Review | Crash Team Racing Nitro-Fueled [Updated]

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I try not to 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 attention. At the same time, 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 techically short but absurdly replayable. You could simply win each race once to reach the final boss and nominally finish the campaign mode in about 3 hours. But truly mastering the game required learning the tracks inside and out to complete the challenging CTR 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 its tight design and 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. While I’m happy about the prospect of continued interest and additional racers, Activision trying to shove the lifecycle mechanics of a looter-shooter or an RPG lifecycles 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.

Unlockable character Penta Penguin, with the instructions to unlock him. Hold LB and RB, then press down, right, Y, down, left, Y, up
You’ll need a cheat code to unlock Penta… Hold LB and RB, then press down, right, Y, down, left, Y, up.

I’m currently completing a Classic type 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 have yet to win a race on Hard, so I sympathise with everyone calling for tweaks to the Hard AI!).

Gameplay

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 agressive 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.

Chaining boosts is new to me, but keeping a boost chain going is exhilarating.

While the controls momentarily felt odd, as I’m now so used to accelerating with the right trigger, I’m glad that 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 recieving 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 not impressed by games with photorealistic renders or 4K textures, but 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 genuinely 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. Sonehow, 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 now 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.

Image of the Roo's Tubes track.
I can see why Polar got distracted!

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 by every race.

“Out of Time”, a Crash Nitro Kart track.

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 acceleraton, 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.

Conclusion

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 intruiging 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 unecessary and convention-led rather than because its objectively bad. As far as in-game currency systems go, it’s not particularly annoying, because there are no real-money aspects at all. 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 – 10th July

Since writing this review, the first of the Grand Prix events has begun. 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?
Logically, the new modes haven’t taken anything away from the core gameplay – they are additions, not subtractions. But I’ve never switched from loving a game to putting it down more abruptly.

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