The ex-Vicarious Visions heads have spent decades pushing the boundaries on Nintendo platforms. Now they're making Mario Kart.
It seems like every year, Nintendo announces some sort of quirky peripheral-based game. On Switch, we saw Nintendo Labo and its cardboard creativity in 2018. Last year, Nintendo revolutionized their megahit Wii Fit with the smartly designed and super successful Ring Fit Adventure. Now, 2020 has been a weird year for the company for a variety of reasons - or maybe just one - but yet, we have another wild experimental peripheral-based game in Mario Kart Live: Home Circuit. However, this one is a little different. This one is made by a Western studio.
To most, Velan Studios is unknown. Well actually, to all they are. This is their first game. The studio was founded in 2016 by Guha and Karthik Bala - two brothers who founded Vicarious Visions 30 years ago when they were in high school. While they haven’t been with Vicarious in four years, that developer is doing fine. They just released the excellent Tony Hawk’s Pro Skater 1+2 remake. What is important to note is how the Balas and their team at Vicarious Visions were a group that worked closely with Nintendo even while being owned by Activision.
It actually sort of started with Tony Hawk, which makes it wild that a day separates the announcement of Mario Kart Live and the launch of the Tony Hawk remakes. Back at the launch of the Game Boy Advance, Vicarious Visions was there with a port of Tony Hawk’s Pro Skater 2. It didn’t do anything out of the ordinary with the hardware, but just the mere fact that this team was able to make a functional and fun 2D experience out of what was fundamentally a 3D game is awe-inspiring.
A few years later, Vicarious Visions would do further mind-blowing things on a Nintendo handheld with the Tony Hawk series. Tony Hawk’s American Sk8land was there are the launch of Nintendo Wi-Fi Connection, Nintendo’s first major foray into online gaming. Sk8land’s online was maybe even better than Mario Kart’s, as it featured enjoyable one-vs.-one multiplayer as well as a deep community online with clans and the ability to share deck designs. Unfortunately, this online experience died when Gamespy, the company that ran all of Nintendo’s Wii and DS online games, shut down in 2014. Still, even if you were to pick up Sk8land now, you’d find a bafflingly good Tony Hawk experience on a handheld that maybe arguably couldn’t handle it, much like it’s GBA predecessors.
Vicarious Visions moved away from the Tony Hawk series after Sk8land - at least for then - and joined the Guitar Hero sensation, assisting developer Neversoft with the Nintendo versions of the series. Their first game was Guitar Hero III, but what Vicarious would do with the next entry, Guitar Hero World Tour, was more impressive. In 2008, both the Wii and Guitar Hero were surging, but the limitations of the Wii’s online framework made downloadable content, something that was becoming an important part of the music game landscape, difficult to do. Vicarious Visions figured out how to have the song DLC work within the limits of the Wii. Basically, they MacGuyver’d a way for the Wii to take downloaded content from the internal memory or an SD card and load it into the console’s flash memory. More than 10 years later, with the Wii online service being dead for damn near a decade, this desire for now-inaccessible DLC might seem perfunctory, but let me tell you, it was hella impressive back then.
Another impressive Guitar Hero game Vicarious Visions made was Guitar Hero: On Tour, which involved a preposterous peripheral for the Nintendo DS. Using the GBA port on Nintendo’s handheld, you would hold the system in a way where you could grip the buttons on the peripheral by where the GBA cart was, and then strum with the beat, ideally using a pick-shaped stylus, on the touch screen. Absurd it was, but it also worked really well. It was proof positive that Vicarious Visions could partner with Nintendo on a crazy peripheral. The game wound up even being bundled with a Nintendo DS system, something no other third party had done to that point.
Guitar Hero ran its course through the culture and by the end of 2010, Vicarious Visions moved on to their next franchise: Skylanders. Their first involvement with the series was the great 3DS debut, which once again made use of a peripheral to great success. The portable versions of Skylanders were always tricky because of how clumsy it could be to carry figures and the portal with you while on the go. However, Vicarious’ first stab at it reminded me a lot of the old Spyro games it semi-derived from.
The studio hung around the franchise, working on ports, mostly on mobile, before being handed their first mainline entry: Skylanders: Swap Force. That game is awesome, but the more relevant game to touch on is the next entry they were the primary developer for: Skylanders: SuperChargers. This 2015 entry had a focus on racing, which nailed the basic mechanics of driving but primarily was an add-on to the core action platformer experience. On Wii U, this game also featured two guest Nintendo characters: Bowser and Donkey Kong. Vicarious Visions played within the Nintendo sandbox, and even featured two Mario Kart staples in their racing-focused Skylanders game.
A year after SuperChargers launched, the Balas left the company they founded in 1990 to start a new venture in Velan Studios. Up until recently, they’ve been very quiet. Back in 2019, they announced a partnership with EA, which was followed up in 2020 with word of a game in development. Now, for Mario’s 35th anniversary, they’re launching Mario Kart Live: Home Circuit. In a way, it’s a homecoming for studio heads. They’ve been working with Nintendo for more than two decades, working on increasingly complex and exclusive projects for Nintendo platforms, making their own wild peripherals. And now they’re making a Mario Kart game where you drive an actual kart through your home in an out-there augmented reality project. I’ll admit to being surprised Velan was working with Nintendo, but in retrospect, this shouldn’t have been much of a surprise. They have a history of being some of the most creative Nintendo-friendly teams out there.