possible. Unfortunately this limits you to indoors though, as disappointingly the camera doesn’t work as well in daylight (or at night). If Home Circuit gets a sequel, this should be the first improvement. Being able to take this outdoors and set up courses would be a real treat no matter the age – even more so if there’s other people to play against.

Much like Labo, the novel appeal will probably wear off for most users, but the creativity is certainly appreciated regardless. And that’s the real magic to Home Circuit. While Microsoft and Sony are focusing on powering up for the next-generation of gaming, Nintendo are just there trying to push the boundaries of what gaming could be. We’ve already seen the company’s blueprint go on to heavily influence the PlayStation 5’s key feature – the aforementioned haptic-tastic DualSense controller – so who knows what this path will lead to in the future.

THREE AND A HALF STARS (OUT OF FIVE)

Highlights: A new frontier for how AR can be used for gaming; the way items work both on-screen and IRL is incredible; endless possibilities.
Lowlights: Can feel repetitive; ongoing cost; doesn’t work as well outdoors; occasional connection drop-outs.
Developer: Nintendo
Publisher: Nintendo
Platform: Nintendo Switch
Available: Now

Review based on a unit supplied by Nintendo.

Chris Singh

Chris Singh is the Deputy Editor of the AU review and a freelance travel writer. You can reach him on Instagram by following @chrisdsingh.

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