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Kart racers endure as one of gaming’s purest, most enjoyable genres. As developers continue to push the envelope with convoluted plotlines and complex mechanics, kart racers remain focused on one thing: fun. They’re the sort of game your parents, siblings, and best friends can sit down and play together, and everyone will have a good time.
For years, Nintendo’s Mario Kart series has led the pack in the kart racing genre. But if you’ve only ever raced as the iconic plumber or one of his friends, then you’re missing out on some incredible karting beyond the confines of the Mushroom Kingdom. Here are the top picks for the kart racers that can go toe-to-toe with the mighty Mario any day of the week. Break one of these out the next time you have guests over, and you won’t be disappointed.
7. ModNation Racers
ModNation Racers (opens in new tab) does for kart racers what Little Big Planet did for platformers. Almost every aspect of this game is customizable – including the tracks, racers, and vehicles – and all of these creations can be shared online. This means if you’ve ever wanted to see Colonel Sanders, Mr. Monopoly, and the Powerpuff Girls duke it out on the racetrack (and why wouldn’t you?), then you’ve come to the right place.
All this creativity would be for naught, however, if the karting itself wasn’t up to par. Thankfully, Racers successfully captures the basics of kart racing with fluid controls mixed with copious amounts of boost pads and drifting. There are plenty of destructive items to collect, and items can be leveled up to increase their power. ModNation Racers has a lot going for it, and the bevvy of user-generated content means you’ll never hurt for something new.
6. Konami Krazy Racers
Funnily enough, Konami beat Nintendo at its own game. That is to say, Konami Krazy Racers crossed the finish line before Mario Kart: Super Circuit as the first Game Boy Advance kart racer. And even though Konami doesn’t have a storied history of crafting stellar racing games, Krazy Racers ain’t half bad. While the gameplay mimics Mario Kart pretty closely, what really sets this GBA oddity apart is its roster of racers.
It’s safe to say that no other racing game lets you chuck items and powerslide as that most famous of mystical ninjas, Goemon. For whatever reason, Dracula and Gray Fox are the picks from Castlevania and Metal Gear, rather than the obvious Simon Belmont or Snake. And then there are the racers who most Western gamers can’t even name, like cutesy inclusions from Japan-centric series such as Pop’N Music, MLB Power Pros, and Parodius. But even if you don’t know who the hell you picked, after a few laps around the track, you’ll learn to love them.
5. Crash Team Racing
Look around online at people’s lists of “Favorite kart racers of all time” and you’ll find Crash Team Racing pops up more often than not. A solid game all around, CTR demands a bit more skill from players than what is required in, say, the Mario Kart series. The power slide, which is basically drifting, has an added mechanic where players must tap one of the shoulder buttons at the correct time to pick up mini-boosts while sliding.
As many critics have noted, CTR is an excellent Mario Kart clone, and there’s nothing wrong with that. The game has well-designed tracks, a wide variety of weapons, and handles as well as the best of ’em. It also packs an extensive number of modes to keep you busy, whether you’re playing alone or with friends. While it certainly doesn’t break new ground for the kart racing genre, CTR shows that Nintendo’s secret formula can be cracked, and an amazing kart racer can be made outside of Japan.
4. Diddy Kong Racing
Diddy Kong Racing deserves better. Released in 1997, this game takes the fundamentals of Mario Kart and smartly expands upon them in some interesting ways. Most notable are the vehicles. While Sonic & All-Stars Racing Transformed has racers switching between three different vehicle types mid-race, DKR has three different vehicles types racing simultaneously. That’s right: a plane, kart, and hovercraft can all compete head-to-head on the same track, and the interplay between them helps make this game feel unique.
Items are also a big part of Diddy Kong Racing, as they are in most kart racers, but they too come with an interesting twist. In the game, there are five different types of item boxes – or rather, balloons – each with a unique color and type of item. By collecting balloons of the same color, items can be leveled up to become more powerful. For example, an oil slick can become a land mine or a rocket can become a homing rocket, if you’re patient. Diddy Kong Racing received a remake on the DS in 2007, but this version is ultimately inferior due in part to its wholly unnecessary touch controls.
3. Speed Punks
Speed Punks (or Speed Freaks, as it’s known in Europe) is a stellar kart racer that hails from the unlikeliest of places: Ireland. Made by the team at Funcom Dublin, it’s pressed-to-disc proof that great kart racing doesn’t hinge on iconic characters or recognizable track themes – it all comes down to the racing itself. Speed Punks outshines Crash Team Racing as the greatest karter on PS1, with super-colorful locales, tight handling, and a wonderful sensation of speed as you zip around the courses.
The choice of weaponry found in floating item boxes is also a little more varied, since you can actually shoot at competitors with machine gun bullets, or gum up their tires with a pool of icky slime. Speed Punks also utilizes a system very similar to Mario Kart 7’s acceleration-boosting coins, albeit over a decade earlier. You probably missed it due to its relatively late appearance in the PS1’s lifespan , but if you ever get the chance, you should absolutely take Speed Punks for a spin.
Blur (opens in new tab) is a noble experiment on the part of developer Bizarre Creations. The goal: to merge real-life race cars and locations with kart-racing mechanics. Prior to Blur’s release, the developer was known for its Project Gotham Racing and Geometry Wars series, so designing a game that took the realistic race style of the former and mixed it with some of the arcade action of the latter seemed like a natural fit.
The two styles end up blending together better than expected. Seeing a Dodge Viper and Ford GT lob energy missiles at each other is little strange at first, but the explosive action and tight handling won it a lot of praise with consumers and critics alike. However, such praise fell upon deaf ears, as poor sales drove Blur into an early grave. A sequel was planned, which looked amazing (opens in new tab), but was later canned after Bizarre Creations shut down in 2011. For shame!
1. Sonic & All-Stars Racing Transformed
It took Sega a long time to develop a true competitor to Nintendo’s Mario Kart franchise, but in 2012, it finally did it with Sonic & All-Stars Racing Transformed (opens in new tab). While its predecessor, 2010’s Sonic & Sega All-Stars Racing, nailed the karting basics of tight controls, fun weapons, and a diverse roster, Transformed gave the series an identity all its own with the transformation mechanics.
Transformations are at the very heart of this game. As you run laps around the track, the course itself will shift and change. Certain sections may be flooded, or drop off into a bottomless pit. To accommodate, your vehicles transform between a race car, boat, and airplane. Each handles a bit differently, and jumping between them mid-race helps mix up the action. And for you die-hard Sega fans out there, Transformed is loaded with callbacks to the developer’s classics, including Ryo Hazuki, who can cruise around on a Shenmue motorcycle or an OutRun arcade cabinet turned go-kart. How awesome is that?
There are plenty more kart racers out there that didn’t make it into victory lane this time around. Which one is your favorite, and why? Let us know in the comments below, and help spread the word about these under-appreciated gems that will forever live in the shadow of a fat plumber and his bright red go-kart.