Crash is great, but Mario is still king of the kart
Rewind to 1999. Crash Team Racing by Naughty Dog had released for the PS1, and it was a revelation. Offering a familiar formula with an unfamiliar flavor, Crash Bandicoot and crew pulled off something that many thoughts were impossible. Not even Sonic the Hedgehog, as good as SEGA’s spiny blue mammal was, can make this claim. Sony crashed Nintendo’s kart party and plundered the crown from Mario as the generation’s best arcade racing game.
Why Mario is still king of the kart
Looking back on the present day, it’s always easy to see why. Crash offered a quality of level design that only seemed possible on the PS1, and despite Super Mario Kart of SNES showing just a glimpse of things to come, its successor Mario Kart 64 in 1996 was arguably the weakest game in the series. It wasn’t terrible by any means, and still offered a great deal of fun for those with Nintendo’s N64, especially if you had four friends each with a controller (CTR required the multitap if you wanted more than two player split screen). However, for two competing brands, in terms of pure quality of their kart racers, Crash took Mario’s mantle above the kart racing fireplace.
Unfortunately, life for Crash went south following the end of Naughty Dog’s involvement, and Vivendi’s handling of the franchise, which involved a rushed Crash sequel in The Wrath of Cortex by Traveller’s Tales (later of the LEGO Games fame), and a next-gen sequel to CTR in Crash Nitro Kart in 2003. It was handled by Vicarious Visions, who coincidentally went onto the create the N.Sane Trilogy for the original series in 2017. While it wasn’t terrible, it paled in comparison to the original CTR and when Crash Tag Team Racing followed that in 2005, it was the nail in Crash’s proverbial coffin for Mario, fresh off the fantastic Double Dash, to ever taking Crash’s karting skills seriously again.
With the success of the N. Sane Trilogy, it was inevitable that a classic like the original CTR would get the remaster treatment. Sales would almost undoubtedly make the project worthwhile, and Activision has never been frightened of easy money. Beenox was an odd choice of the developer to hand it to, with their only previous racing game experience coming from a Wii and 3DS Skylanders racing game, while their previous games consist of the terrible Amazing Spiderman film tie-ins and general support work for porting games to PC.
However, anyone who has played Crash Team Racing Nitro Fueled will probably agree that not only does it stay faithful to the original game in the way it feels, but it’s also an incredible amount of fun. It evokes that old school CTR feeling very well, and the package as a whole offers some excellent value for money with the amount of content. It’s also got more free content coming in the form of the Grand Prix DLC, something uncharacteristic of Bobby Kotick’s Activision.
But is it enough to knock reigning champion Mario Kart 8 off the top of the mountain? In this writer’s opinion, not quite.
The Italian plumber has had plenty of iterations of his kart racing game since the original CTR, and the series has been honed and perfected to the point where it does many things exceptionally well that modern CTR doesn’t do quite so good.
For example, accessibility is Mario Kart's trump card. Anyone can pick up a joy-con on a Nintendo Switch and enjoy it immediately. Its brand of racing is one that is easy to pick up and hard to master the mechanics, with the drifting and maintaining speed while navigating the trials of the tracks is what makes Mario so easy to love. CTR Nitro Fueled is very much like the original. It's challenging, and that's great, but for younger players, especially with the boosting mechanics and the aggressive AI, it might be a tough first step.
The design behind drifting and boosting is also more consistent in Mario. Tracks are designed to be more narrow but offer tighter, more frequent corners to maximize the drift boost. CTR’s courses are a little more open to allowing for racers to continue drift boosting even on the straights. While some do prefer the openness of CTR’s tracks (which do lend themselves well to shortcuts), the tighter track design of Mario Kart is more consistently high quality over its catalog of tracks. It’s easy to see how someone could favor Crash’s open approach, but it does leave a little less room for imagination in design because of the need to accommodate the wide tarmac.
The Mario character cast is also more enjoyable with a more in-depth history, and there's a greater variety in the level of detail as to how you can customize your ride to suit your skills with the character you want. Those that excel at getting off the mark fast will prefer top speed, but also keep a healthy level of handling at the sacrifice of weight to stay zippy around corners. Bikes then add another layer with their riding lines and use of boosting. Crash’s characters are fun, but most consist of bosses from the main games, and their classes are more or less the same for each. That extra layer of depth in Mario Kart can be the difference between a win and loss and allows you to play to your strengths in the kart, and while you can customize your look in Crash, it's not quite the same level as Mario offers.
There’s one final issue with CTR Nitro Fueled, something which made sense to sustain the nostalgic level for the game, but puts it at a disadvantage even compared to Team Sonic Racing: even on a PS4 Pro or Xbox One X, the game is locked at 30 fps. It might be in keeping with the original, but one of the biggest things that arcade racers are judged on is their sense of speed. Mario Kart games for a long time now have prioritized running solidly at 60 fps to hammer home the thrill of the race. 30 fps in a kart racer doesn’t cut it, and it’s the one problem above all else that sets modern Mario Kart apart from Nitro Fueled, which feels fast enough, but it is very noticeable and feels like a missed opportunity to offer 60 fps as optional.
Because Mario is Nintendo exclusive, Crash is easily your best choice for arcade drifting thrills if you own a PS4 or Xbox One (and likely eventually PC). If you have a racing itch that Forza or Gran Turismo can’t scratch, Nitro Fueled is excellent, and even if you have a Switch, it's worth picking up. But if you have the choice of Mario Kart 8 Deluxe or CTR, the only two reasons you would consider Crash over Mario is your love of the original game, or if you are intending on playing the single player predominantly. The Adventure mode while relatively short is great fun, and the game is without a doubt a worthy contender to Mario and his friends. But the Nintendo mascot has enough about him in MK8D over Crash that should you have the choice and nostalgia isn’t a factor, stick with the plumber.