Games review: Crash Team Racing Nitro-Fueled is a Mario Kart killer

The best Mario Kart clone of the PlayStation 1 era gets a big budget remake but can it really rival Nintendo at its best?

When reviewing Team Sonic Racing last month we reminisced over that period in time, a few generations back, when seemingly every media franchise under the sun was being turned into a Mario Kart clone. That included not only every TV show and movie going, from South Park to Star Wars, but also every video game that could marshal at least a handful of recognisable characters. In the end it didn’t really matter what the theme was though because they were all invariably awful… except one.

Crash Team Racing was originally released on the PlayStation 1 in 1999 and, rather than being farmed out to a lesser developer, was by series creators Naughty Dog – now better known for Uncharted and The Last Of Us. It came out several years after Mario Kart 64, with the next home console Mario Kart being Double Dash!! in 2003, which is widely considered to be the worst of the franchise.

That timing meant that for a generation the best Mario Kart game starred Crash Bandicoot, and it was only the inability to follow the game up with a worthy sequel (there were two but neither were by Naughty Dog, who had by then left the franchise) that put a dent in its legacy. But after the huge success of Crash Bandicoot N. Sane Trilogy a remake became inevitable, and it is exactly as good as fans will have been hoping.

The remakes of the first three Crash Bandicoot and Spyro The Dragon games were unusual because while the underlying quality of the games is debatable the remakes themselves are amongst the best ever seen. The developers in each instance have all been different though, which makes it all the more surprising that publisher Activision has managed to maintain such a consistent quality. Nitro-Fueled in particular looks amazing, to the point where you’d never dream it was a remake of a PS1 game.

Before we get too carried away though we should make it clear that Crash Team Racing is a Mario Kart clone in every sense of the word. It follows Nintendo’s template to the letter and offers very little in the way of new ideas. The basics are the same as ever, as you race around implausibly dangerous-looking tracks, not only trying to outrace your cartoon opponents but nobble them with items that either knock them out of the race for a few seconds or otherwise impede their progress.

There are direct equivalents of bananas, shells, Bob-ombs, and all the rest but there’s also an interesting twist in that collecting Wumpa fruit helps you raise your top speed (like coins in Mario Kart) but when you get enough they transform items into more powerful forms.

But rather than the power-ups the most notable difference, compared to Mario Kart, is the handling, specifically the powerslides. These are more complex – some would say more fiddly – than Nintendo’s games but it’s easier, or at least more rewarding, to chain the turbo boost you get at the end of each one into an elongated combo. You have to work for it though and no matter what your experience with the genre it takes a while to get the oddly pitched sensitivity just right.

Mario Kart has never had a proper story campaign so instead Crash Team Racing copies Diddy Kong Racing in that regard, right down to the patently unfair boss characters – although even standard races can seem unfair thanks to the simplistic and overly aggressive artificial intelligence. Developer Beenox clearly recognise these as a flaw in the original though and there’s an optional modernised version that lets you switch characters (you used to only be able to play as Crash) and adjust the difficulty, which makes things a lot less stressful.

It’s as a multiplayer game that Nitro-Fueled really excels though, with a full suite of online options and four-player split-screen. There are multiple different modes, including what is essentially battle royale, but sadly a maximum of just eight players at once, including computer-controlled karts. That’s a real shame, as is the fact that the game’s only 30fps, when 60fps really would’ve been preferable for a fast action game like this.

The slower frame rate is by no means a game-breaker but the other area where the game falls down, when placed against Mario Kart, is the track design. Courses are generally narrower and with much tighter turns, which can be very frustrating for new players and even veterans who slip up on a powerslide. The course motifs are also less imaginative than Nintendo’s best efforts, and while it’s nice to have extra courses added from the game’s sequels their lesser quality is very evident.

But these are small complaints and do little to lessen the enjoyment in a game that has held up remarkably well over 20 years – certainly better than any Mario Kart game from the same period. But what’s also exciting about Nitro-Fueled is that now all of Naughty Dog’s games have been remade we should finally see a brand-new Crash Bandicoot game. And given the quality of these remakes that should be something well worth waiting for…

Crash Team Racing Nitro-Fueled

In Short: The best Mario Kart clone of the nineties is also the best Mario Kart clone of the 21st century, with a stunning remake that offers welcome refinement and improvement.

Pros: The core gameplay is hugely enjoyable, with a powerslide system that’s arguably better than Mario Kart. Tons of content, excellent graphics, and one of the only good story modes in the genre.

Cons: Crash Team Racing was always very derivative. Track design is never as inspired as Nintendo’s best and the gameplay never quite as accessible. 30fps visuals and online player limits are a shame.

Score: 8/10

Formats: PlayStation 4 (reviewed), Xbox One, Nintendo Switch, and PC
Price: £34.99
Publisher: Activision
Developer: Beenox
Release Date: 21st June 2019
Age Rating: 3

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