Retro Review: Crash Team Racing (1999)
As I may have mentioned at some point, I did not own an original PlayStation in the 90s. I had a Nintendo 64 instead and since that system wasn't exactly bursting at the seams with quality releases, that meant I played a hell of a lot of Mario Kart 64. I also played Rare's Diddy Kong Racing on a few occasions, but in my book Mario Kart 64 was the premier mascot kart racer on the N64. It might not have offered the pure racing challenge its predecessor on the SNES had, but made up for it with excellent multiplayer and a memorable track selection. Mario Kart 64 remains one of my favorite games from the series, and also from its generation.
Meanwhile, on the PlayStation side, there was one mascot racer that everyone raved about and continued to do so for years and years. That racer, of course, was Crash Team Racing, starring everyone's second or third favorite 90s animal mascot Crash Bandicoot and developed by Crash's creators at Naughty Dog (you may remember them from 3DO fighter Way of the Warrior, as well as some obscure releases on Sony's systems over the years). It's even better than Mario Kart, they said. I dismissed all of these comments as a bunch of delusional fanboys trying to convince themselves that their mediocre Mario Kart ripoff is just as good if not better than the original, honest. To me, it all seemed like another Wacky Wheels situation.
In any event, now that a new and shiny HD remake of Crash Team Racing has been announced for a June 2019 release, I finally decided I should probably give the original CTR a fair shot. I've been meaning to do so for quite some time now but never got around to it, and the remake announcement was a perfect excuse to finally find out if Crash Team Racing is actually worth a damn. Let's get on with it, then...
Well, as it turns out, I have been grossly unfair to Crash Team Racing. While the presentation has certain problems I'll get into in a bit, Naughty Dog has absolutely nailed the gameplay. The actual racing component of Crash Team Racing is among the best I've experienced in a game like this, and it's quite incredible the developers were able to pull this off on their first attempt at a kart racer. Crash Team Racing's gameplay feels immediately familiar to Mario Kart veterans like yours truly, but Naughty Dog has put their own spin on the formula with CTR's boost system.
In Mario Kart 64 and later installments, you can earn boost by powersliding. The longer you hold your slide, the bigger the boost. In Crash Team Racing, on the other hand, powersliding builds up the boost gauge at the bottom right of the screen. Pressing L1 as the gauge turns red activates a boost, and the closer to full the gauge is the bigger that boost will be. You can also ignore the gauge and just use the kart's exhaust smoke as your indicator for activating the boost, as the smoke will turn black when the gauge hits the right spot.
Up to three boosts per slide can be chained together, and the gauge fills up so fast that you can easily get at least one boost going at all times. Boost can also be activated by hopping at the apex of a jump, and upon landing jumps. You can collect wumpa fruit scattered around the tracks to increase your top speed, and when you collect ten fruit you'll "juice up" whatever weapon you have equipped. This increases the weapon's power or the duration of its effects, so it is always worth grabbing as many fruit as you can.
Between the chain boost system and the fact the karts feel really, really fast, driving around the tracks in Crash Team Racing is pure unadulterated joy. The AI also puts up a proper fight here, and unlike Mario Kart 64 there is no massive rubberbanding to speak of. Some degree of catchup AI can be observed at times, generally in the player's favor in the boss races (which would be nearly impossible otherwise), but for the most part the AI feels like it puts up a relatively fair fight even when it is really (really, really, REALLY) hard.
You can of course lose races to RNG nonsense and bad luck with items, which can at times elicit the familiar Mario Kart death metal screams from shorter-tempered players, but in general you can get the lead and hold it if you drive well enough. Despite my massive nostalgia glasses, I have no problems admitting that when it comes to the actual feel of the racing and the level of competition in single player, Crash Team Racing is better than Mario Kart 64.
As for the presentation, Crash Team Racing does a great job retaining the graphical style of the Crash Bandicoot games, and I have no problem with that. The cartoony style and colorful visuals (with fully 3D models for most things, much like in Diddy Kong Racing) would look excellent if it wasn't for one issue specifically related to the PlayStation hardware — affine texture warping. The texture warping is not as bad here as it is in some games, but it is there and the game simply does not look as solid as I would like. It's not a massive problem and you probably won't even mind if you play a lot of PlayStation games, because this was just how they looked.
