“It’s time to play the music,
It’s time to light the lights,
It’s time to meet the Muppets on The Muppet Show tonight”
-Jim Henson and Sam Pottle, “The Muppet Show Theme”
“The following is a contributor post by the Purple Prose Mage.”
It is 19th April 2000. Air Philippines Flight 541 crashes in Island Garden City of Samal, killing all 131 passengers. “Toca’s Miracle” by Fragma is the UK no. 1 single. Sony Computer Entertainment publishes Muppet RaceMania for the PlayStation in Europe.
The “mascot racer” subgenre is something we’ve covered here before. It started with Mario Kart and branched-out into franchises like Sonic the Hedgehog and Crash Bandicoot, but has also seen plenty of unsuccessful tie-ins from titles such as Traveller’s Tales’ Toy Story Racer, which has the same light and drifty feel to the driving physics as Muppet RaceMania on account of it being another Traveller’s Tales game.
One of my intentions with Racing Game of the Week is highlighting these lesser-known releases. In the 40th anniversary year of The Muppet Movie, I knew I couldn’t not let one of these be Muppet RaceMania.
In 1999, the Muppets had released what would be their latest film for the next 12 years: Muppets From Space. It was a box office failure and even Kermit the Frog himself dislikes it.
There was the general feeling that maybe the Muppets had outlasted their cultural relevance, so the obvious antidote was a kart racing game. It’s a subgenre that provides the perfect template because the presence of the associated brand it’s promoting is considered a unique-enough selling point – you should, of course, also find some ways of mixing it up, but you don’t need as many as you might when trying to finding success in another genre.
I‘ve loved the Muppets my whole life. They personify the kind of childlike joy and innocence that can only be disliked by the untrustworthy. I’ve ranked their 2011 comeback film in my top 20 of all time, directly beneath The Dark Knight.
It’s such a beloved franchise that there had already been five tie-in video games at this point. After all, not even including the most iconic Muppets, there’s an endless list of supporting characters with their own gimmicks. On paper, the concept was flawless. All they had to do was pull it off properly. And the result is racing that is truly, well, maniacal.
Muppet RaceMania is based on the six films to have been released at that time, with the 24 tracks inspired by specific locations from them, such as the swamp where Kermit sings “The Rainbow Connection” in The Muppet Movie to the laboratory from Muppets From Space. Each track is introduced with a clip from the original film scene featuring the location that inspired it. Not only do these clips link the game to its source material but they also add character as well as being charming in their own right.
Any one of these tracks is exhibited by an attraction video during the menu, which will allow you to start playing it straight away if it particularly takes your fancy. That’s a good way to jump right into the game quickly if you just want to have some fun rather than working to complete it – though completing it is no easy task. There are 8 Muppets initially available with 17 more to unlock – but that’s not going to be easy for you.
That’s because the actual racing is only a starting point for the chaos that follows. In the heat of a race, things will get extremely hectic due to how deceptively complex the physics and track design really are. While any good kart racer will make its tracks challenging to navigate in some way, every track in Muppet RaceMania has multiple secret routes, some of which can only be discovered by destroying the scenery that hides them with a power-up. The player can hold up to two power-ups at once because that really is how often you’ll need them when in the midst of competition.
Power-ups are obtained by driving through stars and have the standard functions you’d expect power-ups to have in a kart racing game. There may only be four of them – chickens, fish, bombs and penguins – but this was ultimately a good idea on the whole because it allows you to remain focused on everything else, like collecting food to build your meter and activate your special moves. Every character has one of these special moves, which, when used, will affect all racers simultaneously – but when they do use it, you’ll at least be shown whose it is so you know who to target the most or unlock next if you fancy having that special power yourself. But unlike other kart racers of the time, the power-ups are more than just tools; hitting another racer will earn you a point, but being hit by another racer will also lose you a point. That might sound like a challenge but it really isn’t: the stars to obtain power-ups are everywhere. You’d have to make a special effort not to pick one up. This means that, at any given time, every racer will have a power-up equipped with another one probably also ready to go, so the races essentially become constant battles taking place on tracks designed to deceive and confuse as races battle not just to win the race but to attain the most points while doing so while avoiding power-ups fired at them by everyone else.
