Game Factory has licensed another hot property, and they’re doing their best to make it into a game for all ages. This time we get Cartoon Network Racing. The host of colorful franchises owned by Cartoon Network is a veritable cornucopia of potential game content. Dropping a bevy of these well-known characters into go-karts and setting them loose sounds like the perfect family-centered DS title, but as always the execution must be solid. And that is the very area in which Game Factory falters with this game. Graphical polish, bountiful extras, depth and a popular license won’t save a game if it isn’t fun to play.
If CN Racing was the first of its kind on the DS, I probably would have given it more room for error. Unfortunately, CN Racing is up against some mortal competition, a shining star in the kart racing genre and one of the DS’s killer apps. Of course I’m talking about Mario Kart. I hesitate to make the comparison between the two, because it really isn’t fair. Mario Kart DS is one of those rare games without peer that propelled DS sales and sustained the portable.
And yet, if CN Racing had put on a good show I still would have recommended it. It does so many things right, despite being an obvious clone of Mario Kart.
Nostalgia is most definitely not the problem. The source material, the CN TV shows, are paid full respect and represented in all their wacky glory. I can’t attest to the accuracy of Cow and Chicken or the Powerpuff Girls, but back in my 6th grade days I was an absolute Dexter’s Laboratory fiend. I was very happy to see three racers, Dexter, his ditzy sister Dee Dee and his rival Mandark, fully playable. There were also two nicely done Dexter’s Lab tracks—the labs of Dexter and Mandark. Dexter’s was perfect down to every detail, even the music, but Mandark’s had the generic, Samurai-Jack inspired spiky black and orange look of the more recent cartoons. I would’ve preferred to just see Samurai Jack included, but I digress.
I guess it comes down to your childhood cartoon preferences, but Johnny Bravo, Courage the Cowardly Dog and I Am Weasel were also included so whichever show you grew up with, you’ll be happy. Each show has one or two tracks modeled after locations in the show and I was surprised at how accurate to detail they were. A remix of the show’s theme song usually plays in the background (like the aforementioned Dexter’s Lab). The tracks contain some interesting shortcuts, but the AI uses them exclusively, so they end up as the only real ways to win the races, which kind of defeats the purpose of shortcuts in the first place. A few of the turns are also impossible to navigate well with any of the racers, but I’ll get to that in a minute.
The inevitable collection of items, used and obtained just the way they are in Mario Kart, were less inspired by the TV shows. You’ll pick up generic cartoon prop items: mines, smokescreens, nitro peppers, a leader-seeking bomb (blue shell, anyone?) and even some Ben-Hur like wheel spikes, but nothing that harkens back to a particular episode of any show. In fact, most of these pickups are carbon copies of Mario’s items, just less fun and effective. To make up for this, each character has a signature super ability that becomes available when you fill their special meter. This is accomplished by collecting out of the way star powerups or attacking other racers with the standard items.
Each special ability is tailored to its racer; for example, the Powerpuff Girls have individual super powers like laser vision and ice breath. Some of them are just stand-ins for the more powerful Mario Kart items—Dexter’s de-atomizer shrinks the other racers just like Mario’s lighting bolt.
On the track there is a decent amount of complexity, but CN Racing is no slouch when it comes to extras, either. Only a few racers are available from the start, and the rest must be unlocked, for a total of twenty. All extras are bought with coins earned from winning races or picked up on the tracks. These bonuses include new cups, a couple of moderately fun minigames and upgrades for the various karts. There are even three episodes you can unlock, from Dexter’s Lab, Cow and Chicken and The Powerpuff Girls. Seeing my all time favorite Dexter short (the first one with Mandark) playing on my DS stirred many childhood memories, and it makes me wish for the whole series on DVD even more. Are you listening, Cartoon Network?
Another nostalgia rush comes from how well this game recreates its source material, both visually and aurally. The tracks are oversaturated with cheerful colors that remain true to the shows, and the little hints and in-jokes will make the CN aficionados smile. I was impressed by the kart models themselves—Game Factory has taken some clever polygonal shortcuts to fashion recognizable machines and characters. Not only that, but each kart reflects the personality of its owner. Johnny Bravo drives an outrageous hot rod, while Dee Dee is found atop a wooden play horse with candy sucker wheels.
Each character also has a couple brief audio samples taken from the shows. It would have been nice to hear some more voice work, but what we have is enough to evoke the feel of the shows, and represents the characters faithfully. The music tracks based on the shows are excellent, but the rest of the music is pretty average; the main menu tune begins to grate after one or two repeats, a common problem I’ve noticed in Game Factory titles.
Every aspect of CN Racing—from the graphics and sound to the license material—is done with polish and quality. What really disappointed me, however, was that this game just isn’t very fun to play. It steals from Mario Kart in conceivably every other way, so why couldn’t it have emulated the tight controls and solid gameplay?
Almost every kart handles like a lead brick. Cornering, backing up, even drifting, are aggravating affairs. The somewhat twisty design of the tracks only punctuates the difficulty the karts have with maneuvering. I got stuck bumping into the same wall multiple times, trying to turn away with little success. Drifting is similar to Mario Kart, but decidedly clumsier to pull off. Item boxes, so crucial to filling that special meter, are few and far between. Playing through the solo mode, I yearned for less sluggish mechanics so that I could enjoy a game that cried out to be enjoyed. So much of the potential was lost through poor gameplay.
The other half of the game, multiplayer, feels stripped to the bone in comparison to Mario Kart’s. Download play allows for any unlocked character to be used, but that’s about where the advantages over Nintendo’s kart racer end. Only one track, Dexter’s Lab, is playable, and there are no options to configure bots or items. Over multi-card play any of the four cups are available, but it isn’t possible to select individual tracks. There is no Wifi support to speak of.
I really wanted to like Cartoon Network Racing. The game is positively bursting at the seams with nostalgia, charm and high production values. It just doesn’t play very well. If some more of my favorite characters handled better, especially on their own courses (Johnny Bravo, Dexter) I might have okayed this as a purchase. As it is, however, I must regretfully suggest passing CN Racing over for Mario Kart. This game has so much going for it, but without the tight gameplay and a good multiplayer, it can’t compare to Nintendo’s masterpiece. But if you’ve never played Mario Kart and don’t intend to, or if you’re a big fan of the old school CN shows, then give it a try.
Cartoon Network Racing does a lot of things really well, just not the gameplay. It’s packed with extras, decent graphics and the personality of all the CN shows, but it doesn’t play as smoothly or comfortably as Mario Kart DS. The multiplayer is also incredibly light on content. Give it a spin if you’re in the mood for a trip down memory lane and average, but not great racing.