Over the years, Nickelodeon has amassed quite a varied and deep stable of entertaining cartoon franchises, with characters like Spongebob Squarepants and Aang becoming cultural icons that are recognized the world over. It stands to reason, then, that the company could produce a solid kart racer in the vein of Mario Kart; there’s more than enough characters and locales to draw from, and if it were done right, the nostalgia alone could cause millennials to flock to the game in droves. Nickelodeon Kart Racers, unfortunately, doesn’t quite deliver on that tremendous potential, and instead comes off as an inoffensive but utterly forgettable title that doesn’t even come close to stepping out of Mario Kart’s shadow.
Right from the off, it’s evident that you’re not nearly getting the experience you’d hope for when you see the character select screen, which contains a paltry sum of twelve characters from a total of four franchises: Spongebob, Hey Arnold, Rugrats, and Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles. Fairly Oddparents? Jimmy Neutron? Invader Zim? Avatar? They’re all nowhere to be found. Indeed, given the enormous number of popular franchises that Nickelodeon could draw from, the offering here is unacceptably lazy; Nickelodeon Kart Racers has a roster that just barely meets minimum standards, and that’s a sentiment that’s unfortunately carried throughout the rest of the game.
Once you hit the track, Nickelodeon Kart Racers essentially becomes a looser and more generic version of Mario Kart 8 Deluxe; its mechanics are decent, but there are very few ideas here that aren’t derived from better games. Each track consists of a mixture of land, air, and sea portions that see your kart transforming accordingly, and lines of item boxes are generously thrown around the tracks to offer racers an edge in battle. These items are directly aped from Mario Kart in their usage, such as an acorn in place of a Bob-omb, a bottle of bubble soap instead of a banana peel, or a spatula instead of a blue shell, and though disappointingly derivative, items are still a fun way of keeping a race interesting and regularly shaking up the status quo.
This being a Nickelodeon title, it wouldn’t be the same without the iconic green slime, and Bamtang Games has chosen to incorporate it here by implementing an interesting F-Zero-like boost system. Puddles and lakes of slime are present on every track, and driving through them will slowly fill up a segmented gauge at the top of the screen which represents your boost power. Every time you activate a boost it consumes one cell of the gauge, but if you wait for more cells to fill, the resulting speed boost will be more powerful and last longer. It’s a fun way to add some strategy to the experience on top of item usage and though this boost system doesn’t entirely redeem the ho-hum gameplay, it certainly does make it more enjoyable.
Along with the copious item boxes, every track is littered with coins to collect as you drive, and these can then be spent on kart parts in an in-game shop to better tune your ride. Though it’s yet another idea that’s lifted wholesale from Mario Kart, this does help to add some replayability to the experience, encouraging players to experiment with different builds and keep grinding out races to collect more coins. It must be said that there doesn’t seem to be much of a difference in swapping out kart parts – the gameplay feels very much the same regardless of what parts you’ve installed – but those who consider themselves to be completionists will be satisfied at the extra content represented here.
There’s a total of twenty-four tracks on offer, and these can be experienced in either themed Grand Prix cups or individually via free race. Track designs are generally quite homogenous from a gameplay standpoint, lacking the stage hazards and set pieces that one would expect, although their overall look and feel is surprisingly faithful to the source material. Locations like Glove World and Arnold’s school are rife with plenty of references and little details that call back to the franchises they’re based on, showing a level of passion and attention to detail that feels oddly inconsistent with the rest of the game. Once again, the low amount of franchise representation is felt all too much here, but what’s present is sure to satisfy fans of Nickelodeon.
With that being said, Nickelodeon Kart Racers is just as disappointing in its presentation as it is with its gameplay; the graphics look like they were pulled from a lazily-upscaled GameCube game, and there’s a general air of artificial lifelessness that makes the whole experience mildly uncomfortable. Character models are expressive, but they fall firmly into ‘uncanny valley’ territory; animations are stiff and robotic, and most expressions feel insincere and kind of creepy. This is exacerbated by how Spongebob’s iconic laugh and Michaelangelo’s banter are nowhere to be found here; every character is completely silent throughout the entire race, making for an oddly quiet and flat experience.
Similarly, the soundtrack is extremely disappointing; instead of remixes of tracks from the shows being represented here, you’re treated to a painfully forgettable collection of MIDI tracks that sound like placeholder music that never got replaced. One could easily transplant this music into just about any kid-friendly mobile game and it wouldn’t feel out of place, making it feel like yet another missed opportunity. There’s absolutely no character to this music at all, it’s annoying, repetitive and soulless, and combining that with the complete lack of voice acting makes for an experience that feels raw and incomplete.
It’s also worth mentioning that Nickelodeon Kart Racers runs into some egregious performance issues, and these are magnified further by the addition of other players or the usage of portable mode. Pop-in is terrible and actively hindered our enjoyment, such as instances like when Squidward frantically oscillated between materializing and disappearing from his doorstep, or when an upcoming hazard on the track turned invisible and cost us a race. The framerate runs at an uncapped 30 FPS, too, but it usually hovers somewhere around the 20 FPS mark, especially when multiple racers pour into a turn or you make the mistake of trying to play this on the go. Given the simple graphics being displayed, such performance issues make for a dark stain on an already iffy game experience.
There are far worse games out there than Nickelodeon Kart Racers, but there are far better ones as well. Given the tremendous opportunity represented by this IP, it’s hard not to be disappointed by the state of Nickelodeon Kart Racers; with more attention to quality and another year of development, this could’ve possibly been a compelling alternative to Mario Kart. Unfortunately, Nickelodeon Kart Racers is simply not good; derivative mechanics, a pathetic character roster and awful performance make this a bargain bin experience that you’ll be glad you missed. If you absolutely have to play a racing game with Nickelodeon characters, then by all means, go ahead, but we’d highly recommend you take a pass on this sorry effort.