Name: NASCAR Kart Racing
Platform: Nintendo Wii
NASCAR on the Wii almost seems like a no-brainer. Using the Wii controller to steer in a racing game is one of the few examples of how motion-sensitive controls work well. While a cartoony racer wouldn’t have been my first guess as to how NASCAR would finally make its way to the family-friendly console, the premise works surprisingly well. Combining several aspects of real-life NASCAR racing with the exaggerated racing style of Mario Kart, NASCAR Kart Racing delivers a solid gaming experience.
While the NASCAR name on the front of the box may automatically cause many of you to dismiss the game before ever actually playing it, after spending a good amount of time with the game, I can tell you that the NASCAR name only serves to bring licensed drivers and sponsors into your homes. Whatever preconceptions you have about the sport can be checked at the door, because while NASCAR Kart Racing features real drivers and cars, that’s where the parallels between this game, and the real deal stop. While next-generation versions of NASCAR games have gone with trying to simulate the actual experience, the Wii version puts its focus on arcade fun. That’s not to say there aren’t some interesting NASCAR-specific design choices though.
As any fan of America’s most popular sport can attest, teamwork is vital to winning a race. Kart Racing takes that notion into account, and instead of taking on the game solo, you’re required to pick a partner every time you unlock a new racing circuit. You and your partner not only combine stats (handling, boost, grinding, etc.), but if you and your partner drive close enough together, you’ll be “In the Zone,” and you’re able to charge up your boost meter faster. When your boost is fully charged, you and your partner will be able to engage the Slingshot technique, where the two of you can sling one another past each other in an effort to pass the other cars without wasting as much boost. Though, for a mechanic so focused on teamwork, it’s strange that the game doesn’t offer co-operative play. Sure, up to four people can play the game, but each of them only controls one driver. You never get control of your partner. The game also eschews the more traditional point based qualifying system for victories, instead using “winner takes all” in order to progress. As long as you or your AI teammate wins, you’ll get credit for the victory. However, you will not be able to progress unless you finish first in every race. Not only is that not true to the real NASCAR rules, it’s also quite annoying when you dominate every race but one, and are forced to try and try again to move on. A point system in cartoonish racers works, as Mario Kart fans can attest, so I’m a little baffled as to why this feature wasn’t included here.
The standard weapons and power-ups found in kart racers also make an appearance. You’ll be tossing dynamite, spilling motor oil, and firing rockets and the like as you make your way around the track. Hell, there’s even a giant sponsor billboard attack akin to the Blooper inkblot seen in the most recent Mario Kart. Though that attack is much less a hindrance to driving than it is annoying. You can still see the track pretty well since the ad bounces around the screen, unlike the inkblot, which just obstructs like 80% of your view. I can’t recall a single time where my teammate used a power-up, so that was a little strange. Normally the computer loves just throwing junk at you, no matter what the item is. For whatever reason, my partner was only concerned with driving fast, which was just fine with me. I can see it being an issue for some people though. There’s also a fairly decent amount of drivers (24), as well as tracks (9) to unlock, and keep you from getting bored. While some may have been made specifically for the game, you will be able to eventually get some NASCAR legends like Richard Petty.
NASCAR Kart Racing does move along at a pretty decent clip, and there were few times I noticed graphical flaws. It helps that the game isn’t trying to blow you away visually. Everything looks solid, if not spectacular, but I gladly will sacrifice graphics for smooth gameplay any day of the week. Less excusable, however, is the game’s suspect AI and use of the “rubber band effect.” At times, you’ll be cruising along, winning race after race, and then the game decides you need to lose. And you’ll lose. And lose. And lose. Until finally, the game has decided you’ve taken enough lumps, and you’re allowed to win again. I’m all for games being challenging, but there’s no challenge derived from being “forced” to lose over and over again. This goes back to there being a lack of a point system for placing. If that’s there, game can push you the whole time, and not just when you’re doing too well. I still can’t quite wrap my head around why you can’t play co-operatively either. It may not make or break the game, but being able to go through a season with a friend would certainly add a bit more playability to the game. It definitely would have helped make up for the strange, and bland, non-race add-ons like “Distance Drive” and “Timed Gate Racing.”
Even though NASCAR Kart Racing may not be the most innovative racer on the market, that shouldn’t turn you away. The game is an unabashed Mario Kart clone that, while not looking nearly as good, plays almost exactly the same. It’s a decent effort from EA Freestyle, which, despite a few shortcomings, has crafted a fun way to spend a night hanging with some friends. And with a kart racer, that’s all you can really hope for, isn’t it?