Nickelodeon Kart Racers Review — Nostalgia is Dead

Feeling like a relic out of time, Nickelodeon Kart Racing is not only a game that plays, looks, and sounds bad, but takes no advantage of its license.

on October 23, 2018 11:00 AM

I have distinct memories of playing the PlayStation 1 game Nicktoons Racing as a child—while I realize that it likely wouldn’t hold up if I played it today, especially compared to other games I played back then like Mario Kart 64 and Crash Team Racing, it had some appeal to me as a kid who digested Nickelodeon content. There was a fun, animated opening cutscene, whimsical music, familiar sound clips from the characters, and some intrigue with a “mystery racer.” Flashforward to 2018, and the new title Nickelodeon Kart Racers has not only fallen short of that predecessor nearly two decades later but is both an embarrassment and nightmare altogether.

At the risk of starting a tangent of egotistical self-praise, I want to say that I pride myself on providing thoughtful, carefully-worded analyses on every game I write for this website, no matter how small. That being said, I’m having trouble thinking of more than one way to say that Nickelodeon Kart Racers sucks. Every aspect of the game feels so lazily done that I suspect to a degree that this project was made with almost nefarious intentions to scam children and their oblivious parents. It looks bad, sounds bad, plays bad, and makes me feel bad.

The game’s greatest crime, however, is failing to even leverage its Nickelodeon license for easy and cheap nostalgia points. Even with the game’s status as a relic of the past, a current outlier when low-quality licensed games are few and far in between compared to days of yore, this kart racing game doesn’t even come close to its assumed mission of making a decent and passable game with Nick characters.

The moment I started up Nickelodeon Kart Racers on my Switch, I was greeted by the most cacophonous, MIDI-ass music that my poor ears have ever had the displeasure to be exposed to. It oddly sounded like generic music samples from an old keyboard my father has owned since the 1990s. From the title screen alone, this game already felt so uninviting, like it was trying to scare me away before I even got to the main menu. Nevertheless, I trooped on.

It’s been said from the day Nickelodeon Kart Racers was announced, but the character selection for this kart racing game meant to invoke childhood nostalgia is piss-poor. Spongebob Squarepants is an obvious inclusion for such a game, and there’s representation of the network’s newer line-up through the most recent incarnation of the Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles. The rest of the roster, however, is solely composed of characters from Rugrats and Hey Arnold!, which is seemingly arbitrary. I realize that Rugrats is getting a revival and Hey Arnold! got a follow-up TV movie, but no Fairly Oddparents? Jimmy Neutron? Even the PS1 game had The Wild Thornberries, CatDog, The Angry Beavers, and Aaahhh!!! Real Monsters. This character roster seemed coldly calculated in a way that inspired no goodwill or trust in what the game had to offer.

Searching through the main menu, I couldn’t even find any proper instructions before I decided to jump into the game itself. The settings menu only has options to adjust the sound effects and music (turn the music down all the way for the sake of your sanity), with no control options, and a “tips” menu disclosed information on how the items worked. Useful, I thought at first, but even the item descriptions were short and vague enough to the point of being unhelpful. With no idea how the game controls, I made the assumption that this Mario Kart clone would have a similar layout.

Nickelodeon Kart Racers

When I started off in my first race, I hit the A button and instantly began driving backward at the starting line. While I admit it’s my own damn fault for not assuming the right trigger was “accelerate” like every other racing game, it exemplified how I initially trusted the game too much to do the most basic functions a title of its ilk could offer. Only after a couple of races did I find that I could see the controls in the pause menu, with the option to change the button scheme to Mario Kart-style, and even turn on tilt controls and auto-accelerate, a la Mario Kart 8 Deluxe. Strangely enough, there were a couple of times where I returned to the game days later to find that my control scheme had reverted to the default.

Navigating through Nickelodeon Kart Racers was such a laborious experience that it’s only now that I finally get to talk about how the game plays. The best compliment that I can give the gameplay is that it works as intended. When I hit accelerate, I go forward. When I use the item button, my character does something. The items, by the way, are all essentially copies of Mario Kart items, as expected; you’ll get your usual homing and non-homing throwing items and hazards to drop, and yes, there are items that target the person in first place. The driving itself feels stilted and mushy, and it never feels like you have full control of maneuvering your vehicle. While you can drift like in Mario Kart, the way the tracks are designed sometimes don’t feel drift-friendly, with bumping into the wall being a common occurrence. You too can do mini-boosts through drifting like Mario Kart, and once I got used to whatever little “feel” the game has, I did boosts at long turns so often that it almost felt like I was abusing the system, reminiscent of “snaking” in Mario Kart DS. Finally, I was able to get my racer to do “tricks” like in Mario Kart Wii, but I was confused on how to activate them, not even knowing if they had any effect on gameplay. Sometimes racers would do tricks without me pressing anything, making me wonder if I had just made up that feature in my head.

