April 17, 2024


Love your Curiosity

Home Circuit is a shockingly fun take on AR racing

Shown off during Mario’s 35th anniversary Nintendo Direct, Mario Kart Live: Home Circuit partners a physical remote-controlled kart with the Nintendo Switch or a Nintendo Switch Lite. A camera built in the toy displays the player’s home on their Switch, with augmented reality elements sprinkled on top to create a full-fledged Mario Kart course.

Players will need to purchase one of two available karts: Mario or Luigi, retailing at $100 per brother. The game is not packaged as a physical cartridge with the kart, but rather a free download from the Nintendo eShop. Anyone can download the software without owning the kart hardware, but players lacking a kart will only be able to view a trailer of the game.

With the physical kart in hand, a camera that protrudes from the back of the vehicle is used to scan a QR code displayed on the Switch’s screen, or the player’s TV if docked. Once connected, a live feed of the room the kart resides in will appear, and in place of the physical kart will be a digital vehicle and character, who marvels at their new real-world surroundings.

Players will need a well-lit space, as camera tracking worsens in darker areas. Nintendo didn’t give an example of Home Circuit outside of its showroom space, which was filled with natural light. Nintendo is also tight-lipped about resolution and framerate of the AR experience.

The kart communicates to the Switch directly and can be used without a cellular or Wi-Fi setup. While this means players can take tracks outdoors, Nintendo does not recommend using the karts on rough, natural terrain. So, keep it on well-maintained pavement, if you go outside at all.

Players place four different cardboard gates around their home as checkpoints for the track and can pick the spacing and distance of their choosing. Once the player has placed the gates, a digital Lakitu floats in and pours virtual paint over the kart’s wheels. The player will then drive the kart around the space to form the track, passing through each gate as they do, until they reach the point at which they started. The karts work on carpet, although it will have a tough time on thick rugs.

<span class="text">The course layout is up to the imagination of the players</span>
The course layout is up to the imagination of the players

Players can break, reverse, and drift. Drifting doesn’t work like other Mario Kart games, but rather locks the player into turning one direction or the other, providing a speed boost after a few seconds.

As with other Mario Kart games, Home Circuit offers 50cc and 100cc speeds to start, with 150cc and 200cc to be unlocked later. We weren’t given specific metrics on how fast these speeds were, but by my eye, each speed increased looked to be about a third faster than the last.

It is recommended that players have a space of 10 feet by 12 feet for 150cc, but a slightly smaller space can be used for slower speeds. The karts only work 30 feet from the system, although it’s recommended players keep them within 15 feet. The largest courses that the game will recognize are 15 feet by 15 feet.

As someone that doesn’t have a great deal of space in their Brooklyn apartment, I was surprised by how doable the space limitations were, especially at slower speeds that allow for small courses.

Playing at different speeds will impact how long the kart’s battery will last. 150cc will drain the battery in around 90 minutes, with 200cc expediting that depletion, and the slower speeds improving that mileage. The kart uses the same USB-C to USB-A cables to charge as the Switch Pro controller and will take around three hours to fully recharge.

Players’ custom tracks form the basis of each of the different modes in the game. There is the traditional Grand Prix, found in every other Mario Kart, and featuring classic competitions such as the Mushroom Cup, with eight cups each with three tracks. The Nintendo rep hinted a secret ninth cup, but wouldn’t provide any details on it other than die-hard Mario Kart fans are going to want to play it.

There is a time trial mode, where players can try to beat their own times on a track, their fastest run represented by a floating virtual stopwatch that matches their previous performance 1:1. Finally, there is a multiplayer mode, where players can compete with up to three other real-life karts in a race. This is local only, however, as online play isn’t part of the game.

<span class="text">Mixed reality is used to bring the real world into the game</span>
Mixed reality is used to bring the real world into the game

Environmental and gate effects change the game

With custom tracks being built by the player for the races, the cups work a little differently than in the more traditional Mario Kart games. A Nintendo representative jumped into the Mushroom Cup, and while the game suggests different designs players can use to form the tracks, every race can be played with any track layout the racer desires.

This is where the fun of Home Circuit shines through. Players can create their desired complexity, and if they wish to replay a cup, they can make it something totally different than before. I imagine when people get their hands on these karts and have spent some time with the game, the courses they design will become more and more intricate.

