With recent releases such as Team Sonic Racing and Crash Team Racing: Nitro-Fueled, now seems like the best time to count down our favourite kart racers, from the leftfield choices, to a definitive top three few would argue against. So, without further ado, let’s jump straight into it.
7. Mortal Kombat: Armageddon
It seems that no franchise is safe from the contagious kart racer, not even visceral beat ‘em up series Mortal Kombat. This version of Kombat is known as Motor Kombat and was a minigame found in the seventh outing for Mortal Kombat, released in 2006 on consoles.
And it’s a pretty comprehensive minigame, featuring ten playable characters including series veterans Scorpion, Sub-Zero, Raiden and Johnny Cage. They each have their own unique kart as well, and any offensive pickups allow the characters to use their unique in-ring moves: Scorpion will use his spear to grab hold of opponents all whilst shouting his signature phrase “Get over here!” and Raiden will surround himself in lightning avoiding damage.
Racers had five tracks to learn and master. Fail to learn the corners and you could end up crashing into a wall, and in doing so cause a self-Fatality, complete with blood splatter. This might be an idea based on cutesy kart racers, but it hasn’t lost the Mortal Kombat flavour completely.
The biggest problem with it though, was the actual driving. Cars felt skiddy, light and just didn’t handle very well in general. Still, the humour and gore that has made Mortal Kombat one of the best beat ‘em up series around was still there, and it translated pretty well. Let’s hope they haven’t completely forgotten about it if/when Mortal Kombat 12 comes around.
6. Nickelodeon: Kart Racers
Whilst this sounds like a game ripped straight from the ‘90s, it was actually only released in October 2018. Weird then that our review mentions that the graphics for this game come from that bygone era.
Nickelodeon: Kart Racers did feature 12 different characters, but these were only from four different Nicktoons: Spongebob Squarepants, Hey Arnold!, Rugrats and the more recent Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles. That meant that each cartoon had between two to four characters each, but this also meant that several other cartoons didn’t feature at all, including the likes of Doug, The Wild Thornberrys, Fairly Odd Parents and Ren & Stimpy.
There was more variation in the tracks though; 24 to be exact. They were still all across the same four IPs however, but at least this was a much better amount.
Interestingly though, this kart racer doesn’t just keep to the track, it allows races to happen in the water using boats. But again, these weren’t the most exciting or difficult.
But this game has earned its place above Motor Kombat because the actual racing here feels tight. Sure, the environments reuse assets at an alarming rate, and the transition from 2D cartoons to 3D models for some of these characters has not done them any favours, but at least drifting round corners doesn’t feel slidey and all over the place. Karts -and boats- stick to the track like you would expect which makes it feel like you’ve instantly mastered the mechanics and ready to take on all comers. It’s just a shame then that there is no online multiplayer; a huge oversight for a game released less than a year ago.
So yes, deserving of a place on our list. But too hit-and-miss to break into the top 5 for Nickelodeon: Kart Racers.
5. Street Racer
Now here is a game that can be excused for having no online multiplayer; it was originally released in November 1994 on the SNES as a rival to Super Mario Kart (more on that franchise later) and was in one review quoted as “even better” than it!
Street Racer also appeared on the original PlayStation two years later in 1996, and it is there I got my first exposure to it. Round at a friend’s house, we spent many a sleepover playing this and Small Soldiers on the PSOne until the wee hours. But it wasn’t the racing that kept us playing again and again, it was the other modes.
Originally, Street Racer was conceived as a mash-up between Mario Kart and Street Fighter, which probably explains where the rather uninspiring title comes from. There was racing of course, but there was also Rumble and Soccer mode, featuring lots of cartoony violence.
Soccer mode was a special kind of unorganised chaos: 8 cars stuffed into an undersized football pitch all competing for one football and only having one goal to shoot at. It’s a wonder anyone scored anything but there was still some fun to be had when playing against real-life competitors.
