This year’s SXSW in Austin, Texas looks to be one of the most memorable festival in the history of its 27 years. Not only does the star-studded affair feature such luminaries as Neil deGrasse-Tyson, Adam Savage, and even Edward Snowden, of all people (live-via-satellite), but it’ll also feature the premieres of movies like Veronica Mars and Cesar Chavez. On top of that, anyone who’s ever dreamed of throwing a red shell at another kart-driver since the release of 1991’s Super Mario Kart will sort of get the chance to do just that.
The Mario Kart franchise is one of Nintendo’s most beloved, and has created some of the most definitive Nintendo experience on practically every console the company has developed since the Super Nintendo. Super Mario Kart basically created the genre of kart racing in video games, which caused a number of imitators to follow. Mario Kart 64 brought the concept into the third-dimension, and is still widely popular in tournament play all over the world. Handheld iterations followed on the Gameboy Advance and Nintendo DS before Mario Kart arrived on Wii with motion control, and a highly popular 3DS entry has led to the impending release of Mario Kart 8 this May. While people continue to doubt Nintendo’s future, it shouldn’t be forgotten that in 2008, Mario Kart Wii outsold even Grand Theft Auto IV by 1.8 million copies, which is a pretty strong sign of the franchise’s immense popularity.
This year, SXSW Interactive features “Mario Kart Reimagined,” a highly unique partnership between Pennzoil and Nintendo that aims to recreate the Mario Kart experience using real-life go-karts along with some pretty inventive augmented reality technology. The partnership came out of Pennzoil’s new natural gas-derived motor oil, and the oil company’s ad agency apparently pitched the idea to Nintendo with enthusiastic results, since the legendary developer’s Mario Kart 8 will be hitting the Wii U this May. Now, that may sound a little too ambitious for something created outdoors in Austin, and while the vivid and vibrantly colored Nintendo environments are absent, the spirit of what they’re going for looks very strong. It also, potentially looks very promising if developed further.
It works like this: the track is outfitted with decals in the form of some of the classic Mario Kart power-ups. For those not aware, in Mario Kart you drive over the track and hit question mark boxes, which then give you a power-up or projectile you can then use to get ahead in the race. A mushroom will give you a short burst of speed, a koopa shell can be fired at another driver to knock them off the track, or a power star can give you that classic Mario invincibility to speed up and plow through anything in your path. Anyway, each decal on the track features an RFID tag, which is picked up by the go-kart’s onboard RFID tag reader.
The kart itself is electric, and features a GoPro camera and a wireless router on the top. When a kart drives over a decal, the RFID reader then sends the signal through the router to a central server, which reads the tag and sends information back to the router, and into the kart to affect the driving experience. So, if you drive over a tag and it’s determined that you earned a speed increasing power-up like a mushroom, the server sends a signal to your electric kart to increase the voltage and give you a burst of speed. If you drive over something negative that slows you down, like a koopa shell, then your voltage will be lowered and temporarily slow you down. Pretty cool, right?
So then, why the camera? Well, while the driver won’t be able to see it, it’s still kind of a fun idea. One of the main features of Mario Kart 8 is that there are moments where anti-gravity kicks in, allowing you to drive upside down on some of the game’s tracks. In order to implement something like that into this experience, if a player drives over a tag and earns an anti-gravity “power-up,” then the image the spectators see on the large video screens nearby will invert, making it look like the driver they’re watching is driving upside down.
So, will it make all of those shell-slinging, kart-driving fantasies come true? Probably not, but it’s definitely an ambitious venture developed at the last minute, in under four months. This may set a very interesting precedent if someone decided to develop the idea further, and if it’s one step closer to living that dream, then we’re all for it. For a firsthand account of what it’s like to actually get behind the wheel of one of these karts, be sure to check out Jason Torchinsky’s report at Jalopnik! For more Mario Kart goodness, come back to GeekNation in early summer to see a full review of Mario Kart 8!
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