Crash Nitro Kart is VU Games' answer to Nintendo's Mario Kart: Super Circuit. It's a cute racing game that takes the characters, gems, relics, and item boxes from the Crash Bandicoot platform games and places them on a series of different racecourses. Crash, Coco, Neo Cortex, and the other Crash characters may not have the same star power that Mario and Donkey Kong have, but the game makes up for this shortcoming by improving upon the Mario Kart formula in a number of ways.
The gist of Crash Nitro Kart is that you can pick any of 19 different characters from the Crash Bandicoot universe and race them around any of 13 different tracks. It takes a minute or so to complete a single lap around most tracks, and the layouts are diverse enough that you'll need a handful of practice runs to figure out the best ways to deal with the various sharp turns, jump ramps, drop-offs, and shortcuts you encounter. If you own Mario Kart: Super Circuit, chances are one of the things you like about that game is that it has more than 40 different courses to choose from. Crash Nitro Kart has fewer than half that number, but it makes up for that shortfall by offering a healthy variety of different events and rewards throughout all of its play modes.
Events in the adventure mode include standard races, one-on-one races against bosses, time trials, and cup events with multiple races--as well as a unique combination event where you have to collect the letters C-N-K during a normal race against CPU opponents. The arcade mode lets you tackle the game's courses in a more traditional fashion. It includes single races, time trials, and four different cup circuits. The first time you boot up the game, you have access to only a handful of events and just nine of the game's 19 playable characters. By earning trophies in the adventure mode, you unlock the rest of the available events and characters--such as VU Games' other hero, Spyro the Dragon--as well as a few unusual cheat codes. One such code transforms all of the vehicles in the game into tiny radio-controlled toy cars.
Crash Nitro Kart rounds out its options with a variety of connectivity features that you may or may not be able to take advantage of depending on the accessories you have access to. The biggest among these is the game's multiplayer mode, where you and up to three other players can link your systems together to race against one another on any of the game's 19 regular tracks. Like with many multiplatform games these days, you also have the option of connecting the GBA version of Crash Nitro Kart to the GameCube version using Nintendo's GameCube-GBA Connectivity Cable. The results aren't spectacular, but you can unlock two additional characters in the GBA game. Lastly, if you have access to the Internet--which you probably do if you're reading this--you can take the passwords you get from completing time trials and input them at the Vicarious Visions Web site to compare your times with other players around the world.
On the track, the game takes the formula that Nintendo pioneered with Mario Kart and builds upon it. Every kart game has a powerslide move, but the one here offers a greater degree of control. When you perform a powerslide going through a turn, a timer appears that lets you know exactly when the traction will kick back in. You can end the slide early by letting go of the button or tap the accelerator when the timer is in the red area to activate a turbo boost. Like other kart games, Crash Nitro Kart also lets you increase your speed by driving over turbo pads and by collecting wumpa fruits, which function much like the coins in Mario Kart do. Every wumpa fruit you collect raises your top speed a small amount. Unlike in Mario Kart, however, wumpa fruit also increases the strength of the weapons you pick up.
In a basic sense, the weapons in Crash Nitro Kart function just like those you've seen in other kart games. Crash Nitro Kart's weapons differ, however, in that many of them have secondary uses in addition to their main functions. Bombs can be launched in front of your vehicle or behind, depending on whether you hold up or down when you push the fire button. Normally, bombs explode when they roll into another vehicle, but if you miss with one, you have the option of tapping the fire button a second time to detonate it--possibly catching the target in the blast area. The shield item protects you from obstacles and normally disappears after 30 seconds or so, but if you tap the fire button before it deactivates, you'll launch it forward like a missile. You can also use bombs, missiles, and shields to destroy items left behind by other drivers. The game has 10 different weapons, which are hidden inside item boxes that appear at regular intervals along each track.
Graphically, Crash Nitro Kart uses a Mode-7-style graphics engine similar to the one used in Mario Kart: Super Circuit. That means that the game takes flat 2D maps and flips them inward 90 degrees or so to make the terrain appear three-dimensional as you drive over it. The courses are colorful, and the various trees, boulders, and whatnot help to distinguish the paved areas of the track from the mud and grass lining the outskirts. The Mode-7 technique is no substitute for real 3D graphics, but Crash Nitro Kart pushes it as far as it can go with skylines that change color and background objects that emit bubbles and water vapor during the race. For the most part, the engine is steady, and the graphics move by at a smooth pace. When you get into a heated melee with a few other drivers, and weapons are involved, the game will sometimes chug for a second or so, but it doesn't always happen and usually doesn't hurt your ability to control the vehicle.
Fans of previous Crash Bandicoot games will recognize many of the musical selections and voices in Crash Nitro Kart. Each character says something different when launching an item or while recovering from a crash, and the majority of background tunes are remixed versions of similar cuts found in older Crash games. The sound effects aren't particularly interesting, but there are a lot of them, and they're generally clear and easy to make out.
People adore Nintendo's Mario Kart series because the characters are easy to recognize and the games are easy to learn but offer a fair amount of depth and a good number of features for players of all skill levels. VU Games has basically done the same thing with Crash Nitro Kart. The characters aren't nearly as popular as those in Nintendo's game, but the deeper gameplay makes up for that to an extent.