Plugged In

Taking a spin with a real-world Mario Kart

Plugged In

The game might be named after him, but there was no way I was going to let Mario win this race. After all, this is apparently still the year of Luigi.

That sort of competitive thinking generally goes through my mind whenever I play Mario Kart on a couch, but when you’re sitting in a real Kart with real speed boosts and obstacles, it’s only amplified.

To cross-promote Mario Kart 8 and a new Platinum line of natural gas-based motor oils, Nintendo and Penzoil partnered up to turn Mario Kart into a real-world racer at South by Southwest this year. And while it was a bit different than what you see onscreen -- safety precautions sadly nixed any hope of actually shooting a turtle shell at opponents or zapping them with lightning -- it was closer than you might think.

Races were run in heats of four, with players standing in for Mario, Luigi, Princess Peach and Bowser. Competitors, over the course of four laps, tried to outrun each other by using power-ups scattered around the track.

Rather than comically large boxes littering the road, power-ups were simply decals laid on the track. RFID chips built into the side of the vehicles registered when you’d successfully driven over one. Karts would see a sudden speed boost or your opponents might find theirs slowing down as they were ‘hit’ by a shell or other advantage you’ve claimed.

The Karts were mounted with GoPro cameras, letting people waiting in the substantial lines watch the races -- and letting drivers keep a visual keepsake of their time on the track.

I was paired against three of the good folks from Engadget: Joseph Volpe, Terrence O'Brien and Sarah Silbert (who graciously agreed to race as Peach to spare the rest of us our dignity).

Joseph was Mario -- and, since the game is named after the character, was granted pole position. As Luigi, family rights got me the number two spot.

When the green flag dropped, we all mashed the accelerators to the floor and started to putter along (any hope of an explosive burst of speed were dashed by the attorneys.) The Karts moved at a medium speed setting, which was about the pace of a bike ride.

Initially, those speed restrictions meant we all stayed in formation…until we discovered the power-ups. Once we figured out which sped up our karts, the real race was on.

Mario kept the lead for the first lap and a half, but then I got lucky. After running over a series of power-ups I earned a big speed boost, catapulting me ahead. From there, I made it a point to run over every advantage to keep my opponents at bay. There was no way I was giving up that lead.

Bowser made it a tight race, but in the end Luigi prevailed. And, since we all managed to avoid hitting the Kart walls and each other – there weren’t any penalty points to worry about.

About the only power-up missing from the track was the banana peel. Organizers said they had planned to include that by making the kart’s steering loosen up when triggered, but again safety concerns made them abandon the idea.

Was it an experience that lived up to the game? Not really. But Nintendo and Penzoil did a great job given the restrictions they faced, and hopefully it's something the two companies will consider expanding.

Mario, Peach and Bowser deserve a rematch, after all.

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