Reviewed: December 18, 2003
Released: November 11, 2003
If the original PlayStation had one mascot, it would have to have been Naughty Dog’s Crash Bandicoot. Much like Nintendo’s famous plumber, Crash had a huge international following built upon three platform titles, a cart racer and numerous commercial campaigns. Crash was the king of the PSone, and people lined up in droves to pick up each new release knowing that with Crash, they were sure to get their money’s worth. Then something happened. Naughty Dog – the developers behind the entire Crash Bandicoot empire – suddenly dropped from sight to work on a new project called Jak and Daxter (ever heard of it?) and it seems that they took Crash’s heart with them.
The first non-Naughty Dog release was the so-so party game Crash Bash – which had it moments, but was hampered by Sony’s early decision to only include two controller inputs on their machines, requiring the purchase of a highly overpriced and otherwise useless multitap converter to fully enjoy the four-player party action. I’m sure Crash Bash sold a ton based on the name alone, but the reviews were lackluster at best. Meanwhile, hopes held out for a next-gen Crash title.
Much to the surprise of gamers, the first of the 128bit Crash games was released across all platforms, bringing an end to the assumed PlayStation exclusivity. Crash Bandicoot: The Wrath of Cortex was to be a return to Crash’s platforming roots – sadly, although the game sold well enough to garner the coveted “Greatest Hits” status, the reviews were mediocre, citing a lack of ingenuity and originality and calling it a “mere graphical update of all that has been seen before”. To be honest – although I myself own every PSone Crash title, I have yet to give Wrath a spin solely because it reviewed so poorly.
So, when it was announced that there would be a “sequel” to the 1999 PSone cart racer, Crash Team Racing, I couldn’t help but be skeptical. Thankfully, Vicarious Visions hasn’t messed too much with Naughty Dog’s formula – Crash Nitro Kart is still the same Crash Team Racing we fondly remember. Then again, so little has changed that it could easily be mistaken for Crash Team Racing. Hey – this is beginning to smell like a lack of ingenuity and originality. Wait…this isn’t merely a graphical update all that has been seen before, is it? Well…kinda.
First off, let’s just clear the air by saying that Crash Nitro Kart Plays exactly like Crash Team Racing. I mean, EXACTLY like Crash Team Racing. Sure, maybe the PS2 can crank out better graphics and framerates than the old gray box, giving the illusion that Crash Nitro Kart is somehow quicker, but it’s really just the same game we saw a few years back with only a few tweaks here and there. But really, as I alluded to earlier, this isn’t necessarily a bad thing – Crash Team Racing was a kick-ass cart racer in its own right – it’s just a bit disappointing for those of us who were looking for something new and fresh.
The story starts with Crash, Coco, Aku-Aku and newcomer Crunch chillin’ at the Bandicoot pad. Suddenly, a bright light from above plucks the hut and its inhabitants from the Earth and plops them in the middle of a large arena somewhere in space. Crash emerges from the hut to find the nefarious Dr. Neo Cortex and his cronies have been similarly abducted. New villain, Emperor Velo, holographically emerges to welcome the teams to his world and poses a challenge of racing skill – with the earth as the prize. With no choice in the matter, all parties agree, and we’re off to the races. I was pleased to find that – while a tad on the cheesy side – the cutscenes throughout the game are well produced and quite enjoyable.
Crash Nitro Kart supplies the standard racing-game modes for getting your carting fix on. For a quick hit, you can check out the Arcade mode. If you’re into the group thing – there’s always the multiplayer. But to progress the story and unlock the secrets, you’ll have to pick up the single-player adventure – which is a good thing. It’s always nice when a developer includes even a semblance of a single player mode in a game of this type to at least give some focus to the often-mindless racing.
As mentioned, there isn’t much difference between Crash Team Racingand Crash Nitro Kart. The menus play out the same, as do the hub worlds from which you pick your challenges. It’s interesting when you look at the menu style of Crash Nitro Kart (identical to CTR’s menu style circa 1999) and compare it to today’s standard. Developers have definitely learned a lot about streamlining menu design in the past few years – navigating around Crash Team Racing shouldn’t have been difficult, but for some reason it felt clumsy and cumbersome, requiring multiple loads of options and stats just to get rolling, and the perplexing hub system (sans the hub map from Crash Team Racing) caused a more than a few headaches.
