For a long time, the reigning king of kart racing has been Mario. The Mario Kart franchise effectively started and ended the genre. Competition has come and gone, but the only surviving force has been Nintendo. Well, until last generation. Sega decided to get back in the game after a super long break, with Sumo Digital and the Sega and Sonic All-Stars Racing series. The last game, Transformed, didn’t do Mario Kart numbers by a longshot. However, it garnered enough attention by beating Nintendo to being the big mascot racer of the generation (and being multiplatform), that it was cemented as a series.
Now there’s a third attempt, and it’s trying to change the game. At the same time, Activision’s ludicrous success with remastering Crash and Spyro has turned into a Crash Team Racing comeback. Now, we’re looking at a triple threat for kart racing dominance. Will either of these fresh, fuzzy faces beat the ‘stache? No but the battle for second place will be fascinating.
Crash Team Racing Nitro-Fueled has a natural advantage. The Crash brand is ultra hot right now, especially outside of the states. In the UK for example, the Crash Bandicoot N. Sane Trilogy sold in unbelievable numbers. PlayStation nostalgia is a big deal overseas. Part of that nostalgia is a big attachment to the original Crash Team Racing, so Activision is really striking while the iron is hot here. The game probably doesn’t even need to be that great, as launch sales will likely prove to be explosive. However, Crash Team Racing doesn’t look like it’s doing much to innovate. It looks like a fancier version of the original game, which can be a good thing or a bad thing depending on who you talk to. But with Nitro Fueled so far looking like a traditional kart racer, when even Mario Kart has introduced a lot of newness, at the very least it will have to do some serious work to impress me as a player.
On the other hand, Team Sonic Racing has a lot to prove. The previous racer was a sleeper hit, but this third entry in the series is introducing a lot of changes. For one, all the Sega stuff is being dropped in favor of being a pure Sonic racer. It’s no longer a Mario Kart parallel, making it seem less colorful and diverse. It’s a bunch of animals now. And a robot. And an, uh, Eggman. Anyway, the Sonic brand is in a much more unstable place right now compared to Crash. While Crash is experiencing what may be a total resurgence, Sonic has struggled with years of average-rated games, with Sonic Mania being the solo highlight. Also, the actual gameplay structure of Team Sonic Racing is trying something new with the genre.
The team behind Team Sonic Racing is trying to make the multiplayer experience of kart racing feel drastically different. Usually, kart racing can be a frustrating competition, even if all the characters are bright and smiling cartoon characters. Instead, Sega and Sumo Digital want the multiplayer aspect to be a more positive experience. So now there’s a co-op element, with characters teaming up to help each other get through a race. The idea, according to the game’s producer, is to dial back on the salt from one player winning and the others losing. It’s an attempt to spread the joy of kart racing to include the end of the race and the post-race vibe. It’s an interesting experience, but is that enough of a hook to compel players to stick around?
Meanwhile, Nintendo didn’t even need to make a new Mario Kart yet this generation. A simple port of the Wii U’s magnificent Mario Kart 8 has done the job it needed to do, ushering in nearly as many sales as there are Nintendo Switches in circulation. But the thing is, that means a new Mario Kart could absolutely still be on the table for Nintendo. Why not drag out Mario Kart 9 for later in the platform’s life? It would be a smart move, especially as we move into the fourth or fifth year of the Switch and figure out what the console’s later identity is. If that happens, everything above this graf is practically a moot point.
There’s the current state of the kart racer. A space that has nearly been a solo ride for Nintendo for years, is now a contested, three-player battle. It may not necessarily be a serious challenge for the first spot, but it will be heated nonetheless. Crash Team Racing Nitro Fueled is riding a powerful momentum wave, and Team Sonic Racing is relying on its friendly new concepts to help it stand out. In a perfect world, all of these games will find their audiences and do well independently. But it will be interesting to see what actually happens in the end. Personally, I want to see how Team Sonic Racing’s co-op gimmicks play out in a live environment, and how the competition will react.