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To cut straight to the chase - or, I guess, the race, in this instance - Mario Kart Live: Home Circuit works, and that's its greatest obstacle conquered. There's no fuss here, no enormous instruction book to work your way through. There's barely any resistance at all. Home Circuit takes seconds to set up, the Nintendo Switch software that enables it to function is easy to navigate, and the sheer fun-times potential of this thing is only as finite as your imagination - and living spaces. Compared to Ring Fit and Labo, this is instant-click delightfulness that anyone will be able to get along with.
For those playing a bit of catch up, Mario Kart Live: Home Circuit is an IRL version of Mario Kart - with its closest digital brethren, in terms of sounds and sights, being Mario Kart 8 - that allows you to race a remote-control plastic kart (which comes in either a Mario or Luigi design) around your living room, kitchen, hallway or garage. Basically, wherever you've space enough to create a circuit, at home, create a circuit you can. The courses are both physical and virtual, with the kart's on-board camera sending whatever it sees, with augmented-reality extras, to the Switch screen; and you 'paint' each track into place, before rocketing around it in competition with an on-screen-only Bowser Jr and the Koopalings.
Here, watch this video, as it'll show you what the above is all about.
Controlling the kart, via your Switch, feels incredibly close to playing Mario Kart 8 - you collect items (red shells, inky squids, and so on) which are used on the Koopalings; you receive boosts and coins and other power-ups; and you can even power-slide around corners for a boost, all using the same control scheme as MK8. A to accelerate, B to brake and reverse. Items on the left, slides the right. Effortless.
The perspective is a little different, with the camera just above Mario's (or Luigi's) head, but you soon enough get used to it - not that you won't occasionally clip a piece of furniture from time to time. Or a trespassing foot, or a pet that's unwisely settled down in the middle of the home straight.
There are two speed options at first, 50CC and 100CC, with 150CC and 200CC only available after several races; and the basic kart design, as seen on-screen, can be customised. The more you play, the more outfits, kart designs and horn sounds you unlock for either Mario or Luigi; so while the plastic kart is always as it is, out the box, what's on screen could be a pirate ship, a rocket, or a bulldozer.
The fold-out cardboard gates (four of them - pass through them all to complete a lap) and arrow signboards (two - for use on bends) use augmented reality to become themed to suit each track, with underwater, icy and volcanic designs (the floor is lava!), and many more. It's a genuine thrill to see these static, flat accessories come to life on the Switch screen - and the gates can be customised, too, for player-designed events.
The rush of seeing something fantastical that you normally only encounter in a video game spread out on a floor you walk across several times a day, in a room you know so well, is substantial - and it's a rush that doesn't quit a dozen, two dozen, three dozen races in.
But what Mario Kart Live: Home Circuit 'does' is easily explained in a preview - as per the video above. In practice, in your own home, just how magical it's going to be is determined, somewhat, by where you set it up. In my living room - a narrow, small space, as I live in a mid-19th century terrace - Home Circuit is perfect at 50CC and 100CC, but any faster and it quickly turns into a chaotic mess. Maybe that's part of the appeal for you, but I've no doubt that in smaller rooms, restricted speed is a benefit. In larger rooms where you can really put your foot down - well, thumb on the A button - along long straights, this won't be an issue.
The kart will perform perfectly up to a distance of around five meters from the Switch console. But if it gets further away than that, or passes into another room - meaning it's on the other side of a wall - you will see the connection stutter, the camera begin to freeze, and eventually the kart will simply stop. I played around with circuits that ran from the living room, through the hall and into the dining room, but had to get up from the sofa and follow the kart as I played in order to keep the connection steady. The software lets you know if the connection is faltering, so you'll know when to turn back.
I also played with my Switch docked, using a Pro Controller - to record the on-screen content, as the Switch's built-in capture button doesn't work with the Home Circuit software (but maybe that'll change in a future update). And when docked, even at a distance of under a metre, I found the connection could be a little shaky - the signal from Kart to Switch to my TV screen would appear blocky on occasions, and seem to skip frames. Not a deal breaker but given that some promotional images show Home Circuit in docked mode, it's worth noting that in my experience, it's far better to play handheld.
Outside of races - there are several grand prix events, each with their own AR themes, and each asks if you want to rearrange your course prior to starting - there's also a time-attack mode, which is the only way you can have some Switch-sharing multiplayer fun with a single Home Circuit unit. To have two karts racing side by side, you need not only that second kart but also a second Switch. But time-attack means one player can set a time around a circuit, pass to a pal, and they can try to beat it, with a ghostly clock on the screen indicating the performance of the previous racer. You can also just drive the kart around, like a normal remote-control toy, albeit with the gates and item boxes and everything else of an AR nature still active.
Acknowledging that there are minor bumps in the road here - the connectivity issue while docked might just be a weird thing in my old house, where the walls are made of either steel or sawdust - Mario Kart Live: Home Circuit remains a really enjoyable, instantly accessible product that is just as easy to get along with as Mario Kart 8. Its brilliance lies in its simplicity, really: what if you could take that racing off screen, and put it at your feet. That's what it aims for, and it achieves it, absolutely.
Like Labo before it, though, the cardboard components mightn't stand up to even one stray size nine, so do bear that in mind when laying out your tracks. But the kart itself feels sturdy and solid, capable of taking more than a few bumps, and charges via a USB C that can run straight out of your Switch dock (although the included lead to do so is barely a couple of inches long).
There are other remote-control Mario Kart products on the market, which no doubt some parents will see and think: what's the difference? But Nintendo's combination of the elementary joy of 'driving' a toy around your house with the augmented reality tech of Home Circuit's software places it in pole position amid its peers, by a huge margin. Video doesn't do this justice: get Home Circuit in your hands, and it's impossible not to have a great time with it, subject to understanding its limitations.
The remaining question is one of cost. A single Home Circuit set - one kart, four gates, two signboards, a charge lead, and the software is free anyway - will set you back a hundred pounds. Feels like a lot - but, if you've plenty of space at home to get creative with Home Circuit's courses, and imagination enough to use other things around the house to bring personality to your on-screen experience (I played around with books, plushies, LEGO sets, whatever the kids would let me throw in front of a speeding Mario, basically), then the possibilities of this thing are brilliant indeed.
Or, for the TL;DR version: Mario Kart Live: Home Circuit delivers remote-control racing like you've probably never seen before. Its augmented-reality features are brilliant and genuinely surprise with just how well they work, 'in hand'. Home Circuit is full of classic Nintendo charm from its out-the-box elements to its cheery software; it's extremely intuitive to use and offers troubleshooting advice if needed; and it does work in a small space, even if you'll absolutely get more from it, the bigger your home is. It's all the vroom your living room has ever needed - just be sure to keep the kart where you can see it.
A Mario version of the Mario Kart Live: Home Circuit set was provided by Nintendo for this coverage.
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