The legacy of Super Mario Kart has always overshadowed Naughty Dog’s Crash Team Racing (CTR), with ‘blue shells’ and ‘banana peels’ becoming common lexicon in the world of couch kart-racing. With the latter’s charm often going unnoticed, it’s certainly great that Beenox pushed on, and Crash Team Racing Nitro-Fueled has pulled off an excellent job at reminding gamers of the quirky, enraptured appeal that accompanied the original.
It’s no easy feat to bring beloved, nostalgic titles to a more modern audience, and especially so for CTR, which is known for its frustrating exploits and bugs. Thankfully, the Nitro-Fueled team has surpassed expectations by delivering a fun and faithful remake of the original – and then some.
Sure, a lot of the gameplay elements have been carried over from its predecessor, but the game’s far from stuck in the past. Visuals-wise, it’s a total aesthetic delight, with its 30-plus tracks flushed with vibrant, lively colours, and taking on a kaleidoscopic palette. Essentially, racing through an underwater facility, skidding through sand dunes, or streaking past fire-spitting pits all make for a striking affair, and the experience is made even more enjoyable with detailed, entertaining backgrounds.
Take Polar Pass for instance. The snow-capped route features a polar bear DJ with dancing penguins, which is as amusing as it’s absurd. Pterodactyls can be spotted floating around the lava in Mystery Caves, while Papu’s Pyramid sees a boater attempting to ascend a waterfall. The additions are minor, yet they help to bring just a little bit more life into the maps.
Old-time fans would be glad to know that the model recreations of the character roster are crisp and peachy. The likes of Coco, Ripper, Pinstripe, and the gang have been given a new lease of life, sporting true-to-character animations and a sharper, livelier look. Dialogue, however, remains a weak link – each character occasionally spouts lines during the races, but they often come across as uninspiring and repetitive.
For all that the improvements to the tracks are praiseworthy, there are some issues about the layout that points to its aged nature. Where most of them feature well-placed chasm leaps and slaloms, others like Dragon Mines and Tiny Temple see awkward curves, jumps, and choke points.
With Nitro-Fueled, players can no longer leverage on past exploits to gain a racing advantage over their competitors. Little tricks like falling off the track to respawn at a further point and jumping through a section of the terrain to avoid the rest of the course have been removed, which leaves kart-racing truly a matter of skill.
The original is infamous for its unforgiving difficulty, and that has been brought over to its refreshed iteration, for good or for bad. If Mario Kart is the nice elder brother who offers a chance to get out of last place, CTR would be the mean, over-competitive sibling that tells you to suck it up and git gud. In both Nintendo’s kart-racing title and SEGA’s Sonic Team Racing, it’s always possible to catch up even if one falls way behind the pack, especially if the God of Kart Racing takes pity and issues a Bullet Bill power-up on say, Rainbow Road. In the world of the bandicoot, though, it’s really just wishful thinking.
Because everyone is tightly-banded from the get-go on a relatively small track, there isn’t much room for mistakes. An unintentional veer off the road, and it’s a guaranteed drop in ranking – and the admittedly cheap shots by the AI competitors certainly doesn’t help the case. It’s especially unforgiving for newcomers, who possess little knowledge about the shortcuts for each map, and the necessity to hold onto power-ups instead of using them immediately.
Bosses, in particular, are a frustrating affair. More often than not, players will find themselves trailing behind the big bad for all three laps – even if they manage to put a distance between each other, the latter always finds a way to catch up. Alas, the only feasible solution to beat the bosses soundly is to take a considerable lead in the last round, where it’s all that matters. It’s, of course, easier said than done: you’ve never felt true pain until the showdown with Pinstripe.
The difficulty scaling and point system of the Cups mode also adds to the overall toughness of the game. Nitro-Fueled is easy to pick up but difficult to master, which makes the Easy option a comfortable experience for the less seasoned. Anything beyond Normal, though, is pretty much a test of technical prowess, and those unable to pull off the power sliding mechanic will definitely falter here. This means players who have some sort of grasp on gameplay and yet cannot perform above a certain level may find themselves in a deadlock, unable to fall back or progress.
In another show of CTR’s age, the Cups mode boasts a harsh, old-school approach that only award points to drivers placing in the top five positions – anything below that is a fat zero. The most gruelling of it all is the prerequisite to obtain first place for every single track before unlocking and then defeating the bosses, which can seep the joy out of kart-racing, especially after repeated failures.
Unlike the original, Nitro-Fueled does offer a way to tackle the challenges by means of a free choice system. Characters and karts may be swapped out at will, so players can experiment and see which combination fits them the best, since stats vary across the roster.
On the note of characters, a trait that has always been unique to the Crash racing games is the addition of Crash Bandicoot-inspired elements. In this, picking up the Aku Aku mask as Neo Cortex would turn it into the Uka Uka mask, while the time gap for TnT Crates to explode serves as a nod to the original platformer, where they too take a few seconds to detonate upon contact.
The difficulty level is but one part of the game, however. Adjust it to the right amount of playing comfort, or get past the initial learning curve, and Nitro-Fueled is truly a splendid, highly enjoyable title. Not only has it retained the original nostalgic gameplay experience, it’s been further polished up to boast sharp, responsive driving, and cleaner, neater visuals, such that everything looks and sounds fantastic.
Of course, it’s not a kart-racing title without co-op and multiplayer. Beenox’s masterpiece offers plenty of fun while racing with or against friends, and comes with various challenge modes for one to test their mettle. The latter’s quite a hit-or-miss, with uninspiring and monotonous elements in the form of Steal the Bacon and the Crystal Challenge, but is thankfully balanced out with more exciting and strategy-based modes, such as the Relic Race and CTR Challenge.
Online play, meanwhile, is a pleasant surprise, granting additional racing thrills for those who have exhausted the Adventure Mode and confidently pulled off flawless tight, sharp turns on the tracks. Network interruption was initially observed, although it seems the recent patch has resolved any issues regarding connectivity.
After all that’s been said and done, Crash Team Racing Nitro-Fueled is indeed a faithful successor to the original, spruced up in a fresh coat of paint and introducing plenty of new welcome content.
The game’s overall difficulty and slight flaws may dampen the overall racing experience, but everything else has ensured that it’s ultimately a highly enjoyable, family-friendly title, certain to please old fans, and worthy of a test drive from newcomers. For years, it has remained in the shadows of Mario Kart, and now shall be the time for it to assert its charm and solid presence in the community once again.
GEEK REVIEW SCORE
It’s no Mario Kart for sure, but Crash Team Racing Nitro-Fueled has the makings of a kart-racing gem, and does an excellent job at delivering a fun and nostalgic experience – several frustrations aside.
Gameplay - 8/10
Story - 8/10
Presentation - 9/10
Value - 9/10