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Mario Kart Live: Home Circuit Review - Karting Expectations

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If there was any doubt that Nintendo is a company willing to take big risks, the introduction of Mario Kart Live: Home Circuit just ahead of the holiday season should dispel those reservations. Mario Kart is one of the company's biggest draws for both casual and invested consumers alike, and is a dream title to have available during a time period that sees many people pick up a new console or a few new games. Instead of delivering the long-awaited Mario Kart 9, however, Nintendo has shipped something distinctly different and new.

Mario Kart Live: Home Circuit is a Mixed Reality game that sees players use their Nintendo Switch console to control an RC kart, piloted either by Mario or Luigi. That car navigates home terrain that's been arranged in real life to provide a track and then programmed into the game to function as one, while the game screen populates the RC karts journey with item boxes, enemy AI to race against, and various track hazards and environments. While the technology on display is pretty impressive, the nature of its design makes Mario Kart Live: Home Circuit a more shallow experience for many with the ceiling for innovation significantly higher for those who sink enough time into making it work.

Right out of the box, Mario Kart Live: Home Circuit's emphasis on quality feels like a selling point. Yes, its gates - there are four, and they help the game determine how the track is laid out in a player's home - are made of cardboard, but they're surprisingly sturdy, and the trade-off is that they're easy to store and take back out in seconds. The car itself has some weight to it and held up well. In our testing, any errors made while driving that saw the kart run into a table leg or, in one instance, a curious cat's prodding paw were all shaken off by the car without any damage. It's not going to survive being hurtled into rock-solid objects, but for any minor bumps and scuffs, the kart seems well-built.

Setting up a course is also as easy as Mario Kart Live: Home Circuit previews made it seem. Players can enter a free roam game mode and set up their gates in a specific manner, tracing the course they want to race as they do so. That course can then be implemented by the game and raced on quickly, so the transition between set-up and play is fairly quick. It's still more than some fans might want, as the game is certainly not pick-up-and-play without leaving its gates out in between sessions, but overall for the amount of moving parts involved it's a surprisingly swift arrangement.

Mario Kart Live: Home Circuit has a Grand Prix mode, and it's this setting that the entire game is channeled through. While free roam is entertaining for a few minutes, and Time Trial can be interesting to see how far a player has come as a racer, Grand Prix is the experience many Mario Kart fans will be expecting to deliver the same quality they've come to expect from the series. Whether it does is, frustratingly, seemingly up to the amount of time players are willing to spend on their track design, with very little in the way of defaults to help carry a simple play experience beyond a few hours.

The Grand Prix setting allows players to race their track in either 50, 100, 150, or 200cc across a series of three races. Randomized gate hazards help shake up each race even though it's occurring on the exact same Mario Kart track layout, and environmental hazards help diversify the experience even further. Grand Prix races will also award players with coins while they're racing, which in turn can unlock customizable options for their driver, their kart, and even that kart's horn. Small touches, like a Rainbow Road environment, help bridge the noticeable gap between the exciting designs that traditionally populate Mario Kart racing with the more realistic, muted versions fans will be building here.

Unfortunately, Mario Kart Live: Home Circuit's racing is not as deep as a traditional Mario Kart game. While item boxes - including double item boxes - do exist, the tracks themselves never feel like they distinguish themselves enough to break the feeling that it's quite repetitive thanks to its reliance on a given home setup. The AI is represented by Bowser Jr. and the Koopalings, and while they're serviceable opponents, it's weird not seeing the wide array of characters fans have come to expect competing against the player's racer. It's even weirder not to be able to play as them - Mario Kart Live: Home Circuit locks players into their RC racer, and even the on-screen version of them can't be changed to someone else from an opposing human player's perspective.

Another issue is space. This will, obviously, be different for each player, but Mario Kart Live: Home Circuit spacing is needed, and the more floor space fans have, the more options they'll get in their races. It feels like the game has pretty lofty expectations of just how much space people may actually have in their homes, though, and it's especially difficult to get higher cc racing to work on anything other than a standard circle with a few deviations for a more complex track. Elaborate track design doesn't just require creativity, but it seems to also demand physical space, which can be a limiting factor that's frustratingly impossible to navigate.

One thing that physical space does offer is a malleability of the track that doesn't exist in pre-programmed Mario Kart race settings. Using cardboard boxes or other small environmental obstacles that can be interacted with changes the way races go on a lap-by-lap basis. Accidentally bumping into a few plastic cups, for instance, knocks them over and then creates a much more hazardous obstacle on the second lap, as much of the track is now blocked by the same cups that were stacked prior. It's simple, but effective, and creates the kind of variance in racing that feels more player-controlled than those instances where someone gets annihilated by a blue shell - though that still happens too, and the RC car amusingly just stops movement as if the racer is aghast that such a thing happened to them.

Ultimately, Mario Kart Live: Home Circuit was always going to be a risk. Sacrificing the colorful designs of the series' most famous tracks and the lack of Grand Prix variation on the level of Mario Kart's best entries was a gamble, and it didn't pay off the way Nintendo may have hoped. Mario Kart Live: Home Circuit is an interesting, innovative game that feels like the best Nintendo could do with the concept - but it's a step back from just how great Mario Kart has been historically, and feels more like an extremely well-crafted novelty rather than a game that will keep people coming back months after release.

Mario Kart Live: Home Circuit is out now for Nintendo Switch.
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