Rumble mode featured gameplay like a sumo wrestling match: bash into opponents and push them off the edge of the map. Chaos ensued everytime this mode was launched but it was our favourite mode. So much so we never actually had a race when we played it.
The racing itself was pretty solid however. Pickups were on the tracks but Street Racer tried to change things up a bit at the same time. Each character had a basic attack that didn’t require the use of a pickup – which also came in handy if you picked the dynamite up as you could ‘pass’ it to other players on a successful attack – but then players had a health bar as well that could be topped up with health pickups if it was getting too low.
The first game was published by Ubisoft, with a planned sequel in development to be published by Eidos. This was sadly cancelled and what was a promising debut disappeared into cult status.
4. Chocobo Racing
Whilst the games to come before on this list may all play better to varying degrees, they aren’t a spin-off of Final Fantasy so straight away can’t hold a candle to Chocobo Racing. But the rarity of this game also propels it up the list.
Chocobo Racing is the PSOne standalone version, as opposed to the various minigames that appear in mainline Final Fantasy games under the umbrella of ‘Chocobo Racing’. But Chocobo Racing was actually released as the latest instalment of the Chocobo series, a completely separate series of games that featured the flightless yellow bird in games featuring – amongst others – racing, dungeon crawling, RPGs and simulation games.
Let’s be honest though, the racing in Chocobo Racing is poor, and a quick attempt to cash in with the success of ‘kart racers’ in the late ‘90s. But it featured enough nods and references to Final Fantasy that meant many players overlooked its’ bigger problems. Firstly, the Story Mode for the game was all about travelling the world and collecting crystals, a Final Fantasy staple. Characters and racers included Chocobo, Mog the Moogle, Black and White Mage and Cid – with unlockable characters including Cactuar, Cloud, Bahamut and Squall – and the pickups on the tracks all took their inspiration from moves and attacks from the mainline series.
These pickups were called Magic Stones and included such powers as Fire, Ice, Thunder, Mini, Doom and Haste. A neat little feature here was that you could instantly tell which stone was which power-up due to the colour and design of it, and if you picked up an additional stone whilst holding the same one, you could stack them and increase their potency. These stones could be stolen from players by bumping into them, so there was a real risk and reward element involved.
I’ll be honest here, this isn’t a game I have ever owned the CD-ROM for, having only ever played an emulated version of it. Remember me mentioning it being one of the rarest at the beginning; prices on eBay are currently around the £150 mark for this game and rising. Stay tuned for my Go Fund Me coming soon so that I can purchase a copy.
3. SEGA Racing Series
The games before in this list are all singular entries, but for the next 2 we need to look at their series as a whole rather than an individual entry. Here at number 3 is a competent racer in its own right, but one that lags far behind the top 2.
Unofficially labelled as the SEGA Racing Series, the games Sonic & SEGA All-Stars Racing, Sonic & All-Stars Racing Transformed and the recent Team Sonic Racing are all under the same umbrella for this next entry. Each of these games have been developed by Sumo Digital over the past decade, and all feature Sonic the Hedgehog. That’s all the justification you’re getting.
Picking on the first two games, these featured rosters from the entire Sega back catalogue including characters from Sonic, Shenmue, House of the Dead, Super Monkey Ball and Samba de Amigo. There was no love for the Yakuza series however. Gameplay was very similar to other kart racers but in the first game there were different types of vehicles that had various positives and negatives. In the Transformed follow-up, vehicles had the option to transform into other types depending on the terrain.
Team Sonic Racing ditched the rest of SEGA in favour for a game of purely Sonic characters – and yes, that does mean Big the Cat – in a team-based racing game that borrowed heavily from games like Splatoon, Overwatch and SEGA’s own Sonic Heroes. Characters were split into teams and whoever was leading out of the team of three laid a trail on the ground for teammates to follow and earn speed boosts from (almost identical to ID@XBOX game Trailblazers). Individual performances were rewarded but the best prizes came from how well the entire team performed.
