If it ain’t broke, don’t fix it
Difficulty is a… well, it’s a difficult subject to talk about. People attach a lot of pride to the concept of overcoming something challenging, and tend to get defensive when you threaten to take away that little mental trophy. And in a lot of cases, there’s nothing wrong with a stiff challenge, either. Some could argue that games have been on a steady trend of getting easier, and easier, and easier, which is what lead to the popularity of Ninja Gaiden (2004), Super Meat Boy, Dark Souls and Cuphead carving out their respective niches by rejecting that trend and embracing difficulty.
Remasters occupy a strange space in this. They are simultaneously new and old, and must balance those ideals. The best remasters apply a fresh coat of paint to an aging classic. Take The Nathan Drake Collection on Playstation 4, which remasters the first three Uncharted games. Visuals are touched up ever so slightly, framerates are improved, but by and large, these are still the same games they were on the Playstation 3, often with warts and all. The same could be said for Halo Anniversary on the Xbox 360, which remasters the seminal 2001 shooter and leaves the notoriously tedious “Library” level as it originally played.
That’s probably how it should be. Success is not always clearly defined; while it’s easy to think that “improving” a game will always be a net gain, there’s subjectivity to consider. One person’s trash is another person’s treasure after all, and if you change or remove something, it may not be considered an improvement by all. Thus, it’s often better (and more cost-effective) to leave the gameplay alone and just touch up the visuals.
Crash Team Racing: Nitro Fueled definitely gets the “touched up visuals” part, with a beautiful, detailed, cinematic look. There are some parts I don’t entirely agree with — Crash himself isn’t as stylized as I’d like, for example — but the animations, environments and effects look gorgeous. There’s a real sense of vehicles connecting to the road in a way that feels really good in motion. It’s like a big budget DreamWorks movie that you actually get to play.
But it’s the gameplay that gives me pause.
On the surface, Nitro Fueled is the perfect remaster. All of the tracks from the original game are present and accounted for, laid out almost exactly as they were back in 1999. Every crate, every jump, every shortcut, it’s all here, as far as I could tell. Also included are 14 slightly-less-faithful tracks from its sequel, Crash Nitro Kart, which have been modified to remove their anti-gravity segments. This brings the base total number of tracks in the remaster up to a very respectable 32, and since then, new tracks have been steadily trickling in via free, monthly Grand Prix DLC. (As of this writing, the actual total track count is now 35, I believe)
The issue at hand is that in smushing together two games worth of content, developer Beenox has had to split the difference in some ways. I played Nitro Fueled hand-in-hand with replaying the original Crash Team Racing for Playstation. Though Nitro Fueled does its best to represent that original game as closely as possible, it is not and could never be an exact recreation. There are a few ways in which this comes up during play.
Something to consider in games like this is how the angle of a turn relates to the angle of your typical power slide. A lot of tracks are custom-built so players can drift around turns without falling off the road or bumping into walls. It requires an almost mathematical precision to the curve. This was especially true for a game like Crash Team Racing, where power slides are a core part of the game. Unfortunately, the sequel (Nitro Kart) was made by different developer, and as such, has ever so slightly different controls, creating a sticky situation for the remaster. If it controls too much like Crash Team Racing, tracks from Nitro Kart may not work very well, and the same would be true vice-versa.
Nitro Fueled tries to implement a one-size-fits-all approach, blending the controls and physics of the two games together. For some, they probably won’t even notice a difference, but after making direct comparisons with the original Crash Team Racing, there are definitely turns in remastered tracks that are harder to deal with than they were back in 1999. Power slides are more difficult to execute as well, as I occasionally found myself sliding the wrong direction by accident, thanks in part to slightly different input timing in Nitro Fueled. Everything is close, but not close enough.
This made for a learning curve that was more steep than I was expecting. Eventually I got used to the new controls, but it made for a wake-up call early on. For the most part, the controls really do mean one size fits all, and you just have to adjust your strategies. The real spike in difficulty comes from the brand new computer-controlled racers.
Maybe I am an outlier, but despite loving the racing game genre to pieces (especially kart racers), I tend to play these games exclusively by myself. Sure, I had friends I played Mario Kart with back when I was in school, but the more you become an adult, the harder it can be to get friends together to play games. I adapted quickly to playing most of these games alone, racing against CPU racers. That’s gradually changed as a growing number of kart racers begun supporting internet multiplayer, but by and large I have always played these games in isolation, versus the computer.
