If there’s one thing that can be said about the Nintendo Switch’s growing library, it’s that kart racers are becoming a dime a dozen on Nintendo’s hybrid console. Though games like the forthcoming Team Sonic Racing and the recently released Beach Buggy Racing are additions to the space, it is without question that the Mario Kart series is the progenitor and benchmark of the genre. Enter Nickelodeon Kart Racers, a nostalgic ‘90s cartoon take on the kart racing genre featuring some of the beloved cartoon characters that helped shape a generation. While the IP used here might give potential buyers hope of some great fan service, unfortunately Nickelodeon Kart Racers falls flat at nearly every opportunity.
From the title screen, the lack of polish on display here becomes quickly apparent, as the user interface blandly gives the player but three gameplay options with static background graphics. There are some other icons at the bottom of the screen, but you won’t know what they do until you select them, which is simply poor UI design.
Once you’ve chosen your gameplay mode and settings—which blatantly lacks any kind of online multiplayer—you can choose your character from one of the 12 available. And 12 characters is all you’ll get—no more characters are unlockable through gameplay, or by any other means. Four of these characters—the Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles—aren’t even original Nickelodeon IP, so really, you’re getting 8 characters from three Nickelodeon franchises—Rugrats, Hey! Arnold, and SpongeBob SquarePants. What about all the other Nickelodeon greats, like CatDog, The Angry Beavers, or even Avatar: The Last Airbender? I can only imagine the lack of other series comes down to licensing issues, but to leave out such hallmark franchises seems like a glaring omission in what seemingly should be a Nickelodeon “greatest hits” compilation. That said, the characters that are available from the start are clunkily designed, and without any kind of accompanying voice acting, it’s really difficult to evoke any nostalgia I had for any of these shows.
Once you’ve selected your character and your kart parts, it’s onto the races, all themed after the franchises from which the playable characters hail. The included tracks aren’t all that visually appealing, from both a graphics and level design perspective. Textures look blocky and just bland overall, while there really isn’t much of interest in terms of level design. Aside from the occasional ramp or gap to clear, there really aren’t any road hazards or anything that forces you to change up your racing habits.
Items, while themed after the included franchises, are clear and obvious carbon copies of items from Mario Kart. Krabby Patties act as invincibility stars, footballs act as red shells, bubbles act as banana peels, pigeons act as Bullet Bills—the list goes on. While it is nice to see items here and to have them appropriately themed, I wish there was even a bit of originality here rather than unabashedly aping the items from Mario Kart.
As if all that weren’t bad enough, the act of racing is plainly unintuitive and simply not fun. While the controls work once you get used to them, they are not at all the same as in Mario Kart, so veteran Mario Kart players will have to retrain their muscle memory accordingly. Even getting used to the controls likely won’t help most players, as racing in Nickelodeon Kart Racers simply feels obtuse, with arbitrarily poor kart handling, and drifting is an exercise in frustration, as it feels far too slippery and floaty. Too often would I attempt to drift around a corner only to slam right into a wall, no matter how much I would adjust left or right.
In the kart racing genre, gameplay is king, and for the core of Nickelodeon Kart Racers to fall so abysmally short in that department is truly unfortunate. If my girlfriend’s two young kids couldn’t get through a single race without asking to go back to Mario Kart 8 Deluxe…that really speaks for itself.
Even outside of the core experience, smaller, quality-of-life issues further diminish the title. The lack of voice acting from any of the included characters feels like a gargantuan misstep. During gameplay, characters will make exclamations when hitting a fellow racer with an item, for example, but it’s all text-based. Why developer Bam Tang Games couldn’t have come up with at least SpongeBob’s “I’m ready!” when selecting him as a character is a boggling miss. Again, this is probably an issue of licensing, but how can you have a cast of Nickelodeon cartoon characters without any of their iconic voice acting?
Furthermore, while you can unlock new kart parts, they’re locked behind a leveling system that, frankly, takes more effort than I was willing to put in. I never once felt compelled to keep racing in order to level up, and thereby unlock new parts. Without any kind of incentive to move forward or any form of online multiplayer, it’s proving difficult to find reasons to go back to this game after writing this review.
My high hopes for Nickelodeon Kart Racers were dashed after only a few races, as it quickly became apparent the lack of depth and polish that limits the game to being little more than a failed Mario Kart clone. Though the characters used call back to some of the best animated content of the late ‘90s and early 2000s, this game simply doesn’t do these franchises justice out on the racing track.
Disclaimer: A review code for Nickelodeon Kart Racers was provided by the game’s publisher.