Mario Kart Live: Home Circuit review: a simple racer that can feel like magic

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The new Mario Kart is the most fun I’ve ever had torturing my cats. The game, Mario Kart Live: Home Circuit, is an attempt to mash together the classic racer with remote controlled cars for a Pokémon Go-esque experience that blends the real and the virtual on the Nintendo Switch. For the most part, it works: when everything clicks, your living room becomes a playground, with tiny karts zipping around avoiding cardboard obstacles and, yes, terrified cats. It’s missing some of the things that have made Mario Kart such a pervasive hit — namely, accessible multiplayer — but the trade-off is something very different. At its best, Home Circuit feels like magic.

First, the basics. Home Circuit is a few things. It’s a game you download from the Nintendo Switch eShop, but it’s also a big cardboard box full of objects. For $99.99 you get one RC kart — either Mario or Luigi — along with a charging cable and a stack of cardboard. You use the included cardboard, along with whatever else you have laying around, to build a physical course in your house, and then you control the kart using your Switch with the action playing out on-screen. Essentially, the race happens in two places: on your screen and in your living room. This can make it an especially fun spectator experience.

In true Nintendo fashion, setting up is exceedingly easy. The RC kart comes equipped with a small camera, and to sync with your Switch, you simply use that camera to scan a QR code on the screen. You only have to do this once. Creating a race track is similarly straightforward since there are few requirements. You have four cardboard gates, each numbered one through four, and a course requires players to drive through each in order, ending back at the first gate. Once you’ve placed the gates, you create the course by driving through it. (It’s a bit like how you can’t upload a Super Mario Maker level until you’ve beaten it yourself.)

Within this simple framework you’re given a lot of freedom. Aside from the fact that tracks can’t be straight lines, there are very few rules. And given the mixed-reality nature of the game, you have two different ways of building a track. The first is IRL. While the cardboard gates provide the general outline of your track, I found myself using, well, everything I could think of to add obstacles and other elements. I had tracks that twisted under my coffee table and ones where disposable plastic cups lined the edge of the road. Carpets became slow zones. My kids took their stuffed animals and created a crowd, while my pets provided the odd unexpected barrier. Note: cats do not like being bumped by a small car while grooming themselves.

This is all rendered on the Switch screen, though the low-res camera means things can be a bit fuzzy and dark. This is especially true of moving objects like, say, an angry dog. It doesn’t present much of an issue if you’re playing on the Switch in portable mode, but the IRL elements of the game don’t look very good blown up on a big television. It’s like you’re peering at your house through an ancient webcam.

Once you’ve set up the real-world portion of the track, you can then augment it in a few virtual ways. Each of the gates can be customized. You can add item-spewing warp pipes or those rotating fire bars from Bowser’s castle. There are also plenty of visual themes that can impact gameplay: the desert theme has wind that tosses you around the track, while the haunted house is full of Boos that obscure your vision if you drive through them. You can even customize your racer; right now I’m driving around an SMB3 airship-style kart piloted by a Mario wearing an artist’s smock.

Most of these options aren’t there when you first start. Instead, you need to unlock them by playing through the classic grand prix mode. As you earn trophies and collect coins, you’ll get new customization options. It requires a bit of grinding, but after a few hours of play, you’ll have a lot to work with. You can also cheat: the grand prix courses are based on tracks you make, and I admit that I designed a few easy ones to speed up the process.

When this all works as it should, Home Circuit is incredible. Yes, the racing is simpler than past Mario Karts, and it’s missing things like the gravity-defying Rainbow Road or the wonderful downhill track Mount Wario. But what you get in their place is amazing in a different way. The most notable thing is how fast and easy it is to make levels. The game instantly recognizes when you do something like move a gate, so tweaking your track is as intuitive as getting up and moving things around. Need some more obstacles? Grab a few pillows to toss in the way. Is a hairpin turn frustrating you? Shift the road a little bit. It’s hard to overstate how the tactile nature of level design makes the process so much easier — and more importantly, it’s fun. I think I might prefer building to racing.

Plus, it’s just cool to see the colorful Mushroom Kingdom clash with your kitchen, and the hardware itself is great. The kart is solid and can drive over most typical household surfaces — I had no issues on either hardwood floors or several low-pile rugs — while the cardboard accessories seem pretty sturdy, and thankfully you can fold them up to store when you’re not playing. (Nintendo has clearly learned a thing about cardboard from Labo.)

That said, it doesn’t always work as intended. During my testing, I found frustratingly common moments when the game would jitter and skip a few frames, causing me to miss a turn or smash into an IRL obstacle. It was often when there was lots happening on-screen or when there was some kind of in-game element designed to wreak havoc with my kart, like the winds in the desert course or a new power-up where a Chain Chomp pulls you along. Mario Kart has always been a game about chaos, so it’s frustrating when that chaos damages the game experience. It’s all the more annoying because, since the kart is a real object, there’s no automatic reset if you get in a big crash.

But the biggest issue with Home Circuit is how prohibitive it is to play multiplayer. In fact, the requirements are so much that I wasn’t even able to test it out. In order to play the game with another person, you both need a Switch and an RC kart. I understand some of the logistical reasons for this, but given how multiplayer-focused Mario Kart has always been, it’s still disappointing. I’m not sure why there isn’t at least a split-screen option for those who want to pick up multiple karts. One of the great things about Mario Kart 8 Deluxe on the Switch was how easy it was to set up an impromptu match with friends. Home Circuit goes in the opposite direction.

Really, Home Circuit is a game about trade-offs. No, you’re not getting a full-fledged Mario Kart experience with all kinds of inventive new power-ups and tracks. You’re also not getting a game you can easily play with friends. But in their stead, you get a racing game that’s really unlike anything else out there. At its best, Home Circuit seamlessly blends the idea of racing an RC car with a video game and does it while making the act of creation playful. I may not be able to play Home Circuit with my friends — but at least my cat can join in when she feels like making trouble.

Mario Kart Live: Home Circuit launches October 16th on the Nintendo Switch.

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