Let’s face it: our homes are starting to feel a little … stale, aren’t they? That’s especially true for those of us who have had to find ways to keep our little ones entertained in a space where the pandemic has slowly shrunk the walls and dwindled the distractions. And, as we’re staring down cold winter months in much of the country, and the looming specter of a new COVID-19 peak, it’s more imperative than ever to keep our homes from feeling too monotonous and our kids from feeling too antsy.

Nintendo came in clutch during the first wave of the virus with Animal Crossing: New Horizons, giving us all an island to which we could escape for a little while. Now, the company has arrived for the holiday season with Mario Kart Live: Home Circuit. The game’s unique tech presents a new experience that will give kids a chance to explore the nooks and crannies of their homes with a fresh eye — and not a moment too soon.

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Mario Kart Live: Home Circuit is, unless you’re a die-hard Pikman fan, the marquee holiday offering from Nintendo this year. That’s a tall order in a season that sees new consoles arriving from both Sony and Microsoft. That being said, while it’s not quite as groundbreaking as a next-gen console, Home Circuit still brings a fresh experience to the Nintendo Switch. The game itself is regrettably thin in its gameplay, and the technology, while exciting, is far from perfect. But Home Circuit’s ability to quickly and creatively turn your home into a DIY Mario Kart racetrack will give even the most jaded youngster a fresh set of eyes on the possibilities of their home.

Home Circuit’s core gimmick is a miniature real-life Mario Kart — with Mario or Luigi inside! — equipped with an AR camera that uses a series of rearrangeable cardboard gates to create drive-able courses right in your home. Using the Switch as a controller, you maneuver the Kart through your placed gates, which the game then recognizes as a course. At that point, you can race your course against AI characters in a grand prix mode, or take yourself on in a time trial mode. As you play and earn coins, you can unlock different costumes for Mario, karts to race in, or customizations for the course itself like speed boosts or Bowser’s castle-style flame wheels. It’s a simple system that should be familiar to any Mario Kart fans, or easy to pick up for anyone who is not.

The biggest draw of the game, and the part that will most readily capture kids’ attention, is the brain-expanding opportunities that start to arise when Mario Kart enters the real world. Immediately upon opening the box, I started looking around my home not as a house, but as a series of increasingly daredevilish obstacles to overcome. Could the cart fit under our couch? (Yes.) Could I use this pillow as a ramp up these stairs? (Hahaha, no. Dummy. But fun idea!) As I sped Mario through my house, throwing hairpin corners around chairs and speeding through sofa tunnels, the walls and floors I’ve come to know way too well began to fade away, replaced with speed gates, gold coins, and jostling karts. It’s a magical effect that will win over players of any age.

Home Circuit’s biggest shortfalls come when you begin to, inevitably, compare it to Mario Kart proper. Avoid it all you want, drive as fast and far as possible, but those comparisons will arise, and they are often not favorable. The Mario Kart games have become iconic for their speed, their style, and their execution — each one is smoother and more vibrant than the last. In its defense, Home Circuit does go out of its way to recreate some of this magic: the Grand Prix courses bring in on-screen touches like underwater effects, courses littered by Goombas and Freezees that trap your kart in a block of ice, and you can even race on the always-necessary Rainbow Road.

But Home Circuit itself, as much as it is freed by the real world, is also limited by it. While the Kart handles well, the relatively tame pace at which it zooms around the room feels like a far cry from the speed at which you fly across the normal game. The Kart can’t handle terrain or inclines very well, meaning that as creative as you get the courses will remain generally linear and flat. And the camera itself is a touch washed out, making the real world feel a little gray and lifeless — again, a step down from the technicolor parade of the core game.

In addition, the game’s multiplayer — another huge draw for the franchise — is limited. Its saving grace would be if it was easy to play and race with friends, but unfortunately, there is no local multiplayer without a second Switch and Kart: and with the system costing $300 and the game running $100, you’re talking a $400 investment just for a friend to join in.

Mario Kart Live: Home Circuit is the latest example of Nintendo constantly working to redefine itself and flex its innovative muscles — and in many ways, it works! No company experiments as readily and successfully with how you play its games as Nintendo does. As often happens with new tech, the game running on it still needs some fine-tuning. Home Circuit might cause some frustration, and won’t keep a child entertained forever — but what will?

Still, the world-bending creative possibilities the game provides are sure to test their imaginations and hold their attention, and might even buy you a moment of much-needed peace — well, as much peace as one can have with a go-kart speeding around their living room. Baby steps!

About the author

Harry Wood

Harry Wood

Harry Wood is a writer, actor and journalist living in New York City. His work can be seen on the humor website Above Average, and he has produced podcasts for WNYC's the Sporkful and America's Test Kitchen's Proof. He performs improv, sketch, and stand up comedy regularly throughout the city, and tours around the country performing for kids as part of the Story Pirates. He can't wait for someone to hurry up and invent a time machine, so he can go back and tell his younger self that it's all going to be okay: he'll get paid to play video games when he grows up. Follow on Twitter @harrymwood.