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Mario Kart Live Home Circuit hands-on: I've turned my house into a racecourse

Nintendo's real-life AR kart-racing game is like an amazing little miniature theme park ride, but you'll need space and multiplayer costs extra.

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Mario Kart Live: Home Circuit blends RC car racing and on-screen gaming with AR effects. It took over my house.

Scott Stein/CNET

I hate cleaning. But I've done a lot of moving things around and tidying up, just to get things just right for kart racing. Cones under tables, gates behind chairs. I've blocked off my dining room. We're almost ready.

And suddenly, we have a racing circuit. I'm looking at my Nintendo Switch screen as I see the kart racing around between chair legs, bookshelves towering up. And then it loops around and hits this red thing on the end of a big towering blue thing. 

That's my leg. 

I'm watching myself run right into my own leg.

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Experiences like this are what Mario Kart Live: Home Circuit are about. If you want great Mario Kart gaming, that already exists in Mario Kart 8 Deluxe. This is something else. A spin-off real-world RC car racing game that uses your Switch as a remote and blends the game and reality. Gimmicky, quirky and, well, it's actually really fun.

I was skeptical about this game, because of the cost ($100 for just a single kart and $100 more for every extra kart you buy to race with, plus each player needs their own Nintendo Switch or Switch Lite) And there are other limits. It's not online, it's only single-player out of the box unless you buy more karts and you need a lot of open space. But it really does work and it blends video games and my living room better than I expected.

Suddenly I remembered playing an art-project version of Super Mario while wearing a Microsoft HoloLens years ago. Mario Kart Live, in a weird way, is very much that virtual things-in-the-real-world overlap I've been seeing happen on phones and headsets, but in a Mario racing toy.

Nintendo has been down this weird blending of game and real life many times before. Nintendo Labo was cardboard-folding performance art. Ring Fit Adventure is a physical living-room workout. Lego Super Mario turns Lego bricks into a board game. Nintendo had those scannable Amiibo figures, too, which are piled somewhere in a corner of my house.

The kart, developed by New York-based Velan Studios, is like a combination of some robotic drone toy, blended with a video game. A home camera-equipped kart. A robot game accessory? Sort of, yes. A way to shrink yourself down and race around your own home? Absolutely.

Put Mario Kart Live: Home Circuit in that bucket, but also draw a special little circle around it if you've ever fantasized about putting Mario Kart in your living room. 

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Four cardboard gates come in the package, and they're big.

Scott Stein/CNET

Setting it up: One kart, lots of cardboard gates

The box has a single Mario Kart RC car, with either Mario or Luigi. It's a cute little car and has a big camera mounted above where Mario or Luigi sits. A slide-open side USB-C port is where it charges up. A button above that turns it on and syncs with the Switch.

A free game app on the Nintendo eShop syncs with the kart via QR code and it auto-connects after that whenever it's turned back on. 

The fold-out cardboard gates are a lot bigger than I was thinking they'd be: roughly two feet long, so they'll fill up a room fast if you drop all four down. The kart can drive under them and the kart's camera not only recognizes the gates but adds videogame graphics on top of them on your Switch screen.

These gates are the four checkpoints for race courses and once they're put down I make my race course out by driving through each gate. In the game, I see my track marked out from paint on my wheels. You could keep driving back and forth and through the gates again before hitting the next gate, extending the track in complex loops.

I set up the gates in my home office first, which forced me to clear off most of my floor. Then I tried the dining room downstairs, which required a lot more decluttering. So far, it's a game of tidying.

The lighting conditions in my office and dining room ranged from well-lit to a bit dark, but the game seemed to track the gates and race just fine. 

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My dining room, after setting up gates along with cones and cups for fun. Stuff is everywhere.

Scott Stein/CNET

Building your own theme park ride

There have been racing drones that you could watch video footage on your phone with and robotic RC cars with phone-connected gaming controls. Mario Kart Live is kind of like those, but the extra Nintendo layer of polish here is excellent. The game starts up and feels like Mario Kart. The game's interface and other racers -- and in-game power-ups and obstacles -- feel like Mario Kart, too.

