Mario Kart and Scalextric had a baby, and it is amazing

Anki Overdrive's AI robot cars are our new favourite toys

Anyone who tells you toys are for kids is a joyless automaton. We don’t cover kids’ stuff on Gadgette (it’s in the FAQs, although still the childrenswear press releases come…), but when we were asked if we’d like to try some AI-powered robot cars, we didn’t even hesitate. Because robots are for everyone. OK?

Anki Overdrive is a new racing game from robotics company Anki (pronounced more like ‘donkey’ than ‘wanky’). Their first product, Drive, was a side project while the three co-founders were doing their PhDs at Carnegie Mellon, designed to bring the magic of robotics into people’s homes in a product they could really enjoy. The public responded with enthusiasm: Drive sold out completely last Christmas. Overdrive is this year’sĀ evolution of the game, and it isĀ tremendously fun.

Rather than being played on a screen, the game is a clever hybrid of the physical and digital worlds. You control the cars with your phone, but the actual game plays out on a real track with real cars. It’s a parent’s dream scenario: the kids get to keep their iPhones out, but you’re allĀ present in the room, watching the same track and yelling abuse at each other – “There’s a lot of smack talk in this game,” says Anki’s EMEA manager. As the annoying person who relentlessly bashed the banter button in Mario Golf on the N64, this was music to my ears.

It’s also good to hear that there are no in-app purchases – there are plenty of characters and weapons to unlock, but you get them by playing, not paying.

Let’s race

In your Anki Overdrive starter kit (Ā£149.99), you get:

– Two supercars
– 4 straight track pieces
– 6 curved track pieces
– 2 risers
– A four-car charger
– A cleaning kit

And of course there are lots of extension packs available with more cars, tracks and accessories to build the racecourseĀ of your dreams.

The flexible polypropylene track clips together magneticallyĀ and the cars can handle inclines and jumps,Ā so you’re encouraged to build a 3D track around the house and garden. Ours was a bit haphazard:

ButĀ Anki built an epic creation at the North American International Toy Fair:

The track is printed with multi-layer ink, embedding codes that can be read by the cars’ downward-facing infra red camera on the bottom of the chassis. This means the cars know what kind of piece they’re on, and they do a quick sweep of the track before the race to scan the layout.

It’s quite something to watch robot cars navigate themselves seamlessly around a brand new track, line up neatly at the start line, and communicate a perfect picture of theĀ track layout to your phone.

They also do an automatic victory lap if they win. It’s priceless.

You’re going down

I’m pretty sureĀ Stuart let me, but I won my first Anki Overdrive race by a mile. Then again, it’s ideal for a Mario Kart pro like me: the cars come with weapons to take your opponents down, so it’s not all about speed and steering. Get close enough to the car in front and you can slow them down with your tractor beam, come up behind them and you can shoot your gun. Your lights flash, your phone makes shooting noises and your opponent’s phone vibrates like crazy if they’re hit. It’s an impressively joined-up experience between the disparate parts of the game, and all in real time with no lag.

The cars use Bluetooth low energy to communicate with your phone, and pack a 50MHz processor each. Old gits like me remember when home PCs had that much…! Truly we’re living in a futuristic utopia.

The new car designs for Overdrive were created by HaraldĀ Belker, who hasĀ serious nerd credentials: he’s designed cars for Batman, Tron and Iron Man, among many others. No wonder they look so cool – I went for Thermo:

As well as playing against friends and family (you can have up to 4 cars on the track at once), you can battle 30 different commanders. Once you beat a commander, you unlock them and can team up with them from the next race. The commandersĀ include some really kickass female characters likeĀ Sniper, who was my favourite:

In fact, for a game createdĀ by three men, Anki Overdrive is refreshingly gender-equal. The female characters are strong and nuanced, andĀ areĀ actually wearing full-body outfits rather than the skimpy clothes we see in too many videogames. Stuart notes that he’sĀ seenĀ a difference in the way a lot of female players use the game: “they don’t want to waste time messing about with the cars. They want to win.” Hell yes we do.

Anki have also recently hired 17-year Nintendo veteran Shelly Pearce to be their European Marketing Director – a real coup for the company. Here’s hoping she doesn’t introduce blue shells.

Shut up and take my money

If you’re as excited about Anki Overdrive as I was (I may have been heard to say “I LOVE MY JOB” about 18 times the day they came in), you’ll be able to get it in the UK from the 6th of OctoberĀ this year. The app will be available on iOS and Android on the same date.

Fancy a race?

Holly Brockwell
About Holly Brockwell 291 Articles
Tech addict Holly founded Gadgette in 2015, and won Woman of the Year for it. She's firmly #TeamAndroid, has ambitions to become a robot, and beat all other Hollies to her awesome Twitter handle.