Racing Column

Racing Game of the Week #12: “Crash Nitro Kart” (2003)

“Universal Interactive presents… a turbo-charged extravaganza by Vicarious Visions!
Brace yourselves… for CRASH NITRO KART!”

 

FF3-NES-WhiteMage1.png “The following is a contributor post by the Purple Prose Mage.”

It is the 28th December 2003. “Mad World” by Michael Andrews featuring Gary Jules is the UK No. 1 single. The Lord of the Rings: The Return of the King – produced by Barrie M. Osborne, Philippa Boyens and Peter Jackson – is at the top of the Northern American box office for its second weekend. Universal Interactive publish Crash Nitro Kart – developed by Vicarious Visions – for consoles in Europe.

This is the ninth Crash game, the second Crash kart racing game, the first Crash game to utilise full motion video and the last Crash game to be published by Universal Interactive before its closure by parent company Vivendi Universal Games.

Within the racing genre, the kart sub-genre remains popular because of how simple it is. By taking a preexisting franchise and adapting its characters and locations, you can put out an accessible arcade racing game that has brand recognition but doesn’t require prior knowledge to be enjoyed. This was discovered by Nintendo in 1992 when they published Super Mario Kart – and quickly became apparent to other license holders that have released their own kart-based tie-in games over the years, to varying degrees of success. For example, in 1994 – a mere two years after the publication of Super Mario Kart – SEGA published Sonic Drift, the first in an ongoing series of kart racing games based on the Sonic character. There have been other attempts to launch kart-based tie-in games, but only those of Mario, Sonic and one other have maintained any staying power. That one other is Crash.

The first Crash kart racing game was 1999’s CTR: Crash Team Racing for the fifth generation. For the sixth generation, this was followed-up with Crash Nitro Kart, which was itself followed-up with Crash Tag Team Racing. Later this year, an eighth generation remaster of CTR: Crash Team Racing is to be released, titled CTR: Crash Team Racing Nitro->Fueled. It’s a good time to be thinking back on Crash’s kart games.

One of the main differences between Mario Kart and the Crash kart games is Mario Kart’s unlikely nature. Why, exactly, are they all racing together? How have the various locations from the games suddenly been converted into go-kart tracks? I’ve never understood it and probably never will – whereas Crash does at least make it possible for me to suspend my disbelief during its kart games, at least as much as it’s possible to do so. Why, exactly, are they all racing together? Because, you see, they’ve all been abducted by galactic emperor Velo XXVII who’s decided to use his power to force them to take part in a go-kart championship across various planets that have been specifically designed for such a thing. See? Much more believable.
Another difference is that characters are grouped into teams of four, with some new characters: Neo, N. Gin, Tiny Tiger and Nefarious Tropy form Team Cortex; Nitrous, Zem, Zam and Emperor Velo XXVII form Team Oxide; N., Polar, Dingodile and Pura form Team Trance; and Crash, Coco, Crunch and Fake Crash form Team Bandicoot. Once the teams have been assembled, the player can choose whether to play as team Bandicoot or Cortex during the main story, making this a Crash game in which Crash can be a supporting character and Neo can be the protagonist and to have multiple versions of its storyline, making its status within continuity problematic.

For a kart racing game, Crash Nitro Kart has a more obvious and direct progression system.
The championship takes place across four worlds which are themed on a specific environment and each host three races:

  • Terra hosts Inferno Island, Jungle Boogie and Tiny Temple
  • Barin hosts Meteor Gorge, Barin Ruins and Deep Sea Driving
  • Fenomena hosts Out of Time, Clockwork Wumpa and Thunder Struck
  • Teknee hosts Assembly Lane, Android Alley and Electron Avenue

