Licensed games are not nearly as prevalent as they used to be. It might be easy to forget just how shameless some of these were in trying to making a quick buck at the expense of young fans of the respective properties. Still, nowadays we see some of them come around every now and then, allowing us to often turn a blind eye. On the off-chance you might pick them up, they tend to be rather poor in quality. I think it was this ingrained low expectation that made my time with Nickelodeon: Kart Racers as enjoyable as it was.
Nickelodeon: Kart Racers just screams low budget from the get-go. The sound effects feel two console generations old, and the music is better left muted, with rather irritating tracks repeating often. I found myself quickly turning the music off and replacing it with Spotify. On top of that, the sometimes scary character models and general PS2-era graphics don’t exactly do a great job at starting off on the right foot. As often is the trouble with creating 3D models based on 2D properties, most of the characters, with the surprising exception of Sandy Cheeks, don’t benefit at all from this upgrade.
The game’s cast includes characters from four different Nickelodeon shows: Hey Arnold, Rugrats, Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles and Spongebob Squarepants. Each character has a unique vehicle with different stats, though these can be drastically changed with the equipment system. They also get an item unique to them during gameplay that can completely change the course of the race. The chosen cast is puzzling however. Why shows like Hey Arnold and Rugrats have been chosen are odd, considering the height of their popularity was long ago, alienating what I imagine the target demographic is. The decision to leave out some more recent shows like The Fairly OddParents, cult classics like Danny Phantom or My Life as a Teenage Robot or even the extremely popular Avatar: the last airbender is puzzling. Especially so as one third of the cast is taken up by the four Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles.
The low quality graphics extend to the karts you ride as well. Very few have any intricate details, even in the more expensive unlockables. The trade off with this though, is that nothing looks terrible either. Most of the unlockable models are simple enough that with the various paint jobs you can collect, Nickelodeon: Kart Racers looks good enough not to take too much notice. Luckily, while the graphical fidelity and art in general are not anything to look at, the environments and carts are colorful and do a good enough job at encapsulating the general look and feel of the shows they represent.
The game features 24 different tracks taking place in the universe of the various characters you get to play as. While that is a large number, most of these maps aren’t visually distinct enough to be memorable, leaving you convinced that you are seeing reused assets throughout. These maps come in two different varieties too; the first offers your more standard experience, taking after Mario Kart 7, and pushing you through different types of terrain as you progress through the stage. The second type of stage meanwhile focuses on the boat racing. The two of these map types, along with three different game options, including standard racing, elimination and slalom, allows for just enough diversity so that you don’t get too bored.
Kart Racers offers tons of different game modes, some more entertaining than others. The main draw is the Grand Prix mode that offers a total of 9 different grand prix cups, with a variety of maps and racing opportunities. This is where you will most likely spend the majority of your time leveling up, in turn unlocking kart modifications and getting Achievements. The game also includes free race, time trial, coop with both friends and AI, and multiplayer. The biggest detriment to Nickelodeon: Kart Racers is the fact that there is no online coop. This is a huge oversight in today’s day and age, and a big miss on the part of Bamtang Games. Being able to play with friends, even when playing janky games, almost always makes the experience more enjoyable and I think that not being able to do so online hurts. And what multiplayer there is included is lacklustre to say the least. In the battle arena, you are limited to the amount of people playing with you. There is no AI present making the maps feel empty and the action boring.
The gameplay itself is rather standard for a kart racer. You zoom around the map, collecting items to either defend yourself or attack others; almost all of these items you will be familiar with. See, they include variants of the classic green, red and blue shells from Mario Kart, as well as the standard vision blockers, so you will find a ton of different items in your potential arsenal. The character specific items are a bit more varied, including a lasso that you can throw around enemies and drag them to you while providing you with a boost, a flock of pigeons that lifts you up and moves you forward, or even gum to slow down your enemies. It is these which allows for Nick Kart Racers to get a bit more interesting, making the characters distinct, and ensuring your choice matters.
When it comes to racing, Nickelodeon: Kart Racers surpasses any expectation you may have had. The controls while on the road are tight enough for this type of game that you never feel cheated when you aren’t able to make a tight corner, and the sense of speed you get, especially when boosting, feels satisfying. Thankfully Bamtang Games also gets the drifting right. I’ve often found that in kart games I drift constantly, and this game is no different. By taking advantage of the small boost that a successful drift gives you, map traversal becomes much easier and swift. Once you get used to the controls, drifting feels natural, and you almost always know where you will end up on the map when you drift. The game’s slight tilt of the camera and sound effects for drifting help sell the effect.
The entire racing experience also has an satisfying boost system. On the left of the screen you have a boost bar with three different levels, and as your bar raises your length of boost increases. Often I found myself saving the boost until the meter is full, since you get the most speed and you don’t need to worry about any enemies or obstacles in the way, since you can blow right through them. Boost is gathered by driving on top of slime puddles and these come in three different forms: pre-laid paths on the map, slime valves that can be turned on by driving on top of them throwing slime across a portion of the map, and the boating sections.
Maps are separated between two types, the more standard offerings and boating options. The latter often revolve around passing on the correct side of a buoy, easily shown by a large arrow pointing where you should be. Since the map is all on slime, you are constantly building up your boost meter. The sense of speed that you can get, coupled with being able to take tight corners can be rather enjoyable. There are a few issues with how these maps unfold however. One problem is that the handling of the vehicles seems slightly off; it almost feels like you are going across choppy water but the water itself is animated calmly. The next is that these routes are incredibly easy to win, even on the highest difficulty settings. I found myself always at the front of the pack with enough distance behind me that I could crash into as many obstacles as I wanted and still win by a healthy margin. While the speed you constantly gain by racing on slime exclusively is entertaining, it does lose its charm.
Nickelodeon: Kart Racers is a bit all over the place. While the maps that focus on boat racing suffer from bad controls and difficulty issues, this game offers enough variety to occasionally bring a reasonably good time. The release price will be a bit steep for most, but when the game clicks together, the kart racing experience is satisfying enough to warrant a try.