Video games and toys have long been on a collision course. Technology has made playthings more realistic with talking dolls, remote-controlled cars and robotic pets. Meanwhile, video games have grown more immersive, trying to stretch beyond the flat screen with better controllers and graphics.
The two industries have started merging with the toys-to-life genre popularized by games such as "Skylanders," and though the games aren't white hot anymore, the category still has wide open fields of play to explore.
One of the developers pushing the genre forward is Velan Studios. The company has teamed up with Nintendo to create "Mario Kart Live: Home Circuit." It's a racing game that combines remote-controlled cars with one of the world's most popular racing franchises.
On the real-world side, "Mario Kart Live" comes with a plastic kart of Mario or Luigi. But if you look at it closely, you'll find high-tech wizardry underneath the hood. A camera is built into the vehicle along with a rechargeable battery and computer chips that controls the kart and connect it to the Nintendo Switch. The game also comes with four cardboard gates — they're important — and arrow signboards.
The video game portion of the project requires players to download the title from the Nintendo eShop. From there, players fire up "Mario Kart Live" and go through the process of registering the remote-controlled car on the Switch. In a nice touch, players take a "driver's license" photo using the camera on the toy, deepening the immersion.
Before racing, players have to set up the course by placing the gates within a space that's at least 10 feet by 12 feet. Series staple Lakitu splashes the car with paint and players drive it through the four gates to create a track. The paint left on the ground marks the path.
Once that's done, players roll to the starting line and jump into a contest against Bowser Jr. and the Koopalings. The magic comes from the augmented reality built into video game. The camera gives players a feed of the race from Mario's perspective and the video game dresses up the track world with accoutrements.
In Cheep Cheep Reef, players explore an underwater track with a blueish filter on the footage and fish swimming back and forth on the course. In Bowser's Castle, players encounter fire bars that rotate around the gates. Most of the in-game obstacles huddle around the gates but a few random objects, such as mushrooms or Thwomps, are scattered on tracks
It's not more elaborate because players create the tracks and "Mario Kart Live" pushes out the obstacles based on markers the camera recognizes. If players want more obstacles, they can make their own with the do-it-yourself spirit, but they have to keep in mind that the other AI-controlled competitors won't recognize a book blocking the way or an errant cat that walks through the track. They move on the established path.
Like much of "Mario Kart Live," the mechanics are basic and players have to meet the developers halfway by crafting clever layouts. With that said, Velan Studios adds unexpected twists to the experience. In weather-impacted levels such as Windswept Prairie, gusts make the kart hard to control and the toy the vehicles use has a rightward drift that players must compensate for. In the madcap Magikoopa Mirage, the wizard Kamek flips the camera or sets the track to mirror mode. It's disorienting at first before players realize the shenanigans. It's a brilliant way to use the technology.