Firstly, I want to get this out of the way. I prefer Crash Team Racing to all Mario Kart games in the past, and that is admittedly mainly due to nostalgia. I’ve always loved Crash Bandicoot, with my PS1 and PS2 being passed down from my older brother, I was always more aware of Sony titles than the likes of Mario and Zelda. This has changed, believe me, this could not be further from the truth right now.
Anyway, I wanted to compare the two titles and express from a critical point of view, why I think I liked CTR so much. For this comparison I will be using Crash Team Racing: Nitro Fuelled and Mario Kart 8 Deluxe. Comparing these games has really opened my eyes up to the flaws in CTR, but also really highlighted the strengths of each game and how they accomplish exactly what they set out to do. The basis of this comparison lies in a few main categories; Track design, item design, single player experiences and multiplayer experiences.
Life is a Highway
The first thing to touch on between the two games is the tracks. You are going to spend most of your time drifting and boosting your way around these, so they better be good, right?
Mario is fun and whimsical with its tracks, they have loops, jumps, flying sections, big monsters, it’s nuts. Not so nuts that it isn’t unclear where you are going mind, that is a huge triumph of those track designers. There are tons of little details which draw your eye to where you need to go next, sweeping bends and hair pins are displayed in a way so you can see them from even a few turns earlier. Alongside this, they are all themed to fit within the Mario universe, giving this kart racer bucket loads of inspirations and references to cram these tracks with, providing personality and a visual treat for those who can both race and watch the environment. Freaks.
Although, I’m not sure whether it is a complement that my favourite track in the game is Baby Park. A circle. Or Excite Bike Arena. Also a circle.
Crash on the other hand has far less locales to draw from, this spin-off is focussed around 3 mainline games for the most-part, giving less variation and the inclusion of some not so memorable tracks like Coco Park. Whilst the tracks in CTR are functional, the aged design of these really show when stacked up against MK, sometimes the corners just feel needlessly difficult. This means that the thrill comes from being able to drift around these tracks unscathed, but I think it could have benefitted far more for being more lenient and the thrill coming from how well you can drift through these bends, catching the right racing lines and other driving terminology I will pretend to understand.
I Need a Weapon
The items in CTR are far more limited in scope, not only of functionality but also artistic design. Mario has continued to grow its arsenal whereas Crash has stuck with the basics. This leads to far more skill-based races in CTR, but in MK as well-placed Bullet Bill can swing the entire match.
Even the missiles in CTR have more need for skill attached to them compared to their red shell counterpart in MK. These missiles are locked on to exactly where the racer ahead currently is and will not traverse the track in the same way a red shell will. This means that in MK the red shell can just be fired off and guaranteed to land, whereas the missiles must be held and used more strategically. All of this makes the use of items in CTR far more intense, if a bomb hits your opponent (or is detonated manually), if you can launch an inescapable missile, that’s all on you.
Conversely, the items in MK have a sense that they truly do belong in the universe of Mario. The execution of them can require less skill, as previously mentioned with the red shells, or using a Bullet Bill to rocket up a few places in the race. This greater variety of items is also a huge strength of MK, with so many possibilities every time you smash and item crate, it makes the slot machine-like rolling of weapons far more engaging. I mean, we all have been in that position of “come on… I just need a red she- BANANA!? GET OUTTA HERE, BANANA”
The bottom line is that in CTR, items will not make up the entirety of a skill gap between two racers, however, in MK it is entirely possible for this to happen. This is how MK coined the term “being Mario Kart’d”, anyone who has played this knows the frustration, but it keeps the game compelling and fun, even for those less experienced with the actual racing mechanics.
Single Player – All By Myse-e-e-e-lf
Adventure mode, CTR challenges, relic races, boss races, and open world… This is another strength of CTR, it adds so much variety to the single player experience. It isn’t simply just racing for trophies against CPU racers. Crash teaches the player all of the intricacies of each track with these alternate race modes. You’ll learn how to drift and boost around every corner of Papu’s Pyramid in the Relic races. You’ll learn all the neat shortcuts with the CTR token challenges. All of this prepares you to take the fight online and test yourself against other racers.
The boss races, however, are garbage. Choosing to favour projectile spamming making it a frustrating time in 2nd place, your skill and knowledge of the track aren’t tested in the conventional way, and it adds frustration, rather than a fresh challenge. They are also rubber-banded so harshly that only the last 15 seconds of the race really matter. CTR could have handled these in the same way as a game like Diddy Kong Racing did, those tested your skills far more fairly. Crash could have also used the music from Diddy Kong Racings boss races, because I like that a lot and it makes me want to zoom.
With Mario Kart, there isn’t much to say here, a series of grands prix, get the trophies, unlock the kart parts. Keep going, get faster. Oh, you’re done? Errrr, wanna play the same tracks backwards? Sweet, off you pop. It just makes the experience more frustrating when you get annihilated with three red shells, followed by a blue shell and get booped off the course. If this is initiated by a computer character you can’t throw Doritos at, it stops being fun to me, it is much more fun in a couch/online setting with an actual target to unleash your frustration.
Given the above, I think the offering in CTR for a single player experience is far richer, although it was never going to be the focus of Mario Kart.
Multiplayer – How to Lose Friends and Infuriate People
Going head to head with a CTR player with the same level of experience is a cracking good time. However, the “cracks” begin to show when beginner players are matched up with drifting veterans. Without items to help and a mechanism for balance, large leads can be frustrating for first-timers and feel cruel for those at the front of the pack.
CTR is also heavily build around the idea of momentum, creating this through chaining drift boosts, large jumps, hitting boost pads and alike. Only skilled players can link these effectively, making the skill gap just that much more apparent when competing with novices.
This really shows how CTR wants to be a skill-driven game and is designed with this in mind, if you can’t keep up, you can’t win, simple as that. For this reason, it makes it a far harsher entry-point to the genre and isn’t likely to be held as fondly in the hazy memory of a pre-drinks session.
Mario Kart is fun, straight up, scream at your best friends’ girlfriend who you are meeting for the first time fun. As touched on earlier, the items and course design are all instrumental in creating this sense of unpredictability and fun. The wide array of items which, if played at the right time, can lead even the most inexperienced players to victory.
This is truly the area in which Mario Kart shines brightest. It is accessible, anyone who is up for a good time can pick this up and have a blast. Couple this with multiple accessibility options such as driving assist and auto acceleration and it is clear to see why after so many years this has remained a classic in the eyes of anyone lucky enough to play with a couch full of pals.
If it wasn’t clear from this piece already, the mask of a family-friendly kart racer is just a veil that CTR wears to entice youngsters in, like a bloodthirsty ice cream man. The skill ceiling for Sony’s offering is much higher and the lack of true catch-up mechanics can lead to a much more frustrating experience for new players, especially when against seasoned veterans. CTR is absolutely as mechanically satisfying as I remember. Momentum still plays a key part in the driving and is a rock-solid core for satisfyingly nippy lap times, when you are going fast, you are really zooming.
This difficulty curve leads to Mario Kart being the clear winner from a party perspective, but it does mean that someone claiming to be “good at Mario Kart” holds less weight than being dominant in Crash Team Racing. Again, this doesn’t devalue MK at all, it has its niche, and it kills it in that genre. People play these games for different reasons, and that’s okay.
I can boot up both games and have a grand time, but on my own, I’d always choose CTR due to a more robust single player offering and much more room mechanically to hone my skills. There isn’t anything quite as intense as crushing your best time around the loose bends of Sewer Speedway, seconds away from glory, inches away from a smashed controller and a swift restart.
*I do actually like Crash Team Racing by the way. Honest.