For all the technical prowess, graphical muscle and admirable achievements of racing games like Gran Turismo or Project Gotham Racing, you can't beat a good old karting game for a bit of undemanding and instantly gratifying fun. Despite the various Mario Kart iterations having the sub-genre all but sown-up for the last fifteen years or so, in 1999 Naughty Dog snuck up on the veteran Nintendo franchise and unexpectedly usurped it from its lofty pedestal.
CTR: Crash Team Racing follows those principals laid down by the original Super Mario Kart in that it takes the cast from an existing already-successful platform franchise and builds a superb part-racing, part-combat game around them. All your favourites from the first three Crash Bandicoot games are present - titular hero and everyone's favourite denim-sporting orange videogame marsupial, Crash, his computer nerd sister Coco, the pathetic and consistently unsuccessful antagonist Neo Cortex, as well as a handful of supporting allies and enemies including Penta Penguin, Dingodile, N. Gin and Pura. As you'd expect, each character has strengths and weaknesses (such as Tiny's slow acceleration but high top speed and physical superiority), and although the roster of racers starts as a modest eight, you can unlock a further seven characters in addition to this.
There are about twenty tracks here, and they are each based around levels and areas from the first three games. Most are fairly large, and you'll race through areas such as Tiny Arena (a muddy, bumpy and deceptively taxing indoor race track), Castle Cortex (a red-carpeted, varying-gradient track replete with intrusive spiders), Hot Air Skyway (one of the trickier courses; it floats in the sky and is filled with tough jumps and nauseating drops) and Coco Park (a novice-friendly early track with fast, long straights and little by way of obstacles). The track design is one of the game's strongest elements in that the difficulty is perfectly balanced and rises incrementally across the four arcade championships, and they are also abundant with secrets and short cuts, and lots of incidental details that will pass by novices but the more experienced will learn to take advantage of.
Naturally, there are a huge variety of weapons and items you can pick up and use both for defensive means and against your opponents (in crates helpfully strewn around the race track). All the usual boxes are ticked, such as homing missiles (even more deadly and useful when they come in threes), explosive crates, nitro boosts, one-hit shields and temporary invulnerability. The potency of these pick-ups is increased when you collect ten or more apples, which are liberally scattered around each course individually or inside crates en bulk. The advantage throughout races can sway back and forward largely depending on what items you collect, and if you take advantage of good collectables you can tip the balance in your favour in one fell swoop.
Crucially, the handling is exact and instantly responsive - it needs to be as you navigate a collection of hazards and tricky, twisting track design, whilst avoiding and combating the seven opponents. You can hop with a tap of R1, and doing this as you turn sends you into a powerslide (much like in Super Mario Kart). You can also leap off the top of ramps, and you are rewarded with a small speed boost depending on how much 'hang-time' you get. Whilst the racing seems initially simplistic with a distinct pick-up-and-play feel, it has layers of hidden depths and intricacies which you will become more familiar with and begin to master as you spend double-figure hours with the game. To quote an old adage, it is a perfect example of a game which is simple to learn but taxing to master.
You cannot really discuss this game without mentioning the fantastic multiplayer modes. You can partake in the four arcade cups with one, two or three friends, which is brilliant fun, but the exclusion of any AI opponents with more than two racers is a bit of a shame. However, it is the battle mode which is the real draw when you have two or three friends and a multitap to hand. Placed in one of four arenas, you have the opportunity to collect the same items you find during the races and duke it out with your friends. Forget first-person shooters and forget online multiplayer; four-player Crash Team Racing is possibly the most enjoyable, playable experience that can be found on any console, ever.
There are several different game modes to play through, and collectively there's a lot of potential for repeat plays. The main portion of the game is the Adventure mode (profusely lifted from N64 title Diddy Kong Racing), where you travel round a fair-sized world in your kart garnering instruction from mentor Uka Uka or Aku Aku and taking part in races and challenges. The plot revolves around an alien called Nitrous Oxide who has come to Earth to turn it into a giant parking lot, and it's up to our heroes and villains to unite in the common interest of stopping him. They do this by racing fast and winning relics, or something, and� whatever; the plot isn't important. This is a karting game, not Metal Gear Solid. All you need to know is there is driving to be done and races to be won.
Graphically, CTR follows closely in the footsteps of its platformer forebears. Everything is exaggerated and boldly coloured in a vibrant, cartoon-ish manner, and things move swiftly and smoothly with nary a graphical fault present (bar infrequent clipping issues, but they are barely worth mentioning). Characters are recognisable (the familiarity obviously helps, too) and nicely animated, and the tracks themselves are nice-looking and tick all the usual design boxes, and the art style almost adopts a Tim Burton-esque angle, with some unique little quirks and features here and there. Sonically, the cast all come equipped with little catchphrases (which thankfully are not repeated enough to become annoying), and the music is inoffensive and full of energetic chirpy ditties which sound reminiscent of the series� previous soundtracks.
If you were to break out your fine toothcomb and probe for faults, well, you wouldn't find much, although there are a couple of things which shouldn't go unmentioned. Principal of these is probably the fact that - as great as CTR is - it is incredibly similar to the Mario Kart games, almost to the point of plagiarisation. It's understandable given Mario Kart all but perfected such an enjoyable and successful formula (and CTR was hardly the only game to mimic that series), but nonetheless leaves CTR feeling a little vapid and unoriginal at times. Elsewhere, it can be a little frustrating how easy it is to screw races up if you take your eye off the ball. One mistake can quite easily see you drop from the lead to a position mid-way through the field, and can mildly frustrate. However, this is an element which will become less grating once you gain experience at the game and become more than a match for the computer even at the hardest difficulty.
Crash Team Racing may not win any awards for innovation or originality, but when a game is as consistently fun as this its hard to mark it down for such relatively minor shortcomings. As a single-player game it delivers a variety of challenges and thrills, but it's when you play this with a room of friends that it really starts to prove its worth, standing as a shining beacon of split-screen multiplayer gaming. CTR achieved the unthinkable in beating Nintendo's portly plumber at his own game, and I can't recommend it strongly enough.
9 / 10