You probably don't need us to tell you that Mario Kart is one of Nintendo's crown jewels; the series has sold a staggering 150 million copies to date, with 35 million of those attributable to the most recent mainline instalment, Mario Kart 8 – which, in a rather unique twist, is currently the best-selling game on both the Wii U and Switch, thanks to its "Deluxe" update.
All of this might lead you to assume that Nintendo would have a full-blown sequel on store shelves by now (Mario Kart 8 came out in 2014, lest we forget), but instead, we're getting something that has the potential to be even more interesting: Mario Kart Live: Home Circuit. Sure, a Mario Kart outing that uses "Mixed Reality" technology and remote-control cars might not have been the first thing on every fan's wish-list, but a remote demonstration we were given this week illustrates that there's an awful lot of potential in this seemingly gimmick-heavy concept.
Mario Kart Live, as you're hopefully aware, hinges around the use of a small RC car which comes equipped with its own camera. This camera displays a live view of the car's surroundings directly to your Switch console's screen (or you TV – the game works docked, too), allowing you to control it in very much the same way you'd interact with a virtual one in a game of Mario Kart 8 Deluxe.
Nintendo – along with developer Velan Studios – has even managed to transfer the franchises' famous power-sliding mechanic to this new setup, complete with trademark speed boosts and the like. Exactly how it has achieved this feat of engineering in a real-world, remote-control toy is something that Nintendo's representatives couldn't accurately communicate during the presentation, but it's definitely there and should ensure that Mario Kart Live 'feels' as close as possible to the traditional experience we're used to.
A big selling point with this mixed reality take on the famous franchise is the fact that the course is located in the real world; using a set of cardboard gates, you can create your own circuit in any room where there's enough space. While the mocked-up room shown in the presentation we watched was pretty massive, Nintendo is keen to stress that Mario Kart Live is perfectly playable in more compact environments ("at least 3.5 x 3 metres", or 10x12 feet, is what Nintendo suggests) – a claim which we'll be sure to investigate once we have the final version in our hands.
Setting up a game of Mario Kart Live is reasonably simple, as you might expect from a Nintendo product. There's no game card to worry about – the software will be available for free from the eShop for anyone to download, but a car is required to actually play it. The car's camera is used to scan a QR code on the Switch screen to 'link' it with the console – a process which takes seconds and, presumably, will make it easy for friends who don't own the full package to experience the game on their own consoles by downloading the free game and 'borrowing' the car of a friend. The camera is also used to take a snapshot of your face for your in-game driver's licence.
Creating your course is fairly straightforward, too. You simply lay out the gates (along with optional direction panels at the side of the track which help guide players around the course) and then you use the car's view to 'paint' the track. A lovely animation is shown of your vehicle's wheels getting liberally coated in paint, which you then use to draw the outline of the course; crossing the finish line sets the track in stone and you're ready to race. You can craft some surprisingly complex circuits, too, as it's possible to have the track overlap itself.
It's a fun process, which is good news because you're going to have to do it each and every time you boot the game up, as courses aren't retained after you turn the system off. The presentation also made it clear that players are expected to add their own touches to circuits to make them more dynamic; an example given was the use of small cardboard boxes which, when hit, would create new obstacles and change the racing line.
Once you're into the game proper, you have a range of options available. You can engage in the traditional Grand Prix mode – set across eight competitions featuring 24 courses in total (there's even a mirror mode) – to earn coins which are used to unlock in-game items (more on those in a bit) or you can tackle the Time Trial mode, which is handy for when you've got a second person who wants to play but you only possess a single RC car; in this mode, you can race against 'Ghost' data to simulate the impression of competing with another person. As we've come to expect, different race speeds are available – 50cc, 100cc and 150cc – with the kart's pace alternating accordingly across all three. Younger players will be best using the lowest setting (as well as the included driving aids, which will be familiar to Mario Kart 8 players), while veterans will no doubt crave the intensity of the 150cc speed.
