Mario Kart has always been the king of kart racers. Having played the DS version via Wi-Fi Connect the other day, and now Crash Tag Team Racing, we can confirm that this is not something which is about to change.
That probably won't come as much of a surprise to you, but this might: CTTR is actually a very good game that throws a wide variety of challenges, decent graphics, a sense of humour and some nice finishing touches into the mix.
Don't go expecting another Mario Kart clone in the vein of Crash Team Racing or Crash Nitro Kart, either. Developer Radical Entertainment (the latest in the long line of developers to tackle the Bandicoot franchise) has attempted to do something new with the genre here, blending several different gameplay styles together - not an easy task, but it has nearly pulled it off.
Clash team racing
For starters, there's now a car combat element to the game, thanks to a feature called "clashing". This means that at any time during the race you can press triangle to merge your kart with one of your opponent's, creating a single vehicle. Then you can, if you wish, abandon driving duties to take control of a gun turret with 360 degree rotation.
Cue vast amounts of fun as you pick off enemies on all sides, watching them explode in satisfyingly large balls of flame. There's always the option to switch round and get behind the wheel again, but there's really no need - the other characters you team up with invariably do an intelligent job of steering round the course.
One advantage of driving in a clashed kart is that it's a lot easier to fill up your boost meter, which is done by blowing everything from rival vehicles to random objects into smithereens. You're rewarded with a burst of speed, which makes up for the fact that clashed karts are generally a bit slower and heavier to manoeuvre.
But you can't get away of hooning round tracks in clashed karts all the time, especially once you get further into the game - you'll need to use a bit of strategy, working out when to clash and when to split off and go your own way (doing this also gives you a quick speed boost, usefully).
You don't need to clash to blow up your opponents, either. There are plenty of pickups dotted around each track, such as fiery bowling balls, exploding chickens, and sticks of dynamite to which some scamp has tied squealing monkeys. It all makes a nice change from the old red and green shells.
The physics system works well and the controls are responsive, but winning races is more about clashing at opportune moments and shooting on target than taking the perfect corner or driving the perfect lap. So if it's pure and simple karting action you're after, you might be disappointed.
But if you're looking for a racer with a bit extra, you won't be. Straightforward racing is only a small part of the single player mode - you access courses by exploring a huge theme park, complete with all manner of gaps to jump, switches to switch, coins to collect and items to buy.
There's also a wide variety of characters to meet, from our old friend Dr Cortex to vendor robots to ninja penguins. You can buy nifty extras such as new outfits, and play some truly excellent mini-games. Our personal favourite is the skeet shooting round where instead of aiming at clay pigeons, you're taking out live cows, pigs and sheep. Hit your target and it'll explode into steaks or chops as appropriate, uttering a plaintive moo, oink or baa along the way.
Each area of the theme park contains doors which give you access to the race tracks (all with puntastic names, such as Pirates of the Carburettor and Rings of Uranus), and a range of options to choose from if you don't fancy a plain old race.
First up is Crashinator, where you're the only car on the track and have to hit a certain number of targets within a time limit. It's great fun and, like almost all of the race modes, has a just-one-more-go factor that makes it hard to put down.
Unlike Fast Lap which, like the Burning Lap races in Burnout Legends we've been so troubled by lately, requires you to complete a circuit perfectly with no room for error whatsoever. It's impossibly hard, and not much fun as a result.
But when it gets you down you can always release your frustrations with Rolling Thunder - no worrying about who's in first place, you just hoon round the track blowing up as many opponents as possible, as often as possible, with unlimited ammo. And finally there's Run and Gun - shoot targets with a big fat machine gun as your partner races you round the track. Excellent.
The variety doesn't stop there. There's also a series of battle arenas to unlock, where you're zooming around collecting weapons and health power-ups and blowing everyone up. Again.
The point of all this is that you earn crystals for winning races and battles, completing the various mode challenges, doing well in mini-games and taking on quests which NPCs give you as you're exploring the on-foot levels. You use these crystals to unlock new areas and tracks, which you can then visit in multiplayer mode.
There are plenty of options here, too. You can opt for a single race, a grand prix, a battle, or visit a stunt arena. These are littered with ramps and obstacles, and you score points for pulling off tricks. The novelty wears off rather quickly, but it's fun for a few goes.
As with all karting games, the most fun is to be had when you're playing against real life people rather than in-game characters. There's a LAN option but who can be bothered - besides, the split-screen works fine.
So what's not to like? After all, there's a vast array of gameplay types, the clashing feature is innovative, the multiplayer modes are fun and the whole thing is polished off with plenty of neat little touches (we especially like the way you hear a burping sound if you impatiently press the X button during a loading screen).
The graphics do a decent enough job - the characters are a healthy size, even in splitscreen mode, and environments are surprisingly well detailed. However, they're rather gloomily-lit in some areas, oddly. There are lots of great smashing and crashing sound effects and the music is excellent.
But it's as if they've tried to do so much here that they've lost sight of the fundamental principles of kart racing along the way. Fun though the races may be, there's no real depth and no learning curve. You don't feel like your driving skills are improving significantly as you progress through the game, and there are few tricks and strategies to pick up once you've mastered the clashing element. Which will probably take you about two minutes.
The end result is that Crash Tag Team Racing is not a game for the kind of hardcore Mario Kart fan who spends days on end perfecting their skills. It's very easy to win races, even on the Hard difficulty setting, the platforming sections offer no real challenge, and the fun to be had from blowing up opponents when you've clashed your kart wears thin after a while.
But we can quite easily imagine our nine year old selves giving this game 11,000 out of 10, and telling all our friends how wicked it is, and becoming exasperated by grown-ups who can't understand how wicked it is when we've explained why it's so wicked in perfectly simple terms. Idiots.
So if you're looking for a Christmas present that will please a nine year-old whose favourite things are cars, guns and big explosions, this will do the job nicely and is likely to keep them entertained long after Boxing Day.
Equally, if you're up for a racer that's a bit different, has plenty to offer the solo gamer, and doesn't present much of a challenge but gives you lots of opportunities to blast the living daylights out of everything, CTTR is definitely worth a look.
But you're after plain and simple kart racer that rewards you for hours of practice and skilful driving, and will keep you and your friends entertained during many a post-pub session, this game isn't for you. There's too much emphasis on all the other stuff you can do, and not enough focus on the racing dynamics.
In short, Crash Tag Team Racing is no Mario Kart. But thank goodness it's not another Mario Kart clone - or what a shame it's not another Mario Kart clone, depending on your persuasion. Nine year-olds tend not to give a monkeys about such things, in our experience, and they're likely to love it. Grown-ups should approach with caution.