Another slight complaint from me is directed towards the performance on certain tracks. Crash Team Racing targets 30 frames per second (25 on the PAL version, which was at least optimized for the correct speed but I still decided to jump through a couple of extra hoops to get the NTSC-U version from the US PlayStation Store) and manages to hit it most of the time, but the late-game tracks with more complex geometry and flashy effects have all kinds of problems hitting that 30 fps mark. Split-screen multiplayer suffers even worse, but that was to be expected.
It's totally playable and not too bad by the standards of the era, but I am looking forward to racing on these tracks at 60 frames per second. Seriously, CTR: Nitro-Fueled better run at 60 fps or I will be very disappointed.
Speaking of tracks, I think a lot of them are somewhat bland and generic compared to Mario Kart 64 or Mario Kart in general. Most of the tracks in CTR are a lot of fun to race on and some of them are very challenging especially on harder difficulties, with plenty of hazards for you to dodge, but the environments themselves aren't particularly memorable. Okay, here's a beach level. Now there's a mine level. Then we've got a snow level. And a regular race track. And so on and so forth. There are a few exceptions to this, with Cortex Castle and N. Gin Labs being the highlights, but a lot of the environments just tend to blend together and lack the flourishes that set Mario Kart's tracks apart.
Finally, a mascot racer needs a colorful cast of characters to stand out. When you first start up Crash Team Racing, eight characters are unlocked, and... well, the Crash Bandicoot series has never really had an extensive cast of memorable and instantly recognizable characters, has it? I mean, sure, you've got Crash himself and his sister Coco, then there's Dr. Neo Cortex as the series' main villain, and... well, that's about it for the main players.
Along with the three I mentioned there, the default playable characters include N. Gin (Cortex's right-hand cyborg), Dingodile (a dingo/crocodile hybrid), Tiny Tiger (a huge mutant tiger man), Polar (the polar bear cub Crash rides in one of the levels in Crash Bandicoot 2), and Pura (the tiger Coco rides in one of her levels in Crash 3). As you'd expect from a game like this, some of the characters have high top speed but poor acceleration and/or turning, others are the opposite, and then there are a couple of balanced ones who are decent at everything. In CTR, those all-rounders are Crash and Dr. Cortex.
More characters can be unlocked eventually, and that's where a few of the more memorable bosses from the Crash games can be found in CTR. Ripper Roo, Pinstripe Potoroo, Papu Papu, all those guys are there for you to unlock and race against in the Adventure mode. The main gimmick in these boss races is that each boss constantly throws items (bombs, TNT crates, etc.) in his wake and is also faster than you in a straight line, so you must time your item use just right in order to come out on top. As mentioned earlier, these races seem to have a more noticeable degree of rubberbanding than the normal races, and often it is in the player's favor because the item spam gets ridiculous at times.
The Adventure mode is clearly supposed to be the meat of Crash Team Racing as far as single-player content goes, and has a storyline where an evil space alien named Nitros Oxide challenges the best racers on the planet, aka Crash and assorted characters from the series, to defeat him. If Oxide wins, he gets to turn Earth into a giant concrete parking lot. We just don't get hard-hitting narratives like this these days.
The Adventure mode is something I don't personally care for very much, but a lot of folks seem to like it so what do I know? I don't particularly like the Adventure mode in Diddy Kong Racing, and what we've got here is basically the exact same thing so I'm not a huge fan of the mode in CTR either. It works well enough for what it tries to do, but I simply prefer the more traditional progression system where you win races and cups and unlock harder ones as you go. I don't care about exploring a hub area or collecting keys and tokens to unlock doors leading to new areas to explore, I just want to race. You kids get off my lawn with your 90s platform game collectathons, dagnabbit!
Now, if you only want to see the ending credits, you just need to win races at each of the game's tracks and beat all the bosses including N. Oxide, and that's it. However, this only counts for 50% completion and if you want the true ending and the unlockables, you're going to have to spend plenty of time in CTR's token challenges and relic races. This is where things get really challenging, and absolute mastery of the game's systems as well as its tracks and their respective shortcuts becomes a necessity — especially if you're going for that elusive 101% completion percentage.
The token challenges, or CTR Token Challenges, are... well, they are Diddy Kong Racing's Silver Coin Challenges. You must collect all tokens scattered around the track and win the race, which is usually easier said than done. Naughty Dog was at least merciful enough to only give you three tokens (the letters C, T, and R) to collect in each challenge, but some of these tokens are seriously well hidden and often require a ton of trial and error to figure out.
