Remember the Tickle Me Elmo rush of 1996?
The toy, an interactive version of the Sesame Street character that laughed when you so much as touched it, was the biggest holiday prize of the year. Parents literally fought over the thing in stores, and Tickle Me Elmo became a source of horror stories and an odd sense of pride for people that got one for years to come.
If you're too young to remember that time, think about how tough it's been to snag an Xbox Series X, PlayStation 5 or RTX 3080 graphics card this year. Console and PC gamers can relate to the weeks-long wait for even a smidge of hope of claiming their prize. Throw in a screaming kid, and you have Tickle Me Elmo -- and proof that no matter the simplicity, a great concept mixed with a big brand can make for the holiday commodity each season.
I say all of that to say this. Mario Kart Live: Home Circuit will be the Tickle Me Elmo of this holiday season, though the battles for ownership will likely play out online rather than in stores. Though the console wars and Nvidia card shortage are dominating the gaming conversation now, Mario Kart's ubiquity, fun-for-all ages style and relative affordability for parents and casual players will no doubt make Home Circuit the story of November and December. Think the Animal Crossing: New Horizons phenomenon, but with a mixed reality hook.
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Home Circuit is stunning in both its simplicity and its execution. It's Mario Kart, but in your house. You make the courses. You choose where item boxes, boosts and other elements of the course belong. And the customization plus the novelty of seeing the action play out in front of you is remarkably fun, both for kids and for people old enough to remember when Elmo was the talk of the holiday season.
I came into my test run of Home Circuit skeptical but walked away with nothing but nitpicky fixes. At $99.99, it is a bit pricier than the $30-something people spent for a giggling toy 24 years ago. But it's also markedly cheaper than the new console generation, and for parents and Mario Kart fans alike, a consolation prize that has that patented Nintendo magic behind it.
To get a sense of what this game can (and can't) do, my wife, my dogs and I put our Nintendo Switch, real-life racers and the track options to the test. We were left with my wife literally sweating as she raced Mario down a hallway, a terrified corgi and laughter that likely annoyed our neighbors. Here are some of the takeaways from our time with Home Circuit and the do's and don'ts for when you line up at the starting line.
Do: Clear the room
The first thing we did with our kart was see just how far it could go in every cardinal direction. The result: About 45 feet of leeway before the connection to your Switch cuts out. That's a ton of real estate, and to make the most of it, you'll want to unlock the kart's higher speed options, which should be familiar to fans of the Mario Kart series.
Home Circuit's hardware has 50cc, 100cc, 150cc and 200cc options. The latter two are unlocked by completing races in the game's Grand Prix mode, where you compete against virtual opponents to get circuit trophies, just like in your typical Mario Kart title. It takes five first, second or third place Grand Prix results to unlock 150cc and 10 to get 200cc, which is a very good call by Nintendo -- the kart actually does go faster, much faster, in real life at each of these intervals. The speed and turn radius take some getting used to, and in this version of Mario Kart, there can be real-life consequences for missing a cut, including but not limited to your dog getting smacked in the face. (No animals were hurt in the creation of this content, I promise).
Make space for your track, but don't be afraid of using things like coffee tables or other furniture as obstacles. In our testing, we found that even brick walls don't cut the Switch signal, even at around 30-40 feet. At 150cc, a Nintendo representative recommended a 10x12 meter space for a track, or about 32x40 feet of space. It isn't required, but it'll make your life easier and allow for some creativity for those faster-paced races.
Don't: Go outside the lines
An important warning: The four gates used to make your course are the only thing that matter when it comes to the race. The track you create outside of that is a recommendation, not a rule. There's an honor system here: Racers need to follow the track of their own volition and not create their own Rainbow Road-style shortcuts.
There are ways to restrict movement, obviously, like using obstacles to create lanes, but make sure they're not too flimsy if you really don't trust your craftier friends to stay on-track.
Do: Jumps and ramps (responsibly)
That same Nintendo representative did not recommend going vertical with the kart at all, which is totally understandable. The hardware, while durable, relies on a front-facing camera that stands above your racer's head through an attachment to the back of the kart. It is made of plastic. It is breakable.
But forget about that. Warnings be damned, we wanted to see Mario fly, and there are probably plenty of people out there planning some ridiculous courses for their karts as I type. After unlocking all the speed options and getting an understanding of what we were working with, we set up some cardboard ramps and tried our luck.
I regret to inform my fellow daredevils that the ramp options are pretty limited when it comes to this kart. You can yeet yourself using a few degrees of incline on less than a foot of height at 200cc, but it's not all that impressive. You can, however, build ramps for your kart to ascend with little trouble at that speed and 150cc, then plateau onto a second story and set up a fall or a ramp for the kart to go down on the other end.
Don't bother with the lower speeds for any of this; though the game does a great job of making it look like you're speeding down the raceway even when at 50cc and 100cc, but the immersion is ruined when the kart hits a 1-degree cardboard ramp and can't make the ascent.
There is definitely someone out there with an understanding of physics who will find a way to make this thing leap several feet into the air. That person is not me. For a layman, making a ramp that can make your kart defy gravity is a tall task.
Don't: Trust your children
This one's a warning for parents purchasing Home Circuit, courtesy of my sibling-having wife.
The gates you use to create the course are made of cardboard. While sturdier than expected, the cardboard is, of course, breakable. Children are prone to breaking things when they're mad. It's very easy to see a world where one kid gets upset with another and decides to burn it all down, ruining the fun for everybody, yourself included. Make sure you do the responsible thing and supervise.
Do: Customize before cutting loose
The journey to unlocking 200cc will also earn you several options for course creation, including gate effects and weather options that can affect your race. Rain leads to speed-boosting mushrooms growing on the course. A magical gate turns the camera and controls around, forcing you to adjust your approach.
Part of the fun of the Grand Prix is experiencing all these different effects while competing against virtual foes, and the same goes for racing against real-life opponents if you commit to adjusting your custom creations. Take some time to really think through what could throw off your fellow racers or create some chaos. I found it helpful to write down some ideas or combinations that I loved from the other series, and you might, too.
Throw in some real-life obstacles, and you've got a course that even Nintendo designers would envy.