The big plus points for this makeshift trilogy are the huge cast of recognisable characters but also – in particular Team Sonic Racing – the cars handled really well, and the AI offered a decent challenge. Team Sonic Racing also introduced a full story mode, another reason for just containing Sonic characters, and several challenging different modes.
If you know anything about kart racers, you’ll know which two are coming up. But which order are they coming in?
2. Mario Kart
It may arguably be the one that started this whole subgenre off – and until recently was certainly the daddy of them all – but it may be a surprise to see Mario Kart only in second. At least maybe for those that haven’t played a certain Nitro-Fueled remake. But *spoilers* more on that in the final entry.
Mario Kart needs no introduction, almost as synonymous with the Italian plumber as its platformer entries. Sometimes it is hard to believe there have only been eight main entries in the series.
Starting on the SNES back in 1992, it has released on almost every single Nintendo home and handheld console since. Simply put, it is a system seller.
But across those entries, not much has changed. The old adage goes ‘If it ain’t broke, don’t fix it’ and that certainly applies here. To an extent at least. New features have been added across each instalment but the majority of it remains the same from Super Mario Kart. The number of tracks and characters has never been brought into question though: The first game had 20 tracks, while Mario Kart 8 Deluxe had 48 in total.
Mario Kart knows about its legacy though. As the series has progressed, classic tracks have been re-added in, with a new lick of paint alongside a host of new ones. You’d have thought they’d be running out of ideas after 25+ years of karting action, but the series shows no signs of slowing down.
The characters are as iconic as they come; every man and his dog will be able to name at least one of the roster; gamer or no gamer. But it isn’t just these racers that are instantly recognisable, there are also the power-ups. Banana skins, green/red/blue shells, mushrooms and Bob-omb, players know straight away what their power-up does – something that was a big problem for Team Sonic Racing.
There’s just one small issue that prevents it from topping the bill, and it is something that could be regarded as a positive in some areas. Mario Kart has always had this pick-up and play mentality about it, you could have fun with it no matter your skill level. But this comes at a price compared to number one on the list, and we will explore the reasons for this now.
1. Crash Team Racing: Nitro-Fueled
There’s no doubting that CTR – and all others on this list – owe a debt to Mario Kart. But this very recently released remaster of Crash Team Racing has raised the bar for kart racers, in several ways.
Let’s start with the obvious, it is a bloody gorgeous looking game: the sunset at Papu’s Pyramid, the treasure in Dragon Mines, the steampunk aesthetic for Hot Air Skyway. It has been said before, but it needs saying again; it feels like you are playing a Pixar film such is the detail and the design of the game.
And whilst not as iconic as Mario is, certainly many people will recognise Crash and some of his supporting cast. But it is interesting to see some of the more obscure cast members as well, particularly now given new leases of life in such a high-profile release for the series.
But it’s in the boost system that helps elevate Crash above his competitors. Something which at first would appear to be trivial is in fact incredibly complex, requiring time, patience and a lot of practice.
Sure, you can drift around corners in practically all the other games in this list, but in CTR you can add in extra boosts when drifting by pressing the opposite shoulder button at the appropriate time. This can be repeated three times per drift and is an essential trait to master if you want the best lap times. No offence to Mario Kart, but CTR is a much harder game to be fully comprehensive at, and it feels more rewarding as a result.
In particular it is this game in the Crash Bandicoot racing series that has taken the top spot, as it is firstly a modern recreation of the original Crash Team Racing game on the PSOne, but also containing tracks and characters from future releases: Crash Nitro Kart and Crash Tag Team Racing. It feels like a celebration of those games, with the promise of more to come in the form of Grand Prix events, where players can unlock new characters, tracks and lots of new customisation options. And that’s why we celebrate this game by putting it at the top of our list!
So, do you agree with us with this list of best kart racers of all time? Are there any we have missed? Let us know in the comments below, or we can settle it on the racetracks themselves!