You will need to play a track several times in order to familiarise yourself with all the possible route combinations, which you’ll want to do if only to avoid the mania for a moment and collect some stars or food.
The battle royale nature of the game is so apparent that all six films also have a battle arena for pure combat. In a battle, every vehicle has a health bar that can be diminished by being hit with power-ups or just rammed-into. Any health you cause a racer to lose is transplanted from their own health bar to yours, to make things a little bit more interesting. It takes the points system of the races and makes 0 as the point of failure.
Every film also has 1 challenge level – 2.5D platform-based obstacle courses that the player must navigate to the end of, each of which also require multiple plays to learn their various routes.
The challenges are best played in 2-player mode, not just because of the alternate tracks to the finish line and the ability to use power-ups, but as a comparison for which player can drive the most effectively within a time limit. They’ll teach how to get the most out of any vehicle, which will be an advantage during races because the controls are very tight. If you notice a new shortcut as you’re driving past it, powersliding into it at the last minute will be a lot easier if you’ve learnt how to do that from the challenges. One tip that will be useful to know is that the turn controls operate independently of the acceleration controls, so vehicles can be turned even when stationary. That’s going to come in handy when driving across thin or short ledges during a challenge – or even if you’ve driven into a wall or have come to a dead end after following one of the many fake shortcuts planted around the tracks to fool you.
These skills can also be applied during adventure mode, if you can call it that. “Adventure mode” puts you on a track with no opponents and a checklist of things to find in order to unlock more content – this is a good way to explore a track to find its secrets.
I may be over-analysing everything here.
What matters is whether Muppet RaceMania is fun to play, which it absolutely is, and this is due to several innovations not present in its contemporaries.
The first is the ability to mish-mash unlocked characters and vehicles, which means you can still play as characters whose vehicles you find difficult to drive. For example, if you want to play as Fozzie without the oversteer of his three-wheeled bubbler, you can match him with another’s character’s vehicle, like Gonzo’s hovering spaceship that drives more evenly across different surfaces. Every vehicle drives differently and with enough experimentation you’ll learn which vehicles are best-suited to each track.
The other is the ability to lock the camera onto the nearest racer behind you to help you place power-ups more effectively.
Power-ups already placed can be avoided with the jump ability, which can also be used to jump on top of other players, causing them to spin-out.
There’s a randomised starting line button-matching minigame that builds your boost meter according to how many buttons you match correctly, with boost also deducted for how many buttons you match incorrectly. This means that the poll position doesn’t have to unfairly disadvantage the player because the boost they earn before the race is proportional to how well they play the button matching minigame. It’s a reward for possessing the kind of dexterity that they’ll need to play the game.
Unlock everything and you’ll be given access to the secret levels. What those are I won’t spoil, but do remember that there’s more to the Muppets than The Muppets…
Muppet RaceMania at first appears to be a conventional kart racing game but it becomes much more interesting beneath the surface. The endless secrets to discover, the challenges to overcome, even, if nothing else, the way it’s all the fun of the Muppets distilled into a video game. It will keep you playing for much longer than you expect.
This also happens to be the favourite game of my mother – who has this to say about it:
“I decided that I was hopeless at it, so I took great pleasure in watching my two children having lots of fun manuevering pieces of cheese and cake with little Muppets in them in and out of corners and up staircases. To me, it will always be the best game ever.”
The Purple Prose Mage is the author of the Racing Game of the Week column aīnd also likes reviewing the latest book he’s read on his own blog at alexsigsworth.wordpress.com. This is a side-project he’s working on while he finishes his novel.
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Categories: Racing Column