Somehow, vehicle control somehow gets worse when it tries to pull a Mario Kart 7 with its sequence of gliding in the air or driving on liquid—specifically slime, in this case, because it’s Nickelodeon. Once your kart sprouts wings, rather than control your angle in which you glide, you move the analog stick to change your position in the air. If that description doesn’t make sense, it’s because I truly had no clue what the game wanted me to do at those points—hitting down appeared to make me lose height, so I jammed up as much as possible, and sometimes I still fell short of the ledge ahead. While driving through slime, your kart gains some jet skis, and you trudge through gross, green slime. Your kart won’t be able to drift, and it will bob left and right for no particular reason other than to disorient and annoy—I thought this was due to a low “slime handling” rating for my kart, but every character and car part I used produced the weird bobbing phenomenon.

Speaking of slime, really the only original (and by “original,” I mean “it isn’t in Mario Kart“) concept is the slime meter, which has three tiers. Driving over slime puddles will fill it up, and depending on how much slime you have, you can hit a button for a boost—the more slime levels you have, the longer the boost. In tracks that are entirely composed of slime (which, unfortunately, means eternal bobbing), your slime will keep filling up, which could make for an interesting strategy. Also worth mentioning are character-specific items—some are neat, like Sandy’s lasso to automatically pull racers ahead of her backward, but some are just palette swaps of existing items, like Leonardo’s homing shurikens. But hey, at least some effort was given to make these characters distinct. How a licensed game couldn’t even do the bare minimum of fanservice in the most simple way possible is absolutely beyond me.

Nickelodeon Kart Racers

The same could not be said about the game’s tracks—while it may claim to have “24 tracks,” this feels like a bold-faced lie. Keep in mind that Nickelodeon Kart Racers only represents four franchises out of the extensive Nickelodeon library, so I felt stupid for being surprised that there were only five or six themes used for all of the tracks. You’ll have multiple tracks being Bikini Bottom-themed, with Spongebob’s pineapple home and such in the background, the same several toy store tracks with Rugrats paraphernalia, a few tracks based on the Hey Arnold! public school (which was subtle enough that it felt like a generic “school” than something Hey Arnold! specific), and “Dimension X,” which Wikipedia tells me is a Ninja Turtles thing, I guess. Several times as I went through every cup of the Grand Prix, I thought I was playing the same track from an earlier cup—but no, it was the same one, but it’s nighttime, or the added balloons and party stuff in the background, or something.

Again, I feel like offering something positive when it comes to talking about the tracks—some of them, while still essentially being copies, were completely slime-based. These tracks had one of two gimmicks: one had players in last being eliminated every 17 seconds, making it feel like a horror/slasher movie villain was approaching, and the other being a slalom where racers have to drive around arrows or similarly be eliminated after a certain number of mistakes. But these are the only gimmicks offered by the game—otherwise, some tracks open and close certain routes in between laps, which is fine, but nothing game-changing.

In fact, the tracks represent just how strange this curation of Nickelodeon content was. I don’t believe at all that this development team has a strong, equal grasp of the television shows that their own game is based off on. In fact, this game seemed to have a weird Hey Arnold! bias. Every reference to the show is extremely pointed in an “only 90s kids get this” manner, with a Grand Prix cup named after Stoop Kid, Arnold driving the Mauve Avenger, his special item being pigeons, and car parts that reference the Jolly Olly Ice Cream Man. Meanwhile, the most pointed reference to Spongebob is Glove World, of which several of his tracks are based on. I’m really not sure who this game is aimed towards—it feels like a game that only little kids might like, but would anyone from Generation Z know who the hell Stoop Kid is? Because I can tell you straight up that no sane adult who understands these references would actually want to play this.

Really hammering in my point about this Nickelodeon Kart Racers’ lack of proper nostalgia and fanservice is the fact that none of the characters actually speak. Remember that PS1 game I was talking about? That at the very least reused voice clips from the shows to make the game feel more authentic. At best, you’ll get some captions on the bottom left of the screen. Get ready to read and not hear what the developers hope your favorite Nickelodeon characters are exclaim “No way!” when they get hit by an item, or “Got you!” if you hit them back. Each character gets their own lines—Reptar might say something along the lines of “I am Reptar,” but that’s the extent of it.

