Taking characters from a popular game or cartoon series, sticking them in some karts, and releasing a racing game just in time for the holidays is such a frequent occurrence that it's almost becoming a tradition in its own right. Keeping the spirit alive this year is Cartoon Network Racing for the PlayStation 2. The game does absolutely nothing that other kart racers haven't already done, and it doesn't do anything particularly well, either--the controls are complete mess and the action is slow. If there's one thing that kids and adults can both agree on this holiday season, it's that Cartoon Network Racing is a bad game.
Despite the game being full of cartoon characters, there's no story here; you're just racing karts and trying to win. There are three basic single-player gameplay modes: quick race, tournament, and cartoon eliminator. Cartoon eliminator is a single race where the person who is in last place after each lap gets dropped, and the last driver standing is the winner. You'll only want to play it to unlock new drivers. Tournament is essentially the same as it is in every other kart racer--you compete in a series of races and accumulate points based on where you finished. The winner is the driver with the most points after all of the races have been completed. This is how you'll unlock cartoons and courses for other modes of play. A super tournament is also unlocked when you finish all of the normal tournaments. It's basically the same thing, just with more races per series slightly more of a challenge. There are 12 cartoons that can be unlocked as well, and though it will take a substantial time commitment to unlock them all, they're a nice bonus. You can subject another person to the game's drudgery in a number of split-screen modes. Quick race lets you race head-to-head; co-op allows one person to drive while the other shoots; kart bullseye is a contest where you see who can stop closest to the center of a target; and then there are a number of combat modes, none of which are very good because they allow only two players to play at once.
Cartoon Network borrows heavily from the GameCube's Mario Kart Double Dash. You start off by picking your racer. The game features 16 playable drivers from the outset, and you can unlock many more as you progress. Pretty much all of the Cartoon Network gang is here: The Powerpuff Girls, Dexter, Dee Dee, Cow, Chicken, Johnny Bravo, I.M. Weasel, I.R. Baboon, Courage, and Muriel, to name a few. Each character has different attributes for top speed, acceleration, handling, and speed. Next you'll select a co-driver who will ride along with you and fire weapons. Each co-driver has two toon powers that can be unleashed when you've drifted enough to fill the toon power meter. These abilities include super speed, flight, invincibility, and destruction. Then it's off to the races, which take place on tracks that are seemingly ripped straight from the Mario Kart series--there are tracks in the snow, mountains, pinball machines, jungles, city streets, around an island, and more. For the most part the courses are simple, and while they won't be challenging for adults, kids might find them very frustrating due to the many hazards around each track.
The controls are pretty basic, which does little to make them enjoyable. You hit the X button to go, use L2 and R2 to unleash toon powers, R1 to drift, and L1 to shoot. There are numerous weapons that can be acquired by driving through floating crates, and again, they're mostly standard fare: rockets, bombs, fake crates, oil slicks, turbo boost stars, and so on. You can get an extra boost by driving over speed pads, and you can activate hazards and certain shortcuts by driving over switches on the course.
None of this is particularly original, so you'd be forgiven for thinking that the gameplay might at least be decent since it uses such an established formula. Unfortunately, it's a mess. Your kart handles like just about anything you can think of other than a kart. There's no sense of speed and everything feels floaty, as if you're not really touching the ground. The kart physics are poor, and you'll frequently spin out or come to a screeching halt when you so much as graze a hazard or bump a wall. Sometimes you don't even hit anything but come to a stop due to some invisible field. It's easy to get stuck on other karts, in walls, and behind objects on the course, too. Turning around is a real chore, which makes these problems even more irritating.
But the biggest problem is the elastic artificial intelligence, which allows less-skilled players to remain competitive but is so poorly implemented that it will ruin the game for everyone. It's quite possible to start a race, put the controller down and then literally go fix yourself a drink, grab a snack, have a brief conversation, and be back in the lead well before the end of the race. This might seem like a good thing for kids, but the CPU controlled racers have the same luxury, so no matter how many times you shoot someone or how many shortcuts you take, the races always come down to the last few seconds. And since the first two and a half laps are essentially worthless, the game gets old very, very quickly.
Even kids won't find much to enjoy when it comes to Cartoon Network Racing's visuals. The karts look basic and don't feature a whole lot of detail. Neither do many of the tracks they'll be racing on. There's nothing wrong with the basic overall design of any of the courses, but there's hardly any detail to them, and what the developer is trying to pass off as "cartoon-style" visuals by using bright colors and then slapping black lines around poorly textured objects just doesn't cut it. There are a few tracks that don't look too bad, though. The busy scene of a pirate ship and a flashy, though wholly unoriginal pinball level are a few of the standouts. What little effects there are are pathetic. If all of this skimping on the visuals paid off with a speedy frame rate that would be one thing, but of course, it doesn't. At its best the frame rate isn't very smooth, and even then it doesn't convey any sense of speed. At its worst the game is almost unplayable and things move as if they're in slow motion. The sound effects aren't great, either. You'll hear a few catchphrases here and there, but most everything is drowned out by the horrible-sounding karts. The cartoon themes that were so catchy on the DS are considerably less so here, because many of the songs have lyrics being sung along with them. Believe it or not, there's a limit to how often you can hear the line "You don't need pants for the victory dance..." from I.M. Weasel's theme song.
In the end, Cartoon Network Racing is a bad racing game that won't appeal to anyone of any age. Younger children who are into any of the kid-friendly shows on Cartoon Network may think it's neat to see their favorite characters in action for a few races, but their enthusiasm will quickly dwindle. Anyone with more discerning racing tastes will want to stay far, far away from this licensed drivel.