By now, Nintendo has made exactly 87,493,029 versions of Mario Kart since the game was first introduced in 1992 for the Super Nintendo. (Okay, the company has really made 13—which is still a lot!) But a new sequel coming this fall to the Nintendo Switch changes the formula in an enticing way, thanks to super experimental UX.
Mario Kart Live: Home Circuit transforms the Nintendo Switch into a controller for an actual toy race kart. The kart is fitted with a camera, giving the player a first-person view of its perspective as it whizzes around your living room, bedroom, or wherever you have some open floor space to play.
How does the game build your course? You place a few gates that are bundled with the game on the floor. From there, how the exact setup and customization works is unclear (perhaps vision AI is involved?), but Nintendo—alongside its partner developer Velan Studios—demonstrates that one of several tracks, from a simple oval to complicated curves, can be set up to avoid existing couches, coffee tables, and perhaps even sleeping cats.
As you race your kart around the course, all sorts of augmented reality (AR) effects, ranging from glowing boundaries, to power ups, to your racing competitors, will appear on the screen, as if they exist in your actual home. If you run over a virtual item, like a nitro-boosting mushroom, the kart will actually accelerate. If you hit a troublesome banana peel, the car will actually lose some control. Oh, and assuming you have friends with their own games, up to four players can race their karts together in the same space.
With few exceptions, augmented reality has been little more than a gimmick. Snapchat’s zany face filters are still the most successful commercialization of this technology that, not so long ago, the tech world heralded as the next big thing.
Microsoft’s Hololens AR headset is technically impressive, but it’s being marketed as an enterprise tool to businesses (which demonstrates pretty clearly that it’s not ready for the mainstream just yet). The hyped company Magic Leap, with billions in venture capital from investors like Google, has done little more than release a developer version of its headset to mediocre reviews while it hangs on for life. The hardware is simply too expensive, too bulky, but, most of all, too useless to really be worth buying for a vast majority of people. Plus, it’s antisocial by nature to be experiencing a different version of reality than the people around you.
But Nintendo is doing what it does best. It’s figuring out how to transform a gimmick into shared fun—and make it halfway affordable, too. A lot of that comes down to Nintendo just understanding the ergonomics around technology and play. For years, AR demos tasked you to hold up your phone like a little window to peek through, to do something like transform a magazine cover into an animation. These novelties wore thin quickly because they’re more physically awkward than visually amazing.
Nintendo is taking a similar approach here to its predecessors. But instead of utilizing the camera in your phone, it’s built it into the kart. That allows you to play a game like you always do (sitting on your couch), but experience all of these enticing and additive effects of AR. No, Nintendo isn’t aiming as high as Magic Leap, teasing an entire world of digital objects that you can reach out and touch. But Nintendo is competent enough at game design that it’s figured out how to work with what it has to create an AR experience that’s both new and destined to be massively successful.
Mario Kart Live: Home Circuit will be out for $100 on October 16. The last version of Mario Kart sold more than 25 million copies to date. And if Home Circuit is only a fraction as successful, it will still be one of the most profitable demonstrations of AR ever built.