If you know what “Mario Kart Live: Home Circuit” is, you may already see what’s coming. But even I can admit that it’s unfair to judge a game for what it isn’t, so here’s what “Home Circuit” is. Open the box, and the centerpiece is the toy: a remote control car fashioned after Mario’s default kart. It’s about the size of two hardcover books stacked one on the other, with the titular hero snug behind the wheel. The camera, which looms over Mario’s head, pipes video over to the Nintendo Switch, turning the floor of your apartment (after some light assembly, involving cardboard race markers) into a track for Mario Kart-themed shenanigans.
Here’s what it’s not: Any good. You can make a highfalutin critique of Nintendo outsourcing content creation to players, but even at its most basic, the “game” just isn’t very good. It’s time to stop grading on a curve.
You could always feel a “Mario Kart” race. There’s something about how the controls are tuned, in tandem with the visuals on screen and the sound and even the click of the stick on the N64 controller or the rumble in later controllers, that gave the franchise a sense of tactility. What grim irony then, that an actual, physical Mario kart lacks that sensation entirely. Part of this is the augmented reality capability, which just isn’t there yet. Obstacles and other racers waver like ghosts, not quite tied down to this earth. Every AR visual in the game has the spirit of a child trying to enter an unfamiliar room, and out of embarrassment or anxiety, hovering at the door, bobbing from one foot to the other and trying to catch someone’s attention. Believe it or not, this makes it very hard to drive. The AR, as implemented, defies the basic need for depth perception behind the wheel.
Depth is a sore subject on many levels. “Mario Kart” is a deceptively simple franchise. Just accelerate and turn, right? Wrong. In reality, “Mario Kart” games are drift management sims. But a remote control kart can’t really drift, which turns “Mario Kart Live: Home Circuit” from deceptively simple to actually simple. The challenge, then, comes from the connection between the Switch and the kart. My preferred track setup was a loop around the couch where I sat, and at times, the kart would round the bend behind the couch and the video on my Switch would start to skip, or transmit just a few milliseconds behind. In the context of the race, this doesn’t actually matter. Your AR opponents will frequently stop — completely — to let you catch up. But it matters if you’re racing at some of the higher unlockable speeds and you hear the thunk of your kart hitting a chair leg before you see it on screen.
“This is a toy for children,” I hear you saying, and to a point, you’re right. Everyone can empathize with being a kid and having to make due with a bad or broken or unwanted gift. And surely, a child could find something to like about “Home Circuit.” But if you’re reading this, it’s likely that you are not a child, even if you may be thinking of buying “Home Circuit” for a child. Heed my warning: You do not need to spend $99.99 on a broken gift.
Often, in reviews like this one — of tech that deep down the reviewer knows isn’t very good, and that probably isn’t going anywhere, but they don’t really want to say that just in case it does, by some miracle, blow up — writers often make a concession to the tech’s superficial charm. “It’s not good, per se, but the tech shows promise.” “There’s something there.” “It’s interesting but held back by flaws.” But I don’t really believe that, at least not in this case. I tried to imagine an ideal “Home Circuit,” one unencumbered by the onerous limitations of reality. Even as an imagined ideal (the camera doesn’t make my apartment look like a dungeon, the AR snaps tight to surfaces, conveying the vibe of a creamsicle-sweet dessert level, and the car zips nimbly through the oaky pillars evoked by the legs of a chair) the game still doesn’t seem very fun. That’s because the problem isn’t the tech, it’s the floor.
Mario Kart maps are designed by smart and thoughtful developers who place obstacles, turns and powerups where they do because those choices demand a response from the player. This is what we in the business call “the fun” or “the point” of games like this. Tracks are interesting because a wrong decision messes up your momentum, allowing other, better players to overtake you. Players then have to make a choice. Are they content with a third-place finish? Or do they take that jump, or try to edge out an opponent for two powerups instead of one, or hold the drift for juuuuust a second longer to get the slightly meatier drift boost to try to reclaim first place?
It’s definitely a novelty to see your apartment floor from Mario’s perspective. But it’s not fun because floors are flat. They are boring because that is the point of a floor. I like my floor a lot. It is wooden, and sometimes it creaks a bit when I walk on it, and it does just enough to fulfill my yearning for the rustic life that most 20-somethings think they want when they live in the city. But it’s no Mount Wario, and Nintendo’s gutsy attempt to foist a make-your-own-flat-Mount-Wario on players is a disaster.
If I have to say a nice thing about the game it’s this: After a long session, the kart wheels went from hot asphalt black to under-the-couch gray, reminding me to vacuum. I chose that over continuing to play.