Crash Team Racing: Nitro-Fueled is a gold-standard remaster, capturing the loveably janky, off-brand spirit of classic CTR - and then some.
Crash Team Racing - the original one - is my life-or-death game: the one I'd pick if some cartoon, alien villain came down to Earth and told me I had one chance to beat them in a video game to save the world, and one where I reckon I'd actually have a decent shot at pulling it off, too. I have played it quite a lot, basically - so much that I apparently can't even describe it without referencing it's race-to-save-the-world Adventure Mode - and it's probably the only game I'd say I'm actually, genuinely good at. I'm equal parts relieved and delighted, then, to say that with Crash Team Racing: Nitro-Fueled Activision and Beenox have absolutely nailed it. This is a lavish, fantastically polished remaster.
For the uninitiated (sort your lives out), Crash Team Racing is like Mario Kart only objectively loads better, firstly because it has lots of odd, Prongles-tier characters in it that signify everything great and awful about this era of '90s brand nostalgia, and also because it actually introduced some great mechanics back in the day: namely an active power-slide function (similar to but I promise not exactly the same as Mario Kart's) that not only let you drift around corners to stack up speed boosts, at the risk of fluffing your timing and spinning out, but also required you to actively hit the second shoulder button at the right time to actually get the bonus speed. The later you leave it the more chance of spinning out, but the higher the potential boost in speed. It added - and adds - a brilliant layer of complexity to the game's already cracking, intuitive handling: rather than being just about a good line or good braking, cornering in CTR is about knowing when to hop, when to break and turn mid-air, when to power slide and whether or not to chance a chain of boosts.
Then there's the other standout feature, Adventure Mode, which it borrowed from Diddy Kong Racing (a game I didn't play and so will assume nobody cared about, because it definitely didn't earn a world record for selling fast or anything). It's the main "story" for Diddy Kong Racing and CTR alike, setting you up in a sort of 3D platformer cluster of consecutive hub worlds to pootle about in, each with a set of races and challenges within. Win the world's four races and you can face that world's boss on their home track, beat that boss and you'll unlock time trials and collectable tasks in that world, and the right to proceed to more races in the next. Beat all the worlds' bosses and you face the big boss, Nitrous Oxide, in a showdown for the fate of the planet.
It's a little on the short side, if you're just ploughing through the races - it only took me three and a bit hours, although I should stress just how uncomfortably familiar I am with this game and the fact I mainlined the races only - but it's still a simple and surprisingly neat hook, even now, providing a gentle, gradually scaling introduction to the game's tracks and characters. If you do want a little more challenge, and maybe have a craving for the days of hundred-per-centing games like they were the only thing left in your life, there is still a decent chance to test yourself in the much tougher time trials and crystal-collecting arenas, which drag the mode out far, far longer (but do also feel like someone's using all their powers of creativity to squeeze every drop of "content" out of driving a kart around a track).
Where CTR really shines though, obviously, is the co-op. Couch-wise Nitro-Fueled is maxed out at four players, as you'd expect, but the split screen works a dream, bringing a familiar level of chaos that you get from any kart racer like it. There's no detectable rubber-banding to my eyes, in terms of raw speed, but again like any kart racer there are better items that'll appear more frequently the further back you go - masks that make you invincible, much faster, and knock up anyone you bump into while they're active for a brief time; blippy blue thingies that are basically blue shells, homing in and zapping most opponents in front of you; and a clock that puts everyone else in slow-mo and locks them out of using items themselves as you catch up. Naturally, things get more bogged down in the middle of the pack, where there are more people there to catch you with items and zone you out of crates or booster pads, which means at the other end of the scale it's easier to pull away even further once you get a good lead - but I've still always found the item distribution to be a good balancer. You rely on them a little, sure, but they're more a counterweight to the crowding-out of the main pack than a total crutch: you still need genuine skill if you want to close a gap from 8th to 1st.
The nicely-tuned balancing is just one part of it though really: a lot of Nitro-Fueled's karting just feels like a natural enhancement of features you're already familiar with. You can collect Wumpa fruit, for instance, for a boost to your top speed when you reach the cap of ten - but having ten also means your items all get enhanced, too. Masks last for longer; dropped TNT crates, that you normally have a chance to shake off, become Nitro crates that explode on impact. Subtle things like the placement of item crates, meanwhile, means that you need some incredibly fine mechanical prowess to actually reach them, more so than most kart racers I've tried. I still struggle with reliably hitting one or two of the shortcuts or teasingly spaced-out crates even now, when most tracks are committed almost entirely to muscle memory. There's a constant sense of active decision-making going on - some shortcut jumps, for instance, can only be made with something like an item giving you a boost; some you can easily make without one and some only if you time it immaculately, leaving them ever-tempting and ever-disastrous, at least for the weak-willed like me, who seem determined to throw away a lead.
I'd normally say that level of intricacy is what gives CTR its longevity, the temptation always there to go back and shave an extra few seconds off by nailing a certain jump, chaining a near-impossible set of boosts or just getting all Forza and finding a better line. But with Nitro-Fueled that's sort of moot, because Beenox has just gone ahead and added another fourteen tracks - thirteen from the PS2's lesser-known, locked-in-the-attic sibling Crash Nitro Kart (we don't talk about that one), and an extra retro one for a laugh. There are also ten more characters that I know of, again from the sequel we don't talk about (CTR has a thing for hiding the odd secret unlockable but if there are any more, barring the old cheat-only one I shan't spoil, I haven't found them yet). And there's a surprisingly fleshed-out customisation system too - all cosmetic only, and all seemingly only unlocked with coins earned from gameplay, too, not a microtransaction in sight. Every character has a handful of skins, and there are a wealth of kart-tweaking options - from bodies to wheels and decals - again cosmetic only, again unlocked with in-game progress. Beenox is also promising at least three free "seasons" of DLC after launch, bringing new tracks and characters including, you guessed it, an inevitable appearance from Spyro.
Critically speaking I'm left with little, if anything, to say. I was worried that revisiting CTR might feel a bit like going back to your old school, where everything's much smaller than you remembered - and maybe if it were just the base game that might be true. But Nitro-Fueled feels more like seeing and old friend than an old classroom, even if it's a pretty weird friend who refuses to grow up and still wears jorts in public. It's just plain, dumb fun, a game completely unashamed of itself even now. I think that's probably why, even beyond the enormously generous treatment it's had from Beenox and under the nice, polished-up hood, CTR is still one of the best kart racers ever made.