I rarely pay attention to upcoming games, because I dislike the media hype-to-disappointment cycle that comes with every new game. But a new version of Crash Team Racing, a game that my childhood self absolutely loved, was guaranteed to hold my interest. However, I worried that it wouldn’t be remade fairly – that CTRNF would be forced to take on the often-harmful baggage of modern gaming.
The original CTR was technically short but absurdly replay-able. You could simply win each race once to reach the final boss and so nominally finish the campaign mode in 3 hours. But mastering CTR required learning the tracks inside and out to complete the challenging token races and devilish Relic races.
To me, any attempt to force attention-manipulation mechanics like season passes and time-gates into CTRNF risked ruining this tight design and its quality-over-quantity nature. So I’m disappointed that Activision and Beenox have followed the convention of including seasonal “content roadmaps”, time-locked shops and item rarity tiers. I’m happy about the prospect of continued interest and additional racers, but Activision’s attempt to shove the lifecycle mechanics of a looter-shooter or an RPG into a kart racer is shortsighted and unnecessary.
So from here I’m going to pretend those extras don’t exist, and focus on the game itself. Thankfully, the game is everything I hoped it would be.
I’ve reached the final boss, but not full completion, on a Classic campaign as Polar, and a Nitro-Fueled campaign on Medium difficulty as secret character Penta Penguin.
The Classic campaign feels as about as difficult as I expected, while the Nitro-Fueled campaign on Medium feels slightly more difficult than Classic. (I also sympathise with everyone calling for tweaks to the Hard difficulty AI).
I was able to jump straight in to CTRNF and get back to my previous playstyle by the second race. While the physics are subtly altered, and the steering is more sensitive in light of everyone having analog sticks now, CTRNF is far more familiar than different. (Bear in mind that CTR was released in 1999, when analog sticks were optional, so its controls and physics were designed around D-Pads).
The gameplay changes I noticed were minor. During boss battles, the AI seemed less aggressive and less able to fight back when they lost the lead. I recovered from falling 2/3 of a lap behind Nitros Oxide in a way that I doubt was feasible in the original game. (Pinstripe’s bombs are still infuriating though!). Crystal-collection challenges are easier in CTRNF, as the collision detection for crystals seems more forgiving. In contrast, relic races now feel tougher. Many boxes require extreme precision, which makes reaching the precision-speed balance you need for relic-worthy times even harder.
Many jumps and turns also feel more fluid than in the original CTR. I can air-brake and chain boosts properly now, which is incredibly fun to do. I can also reach the main Sewer Speedway shortcut more easily; in contrast, I now struggle to drive up the side sewer ledges when that used to be simple.
While the controls momentarily felt odd, as I’m now used to accelerating with the right trigger, I’m glad CTRNF kept its original controls. The unique double-bumper drift system used in the Crash Bandicoot racing games is so integral to them that using any other control scheme isn’t a option for me. However, I can understand why new players might prefer alternate controls.
I played CTRNF with Adoboros, who had never played any of the Crash Bandicoot racing games. For him, double-bumper drifting was unintuitive and not clearly explained by the existing hints. Mastering drifting is essential for high-level play, so he felt that the hint system should emphasise how important it is.
We both felt that the CTRNF also needed to explain its multiplayer modes more clearly. Online gameplay works well, after receiving a patch during the day after release, and multiplayer races are really fun. Consistently winning online races is a challenge, as many online players know the shortcuts and the techniques for consistent boost chains. However, without the helpful hint system found in the campaign, the Battle modes and Capture the Flag variants are hard for new players to follow. The non-racing modes risk being neglected as a result, but they could easily attract more players with simple quality-of-life improvements such as providing in-game explanations and adding more information to in-match UIs.
Graphics and Track Design
Despite these minor UI missteps, the overall graphical quality and style of CTRNF is incredible. When I think about game graphics, I care more about design than fidelity. I’m impressed by games that seem to be thoughtfully designed to fit an overall vision, rather than simply assembled.
The original CTR holds up better than most PS1 games: while I struggle to play realistic games of the same age, I still enjoy the original’s colourful cartoon style. But seeing the original CTR world I loved made so vivid, complex and vibrant awed me. The Crash Nitro Kart tracks are just as colourful and of equal quality, but I’m not attached to them in the same way as I’ve never previously played CNK.
Freed from the memory limits that constrained original developers Naughty Dog, remake developers Beenox have enlivened every course with background elements from Crash Bandicoot history. I noticed so many details as just a CTR fan that I can imagine long-term Crash Bandicoot fans eagerly investigating every track for more hidden references. Yet this doesn’t obscure the actual racing; these bustling backgrounds coexist with visually intuitive, uncluttered tracks.
The expressive character animations are just as detailed. Racers react to approaching opponents and to the tracks; they celebrate boost pads and little ramps, then become unnerved by larger jumps. During a race in Roo’s Tubes, which essentially has an aquarium in its ceiling, Polar even got distracted by the overhead fish before shaking his head and refocusing on the road.
Also, speaking of unnecessary but cool details, I appreciated how Penta’s status as an unfinished glitch character in the NTSC version of CTR is referenced and built into his remade character.