The basic premise of the Crash Nitro Kart worlds is as follows: you have multiple sub-hubs (is that a word?) that revolve around the main central hub of Emporer Velo’s arena. You enter each sub-hub and are presented with half a dozen or so similarly themed portals. Each portal will send you to an individual course. If you place 1st in that course’s race, you are transported back to the sub-hub where you can either progress to the next open portal or go back to any previously conquered portal and try to set time records or play mini-games. Once you conquer all of the races in a particular sub-hub, Velo pits you up against a themed boss for a one-on-one race for the championship. If you win, you unlock the next sub-hub from Velo’s arena; if you lose, simply try again. Then it’s wash, rinse, and repeat all the way to the end.
On the racing front, Crash Nitro Kart has all the bells and whistles we have come to love from Crash Team Racing. Not the least of which is the great level design, which is once again replete with all the jumps, humps, shortcuts, trapdoors and springboards you would expect from a character-based cart racer. Crash Nitro Kart goes a step further, adding vertical and tubular surfaces to race on – upon which your tires transform into magnetic-hover pads keeping to keep you solidly attached whether right side-up or upside-down.
The fourteen courses are long and twisty, with a variety of terrains; not only do you get the standard dirt, tarmac, and snow, but you also get to race in such things as a giant church clock which will have you bumping-and-jumping up wooden platforms and launching off huge verticals. As I said, the courses are long, real long – and that’s good – but the pack stays so tight, so one misstep or enemy weapon can easily send you from 1st to 8th, and if this happens at the finish line it means you have to play the whole course over to progress. Believe me, once you get through the first couple of easy training races, the difficulty ramps quickly and you’ll see more last-minute losses than you care to admit, leaving you shouting more obscenities than an Osborne family reunion.
I dug out my PSone and Crash Team Racing just so I could compare the controls side-by-side with Crash Nitro Kart, because something wasn’t sitting right. The verdict? There is a noticeable difference in the control and handling between the two games. With Crash Team Racing, I felt more in-control than with Crash Nitro Kart. The carts seemed more responsive with Crash Team Racing, and the powerslide/jump mechanics seemed less awkward more predictable. That’s not to say that Crash Nitro Kart has terrible controls, they just aren’t as refined as Crash Team Racing’s.
The one real downside is that the overall action seems slow for a cart racer. Crash Nitro Kart makes you completely dependant on powerups and jump/powerslide boosts to maintain any real speed. This means that you have to carefully pick your racing lines to make sure that you can powerslide boost around curves without hitting walls, or line up jumps to get the maximum airtime giving you a longer boost upon landing. It sounds fun, but you quickly become a slave to aligning these little details perfectly and the racing itself begins to take a back seat.
The graphics are just what you’d expect from a Crash game – nice looking backgrounds, colorful characters, nice effects. But all-in-all, not much more than a higher-resolution Crash Team Racing. As I noted earlier, the cutscenes are well-polished and show that plenty of care was taken by Vicarious Visions in bringing this game to the next generation.
On the downside, the PS2 version takes quite a hit on multiplayer splitscreen, with framerate drops and graining, it almost makes the game un-enjoyable. This is ironic when you think back to Crash Team Racing which showed almost no slowdown on the PSone, even with four players onscreen, and the graphics here aren’t complex by any means. The Xbox version reports little-to-no slowdown, so if you have a choice – go green.
The sound is old Crash fare – except now, along with the familiar Crash theme music and the constant Crash giggling (coo-hoo!) and groaning (awwww…), we get the buzzing sounds of eight angry bees and a bushel basket full of corny one-liners from the other racers – the worst of which being Crash’s teammates Coco and Crunch who never cease to annoy.
All-in-all, the sound is nothing special – it gets the job done.
It’s funny, we’ve all heard the commercials by now…”Crash Nitro Kart is being called the best cart racer on the PS2 and Xbox”. Hmmm… Maybe because it’s the ONLY cart racer on the PS2 and Xbox right now? Yeah. And if it’s the best on the PS2 and the Xbox, why not the GameCube? Naturally, because the highly touted Mario Kart Double Dash!! was recently released for Nintendo’s little blue box and it has been the talk of the critics since. And since reviewers realize that a large number of gamers have recently gone multi-console (many picking up GameCubes for $99), Crash Nitro Kart is being judged against Double Dash on all gaming fronts. This is probably the biggest reason that Crash Nitro Kart has been receiving mediocre reviews.
Just like Crash Team Racing, Crash Nitro Kart is a great cart racing game. However, if you already have Crash Team Racing, don’t expect anything new or exciting beyond the updated graphics – Crash Nitro Kart is basically the same game in a pretty new package. Is it worth your hard-earned dollar? Well, if you like cart racers and you don’t already have a GameCube, Crash Nitro Kart is really your only option. This isn’t a bad thing, because Crash Nitro Kart is chock full of fun, and you really can’t go wrong picking it up. If you do have a GameCube…well, I think you know the answer to that already.