If I was writing a novel inspired by my life as a game reviewer (something I’d never do because, let’s face it, that’s a terribly boring story), Crash Team Racing Nitro-Fueled might be my “catcher in the rye” moment.
Keeping with the times, in the last couple of years Activision has thoroughly squeezed the stone of ’90s nostalgia. The Crash Bandicoot and Spyro remakes made sense from a theoretical standpoint, given that they both contained three fully realized games complete with memorable levels, specific mechanics, and actual plots, give or take a few key elements of storytelling. This approach makes a little less sense when it comes to a kart racing spin-off.
Don’t get me wrong: I was ecstatic to play Crash Team Racing Nitro-Fueled. As much as I loved the original Crash and Spyro games, the idea of a Crash Team Racing remake gave me the same sense of comfort and homecoming that I get when I make pasta salad using my mom’s famous recipe and eat the entire thing. This may have been too lofty an expectation to put on a video game, that desire to fill the void that every adult has inside of them.
As it turns out, it was—not that Nitro-Fueled isn’t somewhat of a valiant effort. You’ll find plenty of nostalgic goodness in Beenox’s remake of Naughty Dog’s 1999 kart racer, but a lot has changed in the last two decades, and Nitro-Fueled provides a pointed perspective about how you can never really go home again.
Graphically, Nitro-Fueled is a wonder to the eyes. It’s bright, colorful, and brimming over with life. The tracks themselves—from both the original CTR and the lesser-loved Crash Nitro Kart—look amazing, even when certain levels’ pulsating neons verge on becoming a health hazard, but the background details really steal the show. Every track is like Big Thunder Mountain Railroad, with all forms of creatures and creations toiling about their everyday lives. The same goes for the actual drivers and their karts. New idle animations, cartoony exaggerations, and a real sense of volume bring even the most obscure characters—like Krunk, Nash, and both Big and Little Norm—to life. If Mario Kart 8 Deluxe was eye candy, then Crash Team Racing Nitro-Fueled is eye ecstasy.
The racing, too, is faithfully recreated, though this isn’t necessarily the best thing. Reacquainting myself with CTR’s particular bent towards self-reliant boosting, I found I was having a tough time staying away from the edges of the tracks, even when I was slamming on the brakes. Turning felt much wider and way less responsive than it did in my memory of the original, and some of the tracks haven’t aged all that well when it comes to their layouts. I was stunned at the amount of hard right angles present in a game that I, for the last 20 years, have considered the epitome of “good flow” when it comes to kart racing titles, and I was equally stunned at the amount of times that my racer came to a dead stop when I hit the wall. Even getting that all-important boost at the beginning of a race generally meant I rear-ended the character in front of me at the starting line, completely negating the intended advantage.
The main problem I had with Nitro-Fueled’s gameplay, however, was its confounding AI. Maybe it was just my experience, but I began to notice that there was always one racer that was way ahead of the pack. Often, after failing to win a race in Adventure Mode and having to restart it multiple times in a row, the same character would clock almost the same exact time every race, without variation. It made everything feel more like a time trial than an actual race against actual opponents with variation and intelligence programmed into them. It felt almost as if they were on a strict, predetermined path. I’m no expert when it comes to programming AI in kart racing games, but it definitely felt like the only way to win was to perform perfectly in some races, even on the Medium difficulty setting. Grazing a wall, falling into a trap, or careening off the edge often meant defeat, exacerbated by the short length of most of the early- to mid-game tracks. There was literally not enough time for me to catch up in these instances.
Playing against human racers online, thankfully, was much more refreshing, mostly because everyone—right now, at least—was subjected to the same wonkiness. Kart racing, at its best, is competitive and chaotic, and Nitro-Fueled’s online multiplayer, in both its traditional racing and its battle arena offerings, scratches that itch, even if the more beginner-level racers like Polar and Pura are completely useless because of how slow they are.
For what it’s worth, Nitro-Fueled is chock full of content. As I mentioned before, Beenox not only remade the original racers and tracks, but it extended that same treatment to Crash Nitro Kart, both the PlayStation 2 version and the Game Boy Advance port. The story mode, Adventure, features not only the basic races but also timed challenges and CTR token races, all of which will take you several hours to fully complete. On top of all that, there are the different arcade and online multiplayer modes with which you can waste away the hours.
But if there’s one thing that really bothers me with how Beenox and Activision have tried to extend Nitro-Fueled’s playtime, it’s in the Pit Stop. Resembling the same sort of live-service shop you’d see in games like Fortnite or Apex Legends, the Pit Stop is where you customize your characters and your karts and purchase new cosmetics. Graciously, Activision and Beenox haven’t included any microtransactions, but everything is purchased with in-game currency called Wumpa Coins that you earn by completing literally any activity. Online races seem to net you the most, so if you don’t want to play online, you’ll be grinding quite a while for items, which rotate in and out at certain intervals. Additionally, the game will be getting its own version of “battle pass” DLC in the form of the Grand Prix, where players will grind for tiered rewards that are only available for a limited time. While it’s nice that Activision and Beenox are, for now, resisting the temptation to inject microtransactions into a game that’s mostly targeted at children, it’s a little icky that the framework is already in place should they choose to do so. The cynic in me sees these tactics as training the upcoming generation that this is what video games are now—vehicles for shopping and grinding. It’s bad enough that these storefronts and mobile-inspired platforms have squirmed their way into paid console games, but it’s even worse when they’re plastered all over a release that’s meant to harken back to gaming’s Good Ol’ Days.
Really, I’m glad that a new generation gets to experience Crash Team Racing, even at the cost of modernization. Coming back, it didn’t fill the void in my soul, but at this point I can’t imagine anything will. Still, in the end, there’s just something off about the idea of remastering a kart racing game instead of just making a new one. Mario Kart constantly remakes older tracks, but at least they’re accompanying new ones. Again, the cynic in me can’t ignore that Activision is poking and prodding at the void in order to make sales, all the while sullying my joyful childhood memories with gaudy in-game stores and relentless live service DLC, rather than trying to push the series forward. There are many games whose stories tackle coming-of-age themes like the loss of innocence, but there aren’t many games who completely embody that idea as thoroughly as Crash Team Racing Nitro-Fueled.
Crash Team Racing Nitro-Fueled is at once a joyful and joyless recreation of a stone-cold classic. Packed to the gills with content, this drive down memory lane still contains a sense of the original’s magic, and artfully decorates your favorite tracks and drivers with an impeccable attention to detail. But it’s not immune to the modern era, and the threat of live-service DLC and nostalgia-grabbing microtransactions looms heavy over the entire game.
|Crash Team Racing Nitro-Fueled is available on PlayStation 4, Xbox One, Nintendo Switch. Primary version played was for Xbox One. Product was provided by Activision for the benefit of this coverage. EGM reviews on a scale of one to five stars.|