Version tested: Wii
This game is an anachronism. It simply should not be. Remember that Donkey Kong racing game that they showed as a first trailer with the unveiling of the GameCube? It's basically that, but it's all gone wrong, and the monkeys are flying about strapped to rocket barrels, and all those long-forgotten, ill-advised SNES Donkey Kong characters are suddenly back in 3D - horrible, disturbing 3D. And it's also inescapably clear that it's a GameCube game designed for use with the bongos, misguidedly resurrected as a Wii game.
Essentially, Barrel Blast - Jet Race in Europe - makes you feel deeply uncomfortable when you're playing it. Partly because early-'90s surfer Funky Kong and the disturbingly-breasted Candy Kong and - eurgh - Wrinkly Kong are whizzing about strapped to two barrels shaped exactly like the bongo controllers, partly because the Wiimote actually emits bongo noises as you're forced to wave it pointlessly about, but mostly because it's just so bad. Although there's nothing overtly weird or completely broken about it, something about the sum of its parts just doesn't work. It's like some horrible Korean knock-off from the future, made by a development team that only had access to Rare's 1992 character catalogue and hadn't actually played a game since Super Mario Kart.
The first is true, at least - the developer, Paon Corporation, has taken the DK catalogue off Rare's filthy traitorous hands, and is also responsible for DK Jungle Climber. It's lazy to call Barrel Blast a Mario Kart rip-off, mostly because it genuinely does attempt to throw in its own ideas in order to imbue the gameplay with its own rhythm and flow, but it's the easiest comparison to draw. You race flying monkeys, or Kremlings (whatever happened to them?), around wacky tracks, making use of items in a variety of game modes - Grand Prix, Time Trail and Challenge, primarily. You unlock new characters and difficulty levels as you go along, et cetera et cetera.
The most obvious problem is the control. It's easy to see how the game would have worked with the bongos - it would still have been imprecise, but it would at least have felt less forced and pointless. In order to gain forward momentum, you have to shake the remote and Nunchuk up and down alternately until you reach a maximum speed; then, shaking one or the other turns left or right, and both at once does a jump. Thwacking the A button throws a basic punch, which blows breakable barrels out of the way and stops other chimps in their tracks. Sadly, it's horribly imprecise - it's nearly impossible to take corners and dodge obstacles with any kind of grace or accuracy, and you end up waving and hoping. This is fine during the first few cups, when not terribly much steering is involved, but later on it's just impossible to manoeuvre with the requisite speed to avoid obstacles.
Barrel Blast does make an attempt at changing the flow of races with a boost combo system. Collecting bananas builds up a boost meter, and smashing into things whilst boosting prolongs the speed spurt; ideally, a perfect lap would involve chaining boosts by smashing into characters/barrels scattered about the track more or less continuously.
Unfortunately Barrel Blast only feels remotely fast or exciting when you're in the middle of a chain of boosts. At max speed, you're just doddling around the track shaking your arms to turn - there is never any sense of speed whatsoever, and all there is to do is avoid obstacles and watch, bewildered, as other racers shoot right past you. Barrel Blast's AI is always faster than you are, and has that irritating ability to catch up on even the most insurmountable leads in a matter of seconds when you inevitably smash into an obstacle or fall victim to an item, at which point begins the pointless shaking to build speed back up. Except, at this velocity, you're not so much smashing into things as gently bumping into them.
On the starting difficulty level, Barrel Blast's flaws grate, but they aren't game-breaking; it's boringly bland rather than offensive. On anything higher they practically render the game unplayable. The characters develop an even more refined ability to catch up from enormous leads in a split-second, the courses are made 'harder' by scattering more pointless obstacles like metal barrels around the place, which makes the imprecision of the control absolutely infuriating. The developer was clearly going for high-speed unpredictable fun, but what we have it second-gear contrived chaos that never gets off the ground.
Even if the controls worked, the horrible racers, presentation and music mean that this game could never be anything more than bland. It's got no speed, no personality, and the characters will scare small children. Barrel Blast is an abortive and uncannily anachronistic attempt at a character racer with impossible controls, dreadful, imbalanced AI and boring design. It's not even worth the hour of your time that it takes to get completely sick of it.
4 / 10