On a spare, concrete track circled by billboards and ads in Austin, Texas, Mario slammed his go-kart into mine (or maybe I slammed mine into his — the exact details are in contention) and my kart sputtered and slowed. Mario — actually fellow Verge editor David Pierce — sped ahead. The race ended, and I placed where I started: dead last.
This is "Mario Karting Reimagined," a real-life go-kart track set up by Pennzoil and Nintendo to promote motor oil and video games at the increasingly corporatized SXSW. It seems like an obvious and compelling idea: imagine if you could actually drive around in a go-kart and experience the sort of wild, joyful, destructive abandon that characterizes Mario Kart. Sadly, the reality of Mario Kart in real life, at least as it exists here, is much less exciting.
A different kind of augmented reality
Each kart is equipped with RFID chips and a GoPro camera, and as you drive around the track there are big stickers on the track itself. Each sticker represents some element from either Mario Kart or Pennzoil's marketing handbook. There are red shells and five "Pennzoil complete protection icons," and as you drive over them they alternately boost or harm your kart's performance. The GoPro cameras record the race from your perspective, and Pennzoil stitches all four racer's footage together for you to relive the event.
As go-karting goes (and I've done my fair share), it was fun. But translating the madcap joy of a video game into real life is hard. There's no way Mario Kart can ever truly happen in the real world, but this version fell short of my expectations. The problem wasn’t with the karting itself; it was with squaring my imagination with reality. It’s the divide between playing a game as a child and truly living in that world, and then trying to do it again as a teenager or an adult — it’s nigh-impossible to cross back into that encompassing world of play. That’s what makes Mario Kart the video game so compelling — it short-circuits that distance and lets you jump right back into that playful world.
Using augmented reality to try to insert that immersive sense of play into the real world is actually a great idea. Here, though, the experience of racing is a different sort of augmented reality than what you’re used to. Observers can see the live video feed that shows you flipping over in antigravity mode, but inside the kart itself the "Marioness" is mostly dependent on your imagination. Instead of a screen showing you virtual objects, your kart physically reacts in response to things you can't see.
My very real motor suffered a very real slowdown because of an invisible and purely (almost Platonically) virtual turtle shell. It wouldn't take too much to make that turtle shell begin to feel more substantial — a heads-up display and sound effects reflecting real feedback on virtual events could transform this kind of experience. We're moving into a world where the line between virtual things and real world things is finally beginning to blur.
If you could suspend your disbelief, it might be amazing
If you could suspend your disbelief enough to genuinely interact with it, it might be amazing — even accounting for the fact that what you think is virtually happening around you doesn't line up exactly with what your kart's algorithm does. But suspending your disbelief becomes even harder when the entire thing is co-opted by a company that is distinctly and pervasively not Nintendo. The corporate influences suck too much of the joy out of it. It's not just the breathalyzer or the required pre-race video or the safety helmet or what feels like an aggressively governed top speed, it's the feeling that what you hoped would be the fun of barreling Bowser down the track is instead the distinct lack of fun that goes along with hawking motor oil.
Until then, give me the classic Nintendo 64 three-pronged controller, four friends, and dibs on Donkey Kong. I couldn't beat David Pierce on a real-life go-kart track, but I would obliterate him on the Rainbow Road.
David Pierce contributed to this report.