In the race I saw, Mario was facing off against augmented reality A.I. opponents, who in this game are always Bowser Jr. and t
he Koopalings. As the race unfolded, Mario and his competition smashed through floating boxes, picking up items like any other Mario Kart game. A mushroom gave the rep’s kart a small speed boost, and a thrown red shell locked onto an A.I. opponent, temporarily stopping them in their tracks.

These items can also be used against the player, with a hit from a red shell physically locking down their kart for a handful of seconds. As the race goes on, players must hit all four of the gates to complete a lap, but there is zero penalization for driving off the course and cutting corners. It’s up to the player if they decide to cheat or not.

<span class="text">There are no free-aiming green shells in the game</span>
There are no free-aiming green shells in the game

As the cup transitions into the next race, players will be offered the opportunity to change the course layout, but if they so choose they can leave the track as is.

No matter how the course is altered, subsequent races are given augmented reality modifications. The second race the rep played provided an underwater overlay, changed the locations of items on the track, and placed enemy Amps at each gate that oscillated across them, halting a racer if they crashed into them. The third race had a downpour of rain that sprouted mushrooms along the track for a speed boast, with a trail of coins following them, rewarding players for staying on the track.

Coins, unlike in other Mario Kart games, do not provide incremental speed boosts, but they can be used to purchase optional cosmetics such as different outfits, kart designs, and horn sounds. These customizations are also unlocked with the completion of each cup, with a knight and builder uniform shown off for Mario, plus a bulldozer and pirate ship design for his kart. Cosmetics have no effect on gameplay, and if playing multiplayer with other real-world karts, players can only see their own cosmetics and not competitors’.

The Nintendo rep went deeper into the track modifications. A sandstorm was shown off, with Mario on the screen buffeted and visibility reduced. In the real world, this caused the physical kart to be pushed around the track, the driver having to compensate in controlling the vehicle against the environmental effect.

The snow environment effect created Freezies, small sentient icecaps, that when hit freeze the karts temporarily.  The lava environment covers the track in ash and molten puddles, which if run over or hit by spit lava bubbles, have a similar effect as the Freezies, pausing the kart for a few seconds. The behavior of these effects is random, including their intensity, direction, and duration.  Some environmental changes, such as underwater and 8-bit, are visual and don’t affect gameplay.

I will need to get my hands on the game to know how different these modifications are, as many of the ones shown simply stop the kart for a few seconds. My hope is that there will be a wider variety of modifications, like the sandstorm, that more uniquely affect gameplay and interaction with the kart.

On top of these effects, each gate can be given a modification. Mario drove under one, only to be snatched up by a Piranha Plant as he did so, stopping the kart in its tracks. After a few seconds, he was spat back out to resume the race, with the player able to assume control once more.

There are a wide variety of gate modifications, and quite a few were shown off in this demonstration. The Magikoopa gate, when driven through, throws the course into mirror mode, meaning players will have to steer in the opposite direction as normal. The magnet gate pulls the kart in the direction of the track when approached, righting vehicles that might be veering off course, helping rather than hindering the player. A pipe gate places a pipe entrance on either side, with item boxes floating between them.

<span class="text">Environment and gate modifications greatly change up a race</span>
Environment and gate modifications greatly change up a race

Environmental and gate effects are dictated by which race in which cup you are competing in, but players can also create custom tracks and choose which effects are included, racing against A.I. opponents or up to three other remote-controlled karts. Local multiplayer can also be done in the Grand Prix. It’s important to note the game is unable to save custom tracks, meaning once a player has taken it apart, they can only attempt to replicate it based on memory.

Real-world elements can be added, too

A Nintendo representative was quick to remind me that real-world obstacles can create a unique feel to in-game tracks. This was demonstrated with building blocks outlining the track, small cardboard boxes stacked on top of one another, and the leg of a table sitting in the middle of a track.

The rep assured me that the kart is built to withstand constantly bumping into objects or walls. Bumping into a gate or knocking one over will not interrupt a race, but a player will be asked to adjust it once a race is complete. Nintendo recommends using an object or furniture to weigh down its base flaps on either side to avoid the issue.

When I first saw Mario Kart Live: Home Circuit during the Nintendo Direct, I thought to myself, “Oh, neat!” Having walked through everything the game has to offer, and the nearly limitless customizations that can be applied both visually and to gameplay, I’m convinced Nintendo has packed in enough gameplay to make Mario Kart Live more than a gimmick. It goes beyond the novelty of having a remote-controlled toy car and offers a full-featured game that any fan of the series will enjoy.