How do you catch up with Mario Kart? Do you try to find something original that’ll gain you some ground? That’s the Diddy Kong, Crash Team Racing route: exploring things like hub worlds in an effort to stand out. Or do you stay very much in Mario Kart’s slipstream, using ghost items to steal the odd weapon and hope that your character is enough to nudge you closer?
Quite a few games have crashed and burned on the latter route. Garfield Kart Racing, Beach Buggy Racing, All-Star Fruit Racing, and Hello Kitty Kruisers have all disappeared in the rear-view mirror of bigger kart games. Nickelodeon Kart Racers definitely went this way too, and while it didn’t get as close as, say, Team Sonic Racing, it obviously did well enough to down a couple of mushrooms and have another go.
Having spent a fair whack of time with Nickelodeon Kart Racers 2: Grand Prix, its game-plan against Mario Kart is to do more and better than before. Innovation isn’t really a focus here – it’s stacking on more goodies, and to a reasonable degree it works.
Let’s start with the ‘more’. Nickelodeon Kart Racers had 12 racers, and developers Bamtang Games annoyed pretty much everyone by picking solely from Spongebob, Rugrats and TMNT. As an apology, the sequel has gone all-in with 30, and cherry-picks pretty much every character you’d want from the wider network and its history (unless you’re a fan of their live action series: there’s no Clarissa Explains it All or Pete & Pete here, natch). There’s Rocko, Danny Phantom, Aang, Arnold, Invader Zim, Catdog, Ren, Stimpy and more. If your favourite isn’t on the list, there’s a good chance it features elsewhere in the game. Nickelodeon has one of the best character rosters out there – assuming that we’ll never get a Harry Potter, Avengers or Lord of the Rings Kart – and it’s great to see them finally bringing it to bear.
(It should be noted that it doesn’t fully bring them to bear, though, as original voices and soundtracks aren’t present, which will be a real miss if you particularly love certain characters, and it leaves their representation feeling a little empty.)
The 24 courses have been nudged up to 28, while the modes also get more of the ‘more’. The Challenges are the pick of the bunch. These are solo missions that require you to achieve something specific – get to first in a timeframe, hit some targets as you go – and the prize is extra characters for your roster. It may sound simple, but the challenges are varied and the rewards great, and it gives a solo player a little more to go for. There’s a Battle Mode, which puzzlingly opts for a Deathmatch-style killcount to choose its winner (inevitably ending with the best players picking on the worst players), while taking place in too-huge arenas where you can’t quickly spot your opponents. We never came back to it. You also get an Online Mode, which is more for playing with friends than it is for matchmaking. It was a huge omission from the original, so it’s great to see it here.
Of all the additions, one really stands out. The pit-chief and crew characters that you can equip for each race have a real twinkle of inspiration. There are bucketloads of them to unlock, which helps to make progression a joy, as you’ll be winning them after most Grand Prix races and challenges (and they’re recognisable and loved characters like Splinter, so you’ll value them on their own terms). The chiefs have a triggered benefit whenever your slime meter (a charge bar) fills, while you have two slots for pit crew which apply passive benefits over the entirety of the race. These are meaningful, powerful perks, and you can have a whale of a time min-maxing them and getting powerful combos. We ran a combo that gave a boost whenever you got a weapon, and then dropped a bomb whenever you boosted.
If anything, these effects are too frequent and potent – there are already plenty of weapons in the game, and with pit-chiefs/crew feasibly generating weapons, the races can become a firework party. It can get a bit too stop-start in multiplayer, but it’s up to you if you make it that way.
On the ‘better’ side, there’s been a visual overhaul. The presentation in the menus is slick, and the karts themselves look great – a far cry from the cardboard milk floats and crash dummies of the original. The levels themselves still need attention – they’re all in the same art style rather than evoking the series they’re from – but generally the game no longer feels cheap. Nickelodeon Kart Racers 2: Grand Prix feels like a contender in the best kart racers stakes now, rather than the joke racer, although it never reaches the top tier of Mario Kart or Team Sonic Racing.
The driving was never bad in the original, but this time round the nuts have been tightened. For our tastes, the drifting was a touch erratic and initially unintuitive, but everything else feels weighty and hectic, which is where it should be. The level designs are better, but you’ll struggle to recall any of them: in particular, they opt for the same hazard of a creature/obstacle zigzagging across the track from right to left. Sure, the hazard switches out depending on the race, but you wish Bamtang had a bigger bag of tricks to pull from. It’s a level up from the original, but you’ll be aching for a Wario Stadium or Bowser’s Castle.
More unforgivingly, each level is based on a series, but the joy and uniqueness of the series never surfaces in the track design. These levels are nothing more than skins, and you might well reach the checkered flag without identifying the series that the track came from.
There are more power-ups than before, and your enjoyment of them will depend on whether you forgive the wholesale theft from Mario Kart. The blue shell is now a jellyfish; the green shell is Tommy’s ball from Rugrats; the Bullet Bill is now Appa from Avatar: The Last Airbender. It makes for a balanced roster of weapons, but we wanted a little more. To a degree, the pit-chief and crew members save the day here, as you can augment your weapons to give them a bit more personality.
A quick note to some small additions that go a long way. Mario Kart has done a sensational job in adding accessibility controls, and Nickelodeon Kart Racers 2 has followed suit with assisted acceleration (although not assisted driving, which would have been welcome). The Easy difficulty too is pitched superbly for younger players. Mario Kart had been the only racer to really give my five-year old an on-ramp, but now we can add Nickelodeon Kart Racers 2 to the list.
This is also one of the best examples of satisfying progression in a kart game. Mario Kart never really nails the feeling that you’re getting something meaningful for your achievements, but here you definitely do. It sits next to Sonic & Sega All-Stars Racing in that regard, and you’ll be showered with characters, crew and car parts after every race.
Nickelodeon Kart Racers 2: Grand Prix on Xbox One is not just an incremental improvement on the original: this is a gold-mushroom boost into the distance. While it doesn’t quite get on the karting podium – the identikit weapons and flat courses scupper that – it’s a solid kart game which rewards you for persisting with it. If the jump in quality is as large with Nickelodeon Kart Racers 3, we’re going to have a hell of a race for the best kart game.