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Playing Mario Kart IRL Is a Shockingly Good Time

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Photo: Alex Cranz/Gizmodo

While there are plenty of places where you can pay to put on a Mario cap and tool around in a go-kart making like it’s the Rainbow Road, real-life Mario Kart lacks the fun power-ups and gentle mayhem of the video game. I assumed Nintendo’s Mario Kart Live: Home Circuit, which lets you drive a remote control kart with your Switch, would be more of the dorky same. Imagine my surprise when I absolutely loved it and then immediately began recommending it to friends. Mario Kart Live genuinely brings some of the best elements of Mario Kart into the real world, while also functioning as a fantastic little remote-control car.

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The box’s contents seem relatively paltry compared to most remote-control cars. There’s no big beefy remote—you’ll be using the Switch (or in my case the Switch Lite). Instead, there’s simply the car, a USB-C charger for the car, and a whole lot of cardboard. Unlike Nintendo’s Labo series, the cardboard structures included with Mario Kart Live are easy to build and easy to strike when you’re done playing. There are six cardboard pieces in total. Four fold out into gates your RC kart is meant to drive through, while the other two are essentially barriers meant to direct where you go next. You’ll use all this cardboard to build your track, and if you lose any of the pieces, or they get destroyed, you can print more.

When it’s time to start playing, that’s easy too. You bring the car close to your Switch, follow the instructions provided on your Switch, and you’re paired. I tried to break the pairing by moving to the other side of my (admittedly small) apartment or hiding out in the hallway, and it held firm. I don’t necessarily know if it’ll have the range for you to control it from the second floor of a house, but I hope so, because this thing is a blast to drive.

Like the larger, fancier, and way more expensive DJI Robomaster S1, the RC Mario Kart has a big camera on it that pipes a live feed onto your Switch. Unlike the DJI Robomaster S1, though, you’re getting a nice-looking augmented reality experience with a racetrack, power-ups and obstacles you see only on the Switch that can affect your kart in the real world, and tons of other computer-controlled racers.

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All the racing is handled on the Switch and while the kart might exist in the real world, you’ll rarely actually watch it. Instead, you use the camera feed to navigate. With the Robomaster S1 I found myself constantly looking up and trying to control the car by keeping my eye on it instead of the camera feed. That never happened with Mario Kart. I spent a lot of time stalking coworkers in the office with the Robotmaster S1 last year, and that might have finally broken my habit of watching the car instead of the feed. But Nintendo also does a great job getting you to embrace the camera feed. Because everything is structured like Mario Kart, something I’m already deeply familiar with on the Switch, it was easy to forget I was controlling a real physical object and not just playing a game on my Switch. Why watch my kart when I need to be looking out for a red shell that will slow down my kart in real-time or dodging a Chain Chomp that could stop me dead in my tracks?

After the initial setup, Nintendo gently encourages you to put up your four cardboard gates and create your circuit. You can place the gates however you want, provided the little kart can reach them. I was stupid and set mine in a nearly straight line, forcing me to make two ridiculously sharp turns to get from the fourth gate back to the first gate, which doubles as the starting and finishing line.

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You set up four of these clearly numbered gates to build your circuit.
Photo: Alex Cranz/Gizmodo

Once the gates are set up, you drive through them so the game can map your course. Then you start a race and it’s... well, it’s Mario Kart in real life. There’s no other way to describe the experience. It’s Mario Kart, but instead of circuits created by smart game designers, it was, in my case, a half-ass trash circuit going from my living room to my bedroom and back.

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As in the real Mario Kart, you’re racing against other digital racers, and there are power-ups to be used and abused. My circuit, the first time around, was absolutely awful. It was short, cramped, and gave me zero opportunity to use the red shells I picked up. Worse, I kept banana peeling myself, leading to an absolutely abysmal 5th-place finish.

