Let’s give the venerable Mario Kart series its due: after all, it pioneered the concept of depositing beloved mascots into souped-up go-karts and letting them blow each other to smithereens. That said, Nintendo hasn’t always brought its A-game when it comes to its now-beloved racing series, especially in its early days. Back in the late ‘90s, they were even briefly eclipsed by their competition in the form of Naughty Dog’s “Crash Team Racing,” which simply outpointed its contemporary “Mario Kart 64” in its every aspect. Now, twenty years later, after a handful of follow-ups developed by two different studios in the mid-’90s, the Canadian-based developer Beenox has remastered the beloved kart for a new generation of players.
Let’s dispense with the pleasantries: as a child of the early ‘90s who grew up with the likes of Spyro and Crash, I’m solidly in the core demographic for this remaster. Even in its day, I found the flat sprites, single-digit frame rates, and fiddly power-sliding of “Mario Kart 64” to be quite lacking compared to the blocky full 3D of “CTR.” Even though I was already fairly certain I would pick up “Nitro-Fueled” when it releases later in mid-June, after spending a quick half-hour with the game, I’m surprised at the depth that Beenox is bringing to this project. While I can’t help but feel a nostalgic rush at seeing Pinstripe’s fellow besuited potoroos on Hot Air Skyway, or whistle along to the catchy vibraphone-infused theme that plays when you place first in a race, it’s clear that Beenox has brought more love to this remaster than even I expected, and the result is a game that almost any kart racing fan can enjoy.
For one thing, it helps that this is still one of the best-handling games that the genre has yet seen. Forget the gently-sloping curves of old-school Mario Speedway – in “CTR,” 90-degree turns are an almost constant occurrence, and the stage hazards come fast and furious. The game’s signature power-boosting mechanic remains one of its greatest assets, forcing you to time out your boosts as you careen around hairpin turns. The game’s arsenal of TNT crates, poison flasks, and bowling bombs are still as devious and versatile as ever, with many of the weapons presenting an offensive as well as a defensive option.
Thanks to Beenox’s HD treatment, tracks that once came off as generic caves or dead tundra are now teeming with life. While the Crash franchise has less lore to pull on than that of the Mushroom Kingdom – nearly a quarter of the cast of drivers are forgettable bosses that made a single appearance in the original trilogy of platformers – there’s an odd tonal consistency to the goofiness of Crash’s ersatz Oceanic setting that still works even today, even if some of the “tribal” imagery comes off as inauthentic and questionable in retrospect.
“When you’re remastering a beloved retro game like this, it’s always a matter of getting things exactly right,” says the studio head of Beenox, Thomas Wilson. “That means talking to speedrunners who still play the game every few days, that means importing the original assets and taking a look at them, that means trying to make sure we get the physics model exactly right. With each track, we basically treat the actual road itself as exactly the same, but any place there’s room for a little more creativity, we try to put in a little more life. It’s a fun creative exercise.”
The remaster treatment doesn’t just end at “CTR” however – Beenox has also included much of the content from the two unofficial sequels to Naughty Dog’s original, “Crash Nitro Kart” and “Crash Tag Team Racing.” While these games lacked the lasting appeal of the progenitor, they still had their fair share of creative tracks and racers for Beenox to toy with. As with most modern racing games, they’ve also added in the ability to customize your kart and racer with skins and parts you unlock by competing in the game’s in-depth single-player “adventure” mode, which is still unrivaled today in the space.
In the end, remasters are unlikely to turn hearts and minds: after all, they are by definition a known quantity. Still, for fans like me, it’s great to finally have a way to play a gussied-up version of the game on a TV without having to break out the A/V cables from my closet. Here’s hoping that “Nitro-Fueled” manages to live up to that legacy. For those of you who are sick of racing around the same handful of tracks with Bowser, Jr. in “Mario Kart 8,” this retro contender is more than worthy of a look.