|Developed by:||Naughty Dog|
Super Mario Kart has a lot to answer for. Nintendo’s long-running kart series first launched on the SNES in 1992, ushering in an era of kart-based racing as seemingly every developer tried to cram a roster of madcap characters into a racing environment. Sonic Drift, Diddy Kong Racing, Bump ‘n’ Burn, each owes a debt to Mario and chums.
Not to be left out, Crash would join the party in 1999. After battling his nemesis Dr Neo Cortex over 3 brutal games, what could be better than to invite them all for a down and dirty kart race?
Development on CTR began shortly after Crash 2 wrapped and was originally conceived as potential stand alone game before the Crash franchise was bolted on top. It would be the final Crash game developed by Naughty Dog. It received rave reviews across the board, going on to sell in excess of 2 million copies globally.
Let’s get the obvious stuff out of the way first. Those familiar with Mario Kart will have a broad idea of what to expect. This is circuit-based Kart racing, utilising a roster of familiar characters, each with their own strengths and weaknesses. There are weapons to be picked up, speed boosts, short cuts, time trials and unlockables galore. So far, so very Mario.
Superficially the resonance to Mario Kart is strong. Crash-themed crates may replace the question mark squares for power-ups, exploding test tubes might replace banana skins, rockets might replace shells but we’re not fooled.
There are echoes of Mario in the racing too, although also some distinct differences. There is a real sense of speed as you blast off the line, timing your rev for a cheeky speed boost. whilst hitting jump into corners gives the option for a power slide and another speed boost.
Arcade mode and time trials let you dip in and out to test the tracks and sample the characters but the meat of the action is in the Adventure mode. Cleverly adapting the warp room set up of Crash 1 and 2, you move around an island to find the next race to compete in, progress to the next achieved only be besting an end of level boss.
It’s a neat mechanic, giving a sense of tangible progression, each zone offering a different setting, themed around the boss character. Again, in a nod to the platform games, once beaten each race can be tackled again to race a time trial or collect a set of letters hidden throughout the course, completion awarding extra trophies which in turn unlock further courses.
The boss races offer a different spin on the formula. It is just you against the boss over a couple of laps, tasking you with finishing first whilst he chucks explosives at you from the back of his car.
Much like Crash himself, racing action is punchy and aggressive. Progression is only achieved by winning each race (2nd place is 1st loser, kids) which adds an immediacy to the action. Courses are generally a good length, comparable to those of the Wii / Wii U era Mario Kart, hitting that sweet spot whereby you can learn the layout whilst still providing variety. Other racers are aggressive, forcing you to also race aggressively or be left behind. Should you take a whack or go plunging off the side of a bridge the courses are long enough to give you a chance to get back in the thick of the action, often leading to an intense finish.
In some ways it is unfair to keep comparing to Mario Kart but when that title is such an obvious influence it is only natural. in that regard, the structure of the game may leave some cold, Mario’s cup-based approach to races offering a more structured set up. In fact this compares favourably with the Wii iteration, with its combination of jumps and roadside obstacles.
As a general rule of thumb, PS1-era games have not aged well. This nascent period of 3D gaming was ground breaking at the time but now often look like a blocky mess with facial animation showing about as much life as a typical England World Cup qualifying performance.
Given its cartoon styling, Crash escapes some of this to an extent. Indeed visually this is very close to his platforming exploits, no surprise given their shared development time. Those blocky textures are there for sure. Play this on an HD TV and you might be forgiven for thinking you are playing a moving wall. But look beyond the quite natural ravages of time and the enduring quality of Naughty Dog’s work shines through, as it so often does. Each of the characters is brought to life through both animation and limited voice work. Tracks are well animated too, be it snapping plants or dirty great mine carts that hurtle across the track and squish you flat. Again, it reminds me of Mario Kart on the Wii, suggesting perhaps that whilst Naughty Dog sought inspiration from Mario’s first kart antics, Nintendo weren’t shy at taking a sniff round Crash.
I found it interesting too to see how well Crash fit into this expanded environment. Both Mario and Sonic, with the collection of offshoot games, have a well established cast of characters and environments. With just the 3 main Crash games, and all from the PS1, it is easy to assume that Crash doesn’t have such well established canon. Yet actually this setting reveals the depth of the roster whilst the range of traps and obstacles from the platform games translate well into race-based weapons.
It may share some common ground with Mario Kart but this is no clone. An excellent expansion of the Crash universe, putting the characters and locations to good use, not to mention a damn fine racer in its own right.