The biggest surprise of Mario Kart Live: Home Circuit is that I never wanted to look at the toy itself.
I went in thinking that the toy would be the whole point. Mario Kart Live: Home Circuit is a mixture of the real and the virtual, allowing me to use my Switch to drive an actual remote-controlled car around a course that I set up around my apartment. The game involves battling it out either with other players in the same space who have their own toy cars, or with computer-controlled opponents that zoom around the track. It’s one of the first augmented reality toys I’ve ever used where the technology dramatically enhances the play instead of simply adding a nifty gimmick.
Don’t get me wrong — the kart itself is a neat little toy. It’s detailed enough to look like something out of the game series without being so ornate that it becomes fragile. I’ve played with the set among adult friends and their children, and it has been both picked up gingerly to be examined and also slammed into the ground after being thrown by a small child. I’ve already clipped cat and dog hair out of the wheels and accidentally driven the kart down the stairs. Thus far, the kart has handled all of this abuse with no issue.
So the toy kart itself can take a beating, and Nintendo cared enough about maintaining the illusion of a real go-kart to hide the charging port behind a plastic panel that slides up. The kart zips along at a good speed, although in-game options and being hit by certain virtual items can speed it up or slow it down.
But it’s the camera inside the kart, which sits behind Mario’s plastic body, that provides all the magic.
The real action happens on the screen of my Switch Lite, or on the TV if I’ve connected my regular Switch. The built-in camera that sits above the toy Mario shows my actual apartment as the background of each level, with a cartoon Mario and kart layered in the foreground, alongside other animated elements like the track itself, the other computer controlled racers, and even environmental effects like water or dust.
The toy is only there to serve the game, with the focus being the courses you create in your actual space, and the creativity you can bring to the game. Once my friends and I got into the swing of things, our eyes rarely left the screen itself, which is a strange thing to say about a product where ostensibly the real-world objects are the entire point. But all those objects, and all that technology, exist to serve what happens on the screen. And what happens on the screen is pure joy.
I spent a significant amount of time exploring my own living space through the eyes of what seemed to be a tiny Mario. I found that I didn’t have to race or compete to have a good time; the act of bringing this well-known cartoon character into my actual life was enough to keep my interest between races. I’ve only had the set for about a week, but it’s proven very hard to put down. I’m completely enamored by the whole system, especially since it’s so easy to use, and this kind of creative play can prove to be very rewarding.
So, let’s get started. These tracks aren’t going to build themselves.
Creating a track
Like other Mario Kart games, the software version of Mario Kart Live: Home Circuit still comes with different Mario-themed Cups, each with different visual themes, arranged by speed. But it’s up to you to make the tracks themselves.
The box comes with four cardboard gates, cleverly folded into rectangles and kept in a tightly packed sleeve. You unfold the legs, sliding a cardboard tab across each one to lock them in place, and then put the gates in the order you’d like the racers to drive through, with the number facing the car’s camera.
Lakitu then puts some virtual “paint” on your in-game tires and asks you to run through each gate once. This creates a map of the track in the game, with the loop ultimately closing when the kart reaches gate 1 again. Once that’s done, the game shows you an image of your track, places the virtual boundaries of the track on the display you can see through the Switch, adds some power-ups under each gate while also giving each cardboard gate an augmented reality glow-up, and that’s that. You’ve created a track.
Then it’s off to the races. You can choose your Cup and difficulty rating and begin racing around your house. Up to four physical karts can race against each other at once, but most people will probably play against the CPU, and doing so is a great time. The virtual items impact the speed of your real racer, making you slow down or speed up if you get hit with a shell or use a boost.
Making a new course is as simple as re-arranging the gates and then taking a sample lap around the design so the software can lock it in. I’ve made courses in three different places now, and part of the joy of Mario Kart Live: Home Circuit is to begin thinking of domestic spaces in terms of level design.
There are some limitations to the process of creating a track. The karts don’t do well on carpet, the range is limited to about 15 feet from the Switch, and Nintendo recommends playing the game in a space of at least 12 by 10 feet. There is also no way to take screenshots or capture video clips while playing, likely a concession to the privacy issues of children accidentally sharing images of themselves or others playing. The kart has some limitations, too. The battery on it lasts around 90 minutes at 150 CC, and it takes about 3.5 hours to charge, so the fun can’t go on forever, which is a shame due to how much there is to do once everything is up and running.
I loved zooming down straightaways, jostling for position, or hoping for the right item while the background of the level itself is my apartment, and even seeing me or my kids on screen as passive observers or interactive elements — all together, the result is absolutely magical. I kept having to remind myself that my cat wasn’t somehow put into Mario Kart as a virtual roving obstacle, randomly attacking my kart. Because the video feed was provided by an actual toy, my cat organically became an element in play once he noticed what I was doing.
Your home is Mario’s world
The island in the kitchen could be its own oval track, or it could be part of a larger, more challenging course if you put a gate under the kitchen table as well. As long as you stay within range of the physical kart, every room, piece of furniture, member of your household or pet is a potential element of your course design, and you never quite know what’s going to happen next. The chaos or stillness of your living conditions will become gameplay itself, for better or worse, depending on how much your children or pets want to mess with the little zipping kart buzzing around the house.
A few plastic cups on the ground can become an obstacle course. A plant or two can become a forest to navigate through. The computer controlled racers ignore those sorts of ad-hoc physical obstacles, but they’re still fun if you’re playing with more than one kart. Also, you lose coins if your kart hits a real-life object. The animated Mario on screen even reacts to what’s going on around him, getting jostled if you hit a wall or go over a bump, or turning to look behind himself if you have to back up.
As you play, you can unlock outfits for Mario, as well as themed augmented reality overlays for the course and gates, allowing you to really dive in and create something that plays and looks unique. Mario Kart Live: Home Circuit is a wonderful use of augmented reality, but it’s also almost a stealth Mario Kart Maker release — except you have to physically make each course as well as design its aesthetics. Not everyone will have the space or the smooth floors necessary to make this game work well, but for those who do, the development team has juggled the interaction of real and virtual objects with flair.
From racing against the computer to taking on friends with their own karts to designing the perfect track to just exploring your place through the eyes of a tiny, kart-racing Mario, this is a toy in the best way: a portal to inventive, constantly changing play that’s fun no matter how you decide to interact with the platform. Your home is now Mario’s own set of challenges and opportunities, and that’s a jump I did not expect from the Mario Kart franchise.
Mario Kart Live: Home Circuit will be released Oct. 16 on Nintendo Switch. The game was reviewed on Switch using a pre-release download code and Mario set provided by Nintendo. Vox Media has affiliate partnerships. These do not influence editorial content, though Vox Media may earn commissions for products purchased via affiliate links. You can find additional information about Polygon’s ethics policy here.