Racing into Trouble: The Real-Life “Mario Kart” Saga in Tokyo

Racing into Trouble: The Real-Life “Mario Kart” Saga in Tokyo

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People riding stret karts (so-called "Mario karts") in Tokyo
Picture: Jon Chica / Shutterstock
Ever wanted to drive a real-life "Mario Kart" around Tokyo? You can - but many people who live in Tokyo really wish you wouldn't.

If the thrill of blasting through Tokyo in a real-life Mario Kart is on your list, you might want to reconsider.

For diehard Mario lovers or those seeking an adrenaline rush, the appeal is obvious. Who wouldn’t want the chance to make their favorite game a reality? Speeding in a go-kart amidst Tokyo’s sparkling lights sounds exciting. It sounds awesome to everyone…except the disgruntled locals.

(Note: “Mario Kart” is a fully owned trademark of Nintendo.)

A unique experience

A line of Street Karts ready to go for a tour in Shibuya, Tokyo. (Picture: Jay Allen, Unseen Japan)

Street Kart, formerly known as MariCar, boasts the experience of a lifetime. Their website greets you with scrolling logos where they’ve gotten press: CNN, BBC, even National Geographic.

Billing itself as a “must-have” experience, rentals include a communication wristband to chat with your friends, action cameras, and even Bluetooth speakers. There are seven locations in Tokyo, with tours lasting up to two hours for the ride.

The so-called “Mario karts” are custom-made with Japanese local laws in mind, but truthfully, that’s not much of a boast. A legal loophole made the recreational service possible; go-karts are considered the same as scooters or four-wheel cars. Since scooters don’t require seatbelts, go-karts didn’t originally either.

But despite the overwhelming amount of praise for the activity, things haven’t gone exactly smoothly. The beloved tourist attraction has faced significant litigation from a well-known corporate giant.

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Formerly offering the chance to dress up as characters like Mario or Luigi, the company, once known as MariCar, unsurprisingly faced Nintendo’s wrath twice. In 2017, the gaming giant cited copyright infringement for renting character costumes and using their likenesses.

The play on words (“MariCar” being a pun on “Mario Kart”) also raised concerns. Nintendo worried that potential accidents caused by people in their characters’ garb would damage their brand. Nobody wants to imagine Princess Peach causing a ten-car pile-up in front of Hachiko, especially not Nintendo.

Predictably, the Tokyo District Court ruled in Nintendo’s favor and ordered MariCar to pay Nintendo 10 million yen (USD $62,000) in compensation. The court also banned the rental of Mario-themed costumes.

Surprisingly, the street kart company managed to keep the name after the lawsuit. Still, they had to rebrand away from the “Mario Kart” image. The go-kart company even added bilingual text that read “Unrelated to Nintendo” onto their vehicles. (They raced down that loophole as fast as they could.)

Neither company felt satisfied with the outcome. In 2020, MariCar sought to appeal and Nintendo echoed the move. Despite the bilingual signs, the issue remained unresolved, and both companies pushed for another court hearing.

Predictably, Nintendo triumphed again, upholding the previous decision and boosting MariCar’s damages payment to 50 million yen (USD $310,000). That seems like a hefty bill, but nothing deep enough to put the controversial attraction down for good.

Lockdowns and financial setbacks

The costumes are gone, which is fine – you probably wouldn’t want to wear these in July anyhow. (Picture: iamtui7 / Shutterstock)

For a while, annoyed locals thought their prayers would finally be answered. Profits tanked during the global health crisis lockdown in Japan due to foreigners being unable to enter Japan.

Desperate, Street Kart attempted a fundraising campaign to keep themselves afloat, aiming for a goal of two million yen. They received a sad 11,569 yen (USD $71). Netizens were unsurprised, and some commented that Street Kart ought to have tried appealing to a foreign audience instead of a local one for sympathy cash.

That unsuccessful campaign convinced netizens that the “Mario kart” experience was finally over. Local Tokyoites were never keen on the company’s existence to begin with. Why should they donate money to a company that is nothing but a menace? The fundraiser proved to be a complete failure, resulting in the return of all donations, suggesting that the company had perhaps finally reached its end.

Revival and adaptation

Alas, it survived.

Rechristened Street Kart, the company found a loophole post-lockdown. They now offer recognizable but not copyright-infringing costumes. Instead of Waluigi, you can don a superhero costume, resembling something you’d snag at the last minute from Spirit Halloween.

Resemblances to Spider-Man are purely coincidental in this adventure of a lifetime, one that can either be thrilling or end in tragedy. Driving on Tokyo streets becomes significantly more dangerous due to the low visibility from a go-kart. Having an international driver’s permit or even a Japanese driver’s license doesn’t guarantee much in the way of safety, either. 

Most complaints from Japanese locals are about safety. In 2018 alone, MariCar’s customers caused 50 accidents, with 43 involving foreign drivers. The most infamous incident that year was a hit-and-run involving a Taiwanese tourist and a 19-year-old Japanese local. Fortunately, the young man escaped with no fatal injuries.

Before that, there was one in April that year involving a tourist from Singapore who crashed into a Roppongi storefront. Since these incidents, more have piled up. The most recent one took place on June 4th between a taxi and one of the karts.

The future of “Mario karts”

Tokyo and the Rainbow Bridge at night
Picture: Jake Images / PIXTA(ピクスタ)

Given everything, it’s unsurprising that locals could live without the spectacle. With Japan’s borders open and the yen at a record low, “Real Life Mario Kart” remains popular with foreign tourists.

Meanwhile, opinions from Japanese locals haven’t become more positive. Comments on social media about the controversial activity range from surprise that the company survived the lockdown to increased concern about safety.

Most netizens agree it’s only a matter of time before something serious happens, and they fear nothing will get better until it does. Although no one appears to be fervently hoping for a fatality, people seem convinced that it’s inevitable.

However, not even the lockdown could stop Street Kart from persisting. Given their popularity, with bookings needed months in advance to even attempt to reserve a spot, Street Kart is not stopping soon.

If you’re committed to a real-life Mario Kart experience, it’s probably best to stick to the Universal Studios Japan attraction. While it might not provide the same adrenaline rush, you can rest assured that the only harm it’ll inflict is on your wallet.

What to read next

Sources

About Street Kart Tokyo Bay. Street Kart Tokyo Bay

マリカーと戦う 任天堂、著作権巡る訴訟で連勝. Nikkei

Hit-and-run involving Mario Kart driver could spell game over for popular Tokyo attraction. New Straits Times

Japanese firm takes Mario karts off the streets after Nintendo lawsuit. BBC News

Street Kart company famous for Super Mario karts ends crowdfunding campaign with dismal support. Sora News

Go-kart driver crashes into taxi after ignoring road sign in Tokyo. Japan Today

マリカー事故、男性重傷 任天堂訴訟で注目集める中. Sankei News

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Kristina Rin Fujikake

Kristina Fujikake hails from Michigan, USA and currently lives in Osaka, Japan. Born to a half-Japanese father, she grew up in a hometown with a large Japanese population and didn't learn the English word for "beansprouts" until a classmate finally corrected her in university. She has recently received her full certification as a kimono teacher/stylist and is the sole proprietor of her own kimono business, She focuses on Nikkei issues and traditional Japanese culture.

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