The CPU racers in the original Crash Team Racing were pretty standard for kart racers of that era. Though they were smarter and tougher than a braindead Mario Kart CPU, as long as you knew how to drift and boost it wasn’t hard to win races. Those old computer-controlled opponents receive a significant upgrade in Nitro Fueled, making them feel considerably more like real human racers in the process. Which… is actually sort of a problem, given it now exposes flaws in Crash Team Racing’s weapon balance.
A fundamental lesson the best kart racers understand is that weapons often function both as attacks and defensive measures. In Mario Kart, a banana peel can be thrown forward, dragged at the back of your kart as a shield, or dropped to trip up racers behind you. In Crash Team Racing, defense is almost totally ignored in favor of a weapon set focused mainly on offense. Though some items have that multi-functional capacity, most weapons don’t easily interact with each other a whole lot. Dropping a beaker (CTR’s version of a banana peel) behind my kart has never saved me from a homing missile, for example. For the most part, you drive with your fingers crossed, hoping not to get blasted off the track by an attack you sometimes can’t even hear coming. It really made me appreciate the strides newer kart racers have made since then to keep players aware of what’s going on around them.
Weapons weren’t really an issue when you were playing single player in the original 1999 version of CTR. CPU racers could get around the track and provide enough challenge, but it would be difficult to classify them as aggressive. Now, in Nitro Fueled, they’re expert drivers who swerve to steal your pickups, line up perfectly-aimed shots with weapons, and know how to take advantage of your bad luck, just like real people do. From a technical standpoint, it’s impressive to see in action. There’s increasingly little difference between racing online or off, but it still made for a frustrating experience.
Nitro Fueled gives you several options to deal with this, but none of them feel ideal. The game’s primary single player campaign, Adventure Mode, is broken out in to a number of sub-modes. The default, “Nitro Fueled Mode,” enables cosmetic customization options and a wider roster of racers from both CTR and CNK. Nitro Fueled Mode also comes with its own difficulty selector, with options for Easy, Medium and Hard. The problem is, on Medium difficulty, thanks to the improvements in the game’s CPU artificial intelligence, you get something that is vastly more difficult than the original Crash Team Racing. The solution then would be to drop the game down to Easy difficulty, but in doing so, the game becomes almost insultingly easy. On Medium difficulty, even by the second race I was struggling to place in the top three, and ultimately could not finish the campaign. On Easy difficulty, I beat the game’s “final boss” race with more than a 30 second lead. Simply put, Easy is too easy, but everything above that I found to be way too hard.
There is but one solution to this — opposite to playing the single player campaign in Nitro Fueled Mode is playing it in Classic Mode. This cuts all the features and racers down to match the original 1999 game, meaning you don’t get access to things like cosmetics or the ability to switch characters mid-campaign. It also gets rid of the difficulty selector, offering an experience that’s meant to be closer to the original Crash Team Racing in challenge. In terms of difficulty, it was much closer to what I was looking for: harder than Easy, but not as hard as Medium. It’s a weird thing to have overall, because while a Classic Mode is appreciated, the fact you can’t have all of the new cosmetic goodies along side a more logical difficulty option is annoying.
As I said at the beginning of this review, difficulty is a very subjective thing. I’m sure there’s at least one person out there reading this lining up a comment to tell me how they “didn’t have any trouble” with the game, or they like the added challenge, or whatever. And that’s fine! But I eat kart racers for breakfast. I got the full 1000/1000 achievement points in Sonic & Sega All-Stars Racing. I put hundreds of hours into Mario Kart DS, and last I checked, among my friends I was basically unbeatable in Mario Kart 8. I have finished Adventure Mode in the Playstation 1 version of Crash Team Racing no fewer than four (now five) times in my life. I know what I’m supposed to be doing in this game, and Nitro Fueled offers me only rebukes. Even Classic Mode, despite its in-between difficulty, still feels a little too hard compared to the Crash Team Racing I know and love.
Taking Nitro Fueled online is also its own special nightmare. While it’s definitely true that computer-controlled racers have gotten an intelligence upgrade, they still aren’t quite on par with the kinds of monsters you’ll typically find online. In addition to weapon balance being all out of wack, Nitro Fueled introduces other balance-breaking elements that almost completely ruin the online experience — I’m talking about the blue-flame boosts. Like a modern kart racer, Nitro Fueled litters its tracks with boosters that give you a burst of speed when touched, causing red flames to shoot from your vehicle’s exhaust. Hidden around the track are special boosters that give you an extra-powerful boost, blasting blue flames out of the back of your kart.