The CTRNF tracks range from deceptively simple ovals, to hazardous indoor chases, to mid-air skyways. While the CTR courses are shorter than those of many modern kart racers, they hold unexpected depth. Even tracks with 35-second lap times hide branching paths and shortcuts, including shortcuts that I never discovered during my time with CTR.
The Crash Nitro Kart tracks, which have been adapted to remove that game’s antigravity mechanic, are packed with inventive hazards, trap boxes, and boost opportunities. They also feature plenty of shortcuts hidden behind challenging platformer-esque jumps. Because the CNK tracks looked similar to CTR tracks on the surface, I wasn’t expecting them to hold so many new ideas, and so was pleasantly surprised.
However, as CTRNF is a remake of CTR with additions from the other games, rather than a combined remake of the series, the CNK tracks are often out of the spotlight. They are chosen far less often in online races, and obviously don’t feature in the campaign. I can see why Beenox chose this approach to remain faithful to the original CTR campaign. Yet making the CNK tracks more prominent, perhaps by including some elements of the CNK plot to tie the tracks together, could have helped those tracks stand out.
Characters and Customisation
CTRNF includes every character from CTR, Crash Nitro Kart and even the less successful Crash Tag Team Racing. This wide roster is split into three character types – beginner characters have the highest turning ability, medium characters either have all-round stats or the strongest acceleration, while expert characters can reach the highest top speed.
Karts, accessories and themed colour schemes from each game are given out as rewards for winning races and getting relics. They can also be bought from the in-game store using Wumpa coins, which are awarded after every race. The coin system is another aspect which would benefit from clearer explanations – Reddit’s Crash Bandicoot forum investigated why coin awards varied between different races on the same track, and found that coin awards are affected by a time-of-day mechanic driven by the shop reset time. This mechanic is never mentioned in the game, which to me felt like a mistake.
If CTRNF had included something like a simple coin bonus for your few races each day, that would have been innocuous. But sneaking the mechanic in makes it seem like a deceitful addition. Adding RPG mechanics like world times and daily resets into a kart racer, a genre that shouldn’t rely on randomness and that should be pick-up-and-play, just makes publishers/developers seem desperate. To me, it conveys that the makers believe they must rely on manipulating players attention through locking them into a schedule, rather than on providing a solid entertaining game.
One nitpick I have with the customisation system is that you only have one kart to customise – if you want different characters to have different styles, you’re out of luck. Considering that customisation systems are touted as being about player expression, this omission makes little sense. I like keeping my characters close to their original colour schemes (e.g. purple for Pura, blue for Crash, and turquoise for Polar), and I think having an individual kart for each character would make the customisation aspect far more useful for people who enjoy it.
If you have any interest in kart racers at all, I strongly recommend CTRNF. Not just because the cast includes an adorable polar bear cub and a morally-ambiguous penguin, although that helps. It feels satisfying and fast, it looks amazing, and the inventive tracks are still intriguing and enjoyable twenty years later.
The new Easy campaign difficulty makes CTRNF friendlier for beginners, yet the varied race types and the harder difficulty settings will challenge even expert players. Online play works well, with little lag and none of the issues with teleporting or misplaced racers that I’ve previously seen in online racing games.
My only complaints are with the customisation and currency aspect, and that’s more because I see it as unnecessary and convention-led rather than because its objectively bad. As far as in-game currency systems go, it’s not particularly annoying just because there are currently no real-money aspects. While I’m disappointed that some of the baggage from today’s games has made its way into CTRNF, it thankfully doesn’t intrude upon the core gameplay.
I’ve always seen the original CTR as my favourite kart racer, despite it facing a fair challenge from Sonic and All-Stars Racing Transformed a few years ago. But ultimately, it looks like the only thing that can take CTR’s place for me is itself.
Update – 15th August
Since writing this review, the first Grand Prix events has finished and the second has launched. Unfortunately, the Grand Prix progression system and coin economy has only amplified the aspects of the game I already found annoying and unnecessary. The aim to create a meta-game through how rewards are distributed, and the aim to funnel people into signing in daily to maintain a streak of play, have been made more transparent thanks to the new mode.
So do I still stand by my original review?
I partially do, as the financial and Grand Prix elements logically haven’t taken anything away from the quality of the core gameplay – they are faulty extras, but not subtractions. However, the addition of not-really-micro transactions and the increased store prices that are clearly timed to create a “grind” that encourages microtransaction purchase, do detract from my ability to recommend the game.
A significant part of the audience of CTRNF is people who are roughly my age, who played Crash Bandicoot games as a child. If this was an 18+ game solely for nostalgic adults, the monetary additions would be minor issues. But it’s not. It’s a 3+ kart racer, that will appeal to kids and will be bought for kids.
I have a 9 year-old sister and I would have let her play the base game, knowing that she would be enjoying basically the same experience I did as a child. As the game is now, I wouldn’t be as comfortable – I don’t like knowing that every game she plays is ultimately focused on trying to persuade or even trick her into spending money in order to continue enjoying it.
As a result of these changes, I’ve never switched from loving a game to putting it down more abruptly.