Kart racers are a bit of an enigma. They’re easily the most suitable racing games to play amongst friends, but they’re also capable of rapidly ruining relationships. They seem so lean and simple compared to the colossal car-PGs that dominate the realistic end of the racing spectrum, and yet for every bona fide classic – or even every cute, half-decent distraction – there’s a fistful of fetid, phoned-in flops based on the cheapest licenses money can buy. It’s obviously not as easy to put together a good kart racer as it looks.
We’ve been speeding, sliding, and slinging weapons through kart racers on just about every bit of hardware conceived throughout the last quarter of a century. They’ve become a lot rarer these days, although this week sees the release of Sega’s Team Sonic Racing – and Crash Team Racing Nitro-Fueled will be unleashed next month. Can either of this pair stand the test of time and make the cut next time around?
At any rate, our list below of 25 fond favourites is a mix of unquestionable classics and sentimental choices. Don’t sweat the order too much but feel free to share your own thoughts if a personal pick of your own isn’t mentioned.
Crash Nitro Kart
Year: 2003 ● Developer: Vicarious Visions ● Publisher: Universal Interactive
Crash Nitro Kart was a serviceable attempt to continue Crash’s karting capers on a new generation of consoles, though developer Vicarious Visions fell short of accurately emulating the original Crash Team Racing’s razor-sharp handling model. It’s not a better game than the original CTR overall, despite the leap in fidelity, but CNK does have some slick circuits to its name (like the tricky Clockwork Wumpa). A bunch of these circuits are being brought to this year’s Crash Team Racing remake, which will allow us to re-experience CNK’s coolest courses with the superior driving dynamics of Naughty Dog’s sublime original.
Looney Tunes Space Race
Year: 2000 ● Developer: Melbourne House ● Publisher: Infogrames
Filled with inventive weapons and tough racing, Looney Tunes Space Race focuses squarely on tracks with a sci-fi streak. As a result, it lacks a bit of the environmental variety of sister title Looney Tunes Racing, but its sharp, cel-shaded graphics were a decent showcase for the otherwise doomed Dreamcast at the time. Coincidentally enough, Looney Tunes Space Race (which was first released on Dreamcast in the same month Looney Tunes Racing first hit PlayStation) came out in the same year that also brought us two equally-unrelated Disney-based kart racers (also from different developers). Maybe it’s not a bad thing that the kart racing space is a little less crowded these days.
Year: 1999 ● Developer: High Voltage Software ● Publisher: LEGO Media
The aspect of LEGO Racers I loved most as a kid was nothing to do with the racing itself. Yes, dashing around its vibrant, varied collection of tracks collecting all colour of studs was a joy. But it was the vehicle creator that kept me glued to my PC monitor for hours after school. The ability to build a garage-full of karts from LEGO bricks is what stood it apart from other kart racers. Nothing put a smile on my face more than spending an hour designing an Ancient Egyptian-Alien-Pirate hybrid monstrosity to only spend less than five minutes careering around a rainforest to break it all up and start again. Yes, LEGO Racers may not be held high in the pantheon of car handling, but it offered so much more than that.
Walt Disney World Quest: Magical Racing Tour
Year: 2000 ● Developer: Crystal Dynamics ● Publisher: Eidos
Back in the year 2000 you couldn’t throw a dart into a games store without hitting a kart racer. Walt Disney World Quest: Magical Racing Tour wasn’t even the only Disney-licensed kart racer to arrive in 2000; Mickey’s Speedway USA by Rare arrived on the N64 in the same year. However, while Mickey’s Speedway USA was a bit of a step back from Rare’s earlier work with the much-loved Diddy Kong Racing, Walt Disney World Quest: Magical Racing Tour received plenty of props for its charming presentation and robust racing. The courses were all based on stylised versions of famous Disneyland rides, like the Haunted Mansion, the Jungle Cruise, and Pirates of the Caribbean, amongst a bunch of others. You can scoff at its mouthful-of-a-name and antiquated appearance today, but know that it was the next game out of Crystal Dynamics following its critically-acclaimed 1999 cult-fave Legacy of Kain: Soul Reaver, and it was directed by the same bloke who went on to produce Dead Space and direct Call of Duty: WWII.
Mario Kart: Double Dash!!
Year: 2003 ● Developer: Nintendo EAD ● Publisher: Nintendo
The Gamecube era saw Nintendo enter a phase of risk-taking and experimentation as far as its biggest franchises were concerned. Metroid became a first-person shooter, Luigi became a reluctant ghostbuster, and Mario Kart: Double Dash!! became a mathematical equation, one in which the product of doubling the number of drivers per kart would equal the division of the Mario Kart audience. Yet whether you viewed the tandem kart racing as a welcome deepening of the series’ racing strategy or rather an unnecessary convolution of what makes Mario Kart so approachable, Mario Kart: Double Dash!! must be applauded for daring to be different at a time when the kart genre had become a racing grid overcrowded with imitators. And while its pair-based racing would never resurface in the series again, a number of its other innovations – such as the expanded variety of karts – would go on to be commonplace in future sequels.
Toy Story Racer
Year: 2001 ● Developer: Traveller’s Tales ● Publisher: Activision
Released after the arrival of the PS2 and aimed primarily at kids, Toy Story Racer didn’t have the minerals to mix it up with Mario or CTR but it made plenty of fans thanks to its imaginative tracks and pint-sized thrills and spills. The camera was mounted further back than usual, which helped with the game’s sense of scale and authentically established the characters as tiny toys threading RC cars through oversized environments. Alongside Muppets RaceMania, Toy Story Racer is also a handy reminder Traveller’s Tales did once make games that weren’t exclusively based on LEGO.
