Mario Kart Live: Home Circuit — A Short Story About AR in Video Games

Mario Kart Live: Home Circuit

So, I got the game Mario Kart Live: Home Circuit some weeks ago. After playing it for several hours, I want to share my impressions and revisit the history of augmented reality (AR) in videogames.

Mario Kart Live: Home Circuit is Nintendo’s new bet to integrate AR and the genre's culmination so far. The game came out very timely as part of a series of releases to commemorate the 35th anniversary of Super Mario Bros. What better way than as a part of the best selling game franchise in the Nintendo Switch platform.

What is AR?

AR had existed in some way since 1968 when computer scientist Ivan Sutherland created a primitive head-mounted display name “the Sword of Damocles” because of its peculiar appearance. It still had a limited user interface and realism but clearly became the first to revolutionize virtual reality (VR) and AR.

Subsequently, new systems emerged and were used for simulations in aviation, military, and other industrial purposes. Not until 2018, its first commercial application appeared and was developed for advertising in Germany. It featured a magazine printed ad that, when tracked by a computer webcam, displayed a 3-D model version of a BMW Mini. Then, brands such as National Geographic (2011), Disney (2011), and Coca Cola (2013) deployed this novel technology.

Source: “Mini Augmented Reality Ads Hit Newstands” (Paul Strauss, 2008).

Commonly, AR uses a screen where a user can see a real-life environment captured by a camera, but with a digital augmentation overlaid on it. For instance, while pointing the camera towards my living room, I can see on a screen a digital creature waving its hand and sitting on my sofa.

AR technology intends to create fantastic situations by enhancing what we see in real-life. Today, AR is using what we see on-screen and including other technologies in the mix to create engaging experiences. For example, mobile games can use geolocation to show different things depending on where the user is.

AR in Gaming

To no surprise, the gaming industry saw an opportunity in this technology. It is said that the first outdoor mobile AR video game was launched in 2000 by Bruce Thomas from Wearable Computer Lab. The game, named ARQuake, enabled players to walk around without using a joystick or handheld. Users had to flip down a head-mounted display to see different game views based on their current physical location. Then, in 2008 and after smartphones became a thing, the first mobile phone AR app was released for Android. From that point on, developers have leveraged smartphones' cameras and screens to create new amazing apps and games using AR.

Perhaps, the most popular example is Pokémon Go. It took the world by storm after its release in 2016 and reaching 60 million active users at one point in 2017. In 2019, Pokémon Go was still the second highest-grossing smartphone game globally. If you haven’t heard of it, which is very unlikely, Pokémon Go is a free-to-play game that lets a user navigate and use the player’s physical location to show different pokémons on his or her screen. Then, the user can capture and collect them and then engage in different events.

Pokémon Go.

Also, Microsoft released Minecraft Earth in 2019. Inspired by the popular video game franchise Minecraft, it allows the user to create imaginary worlds built with blocks similar to the in-game features using a smartphone. A player can then share the creations with friends and with the world.

Other notable games that use AR are Harry Potter: Wizards Unite, which, in a Pokémon Go fashion, lets the user live different experiences based on their location; Jurassic World Alive, featuring AR dinosaurs that the user can collect; and The Walking Dead: Our World, if you’re more into killing zombies that appear in your living room.

Minecraft Earth.

What I Think of Mario Kart Live: Home Circuit

I’ve been a fan of the Mario Kart franchise for years. I played countless hours of Mario Kart 64 when I was a child. Now, I either play Mario Kart 8 Deluxe online with friends on my Switch or race on-the-go with Mario Kart Tour on my phone in idle times. So, naturally, I wanted to give Mario Kart Live: Home Circuit a try. Developed by Velan Studios, this game is pushing boundaries for AR.

My first impressions came with the box. It was way bigger than I expected (actually, not sure what I was expecting!) I bought the Mario version, even though the Luigi version seems beautiful, too. Inside the box, I found four cardboard gates and two cardboard turning signs. Immediately, my heart started racing with excitement as I was sure I’d be experiencing some magic. Even though I saw the ad at least a couple of times before purchasing it, I thought to myself: “Nintendo, how are you going to make these cardboard pieces look cool on the screen?”

Then, I saw the game's protagonist: Mario sitting in his kart, smiling back at me. Not gonna lie; it was also bigger than I expected, but after lifting, it really looked impeccable. Its finishes make it look like a high-quality toy, made of sturdy materials, and the wheeling system seemed ready to hit the road.

The setup is pretty simple and part of the game. I distributed the gates in my living room and bedroom for my first play, aiming to try the connection’s reach. After setting up the race rules and hitting OK, my heart was pounding. Baby Bowser and his friends showed up on the screen of my TV. Lakitu started counting 3, 2, 1. And there we go!

You can see my cat in this picture!

At the end of the day, the most fun part was actually looking at my house from a different angle. It blended and became part of the Mario Kart experience. And, most importantly, my cat Galletas became part of the track, too! Seeing her interacting with the kart definitely paid off.

The AR features shine in Mario Kart Live: Home Circuit. They took everything good from the Mario Kart franchise and pushed AR to the limit to create a compelling experience that is fun for everyone (even my mom loved it!) It doesn’t get old or boring a few times because you create the course every single time. And also, the game adds a layer of AR that makes each game unique.

Mario Kart Live: Home Circuit has to be THE game of this holiday season of 2020. If you’re still thinking about whether to get it or not, I would highly recommend it if you have plenty of space in your home and if you’re crazy about technology and innovation. This might be the beginning of a whole new time for video games.

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