CRASH TEAM RACING (1999) – NAUGHTY DOG
I’ll make no excuses; Crash Team Racing is a Mario Kart 64 clone, pure and simple. When the Italian plumber took his karts to the Nintendo 64 in 1997, it set the bar for everything else, and most of the efforts from developers in the two years afterwards (with the notable exception of Diddy Kong Racing) neatly smashed into it. Crash Team Racing differed from all of the other imitators however, and I personally feel that it did the unthinkable and actually surpassed Mario Kart 64, despite borrowing so heavily from it. Now I am aware of the heavy bias I carry into this review (being a massive Crash fan and all), but keep reading and you will hopefully realise why the marsupial fits the kart better than his moustachioed rival.
The first thing that separates the two games is the inclusion of a narrative in CTR. Whereas Mario Kart just gives you cups and different CC classes to race in, in CTR the world is being threatened by the nefarious N Oxide, who wishes to flatten Earth and turn it into a car park. It is up to Crash and his friends to race all around the world over 16 different tracks in order to foil Oxide in his plans. Nothing complicated or over the top, and already it provides a better incentive to race than Mario Kart does. The inclusion of a story also means that the main mode of CTR is fleshed out much more, in the shape of Adventure mode. There are four hub worlds (which can be driven around) which hold four races apiece, a special crystal collection challenge, and a boss race. Winning the races and beating the boss unlocks a new hub world, until you get to race Oxide. There is a nice balance to the tracks, with some being easy and fun to blast around as quickly as possible, whereas some of the later tracks with their tight turns can be a tricky proposition. It’s not just about simply finishing first however, that’s just one piece of the puzzle. After completing a race, you unlock a time trial mode for each race where you can win relics, and a CTR challenge, which requires you to collect three tokens hidden in the race (in the form of massive ‘C’, ‘T’ and ‘R’ letters) and also finish at the front. There are also gem cups to compete in, which are more difficult versions of the races you have taken part in. Put simply, there’s an awful lot to do, and it makes Mario Kart’s measly four cups look pretty weak in comparison.
Where CTR is at the peak of its powers however, is the way that it plays. Mario Kart 64 is a gem, make no mistake about that. But everything that was in that game is done better here. Crash and his friends (of which there are 16 overall, 8 more than Mario Kart offers) have different attributes to their karts which affects how they race, and it does show in game: Polar the bear can accelerate round corners at the speed of light in his nimble kart, but he can be pummelled down the straights by Dingodile in his much more powerful kart. Regardless of which kart you pick however, the handling is pitch perfect, and aided immensely by the powerslide dynamic. At any time during a race, you can perform a little hop in your kart. Hopping and holding a direction will put your driver in a drift, which can be boosted three times for extra speed (there is a small meter in the corner; pressing the boost button when you are in the red near the top of the bar gives maximum power). You can also hop of ledges and get hang time boost. What this leads to is a game where every race encourages you to powerslide and boost as much as possible to put some distance between you and the AI. Its great fun and very simple to execute, and crucially it feels so much faster than Mario Kart 64, and for me the sense of speed is essential for a karting game. When you master it you can abuse the shortcuts in the tracks (of which there are many cleverly hidden away) to generate some insane lap times. And if you can’t go fast, you can simply blow your opponents out of the way with weapons. Around the track there are weapon crates which give your kart a power up, ranging from simple turbos and potions to rockets and warp bubbles that attack the leader. It is very much the Crash Bandicoot universe wrapped around Mario Kart weapons (the Warp in basically the Blue Shell, Potions are bananas and the rockets are red shells), but what makes CTR slightly more interesting is that you can collect Wumpa Fruit, also stored in crates, and increase the effectiveness of your weapons; so for example a bomb will have its radius increased and turbo’s last for longer. The game excels at being a fun and engaging challenge.
And joy of joys, the good new keeps rolling in. Adventure mode isn’t the only thing on offer here: there is a separate time trial mode (allowing you to do times with the freedom of choice with regards to character selection), arcade mode (which is basically what Mario Kart is: the tracks neatly organised into cups for you to attack) and the games crowning glory, an outstanding multiplayer mechanic. Supporting up to four players, you can race across the tracks on offer, or engage in a battle, which in my opinion is much more intense than Mario Kart, and also much more flexible with regards to customisation. Some of my fondest memories on the Playstation involved CTR and a multitap, and me and my friends would continue to play this game long after the Playstation had died out, which is a true testament to the long lasting appeal of this game. Whereas Mario Kart 64 has been surpassed in house by its sequels, CTR is still as good to play today as it was when it was released in 1999.
The presentation has stood up relatively well over time as well. When it was released it was already a much better looking game than Mario Kart; I’ve always found the sprites in Mario Kart 64 to be lazy and uninspiring, whereas the more cartoony graphics of Crash was easier to pull off and more pleasing on the eye. Many of the environments are ripped pretty much straight from the games, so expect to drives on beaches, in sewers and through castles as you progress; but if it wasn’t these environments then it wouldn’t have been a Crash game, so I’ll give them the benefit of the doubt. One thing that does put me of is the permanent expressions on the driver faces; even when spinning through the air, Crash will still smirk and gurn like an idiot. Given the highly original death animations that Naughty Dog put into Crash 2 and 3, I would have expected a bit more emotion when things go wrong. The game runs smoothly though, even when there is carnage going on all over the track, and you can adjust the camera and heads up display to have the game as you see fit.
For a series that has always been pretty solid in the sound department, CTR is a bit of a mixed bag. There’s some cracking tracks in there, including the catchy main menu theme/adventure mode theme variations, Dragon Mines and Hot Air Skyway, but you can never really hear them because of the constant soundbites put in for the characters which can grate the nerves. At least the bosses (who taunt you before their race and praise you afterwards once you’ve wiped the floor with them) have good voice acting, with Pinstripe getting the stereotypica lBrooklyn 1930’s gangster voice and Ripper Roo laughing his ass off as per usual. Overall it’s a high tempo and polished effort, worthy of at least equalling Mario Kart 64’s soundtrack.
I found it very difficult when writing this review to separate Crash Team Racing in my mind from Mario Kart 64….perhaps you realised. Being such similar games it is impossible not to view them side by side. As I said at the start however, I still firmly believe that CTR is better than its clone father: it just improves and expands so well on the basework that Nintendo had laid, and came out shining as a result. I can use a personal anecdote to sum up here; at the gaming society I attend in Lincoln, one night we had Mario Kart Wii and Crash Team Racing set up. No one picked up a Wiimote all night, because we were glued to the old Playstation multitap seeing who could beat Oxide in a race around Cortex Castle. It’s fast, popular and damn good fun to play; and as a result Crash Team Racing tops the podium every day of the week.