Nickelodeon Kart Racers

As I touched upon earlier with the title screen, Nickelodeon Kart Racers has some of the most annoying and unbearable music in the long, storied history of music. The brass instrumentation sounds comically low-quality, and the use of electric guitar make the music tracks sound like free-royalty “80s rock” songs. It doesn’t help that most of the instrumentals in this game use the exact same melody. Not to mention, none of the music pieces fit in with their respective tracks one bit. Why does the music for the track “Bikini Bottom Boogie Nights” sound like mambo music? And going with the game’s lack of attention for nostalgia, there isn’t a single music track that resembles anything from the television shows that this game “pays tribute” to. I wish I were joking in saying that the game’s horrid music and sound quality has been haunting me every night while trying to sleep—I cannot get that damned music menu out of my head.

Nickelodeon Kart Racers almost looks as bad as it sounds. Nothing looks egregiously offensive and garish, but textures are plain, and vibrant colors are surprisingly lacking for a game entirely based off of children’s cartoons. The tracks are populated with spectators—Spongebob tracks will have unsettling, oblong-creatures that almost resemble the fish characters from that show, and the kid spectators in the Hey Arnold! tracks looked downright inhuman. The game barely runs at 60 frames per second on the Switch, with slowdown occurring when too many racers are on screen, or some cases, even when I did something as simple and standard as driving over slime. The character models themselves look as they should, even without a level of detail and polish. The animations are where those models disappoint the most—every character has just one, maybe two or three unique animations that are used when selecting your character or even randomly during a race with no context. The Ninja Turtles will play around with their weapons and tools, Spongebob will blow bubbles, Angelica will play with her Cynthia doll, and Reptar will… also play with a Cynthia doll?

Heck, even the menu options confused me. I thought the weird, vague descriptions in the games “tips” were vague enough, but I had a visceral reaction while playing Grand Prix—after every race, the game gives the options of “Next,” “Cup,” and “Quit.” Sorry, you mean “Next Race,” “Select New Cup,” and “Quit Game,” maybe? Is it that hard to make simple menu buttons? Who the hell makes one that just says “Cup?” Is this a dumb thing that I’m getting fixated over? Absolutely, but it just goes to show how lazy every single aspect of this game was put together. And you know, “put together” is giving this game too much credit—”cobbled together” would be more accurate. As someone who studied technical writing and the concept of “mental models” when it comes to instructions and user interfaces, something simple as this made me realize that I take proper menu design in games for granted.

I can’t imagine who would play this game long enough to try to take advantage of its Shop—racers will pick up coins during races, allowing players to buy new car parts to change up their stats. I found these differences to be negligible, but at the very least this feature attempts to add some longevity to the game. Players will gain XP and rank up after every race—upon leveling up, you’ll be interrupted from whatever you were doing to do a “victory lap,” where you’ll drive through the same track you were just at to pick up what are essentially loot boxes. You’ll have the opportunity to get some car parts here, but for the most part you’ll just end up getting a bunch of coins.

Nickelodeon Kart Racers

Nickelodeon Kart Racers is a bad, bad, bad, game. To willingly and continually play this game is nothing short of an exercise in masochism. It barely functions the way its supposed to, and even so, the gameplay feels sloppy and mostly unoriginal in a way where it pales in comparison to even other subpar licensed Mario Kart clones. The game handles its Nicktoons license so poorly that I’m morbidly curious just how this game was greenlit in the first place because right now my mind is speculating that the development of this game was fueled purely by greed and true evil.

If I’ve somehow gotten any parents to read this far into this already-too-long review, I must compel you into not buying this game for your child. Nickelodeon Kart Racers feels like a scam. If you’re looking for a holiday gift in the video game section, literally pick any game adjacent to this one on the shelf, because surely it must be better than this. If your child loves Nickelodeon, a box set of Spongebob Squarepants seasons one to three would be a much better and longer-lasting choice. If you already own Mario Kart 8 Deluxe for your Switch, there is no reason to even consider this title. Hell, buying them a second copy of Mario Kart 8 Deluxe seems like a smarter use of your hard-earned money.

Children, if you are somehow reading this, make sure that your parents do not get Nickelodeon Kart Racers for you. This game is a cruel punishment, and while I don’t know you, I’m sure you do not deserve it. If you are gifted this game, tell whoever gave it to you to return it—that itself is a gift to them. If you cannot get rid of it, then get rid of it. Bury the game case in your backyard. Give it to your local Pagan to use it for their next Wiccan burning ritual. Go on a profound journey across the land and toss it into the nearest volcano.

Nickelodeon Kart Racers is a sin masquerading as a video game, and now we must all wish for forgiveness.

 /  Staff Writer
Chris is a writer based in the Philadelphia area with their eyes set on New York City. They are currently writing for film website Flixist, podcasting for Marvel News Desk, and were an editorial intern for Paste Magazine's gaming section. They graduated from Carnegie Mellon University with a creative writing major.