Given that the game uses real-world karts and AR elements which only appear on your screen, bridging the gap between reality and fiction was always going to be Mario Kart Live's biggest obstacle – and from the footage we saw, it would seem that Velan Studios and Nintendo have done a pretty convincing job. Naturally, we can't say for sure until we actually play the game, but the aforementioned drift mechanic seems to work well enough – the on-screen view certainly gave the impression that the kart was sliding on the track, anyway.
A rather more impressive way in which Mario Kart Live mixed realities is seen on a stage which has savage cross-winds; these make the kart move to one side, so the player has to physically wrestle with the controls to maintain the racing line. Elsewhere, a Chain Chomp is attached to the kart, giving it a boost of speed but also dragging it in random directions, potentially ruining your race. All of these in-game elements are reflected in the way the kart behaves in the real world – an impressive combination of the actual reality with virtual reality.
Changing the layout of the track on a regular basis means you can keep the experience feeling fresh, but there are other factors which impact your experience. Some races can take place underwater, for example, which alters handling, while others take place in the wet, which causes speed boost mushrooms to sprout on the circuit. On colder courses, there's the added risk of being frozen during the race, while another theme drops retro-style Goombas from the original Super Mario Bros. in your way.
In addition to this, you can tinker with the way the gates behave when you're initially setting up a track; you can choose for them to offer item boxes or speed boosts, or you can give them a negative effect, such as the aforementioned uncontrollable Chain Chomp or a Thwomp. There's also the Magikoopa effect, which mirrors your view of the course, making it harder to control your kart. Because the gates are effectively one of the main ways you can alter the feel of the course – outside of totally altering its layout, of course – you can go one step further and change which part of the gate offers the effect, which means it's possible to avoid a negative status change or totally miss an item box. Speaking of the latter, you get all of the traditional items here, including shells, banana skins and Bullet Bills, the latter of which puts your car into auto-pilot for a short period, just like it does in other Mario Kart titles.
As was the case in Mario Kart 7 and 8, it's possible to unlock different kart designs to use in the game by spending coins earned from racing; you can also unlock outfits for your driver and horn sounds. One outfit sees Mario in a suit of armour, while another is lifted directly from Super Mario Maker (complete with a kart which looks like a yellow digger). While the physical RC car doesn't change – that's the kind of magic even Nintendo isn't capable of yet – your in-game perspective shows the new vehicle, which gives the game some welcome visual variety. Before you get too excited, these outfits and karts are purely cosmetic and don't impact your in-game performance – something which will naturally limit the scope of Mario Kart Live in comparison to previous entries in the series. Presumably, it may have been too tricky for the developers to manifest different handling and speed stats in a real-world remote control kart.
Speaking of the kart itself, while we're still itching to get our hands on the real thing, we can confirm a few key points. Yes, the RC car itself is robust enough to withstand collisions during races (there's no auto-avoidance system in place, a Nintendo representative confirmed to us) and yes, any combination of karts can be used in a multiplayer race.
Up to four people can take part (with one person acting as the host) and you can have four Marios, four Luigis or any combination of the two (one would hope that Nintendo is planning to release more cars in the future with different characters). It was also illustrated in one video that uneven floors – or wooden floors with rugs – aren't an issue and can actually make the experience more challenging. Sadly, we weren't able to get solid answers on battery life or range, but we can confirm that outside of its internal motor, the car itself is totally silent and doesn't emit any other noises during play. It's charged using a USB-C connection.
Because we weren't able to go fully hands-on with Mario Kart Live, we've going to reserve judgment on its ability to completely live up to the tantalising promise of mixing real-world karts with the virtual worlds the franchise is famous for; questions remain on how closely the handling matches that seen in the mainline game, and how well the setup works on rooms which are totally carpeted or don't have a lot of space for twisting bends or sharp turns.
All of these points will be answered fully when the game is safely in our hands, but what we can say at this stage is that Mario Kart Live has us both intrigued and excited; this is pure Nintendo, mixing toys with games in a way that few other companies seem to these days.
Mario Kart Live: Home Circuit launches on October 16th, 2020. Check out our guide on where you can pre-order your copy here.