Crash Nitro Kart, which originally appeared last year on all the major gaming consoles, was a solid genre exercise. As most kart racing games do, it took plenty of cues from the seminal Super Mario Kart, and though the characters weren't as memorable as the Italian plumber and his pals, it basically hit all of the marks that such a game needs to. Now, developer Vicarious Visions has brought what is essentially a miniaturized version of CNK to the N-Gage, complete with fully 3D tracks and four-player competitive multiplayer action. But it seems that Vicarious Visions hasn't accounted enough for the narrow rectangular orientation of the N-Gage's screen, and the lack of peripheral vision ends up hurting the game's playability a lot.
Crash Nitro Kart kicks things off with an appropriately wacky story concerning an intergalactic kart racing competition in which the fate of Earth hangs in the balance. Beyond the first five minutes of the game, the story elements only pop up occasionally, and the focus is put where it ought to be--on the kart racing. CNK doesn't really do anything too daring with standard kart racing conventions, which is fine, because it executes them rather well. You'll compete against computer-controlled racers in a series of lap-based contests where the tracks are riddled with speed-boosting pads and mysterious crates filled with oddball power-ups and weapons that can be used to enact some great reversals of fortune.
If you grow weary of the artificially intelligent opponents and have some friends within shouting distance who also own N-Gages, CNK has Bluetooth support for up to four players. The racing and battling modes contained within, while formulaic, do what they're supposed to do. The game also features N-Gage Arena support, which consists entirely of the almost obligatory ghost races. It seems largely irrelevant, since, as a kart racer, half the fun in CNK is mischievously overcoming your opponents through the help of power-ups, which have no effect during ghost races.
However, Crash Nitro Kart's biggest folly is not its superfluous modes of play but its fundamental presentation. The actual components look pretty good. You're given a behind-the-back perspective on your racer, who is a prerendered sprite based on the polygonal models found in the console versions of Crash Nitro Kart. The animation is a little choppy sometimes, but in the context of the game, it's functional. The tracks themselves are true 3D, complete with real contours to the terrain. In fact, CNK presents some of the cleanest-looking 3D we've seen yet on the N-Gage, but, unfortunately, the game doesn't let you see enough of it at once. The perspective given is much too tight, robbing you of the panoramic view that is almost necessary for racing games. This makes it difficult to see racers who might be running alongside of you, in addition to making it difficult to determine how hard you'll need to turn into the next corner. As a result of the game's poor racing perspective, it's not uncommon to find yourself completely turned around and lost in a wide-open space. After several runs through a track, you can start anticipating big turns, but it still has the net effect of making otherwise serviceable gameplay needlessly frustrating. You get the sense that if the camera had been pulled back a bit, Crash Nitro Kart would be a much more playable game.
For what it's worth, though, the game does have a decent bit of personality. The visuals are uniformly bright-colored and feature a well-saturated look, with a vaguely tropical, tiki-inspired motif. Additionally, the sound design complements the loony appearances nicely. Music fills a majority of the background in CNK, and much of it has a sort of dizzy, carnival feel to it, which works well. You can also expect to hear plenty of screeching tires, a handful of voice clips, and sound effects for the game's power-ups, which aren't particularly impressive but do deliver a decent job of rounding out the soundscape.
Crash Nitro Kart is a very bittersweet affair. The gameplay is fundamentally solid, the graphics are sharp and run smoothly, and there's just plenty of stuff to do, both in the single-player and multiplayer modes. But the narrow field of vision has a dramatically negative effect on the whole experience, cross-canceling many of the game's positive traits. You can tell that there's a really good game inside Crash Nitro Kart, but it's a shame that you can't quite see it.