Take my advice: Savor the opening minute of Mario Kart VR before your race starts, because it’s the only time you’ll get to properly soak in the Mushroom Kingdom in all of its virtual glory. Twist your head around to see Peach or Luigi staring back at you, admire the iconic Question Blocks off to one side, and make sure to check out your own body, especially if you have Mario’s stubby legs (seriously, how does he jump that high with those?) This really is Nintendo’s beloved world brought to life and a real pinch-me moment.
Then sit back, strap in, and prepare to race.
I’ve been waiting a long, long time to give Mario Kart VR a go, and much to my relief, it’s entirely worth the wait. Now available at the Hollywood Bowl in London’s O2 Arena and coming soon to locations in Leeds and Tunbridge Wells in the U.K. (sorry, U.S. readers!), Nintendo’s sort-of VR debut offers 3 minutes of the kind of fanboy heaven many people have dreamed about since booting up any one of many Mario Kart games since 1992’s original Super Mario Kart.
With just one lap available per play, your time in this lovingly crafted world is going to be limited, and the creators at Bandai Namco makes sure that you spend it wisely. To that end, it largely crafts the experience for you. Mario Kart VR isn’t about winning — it’s about experiencing; there’s no kart customization and no difference between which of the four characters you end up playing as (Mario, Luigi, Yoshi, or Peach.)
Drifting around corners is also out in favor of a much simpler control scheme, and the usual assortment of weapons is reduced down to a green shell, banana peel, and hammer. It’s an undoubtedly condensed experience, and quite different to the Mario Kart you know and love, but what it lacks in depth longevity, it makes up for with pure childish delight.
It’s also more dodgem’s than racer, as the only say you really have in getting first place is whacking friends with power-ups, and even then they’re given plenty of opportunities to recover. I also ran through the track three times and, on each go, the AI-controlled Bowser and Wario seemed to overtake me at the exact same moments.
There’s a sense you’re being pulled along by a piece of string rather than really putting your foot down, then, but it’s all too giddy to really matter. There’s just one track which plays out like a sort of greatest hits of the series, taking you from the vibrant surroundings of Peach’s Castle into its inner bowels and beyond. The visuals are so true to the series’ cartoonish palette that I almost wanted to crawl around each and every corner just to take it all in, especially when I found myself ducking out of the way of giant Bullet Bills or swerving around Piranha Plants, which I suspect are individually synchronized to make sure everyone enjoys the spectacle.
Despite being in the pull of an invisible tractor beam, it is possible to create your own fun, too. A last-minute collision with a banana cost me first place with seconds to spare in one race, while unsuccessful attempts to distract the enemy by waving in front of them had everyone laughing. Probably the best feature, though, is the capability to reach out, grab items, and then toss them using Vive Trackers in your hands.
Though you may miss the feeling of a controller in your hand as you scoop up a hammer to smash into opponents, there’s a kind of circle-completing satisfaction that comes with actually tossing a green shell at a friend and then laughing into your microphone as you drive on past.
Still, the somewhat automated nature of the experience does detract from the idea of repeat playthroughs. Even in the arcade, the best VR experiences can’t amount to much more than tech demos, but maybe that doesn’t have to be such a bad thing. Mario Kart VR may be a little more on-rails than it cares to admit, but that didn’t stop me from grinning like an idiot every time I played it. For the first time in my life I felt like I had really visited the Mushroom Kingdom and, though it was just a whistlestop tour, it was a trip I’m not soon to forget.
Oh and, pro tip for Luigi players: Give everyone the death stare. It’s terrifying.
If you want to play Mario Kart VR for yourself you can try it out at the Hollywood Bowl in London’s O2 Arena, the Shinjuku VR Zone in Japan, or soon at both Leeds and Tunbridge Wells in the UK.