Each race rewards a trophy, with each world rewarding a total of three trophies. Winning all three trophies unlocks the worlds’ bosses, who are (respectively): Krunk, Nash, Norm and Geary. When defeated in a boss race, each boss awards a key and access to the next world for the process to repeat. Once all four keys have been won from the four world bosses, the gate to the boss level, Velo’s Vault, can be finally unlocked.
Rather than hosting three races, Velo’s Vault hosts four gem cups. Each gem cup is a points-based trilogy of previous races. The gem cups award their own coloured gem, as well as unlocking a different racer: red unlocks Dingodile, purple unlocks Zam, green unlocks Zem and blue unlocks Polar.
However, each gem cup must be unlocked first. Each gem cup is matched with a token of the same colour, and acquiring a token unlocks its colour’s gem cup. The four tokens are themselves won by winning three specific CNK Challenges. The CNK Challenges are reruns of previous races, yet along with placing first also require you to collect the three C N K letters scattered around the tracks. But they’re not obvious – you’ll have to find shortcuts and paths that go off-map to collect them all, and then still win the race. Each track’s CNK Challenge is unlocked by winning it, so your best strategy is to either complete a track’s CNK Challenge immediately after winning its race, or to complete them systematically after winning all the races. Then you’ll acquire all the tokens required to unlock the gem cups.
Except one. As intuitive readers can tell, purple is not like the rest. And instead, that gem cup must be unlocked by completing all the crystal arenas. Crystal arenas are timed challenges in which the player must collect all the crystals scattered around a world’s multiplayer battle arena: Temple Turmoil in Terra, Frozen Frenzy in Barin, Desert Storm in Fenomena and Magnetic Mayhem in Teknee. Some of the crystals are hidden behind TNT and NITRO crates, requiring precise driving. Once all the crystal arenas have been completed, the purple token will be awarded, finally allowing you to race in all the gem cups.
Winning all four gems unlocks the final race track: Hyper Spaceway. So can you finally race Emperor Velo XXVII now? Not quite. Before that, you must first train to even race on Hyper Spaceway – and for a good reason. Not only is it the longest track in the game, but there’s no mini-map to guide you around it – and that involves navigating the various space portals that link between the unconnected parts of the track.
To learn the ins-and outs of Hyper Spaceway, you must win its relic race. A relic race is another race mode that functions like a time trial, but with a twist. Around the track are relic boxes containing numbers, and driving through those relic boxes will freeze the time for the number of seconds matching the number on the box. Get enough of them, and you’ll complete all three laps before the time goes past the limit. It’s a cool addition to the time trial format, adding an element of skill and uncertainty to would what probably otherwise be a lone drive around a track. Meet the time limit and you’ll win a sapphire relic – but get quicker times, and you could win gold relics and even a platinum relic. Every track has a relic race, which are unlocked after winning their initial races, so there’s not just this one to win for completionists.
Then, after winning Hyper Spaceway’s relic race, you’ll be able to race against Emperor Velo XXVII in order for him to send you home.

Finally. There’s a lot to get through, but why shouldn’t there be? It can seem a bit tedious, but it’s all to make it more internally varied than its cookie-cut inspirations.

What makes Crash Nitro Kart such an interesting game is that it took the kart racing format and tried to actually do something interesting with it. I know that’s controversial to say – especially given its critical reception compared to the original trilogy – but trying to mix it up a bit is what makes it stand out from its contemporaries, arguably even now. Even the driving physics itself is experimental, with drifts charging a boost meter powered by apples, which can be stolen from other racers by knocking them out with a power-up.

The requirements to advance through the Adventure mode call upon different racing game principles, and the driving physics adds a level of difficulty that takes commitment to truly grasp. Dismiss it all you want as a clone of Mario Kart, but in Crash Nitro Kart, to win, you actually have to be good at the game, rather than just being lucky enough to get a good power up. Say what you will, but when you’re actually playing it, realising how the cartoon graphics have lulled you in to a false sense of ease and being whipped by an obvious master of the game who’s stringing boosts together seamlessly, well…

You’ll see what I mean.


 

The Purple Prose Mage is the author of the Racing Game of the Week column and is currently working on a documentary about the Driver series for its 20th anniversary on 25th June. He also likes reviewing the latest book he’s read on his own blog, covering the World Rally Championship and generally posting about what he’s been playing, at alexsigsworth.wordpress.com.

 

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