Like Link’s Tri-Force, or the Transformer’s Matrix of Power, you can rely on Nintendo to light up your darkest hour. Times might be grim, with real world struggles that few could have fathomed twelve months ago, but here’s the Japanese company with a Switch-controlled augmented reality Mario Kart, that might just melt all of it away. Until it needs charging again, that is.
Karting remains the plumber’s most beloved pastime beyond jumping on turtle’s heads, and when you pull the WiFi controlled kart out of the box for the first time that love will be manifest in eight inches of moustachioed vehicular wonder. It’s a chunky, sturdy-feeling recreation of Mario’s kart, boasting some lovely visual touches like actual tread on the tyres, while a camera housed in the rear cowling is the window to Mario Kart Live’s reality-augmenting magic.
There actually isn’t all that much in the box, but you’ll soon find that that’s part of the magic. Alongside the kart, instructions to download the MK Live software from the eShop, and a standard USB-C charging cable charging cable, there are four cardboard gates to put together and a pair of cardboard directional markers. They feel like a direct extension of Nintendo’s Labo creations; easy to set up, and perfectly functional in their simplicity. It’s nice to see them remaining committed to a more recyclable package, even if it’s as much a cost-saving exercise as an environmental one.
The truly magical moment comes from creating real-world Mario Kart tracks that you can physically race around, with a sprinkling of augmented reality that brings it all to life on your TV or Switch screen. Here’s how it works: you build a track using the four cardboard gates as markers – and whatever else you want to use to define the track – and you fire up the MK Live software on your Switch. Once you’ve connected your Switch to the kart with a bit of QR code wizardry, you then need to define the track, and prove it’s viable by driving the kart around. Once you’ve done that, you’re ready for a race.
Seeing your home on the Switch screen while a diminutive Mario tootles around it is remarkable. The kart’s camera feed links directly to the console, and you can marvel at your own feet, the lost toys underneath the sofa, and the underside of your kitchen cupboards all from the comfort of your chair while Mario zooms around you. At first though, he will pootle past you instead. Just like the mainline games, Mario Kart Live starts out at 50cc, a nice and sedate pace for you and the small people in your house to get used to before your expensive real-world kart starts repeatedly slamming into the nearest wall.
You can access 50cc and 100cc from the off, while the faster settings are locked away behind success in previous cups. That’s right, just like ‘real’ Mario Kart, there’s a full range of cups to race through, each made up of three races. Brilliantly, the different gates change in appearance depending on the race type, while various other effects like rain or underwater ripples, and a change in soundtrack, serve to make each race more unique.
The more active part of that is that you can build a new track for every race. It’s not mandatory – it certainly serves to slow the whole process down – but it’s very very cool taking everything apart and having a go at track building with chairs, boxes and plastic dinosaurs. My favourite stand of the day saw Pando, Mr Todd and Marty Mcfly cheering from the sidelines while a T-Rex quietly watched Mario whizz by. I loved it, and both of our boys loved it. Our youngest even had his wooden tool kit out to act as pit crew, carefully tapping at the kart’s wheels with a tiny hammer. It’s been an utterly wonderful day of real-world and digital play.
I have to admit that those expecting it to be quite as refined as Mario Kart 8 will be disappointed. Drawing your track is quick and easy, but you have to be careful that it does actually fit properly into the space. Our household became annoyed when the AR competitors could travel straight through a sofa leg when we, quite obviously, slammed straight into it, and the edges of the AR track markers can easily be too close to objects that are going to get in the way.
It’s also very much the case that space is of a premium. The kart is fine on regular carpet, though lino and wooden floors are undoubtedly nippier, so that’s one potential issue done away with, but if you live in a smaller home you, or your children, aren’t going to get the most out of it. That’s a core barrier to play; Mario Kart Live simply won’t be able to offer very much to you if you have a smaller home.
The main problem though is connectivity. Mario Kart Live uses a WiFi signal to connect the kart with the Switch, with a recommended range of five metres. That proves most effective when you’re playing in handheld mode and you’re sat in the midst of whatever track you’ve created. Our lounge heads straight into the kitchen, and we set our first track up to go between the two rooms, but originally we tried to play with the Switch docked. With the dock tucked away behind our TV it soon became apparent that it just doesn’t work, suffering from both the physical barrier and the likely mess of WiFi signals spewing from behind there.
The result is that the camera feed cuts out, and you lose all control of the kart. Things are greatly improved by using it undocked, but then you can’t have it blown up on the TV with the music blaring out, which is a real shame when there’s so much fun to be had as a family or group with it in that format.
If you have the opportunity, you can play real-world multiplayer with four karts (there’s both a Mario and Luigi flavoured option at the moment, with more surely on the way) but at £99.99 a throw they’re a big investment for most households to even consider having one, let alone the four Switch consoles you’d need for a full roster. Sadly, when combined with the need for as much space as possible, Mario Kart Live is going to be reserved for the wealthier households out there.