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I was so focused on winning a game of Mario Kart, as I’ve been doing easily since the ‘90s, that I forgot that I had to face obstacles the computer-controlled racers did not. First, there was the leg of my bed. They could zip right through it as if it were air. I was subject to physics and had to dodge it, which required much nimbler handling, thank you very much.

The other obstacle I honestly should have foreseen. When initially setting up the Kart, I took it for a few spins around the house by slowly stalking my dog. Igloo, a 3-year-old yellow lab with a penchant for chasing all small and fast-moving objects, be they ball, squirrel, or cat, had zero time for the Kart. In fact, he seemed deeply unsettled by it.

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He actually seemed to hate it.

While Igloo has happily dodged and ignored the cardboard gates, he loves nothing more than putting his giant paws in the way of the Kart. It’s led to repeated bad showings on the Cranz Road circuit. I’d show you the video or a screen cap of him bodying the Kart, but Nintendo doesn’t allow you to take screenshots while the camera on the Kart is engaged. I absolutely love that feature, because I know if I’d had this Kart as a kid I would have used it to stalk family members and try and take terrible photos of them. It’s a small nod to privacy, and while it bugs the hacker in me who wants access to every feature of the Kart at all times, it deeply appeals to the privacy fan in me.

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Illustration for article titled Playing Mario Kart IRL Is a Shockingly Good Time
Photo: Alex Cranz/Gizmodo

But I guess that’s also why Mario Kart Live is $100, and the DJI Robotmaster S1 is $500. If I want something that has a camera and can drive, the super-customizable Robotmaster S1 is right there. Mario Kart Live isn’t intended for that. It’s meant for races that the whole family can watch. Thankfully there’s a second green kart available with Luigi in the driver seat, so you can have two real racers if you like. Thought at $100, even one Mario Kart Live toy can feel a little pricey for simple family fun time.

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Which brings me to the only two things I’m not wild about: the price and the lack of options. With only Mario and Luigi karts available, currently there are none of the great kart and driver options available in the typical Mario Kart experience. I would have appreciated at least a Princess or Peach or Toadstool kart. I also wish the price was just a little lower. Currently, you can get Mario Kart 8 Deluxe for your Nintendo Switch for $60 and you’ll get dozens of drivers, customizable karts, tons of maps, and the option to play with friends remotely. Mario Kart Live isn’t quite the same thing, but the built-in game can feel bare-bones if you’re not willing to get creative with your track construction. And having to spend an additional $100 (and have a second Switch) to do multiplayer is pricey.

But Mario Kart Live is also a helluva lot of fun, and I’ve spent the last few weeks mulling over buying it for my godchildren. I’m not sure if I want to deal with the inevitable call I’ll get from their mom when they fight over the Switch and who controls the car, but every time they break it out to play, before that fight over who’s in charge? I know they’ll have a great time. I would have loved having Mario Kart Live: Home Circuit as a kid, and my parents probably would have loved it, because if you’re having to run around building courses you’re definitely not sitting around on your butt staring at the TV.

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README

  • It’s Mario Kart. In real life. It’s just as neat as it sounds.
  • You can’t take screenshots when the Kart’s camera is activated, which is a lovely nod to privacy.
  • At $100 it might be a little expensive. This should not be the first thing you buy for your Nintendo Switch.
  • It does require a Nintendo Switch—though it at least works with both the Switch and the Switch Lite.
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Senior Consumer Tech Editor. Trained her dog to do fist bumps. Once wrote for Lifetime. Tips encouraged via Secure Drop, Proton Mail, or DM for Signal.

DISCUSSION

Saigon_Design
Saigon_Design

I would love to splash out on this but $100 for one car is ridiculous, even for Nintendo. If I wanted to play with a family member, that would entail $200, which is basically a Nintendo Switch Lite.

Nintendo needs to get a grip on their pricing - I know they’ve got a captive audience, but I wonder how much they’re losing out with $60 games (aimed mostly at kids) and $100 gadgets. Even the Labo kits are pricey (amazing, but pricey) for basically precut cardboard.