Item boxes at gates have red shells or mushrooms to boost my speed. I get chomped by a Piranha Plant, which stops my car or slows me down. A crazy mirror-effect at one gate flips my video so that I have to drive my house backwards, which makes me run into a chair.

My kids (ages 11 and 7) got excited and fought over the controls. They set up obstacles on the tracks and ran the car into things, dropping cups over the car to block the camera for fun. I stood over the track and straddled the road, and drove the car between my feet as an extra challenge. It was a charming blast.

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Several game modes, and lots to unlock, but also the game won't save your tracks.

Scott Stein/CNET

Limited track options, or infinite track options

The game has three parts: a number of three-course cups that feel like Mario Kart circuits, with different themes and enemies in each race -- one could have snowstorms and tornados, while another could be underwater. But they'll all be based on the same track you just made and drew out, unless you change it. Changing it means drive-painting a new course. Not as annoying as it sounds, but it means fiddling with the placement of gates and all that stuff.

I had a lot more fun continuing to race the same course we made over and over again, though, which surprised me. The course challenges, the possibilities someone tosses a shoe or a cup on the track, these kept me entertained.

The game won't save courses, though, so every time the game starts up again... I connect the kart and I draw a new track again. 

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The camera on the kart shows the room from a tiny car-level view, and blends AR effects. The kart alters its steering based on in-game enemies and effects, too.

Scott Stein/CNET

The kart's range is limited and so are the AR effects

The kart's direct Wi-Fi connection should work from around fifteen feet away, but I found it varied and if the kart went too far or turned a corner to another room the video connection would get stuttery and weird. It worked best when I was standing close by, or even sitting within the track.

The game's overlaid augmented reality relies on reading the gates and the two included arrow-marked cardboard signs, which animate in the game. The road's shape is drawn to match how I marked it when I drew out the course. Real-life obstacles like chairs and books and cups sometimes awkwardly overlap. At higher speeds, it all works together to feel fun and convincing.

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Charging via USB-C. The kart lasts about an hour and a half on a charge.

Scott Stein/CNET

The kart's slower than I expected! (And battery life is fine)

Racing the game at one of four speeds (I stayed at 50cc most of the time), it felt like I was flying through Mario Kart. In real life, the kart just slowly puttered around the course my son and I made. In the game, things were flying, weapons were exploding and I felt overwhelmed. In real life, the kart just slowly moved along, all alone.

It's fun to see the kart moving, but it doesn't reflect how wild the on-screen action gets. I bet it would be a lot more fun with two or more players with their own karts, but Nintendo only sent me this one kart to try. And who can afford two karts and two Switches?

Also, about battery life: an hour and a half sounds short, especially since the kart takes hours to recharge. But I found we stopped playing and took a natural break before the kart ran out of batteries. An hour and a half of RC car racing is a long time.

I played most of the time while holding the Switch in my hands, but it can be used while the Switch is docked in front of the TV, too. That's probably a better bet if you're a family in the living room and want to be lazy and not fight over a small screen, plus then you can all see what's going on in the game.

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It really works. But only one kart in the box for $100 means no multiplayer unless you pay an extra $100 and have a second Switch.

Scott Stein/CNET

Fun for a time where we're not doing anything

My kids have loved the distraction. We're not going to Universal Studios or Disney now. We're not seeing many people. We don't go to restaurants. We don't go to stores. I don't commute to the city. Their school is still remote. The world has shrunken down to a little ball. 

Mario Kart Live is a fun experience at home that feels like a little magic theme park ticket. And the game itself, while not as good as Mario Kart 8, is deeper and better than I expected. There are unlockable extras and time trials and cups to win.

Will we use this tomorrow? Or the day after? I don't know. I don't know what any of the future holds. For now, it's fun. It's also a bit expensive. But that's also relative. In a year with no new Switch hardware, this could be a great alternative as a Nintendo splurge gift.

At the end of a weekend of playing, my 7-year-old said, "I want to play Mario Kart 8 now." And so, even RC car racing fun has its limits.