When it comes to gaming, nothing quite matches the legacy and longevity of Mario Kart. It’s been an ever-present on Nintendo consoles since 1992 – so its virtual reality debut was something of a watershed moment for the medium.
A VR-arcade experience only for now, Mario Kart VR has only been available in the bright-lights of Shinjuku, Tokyo – but it’s now hit the UK, as it rolls out across Europe. The four-player experience resembles most arcade racers (sit on car, steering wheel, brake and accelerator) with the addition of a HTC Vive Pro headset – and has a permanent home at the Hollywood Bowl O2 London.
Essential reading: Best HTC VR games and experiences
While HTC is a leader in the VR space, its headsets are still far from ubiquitous – with a £799 price tag, requiring a top-spec PC to play – it’s not positioned for the average Mario Kart fan. And as a HTC exec told us at the launch – this is about getting more people enjoying VR experiences, and building up the VR arcade experience outside of Japan.
So let’s cut to the chase – what’s it like to play? Well, absolutely freaking mind-meltingly awesome is the answer. As a VR experience, it’s up there with the best we’ve played: and perhaps a sign that VR’s medium-term future is arcade based.
With the HTC Vive Pro and headphones on, you also have a couple of Vive Tracker sensors on the back of each of your hands. When you arrive in game, your VR Mario hands sit on the steering wheel perfectly, and turning the real wheel seamlessly feeds back to the front wheels of your kart in-game.
Unlike more serious VR racers we’ve played, the cockpit view of Mario Kart VR does nothing to impact the action, and actually makes it more enjoyable – unlike games like Driveclub where your view is dominated by the inside of the car.
On the start-line the four players (Mario, Princess Peach, Luigi and Yoshi) line up, and you can take a look around, chatting to each other via the headset. Look behind and there’s Bowser, atop a giant vehicle that towers over you. Genuinely terrifying.
Then you’re off, the action is wheel-to-wheel, jostling for position before the first set-piece – actual wind in your face as you cannon off the first huge jump, and paraglide back down into the action, dodging all manner of gigantic obstacles smashing into your path. You feel tiny and vulnerable.
And now the next killer feature – the power ups. Instead of simply driving over them, you just use your virtual hands to grab them as you go past (see embed below). Green shells (the worst of the traditional Mario Kart power ups) are now thrown at other players with devastating effect; bananas are nonchalantly lobbed over your shoulder (not forward and immediately driven over as I learned); and there’s a giant hammer, which you can own everyone in your vicinity with.
The action is frantic, intoxicating and so intense. The five-minute drive felt so much longer in-game – which is just as well. Each turn costs £7.99 per player.
Luckily, we can’t see people blowing a week’s wages in one evening. It took us about 30 mins to recover from our first session, and to be honest, motion sickness was an issue. I came away from my second race feeling greener than Luigi’s underpants. Some people won’t be able to tolerate this kind of experience, and we’re sure that some won’t have any problem at all.
But as an experience it was truly incredible – and evidence that as gaming enters the VR age, Mario Kart is still the gold standard.