Crash Team Racing is specifically balanced around the concept of chaining together multiple boosts via jumps and drifts. Not only does the game track and report how many boosts you’ve chained together in succession, but there’s even an achievement for chaining together one, long, uninterrupted boost for an entire lap, meaning you’re encouraged to keep boosting, and boosting, and boosting, non-stop. And this ties into the blue-flame boost, as once you achieve blue flames, you can chain that in to a never-ending super-boost as long as you’re good enough to never drop the combo (or look up a guide that tells you each track’s ideal route).
In theory, this sounds like a great idea, because it enables a fun bit of high-skill play. But it essentially turns online races into contests of who can chain blue-flame boosts the longest. In almost every single race I’ve had online, there is a clear division between “average” racers and people infinitely chaining blue-flame boosts, driving so fast that even none of the weapons can catch them. If you cannot maintain this super boost, you have absolutely no chance of getting a podium finish, never mind actually winning a race online. I’m all for kart racers that emphasize skill over chaos, but these races don’t feel fun or fair. It turns every race into a competition between the haves and the have-nots. You either do this one special trick and race like an unflinching machine, or you resign yourself to fifth place at best. That’s the opposite of fun.
The weird thing about all the cosmetic customization is the way Nitro Fueled handles unlocking it. Some things like paint jobs and alternate character colors are unlocked through the course of Adventure Mode. But a worryingly large percentage can only be unlocked via the all-new, online-only “Pit Stop” menu. It’s essentially just a store where you can spend coins earned from completing races. You can also buy currency by spending real money. Instead of being presented with an open catalog of everything available in the game, it cycles through limited sets of parts, stickers, karts and costumes in a menu that looks nearly identical to Fortnite’s Item Shop. The only way to unlock everything is to check the Pit Stop every single day in the hopes that what you’re looking for appears at random. As you buy things, you remove them from the pool of available items to appear in the Pit Stop, so eventually you’ll get everything, but it might end up with you buying a lot of junk you don’t want before you get to the good stuff.
Worse still, how Nitro Fueled handles earning coins is a big, ugly mess. For starters, you can only earn coins if you’re connected to the internet. I had my connection drop out a few times during play, and getting the game to reconnect to the servers so I could continue receiving coins for completing races usually meant closing out of the game entirely and relaunching it from the Playstation 4 dashboard. Coin amounts you earn in single player modes are pitiful, as well. Pit Stop items usually cost multiple thousands, but a single race may earn you as few as 30 coins. You can speed the process up by taking Nitro Fueled online, as multiplayer races currently net you upwards of 100-500 coins per race. Unfortunately, this means that if you aren’t paying for a service like Xbox Live Gold or Playstation Plus, you are cursed to grinding out coins the slow way — or to spend real money. I also say “currently” because the rate you earn coins from online multiplayer also fluctuates from time to time, with greater payouts on weekends.
It’s a stupid idea all the way around, made worse by letting you pay for currency with real money. The option to buy currency with real money wasn’t unveiled until the game had been out for over a month, and reeks of extremely questionable business practices. Viewing the game in retrospect, earning coins was likely supposed to be tedious in order to incentivize spending money for coin packs. And clearly Activision waited until the game was already out there before adding the option to buy coin packs so they could both dodge the ESRB and ensure early reviews were not negatively impacted by their inclusion. All of this is in service of systems that wouldn’t feel out of place in a free-to-play mobile game, except we’re talking about a $40 retail release. “Grotesque” is one of the nicer words I’d use to describe this practice.
Writing this review has been an eye opening experience for me. The original Crash Team Racing was among my favorite kart racers of all time, and I guess technically it still is. On that basis alone, I was ready to give Nitro Fueled a free pass, because it’s theoretically a better version of that game. But now that I’ve had a chance to collect all my thoughts about this version of the game, I have a lot of problems with this remaster. It doesn’t control quite right, the difficulty is uneven, and the Pit Stop menu is a terrible way to handle unlockable content in a paid retail game. Sure, it may contain more stuff than the original game, including online multiplayer, and the revamped graphics are very pretty to look at, but in terms of raw gameplay, I think I’ll keep going back to the PS1 version more than Crash Team Racing: Nitro Fueled.
Looking for how Crash Team Racing stacks up to Team Sonic Racing? Click here!