The day before Mario Kart Live arrived on my doorstep, my 7-year-old smashed our living room window with a soccer ball. I didn’t see it happen, but I saw the damage. It cost $200 bones to fix that window.
I am a man numb to the carnage my two young boys have brought into my life.
The oldest — the smasher of windows — is the more responsible of the two. I can at least depend upon him to feel remorse when he accidentally wedges Nintendo DS cartridges into my PlayStation 4 or obliterates my 200-hour-long Breath of the Wild save.
The 4-year-old is a different species entirely. A savage, belligerent agent of chaos. It’s difficult to know at this early stage in his life if he feels a single shred of regret for the calamity he brings to my life every hour of every day. But he does a mean version of Let It Go. At full volume. During every waking minute of my life.
But back to Mario Kart.
Mario Kart Live is an augmented reality version of Mario Kart that transforms your living room into a racing track. Thanks to a well-placed camera, players can pilot a real remote control kart around their house using a Nintendo Switch, and the console will plug in the gaps onscreen. Bam, your living room becomes a racetrack.
It’s a genius high concept, and the execution is very Nintendo: Slick, accessible and incredibly tactile. Build your own layouts in your house using your own furniture and transform that space into a literal Mario Kart track. Awesome!
Except it isn’t awesome. Because I know my own children. I knew what was headed my way: Rage, pain, destruction. Best case scenario: A living room consumed with plastic garbage and Lego I would no doubt step on.
Worst case scenario: Too terrifying to imagine. At some point Mario would end up in the bath. That’s all-but-guaranteed.
Things were about to get messy.
I was pleasantly surprised by how simple Mario Kart Live was to set up.
After being traumatized by Nintendo Labo, which took me roughly four hours to build and 30 seconds to destroy, I expected Mario Kart Live to be a thankless chore in the beginning. Particularly with two young children in tow, sticky paws wrestling over who got to go first.
Wrong. We were darting the Mario remote-controlled car around our living room within minutes.
Creating a track in Mario Kart Live is a relatively simple affair. You place four cardboard “gates” at different points in your house, do a test run to create the race itself and boom — you have a track. The software fills in the blanks, providing you with opponents to race and items to pick up.
But in the beginning, you don’t even need to do that. In fact, my kids couldn’t give one solitary shit about creating a track. They just wanted to drive around.
They huddled around the screen, cackling like hyenas, enthralled with the situation: The house they lived in, the kitchen table they spilled Weet-Bix on, the chocolate stained couch they lazed upon whilst watching Bluey like zombies, had been transformed into a gigantic playground and it was… hilarious.
For once, my kids weren’t fighting over the Switch or trying to grab it from one another. They were playing… harmoniously?
Most augmented reality games, in my experience, are sort of blergh and not convincing at all. Even Pokemon Go,the most successful augmented reality game ever, is successful in spite of the AR features. I, like many players, play Pokemon Go with the AR mode switched off.
Mario Kart Live is different. In Mario Kart Live the suspension of disbelief is palpable. The line between reality and what’s augmented is blurred like I’ve rarely seen in games of this ilk. It’s absolutely captivating.
Mario Kart Live is on some Honey I Shrunk the Kids shit. It dramatically alters your perspective. Mario Kart Live places you two inches from the bottom of the floor and lets you zip around like a hyperactive gerbil in your own home. It’s hard to explain how fun that is.
The dissonance is compelling. Your sofa is a skyscraper, the dining table chairs ponderous pillars to be navigated at speed. It sounds like hyperbole, but Mario Kart gives you a perspective on the spaces you took for granted, and it’s magical.
Which explains the constant cackling of the children.
Things got weirder when we started trying to create tracks.
We liberally tossed the gates at different points throughout the house, trying to create the skeleton of what felt like an com race. The game suggested we hold the gates in place with a book or something heavy. We used other video game controllers because we couldn’t find any books, which definitely didn’t make me stare into space reflecting on my parenting priorities
But attempts to create a track that used my whole house were scuppered with range issues. The further the kart goes from the Switch, the more jittery and laggy the racing becomes.
The wild card was, of course, my 4-year-old, who absolutely waited until I’d constructed the perfect course to start kicking over the gates, confusing the software. My track went haywire, glitching in and out, changing shape.
But, technical issues aside, Mario Kart Live works. And it feels amazing.
It locks you in the “between world.” Sat on your couch, staring at the Switch screen, engrossed in this make believe half-world. You’re a tiny being, shrunk to the size of a 2-inch figurine, inside a Kart hurtling at tremendous speeds under your dining table. Insane moments are taking place all around you. Explosions, banana peels, creatures driving floating hover vehicles.
Then you sort of just look up, bleary-eyed — awake from the parallel universe the Nintendo Switch has invented — watching this painfully slow, plastic “Mario Kart” inch across your living room floor like a lobotomized slug.
Onscreen it feels like you’re going 200 miles per hour, but these little kart things are sort of slow in real life. It certainly doesn’t matter to my kids, who are drunk with power and alternating between racing and using their own bodies to create gargantuan, bridges.
Mario Kart Live taught me to view my world through a different, nightmarish lens.
It’s maybe the first video game that’s allowed me to see my 4-year-old from the perspective of the animals he’s always trying to clumsily pet or the lizards he chases around the garden.
In my world, my son is a minor threat. Sure he’ll accidentally punch me in the nuts, kick me in the nuts or wake me up by standing on my nuts, but he’s small. A tiny creature.
But in the world of Mario Kart Live he is a Kaiju, a real-life Godzilla with the potential to alter any race in an instant. Sometimes with a clumsily placed foot. Sometimes more deliberate. A cackling in the hallway, a gigantic, sticky paw descending from on high, picking up the kart like a malevolent God… and locking it in the nearest bathroom.
The Way of the Labo
Despite the thrills, I’m not 100% sure Mario Kart Live will stick.
With Labo, for example, my children spent one morning building the cardboard structures and messing around with the games. They never mentioned it again. Not once. To this day, it gathers dust in our garage. Most expensive cardboard ever.
Roughly one hour after setting up Mario Kart Live, my son had picked up our iPad and loaded Goat Simulator. Two minutes later, he asked if we could download Kick the Buddy, a godawful free-to-play game his friends are obsessed with.
Will Mario Kart Live go the way of the Labo?
It’s hard to say. Just this morning, my oldest asked me if he could play Mario Kart Live after school. That’s a sign, for me, that Mario Kart live is more than a gimmick.
The cycle reminds me of a VR headset. It does just enough use to justify its existence but is hardly part of my weekly entertainment diet like Netflix or other Nintendo Switch games. I imagine myself pulling it out when nephews and nieces visit, but it’s hard to imagine that interest sustaining over the coming weeks and months.
But for now, at least, Mario Kart Live is a welcome distraction. For now, the windows are safe.