Sonic & Sega All-Stars Racing
Year: 2010 ● Developer: Sumo Digital ● Publisher: Sega
Developer Sumo Digital has a pretty eclectic catalogue but one thing it does a lot of is racing and driving games, and the studio has worked with the likes of Codemasters, Ubisoft, Microsoft, and Sega on more than a dozen of them over the past decade or so. Its partnership with Sega on a handful of OutRun games (dating back to 2004 on the original Xbox) is what laid the groundwork for Sonic & Sega All-Stars Racing, a long-overdue attempt by Sega to match Nintendo’s Mario Kart juggernaut with a true equivalent of its own. Sure, there were the Sonic Drift games for Game Gear in the mid ’90s (and some utterly unremarkable and basic mobile phone Sonic racing games that don’t appear to have left Japan), but Sonic & Sega All-Stars Racing was the Mario Kart replica that Sega fans had been waiting for.
Sonic and Sega All-Stars Racing didn’t rewrite the kart racing rulebook but it did feature power-ups unique to each character, and a driver roster that includes a variety of recognisable Sega icons from games like Crazy Taxi, Shenmue, Space Channel 5, Alex Kidd, and more lining up against the main cast of the Sonic the Hedgehog series.
Mario Kart Wii
Year: 2008 ● Developer: Nintendo EAD ● Publisher: Nintendo
As with many titles on the Wii, Mario Kart Wii really tried to emphasise accessibility, coming with a plastic wheel attachment for the system’s Wii Remote that allowed newcomers to steer using motion controls. How well that worked I have no idea, as I’m a snob who immediately decried it as being antithetical to the beauty of Mario Kart’s core driving mechanic – i.e. precise, near-constant powersliding. I also didn’t want to look silly holding a plastic steering wheel in mid-air.
Regardless of whether you embraced the motion controls or ignored them, Mario Kart Wii was yet another solid entry in the series and it went on to be the second best-selling game on the Wii – with more than 37 million copies sold to date. So what changed? The field increased from eight to 12 racers, the roster ballooned out to 24 playable characters, and bikes were added in alongside karts. Your choice of character also dictated the vehicles you could choose, with three size classes – small, medium and large – each with different stat ranges. With 32 courses – 16 old, 16 new, and both online and splitscreen multiplayer, Mario Kart Wii was one of the system’s go-to party games.
Konami Krazy Racers
Year: 2001 ● Developer: Konami ● Publisher: Konami
Released as a launch title for the Game Boy Advance, Konami Krazy Racers was admittedly a fairly derivative mascot racer in the Mario Kart mould. However, it was well-received for measuring up surprisingly well to the series that inspired it – even if it was a bit shorter on household names than other games of its ilk (Castlevania’s Dracula and Gray Fox from Metal Gear Solid were lined up against some pretty deep cuts from Konami’s history, several of whom were plucked from Japan-only games). It was relegated to relative obscurity by the release of Mario Kart: Super Circuit shortly afterwards, though Konami did release a sequel on iOS and Android almost a decade later with a largely refreshed character roster, including Pyramid Head from Silent Hills and Frogger from… well, Frogger.
Year: 1994 ● Developer: Vivid Image ● Publisher: Ubisoft
Initially released on SNES just over two years after Super Mario Kart laid down the foundation for the whole genre, Street Racer was one of the first rival karting games to try and reverse engineer the 11 secret herbs and spices Nintendo had sprinkled into its ground-breaking karting classic. It honestly didn’t do too bad a job of it, either. The tracks are a little plain and the kart handling a bit basic, but Street Racer replaced Super Mario Kart’s arsenal of items with fun, specific offensive powers for each racer, plus the ability to lash out left or right to wallop nearby opponents. It also boasted four-player splitscreen (and even pupil-punishing eight-player splitscreen in the later PlayStation and Saturn versions) as well as a prehistoric form of Rocket League in Street Racer’s overly-tricky soccer mode. Street Racer ultimately made it to over half a dozen platforms but work on a sequel was shut down in the late ’90s.
Mario Kart: Super Circuit
Year: 2001 ● Developer: Intelligent Systems ● Publisher: Nintendo
Mario Kart: Super Circuit for Game Boy Advance was the third instalment in the Mario Kart series and the first for a handheld, with developer Intelligent Systems somehow crunching Nintendo’s kart racer down to a game cartridge the size of a sugar packet while keeping its contents every bit as sweet. Bundling 20 new circuits with another 20 of the best tracks from the SNES and N64 games, Mario Kart: Super Circuit also added a neat coin-based unlock system to extend the replayability for solo players. But it was the flexibility of its link cable-based multiplayer that made it a mainstay in many players’ GBA carry case, facilitating local GP races and battles for up to four players even if you only had a single cartridge to share between you (and weren’t too macho to race as one of four shades of Yoshi).
Looney Tunes Racing
Year: 2000 ● Developer: Circus Freek ● Publisher: Infogrames
Released on the original PlayStation after the arrival of the PlayStation 2, Looney Tunes Racing was likely lost in the generational shuffle for most folks. That’s a shame because it was a decent little kart racer that captured the tone of classic Looney Tunes shorts surprisingly well, with the art style faithfully recreated and the over-the-top power-ups well on point. Circus Freek even attempted to match its authentic musical cues to the action on screen (a hallmark of the cartoons). The end result sounded a little fractured in-game, but I admire the effort. Looney Tunes Racing didn’t make a huge dent in kart racing culture but it probably deserves an additional nod for its nifty environmental hazards that could be triggered on the track ahead by driving through special ACME arches (kind of like a proto-Split/Second).