If any kart-racing game has managed to rival the quality of the famed Mario Kart franchise, it would be Naughty Dog's Crash Team Racing for the PlayStation. Though it did little to change the kart-racing formula defined by Super Mario Kart, it set itself apart from other Mario Kart clones with some unique modes, excellent track designs, and solid, responsive gameplay. Now, Crash Bandicoot, the PlayStation's former quasi-mascot, gets back into the kart-racing business with Crash Nitro Kart, though this time he's hitting all the major consoles. Though the developer and publisher of Crash Nitro Kart are different from those responsible for Crash Team Racing, CNK plays more like a juiced-up remake of CTR than an out-and-out sequel. This may be a touch disappointing to hardcore fans of CTR, but anyone looking for a solid kart racer should be quite pleased.
The mascot-themed kart-racing game may have fallen out of favor, but Crash Nitro Kart proves that the formula still works.
Though video game mascots have rarely needed much reason to get involved in a kart race, Crash Nitro Kart tosses in a story concerning an evil intergalactic overlord and his evil intergalactic kart-racing competition. Beyond this, CNK offers straightforward kart racing, and lots of it. You can play as virtually any character within the Crash Bandicoot canon, including Coco, Crunch, Dr. Neo Cortex, N. Gin, and Tiny, as well as a few new additions to the roster found in Crash Team Racing. Each racer handles a little differently, though they're all fairly well-balanced.
CNK tweaks the kart-racing formula in a few small, specific ways, lending the game a slightly original flavor. You'll notice a rising power gauge linked to your acceleration at the start of the race, and if you can hit the gas at just the right time before the light goes green, you'll be rewarded with a nice little boost right off the bat. You can also get extra boost by landing big jumps, running over boost pads, or grabbing a nitro canister out of one of the many crates that are scattered across the tracks. To earn big boost, you'll need to master the powerslide mechanic, which lets you come out of a powerslide with jets blazing. It can give you a serious advantage in the race, but the powerslide boost is also very difficult to pull off, requiring flawless timing. In races where you're karting alongside team members, a team power-up is available. Your team meter is filled by keeping close to your teammate, and once you top out, you can trigger the power-up, which will give you instant access to random power-ups for a limited amount of time. The power-ups you'll get from the team power-up can also be found in the crates on the track, and they are largely the same types of offensive and defensive power-ups found in Crash Team Racing. For the most part, CNK is good, clean, kart-racing fun, though like its predecessor, it has a habit of granting power-up preference to players who are lagging behind, which can be great if you're in last place but frustrating if you've maintained first place the whole race, only to be passed up at the last second.
Track design was one of the biggest strengths of CTR, and Vicarious Visions, the team responsible for Crash Nitro Kart, seems keenly aware of this. So aware, in fact, that it has cribbed lots of basic track designs and some specific track elements--and, in some cases, almost the entire track--from Crash Team Racing. Of the few new elements that CNK introduces, sections of track where your kart actually transforms and levitates above the surface are the most prominent, and this allows the track to go vertical, and even inverted in some cases. This sort of disregard for gravity has been a staple of futuristic racers for years, and it's an interesting idea to implement in a kart racer, but the implementation is clunky, and in most cases it feels as though it were shoehorned into an existing track design, rather than realized as an integral part of the track design. Other than these awkward sections, Crash Nitro Kart generally displays some solid, inventive track designs, with a later track that involves a series of leaps into giant warp gates being one of the more unique.