Crash is back for another racing game. Or should we call it another racing clone?
Crash Bandicoot, the once unofficial mascot for the PlayStation, is back for his second karting appearance in the form of Crash Nitro Kart. It's hard to not consider this game a clone of Mario Kart, which is what the original Crash Team Racing was regarded as, but as it turns out, CNK is actually more a kin to the N64's Diddy Kong Racing than Mario's game. After playing through it you'll see why it's called a clone, and an average one at that.
As the game opens, you'll see how Crash finds himself back in a racing situation. As sister Coco tunes up the Bandicoot kart fleet, an alien spaceship sucks up their house and transports them to an alien world. Dr. Cortex and his cronies get beamed up too. The premise of the game is to race around worlds to entertain the aliens, win races, get trophies and keys, and ultimately win back your freedom to return home. It's a pretty funny story, mostly because of how lame it is, and serves as a glue to link the various game modes together.
Nitro Kart's main feature is the Adventure mode. When you get into it, you'll be dropped into a central hub with gates leading off to various themed worlds, with only one accessible at first. Within each themed world, there are four tracks, and you'll need to beat the racing challenges in each. After you do so, you'll race the level boss one-on-one to get the key that will unlock the gate to the next world. Planets include the stereotypical ice, fire, and jungle worlds, among others, and the tracks are what you'd expect, with features such as the lava pits in the fire world. The tracks are somewhat creative, though it's nothing that will wow you when you first race on them.
The game's angle is that at the start of Adventure mode, you can pick a team of racers. Team Bandicoot and Team Cortex are the two you start with, and each team has three pilots: The all-around racer, the small, easy to control type, and the big clunky speed character. There are four teams in total, with two racers racing from each team. The idea is to have either you or your teammate place first. This format presents an interesting situation to the person playing: You don't need to win the race yourself in order to win that particular track's trophy. This means you can theoretically beat all of the tracks without winning a single race yourself, which sort of defeats the purpose of a racing game.
Compounding this is the actual racing. During the course of a race, a "Team Frenzy" meter fills. After about a lap or a lap and a half, it fills completely and upon activation, it gives you unlimited random items for about 10 seconds. This means you can unload on someone ahead of you, easily overtaking them, or drop items behind you at will, making it really hard to be passed. This makes the racing way too easy, since all you need to do to win is wait until the last half lap, use Team Frenzy, and take out the two guys in front of you and win the race. It cheapens the game somewhat, taking actual racing skill out of the equation, since items come so easily.
Crash Nitro Kart does a pretty good job with power sliding and boosting. When you press either L or R to hop into a power slide, a meter appears. When this meter fills up between halfway and full, pressing the other shoulder button will activate a boost, and the meter will start filling again. You can boost up to three times this way. You'll also get a boost for hopping off of ramps. The idea is to link together the sliding around the turns, hops off ramps and the various boost plates around the track to link these boosts together. Obviously, the more boosts you can get in a row, the faster you'll go. It can be a little hard to handle the speed with some of the faster characters, but it can be mastered with practice.
After you've gone through all the Trophy Races, you have the option to go back to each of the tracks for more racing action. CNK Challenges require you to collect the letters C, N, and K around a track and then win. The Relic Race is the game's version of a time trial, where you go around a track as fast as possible while breaking time crates that freeze the clock for a short period. Both of these modes offer an alternative to the flawed racing that the normal Trophy Races offer, but the racing in general is still average.
The game's multiplayer options are plentiful. You can either race or battle against three friends in a variety of modes. The battle modes include a Capture the Flag mode and Steal the Bacon (which is basically one-flag CTF), and both are pretty fun with four people. The racing is a bit slower with more people on the screen, however, making it a little harder to enjoy. Curiously, the team aspect of CNK’s Adventure mode isn't available with two people, since Adventure is for one player only. It would have made a lot of sense if you could play through Adventure cooperatively.
Considering that Mario Kart is already out and about, it's would be impossible to recommend Crash Nitro Kart over Nintendo's own kart racer. However, some might be turned off by Mario Kart's relatively high difficulty, so something as easy to beat as CNK might be nice to play through if you've been frustrated by one too many turtle shells. There's only room for one kart racing title on the GameCube, and unfortunately for Crash Bandicoot, his game isn't it, even if you can get some enjoyment out of it.