To give you an idea how tough these things can be, the token challenge on the game's first track, Crash Cove, requires you to perform a perfectly-timed jump onto seemingly out-of-bounds geometry — I could see the token but had no idea how to reach it because I assumed there had to be a ramp or tunnel somewhere and couldn't find one, and eventually I just looked up how to get there. Plus, of course, you have to win the race as well, and that is not always the easiest task because the AI can put up a serious fight.
Relic races, on the other hand, give you a certain time you have to beat over three laps in order to earn a relic. The gimmick here is that the time is impossible to beat by driving normally, so you must find and smash crates that briefly stop the timer. The Crash Bandicoot platform games have challenges like this as well, and they can be obscenely difficult. This remains the case in CTR; the basic sapphire relics are usually not massively hard to earn, which is to say you still need to drive extremely well, but if you want the gold or especially the platinum relics (which require you to smash every single crate) you're going to be at it for a while.
More tokens can be earned from completing purple crystal challenges, unlocked after beating the boss of each hub area. These challenges take place on Battle mode maps and require you to pick up a certain number of crystals within a time limit. Nothing particularly special, but of course all of this is required tor full completion as these challenges are the only way to earn purple CTR tokens.
Adventure Mode aside, the single-player and multiplayer offerings are about what you would expect from a game like this. You have your usual single races and cups in Arcade mode, as well as time trials for all the tracks in the game. VS mode allows up to four players to compete in races, albeit without AI opponents as that would've been too taxing for the hardware (two players can play the Arcade mode, with the number of racers on track dropped from eight to six, and even that gets quite choppy), and four-player splitscreen is also supported in the Battle mode.
The Battle mode gives you a higher level of customization than you'd see in Mario Kart 64, as you can adjust the number of points required for winning or just play timed rounds instead. Any weapon can be disabled in the menu, so you don't get instantly clobbered the moment your opponent finds a triple missile pickup.
Before we wrap up this look at Crash Team Racing, let's talk a little bit about the game's soundtrack. As anyone who spent any time playing Mario Kart 64 or Diddy Kong Racing can testify, those games had some insanely catchy music that refuses to ever leave your brain once it gets in there. Unfortunately, I feel Crash Team Racing is somewhat lacking on the musical front.
Yes, the main menu theme is every bit as catchy as anything in Nintendo's and Rare's offerings, and the credits theme isn't half bad either, but the in-race BGM is just kind of... there. I've been playing Crash Team Racing for long enough now that something should've stuck with me by this point, but I simply can't recall any of the tracks that play during races. At least it's not actively annoying, so that is good at least. Interestingly enough, one of the composers for this game was none other than Mark Mothersbaugh, which would probably explain why the credits theme sounds like a long-lost Devo instrumental.
Regardless of any minor complaints I might've brought up since I am a professional nitpicker, I've had an absolutely fantastic time playing Crash Team Racing for the first time. Is it better than Mario Kart 64? In some ways, absolutely. My nostalgia for Mario Kart 64 is so immense that being objective here gets rather difficult.
While I haven't played enough of the multiplayer in CTR to properly assess it against Mario Kart 64, the single-player experience is unambiguously better in terms of gameplay because CTR does not rely on blatant rubberbanding to keep the racing close, even though the track design itself isn't particularly interesting for the most part. And, of course, if you're into the whole Adventure mode thing, you can probably spend weeks or even months trying to get that 101% completion and unlock new content for the game.
So, to sum things up: Crash Team Racing is an excellent game and one of my favorite PlayStation games, and I have been grossly unfair to it for almost twenty years. I don't know if I would say CTR is better overall than Mario Kart 64 (even though specific parts of it absolutely are, including the actual racing gameplay which is kind of important), but I definitely would rank it above Diddy Kong Racing.
It's also going to be interesting to see how CTR: Nitro-Fueled fares against the wealth of options, tracks, and characters and the ultra-polished gameplay and presentation of Mario Kart 8 Deluxe when it launches on June 21st. Unfortunately, I just discovered the remake is being developed by Beenox Studios and that quite frankly fills me with dread, but I'll try to keep an open mind instead of smugly dismissing the whole thing like I initially did with the original CTR.