License games have a mixed history, to be kind. Karting games have also seen their fair share of misses over the years.
That’s why it’s fair to be skeptical about Nickelodeon Kart Racers 2: Grand Prix. Beyond the fact that the name is unnecessarily long (I’m not sure why they needed to put Grand Prix after the colon), it’s in the dubious category of budget license kart racer.
Case in point, I texted a friend that I was reviewing this game. When we played bar trivia (back when we could do such things), he was the one who could pull out knowledge from the numerous Nickelodeon cartoons that are represented in this game. He is also a big gamer. His response: “I usually assume these games are not good.”
There’s plenty of reason to assume that. The first game, with the more concise name of Nickelodeon Kart Racers, released in 2018 to a Metacritic in the 40s on every platform.
To my surprise, the sequel is nowhere that bad, although it still has some annoyances. For instance, when you first start up the game, it runs you through a tutorial. That’s when you find out the accelerate button is R1. You can’t change it, although there is an option to turn on auto-accelerate (which I eventually switched to). In the PlayStation 3 era, with two shoulder buttons and no real trigger, this was normal. Now, it’s pure insanity for any racing game to use anything but the right trigger (R2 for PS4) to accelerate.
The game slowly won me over, to some extent. The driving is solid. The controls are responsive and the steering feels good. Most of the tracks are well designed. There are a few boring ones in the early cups, which I think were there as tutorials for beginners. For the most part they have some flair to them, interesting quirks and, of course, secret shortcuts.
There are 30 different drivable characters (although most have to be unlocked through gameplay) from 12 shows. The cartoons represented go as far back as originals Rugrats and The Ren & Stimpy Show and currently active shows like SpongeBob SquarePants and The Loud House. There’s also CatDog, Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles, Danny Phantom, Hey Arnold!, Avatar: The Last Airbender, The Legend of Korra, Invader Zim and Rocko’s Modern Life.
The characters look good, but they don’t really do anything. The most you will see them do is celebrate on the podium. There are animations for when you pull off an overtake or successfully hit a kart with an item, but they aren’t that unique to the characters. On top of that, each character starts with the same base attributes. Each kart can be modified with engines, exhaust pipes and tires so there is variety to how you want the kart to perform, but the character driving it is purely visual.
Adding to the customization are crew members, which are also cartoon characters. They give you various perks like a speed boost, defensive bonuses or even weirder ones like invisibility. There are hundreds of iterations if you factor in the different kart parts and crew members.
There is a healthy number of tracks, too. The 28 tracks are based on themes from the cartoons, along with more general Nickelodeon references like the Double Dare Obstacle Course.
On occasion I would get into the zone and be pleased that I hit a solid racing line through a section. However, that was often interrupted by a barrage of items being used against me. You can get items multiple times per lap and some of the perks can mess with other racers. I found the items to be more frustrating when I was on the receiving end than satisfying when I was dishing them out.
The courses aren’t tight other than a couple of the shortcut paths so you won’t be banging into karts after the start very often. That was mostly a good thing, but it also means the brake button (which was square for some strange reason) is almost entirely unnecessary, even on the fastest speed. Even drifting was rarely necessary. From a driving perspective, that was fun, but it does not provide much of a challenge.
In terms of game modes, there are free races, cups (which are sets of four races with points carrying over from race to race), challenges, time trials, arena mode, local multiplayer and online multiplayer. The challenges were a pleasant surprise. They are bite size, usually taking a minute or two to complete. Sometimes a challenge would be target practice with a projectile item. Others involved winning a one-lap race under specific conditions. They were mostly easy, but would culminate in a boss battle race that would up the difficulty. Win those and unlock the character. That’s the only mode I’m tempted to go back and finish.
The time trials are self-explanatory. They eliminated the frustration of being constantly disrupted by items, which made them enjoyable.
Arena has two modes, a capture the flag style game and a combat game reminiscent of a shooter. Nothing amazing, but they provided more variety in gameplay.
As for online multiplayer, well, I wish I could tell you. Matchmaking has been difficult because there aren’t many people playing. Not a good sign for a game that is in its release week. After some waiting I was able to pair with… one other player on a couple occasions. AI filled the other six racers.
For people who are big fans of Nicktoons and love kart racers, this game will satisfy that very specific niche of people. The racing is good enough outside of the item chaos that ensues and the references are there. If you’re just here for the cartoons, the references aren’t that strong. If you’re looking for a kart racer, there are better versions of that out there, too.
Nickelodeon Kart Racers 2: Grand Prix is available now on PlayStation 4, Xbox One and Nintendo Switch. It is scheduled to come to Windows on Dec. 1.
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