Nickelodeon Kart Racer is the latest game from Bamtang, a studio based in Peru. Kart racers have long been a staple of gaming. Is this one any good? Let’s find out!
We’re gonna tackle the gameplay and also have a little story. I’ve always been a fan of kart racers. I’ve always sat in a weird place with the racing genre, where I only like Kart Racers and the Forza series, everything else can piss off. So naturally, when I see Nickelodeon Kart Racer is coming out and that I can play as Reptar, of course, I’m going to be hype. Surely in this day and age, they can’t fuck it up, right?
They fucked it up.
Now, I don’t want to advocate plagiarism, I mean we’re not IGN, but we all know the greatest kart racer is Crash Team Racing. Okay, maybe it’s a Mario Kart, but there’s a tried and true system for these sorts of games and it’s almost completely ignored by Nickelodeon Kart Racer. Sure, you’re in a kart and racing, that’s retained. But the way the game controls is, at least in my mind, completely ass backwards.
While I understand that the target market for Nickelodeon Kart Racer probably isn’t me and is actually children, it doesn’t stop everything feeling like it’s been simplified to the detriment of the game. Drifting, a mechanic that’s not overly difficult in a Mario Kart (or the superior Crash Team Racing) is relegated to a single button press, which results in any hope of depth being removed.
Now, accessibility is key in children’s games, so I understand the need to move drifting to a simple button press, but it sure feels dull when you do it. As you’ll have come to expect, the more you drift, the more of a boost you get when you eventually let it go. Due to its literal button press nature, it leads into some interesting exploits, such as drifting along a straight road. Maybe it’s a weird thing to pick up on and perhaps it shouldn’t have bugged me so much, but there’s no satisfaction from pulling off an awesome drift like there is in a plethora of other kart racers.
Drifting aside, the items also feel lackluster. Remember in Mario Kart, where you’d pick up a red or green shell and then have to decide to fire it forwards or backward? Well, that’s not a feature Nickelodeon Kart Racer decided to borrow, instead, you’re stuck with whatever direction Bamtang coded the item to go in. There’s also a weird balancing issue with the items, as it doesn’t seem to matter what position you’re in when you pick up items. This leads to you getting milk bottle rockets when in first place that you can only throw forwards.
Characters also have unique items tied to the shows they’re from, Reptar breathes fire, Tommy Pickles has a bouncy ball that acts as a blue shell and more. While this is a pretty cool idea, it also totally fucks any semblance of character balance as some character specific items are so much better than others. Take for example Arnold, of Hey Arnold! fame. When he gets his unique item, his kart is picked up by a flock of pigeons, causing him to fly, speed up and become invulnerable. Considering there seems to be no item handicap for being in first place, if you’re playing as Arnold, you can just extend your lead for free, whereas poor Reptar gets to spit fireballs at no one.
Seeing as I just touched on characters, let’s delve into that. There’s a total of 12 characters spread across 4 Nickelodeon properties, Rugrats, Hey Arnold, Spongebob and Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles. You can probably guess that there’s not an even split there, with TMNT sneakily taking up 4 slots. Hey Arnold! only gets two characters, with neither of them being the Grandpa. It’s such a shame that we didn’t get a more diverse cast here and I’d honestly have preferred a single character from 12 Nickelodeon shows, with the only exception being Kenan & Kel would get 2 slots. It’s weird to have a product that could pull on nostalgia for older fans completely miss the mark. I’m not saying let’s throw Amanda Bynes in here, but surely Nickelodeon characters have a bigger age range pull than we get to see here?
The AI in Nickelodeon Kart Racers is abysmal. Rubber banding is abundant, with characters steaming past you with while you’re in first place, only to slow down once they’re in the lead. I used drifting as much as possible to boost around corners (and even on straights) and I still found it difficult to lose the chasing racers, despite never actually seeing them drift boost around anything.
There are a few customization options present in Nickelodeon Kart Racer, all to do with the karts. You can buy and swap out all manner of parts that supposedly make a difference to the stats of the karts, though tbh, they all handle like arthritic cattle so it almost seems like this was entirely cosmetic.
How do you unlock these cosmetics, I hear you cry from the rafters! Well, intrepid reader, you collect coins that appear on the tracks. Sounds fun right? I mean, Mario Kart has you collecting coins while you travel around the tracks and that’s kinda fun, so why isn’t it here? Maybe it’s because Mario Kart is actually fun to play, whereas Nickelodeon Kart Racer isn’t. The numbers on some of the parts are pretty high, with some parts hitting the 500 coin range. To get everything would be a fair grind, considering you probably average 100+ coins per cup. There’s a way to gain more coins, but we’ll get to that.
Completing all the cups in a certain difficulty unlocks extra a few extra cups, in case you wanted more Nickelodeon Kart Racer content, but that actually leads to an interesting point, reused content. So here’s the thing, there’s a fair amount of tracks in Nickelodeon Kart Racer. More than you’d expect, in fact. Or at least, that’s the case until you’ve played through a few of them. See, Nickelodeon Kart Racer does that wonderful thing where it reverses some of its courses or adds in a few little ramps to make it a “different” track. It’s a real shame as there’s not an awful lot going on in the tracks to begin with.
Personally, I’d have preferred fewer, more tightly created tracks. While the experience would’ve been shorter (though that would’ve been grand too), it would’ve at least been made with a degree of love, rather than whatever they’ve done with this.
Naturally, there’s a level-up system that also plays into a pseudo-loot box mechanic. So, knobbing about and racing gets your experience. Once you gain enough experience from racing, winning and having a grand old time, you’ll level up. Once you level up, you’ll get a “Victory Lap”, that’ll allow you to drive around the track you just completed and pick up loot boxes that replace the item pickups.
There’s a time limit on this, but it doesn’t matter because it’s also not a lap, as everything comes to a halt by the time you grab your third box. What’s in the box? Well, Brad Pitt, it’s either a paint job or coins. Maybe you can get all manner of parts for your karts, but I only ever got paint jobs or coins.
Missing another trick, Nickelodeon Kart Racer only has local multiplayer. If you want to play online, well then you’re shit out of luck. Gather 4 friends around your switch and squint at the screen while you try to work out why you’re even playing the game.
The stability of Nickelodeon Kart Racer is also laughable. Now, I initially played the game docked and discovered that when the game loads anything it freezes. So when I was loading into my first Cup and had the audio and little loading indicator stop, I was a little shocked. Then, after spending a little more time with the game I started noticing that Nickelodeon Kart Racer also grinds to a grand ol’ stop when you’re selecting characters, as if rendering out the models is too much for the game to handle. These issues only grow when the Switch is out of the dock and in handheld mode, which leads to the realization that the game is an unoptimized mess.
While I didn’t expect much from Nickelodeon Kart Racer, I was still left with a bad taste in my mouth after playing it. If you have children, do yourself a favor and just buy them Mario Kart 8 Deluxe, they’ll thank you in the long run for not buying them a featureless, husk of a kart racer. Sure, it’s cool to play as Spongebob and the gang, but the novelty wears thin long before you’ve finished your first lap.