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Mario Kart Live review: Nintendo delivers a gaming-changing AR experience for Switch

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The 35th anniversary of Super Mario brought plenty of new ways to enjoy the Nintendo action from a battle-royale style title to an official collaboration with LEGO. But one of the releases from earlier this fall that was overlooked by the limited-edition release of Mario All-Stars fell to Mario Kart Live. The remote-controlled car brought the wildly-popular racing game into the real world with an augmented reality experience to tie everything together. And today, we’re taking a hands-on look at what to expect from Nintendo’s latest out of the box idea, so head below for a closer look at everything in our Mario Kart Live review.

Hands-on with Mario Kart Live

Mario Kart Live is unlike pretty much anything we’ve seen from Nintendo from the past. Sure we’ve had its ever-growing collection of Amiibo figures that merged the virtual and real-world gaming experiences, but nothing quite on this level. 

Here, Nintendo centers everything around the Switch itself, which pairs with an RC that comes in either Mario or Luigi versions. It’s an experience unlike anything I’ve tried out in the past and deserves way more attention than the release has gotten. But before I get ahead of myself, let’s start by diving into the Mario Kart Live car itself.

A closer look at the Mario Kart Live car

The core piece of the puzzle here is the remote-controlled car that’s included in the package. The toy has a premium feel to it that looks great just on its own. It’s arguably the most accurate Mario Kart figure you could buy, and that’s before you even get into all of the impressive features under the hood.

While RC cars with cameras built-in are nothing new, Nintendo leverages that to achieve a first-person driving experience from the Switch. The kart itself has rear-wheel drive and steering in the front, which is surprisingly responsive for communicating with Nintendo’s hybrid console. Aside from a power button on the right that’s just about a USB-C charging port, there’s not too much to give away that it’s hiding all of the motorized functionality.

Nintendo shows its cardboard expertise

Alongside just the RC car itself, Nintendo includes a variety of add-ons for building out your own race track. Over the past few years, Nintendo has been perfecting its craft of using cardboard for Switch accessories and now is applying all of the expertise towards its latest endeavor here. 

In the box, there are six different course builders, including four gates and two arrow barrier pieces. They’re fully comprised of cardboard and are covered in printing to not only look like they belong on the Mario Kart circuit but also for allowing the car to interact with them. Each one has some kind of symbol on it, ranging from mushrooms to shells and more. 

The track accessories fold flat when not in use and are quite sturdy for being made out of cardboard. From my use so far, they should hold up well over time but are prone to being damaged just by their very nature of being cardboard. But the cool thing here is that there’s nothing proprietary about them, you could print out your own gates and paste them onto some folded cardboard without any issue. So even if anything happens, getting back in the driver’s seat is just a short arts and craft session away.

What to expect from the game

Now, as cool as the physical car and other included accessories are, the real portion of the experience comes from strapping in behind your Switch and putting the pedal to the metal in the companion game. Not to oversimplify things, but it’s essentially just another take on Mario Kart. So if you’re familiar at all with the racing action from any of the other titles in Nintendo’s catalog, you’ll know what to expect. 

The twist here, though, is that instead of traversing Rainbow Road, Bowser’s Castle, or any of the other iconic tracks you might expect, you’ll be driving around your own home. The six included gates and barriers give you a pretty decide amount of customization for building out a track but can be expanded by making your own or picking up additional kits for co-op action.

Aside from the augmented reality aspect, the real focus here is on in-person play. So there’s not much in terms of online action because that pretty much goes against the whole purpose here. Most of the action is centered around racing against AI and doing time trial type things, but there’s also the ability to race against three other physical cars. I, unfortunately, wasn’t able to test that out for this review, but it seems to only expand on the Mario Kart Live experience.

There is no getting around that this is a more basic version compared to what you’ll find in Mario Kart 8: Deluxe though. There aren’t as many in-game items or game modes, but that’s at the trade-off of the more unique gameplay focus.

Overall Mario Kart Live experience 

Nintendo manages to combine both the in-person and digital aspects here to create one of the most impressive implementations of augmented reality to date in a consumer product. On top of just being a novel gameplay experience, everything is backed by a level of polish you’d expect from Nintendo. It’s not just a tech demo to show what’s possible with AR; it feels like a fully thought out adaptation of a popular game. 

There’s plenty of replay value here. But not just from redoing the same course again and again for a better score or to come in first. There’s a near-endless amount of tracks you could customize the layout for, and printing more of the gates lets you expand what’s possible out of the box.

The biggest downside here is that you need a hardwood or tile floor to really take advantage of it. The RC kart does not handle carpet very well, so if you don’t have a sprawling space to set up a track, it might be a deal-breaker.

9to5Toys’ Take

At the end of the day, the real question here is if Nintendo packed Mario Kart Circuit with enough action to justify the $100 price point. To answer that, it’s worth pointing out that Nintendo toys and merchandise in their own right are expensive, and that’s before you throw in all of the technology here and the companion game.

I’ve dove into virtual and augmented worlds in the past, but there’s something so brilliant about this implementation that really makes it feel like an entirely different experience. It’s a natural application of the technology that doesn’t feel forced and delivers an entirely new way to enjoy one of the best racing games of all time.

So, to answer if Mario Kart Live is worth $100, if there’s just one takeaway from the review, it absolutely is. Nintendo really delivered a well-rounded product that is brimming with the kind of charm you’d expect. Everything from replay value to just how nifty the augmented reality is is exciting.

With the holidays just around the corner, this is an easy gift to recommend if you can manage to get one delivered ahead of Christmas. At the time of writing, listings are in stock and arriving ahead of the big day, but that’s likely to change as we get closer to the end of December.

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