In most cases, when a game is released and garners poor reviews, developers move on. Especially in the case of licensed titles, all parties involved are usually quick to cut their losses and start their next unrelated project. When Nickelodeon Kart Racers was released in 2018, that seemed to be the situation. With a small roster, little fan service, and rough visuals, it seemed like a one-off entry that wouldn’t see a future.
But 2020 is a new year, and Nickelodeon Kart Racers 2: Grand Prix feels like a direct response to the criticism that the first title received. Bamtang Games has addressed almost all of the issues players and press had with their initial offering and overclocked the sequel with plenty of features and content. I thoroughly enjoyed it and came away with so many questions.
Featuring references from decades of Nickelodeon cartoons, there is stuff here for players of all ages. I found as much to like as my six-year-old did. But there is enough missing that if we never get a third entry, I will settle for an oral history of how the development of this game came about. Stick around, I’ll tell you why.
GAMEPLAY – NORMAL EARTH LARVA
In many ways, NKR2 is a ’90s-inspired Mario Kart clone. But the problem with finding fault in that is that Mario Kart is really good, so copying the mechanics doesn’t necessarily make a bad game. The drifting is the same, the racing is the same, the item use is the same. There’s even the “rubber band” effect of item strength depending on your race position. The case could be made that this is simply Mario Kart Wii with a Spongebob paint job.
Here’s the problem with that argument: it’s fun as hell. There was some obvious care put into the design of the characters, the karts, and the tracks. As much as everything is oozing green slime, it’s oozing references and easter eggs to the golden age of Nickelodeon cartoons. Things might not be as revolutionary as zero-gravity track design, and there isn’t much difference between vehicles beyond aesthetics, but their take on the standard kart racing items feels refreshing and doesn’t feel forced.
Instead of settling for twelve racers, the folks at Bamtang Games have upped the character count to 30, including more racers and TV show representation than the first title. Now players can choose from more characters from Spongebob Squarepants, Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles, Hey Arnold!, and Rugrats, as well as characters from CatDog, Avatar: The Last Airbender, The Legend of Korra, The Loud House, Danny Phantom, The Ren & Stimpy Show, Rocko’s Modern Life, and Invader Zim.
Astoundingly, there is a playable character that is not from a specific Nickelodeon cartoon. Jojo Siwa, the actress with the large bows, can be chosen as a racer, with tracks and pit crew characters based on her brand. This may seem like a completely random addition to the roster, but since Siwa did sign on with Nickelodeon in 2017 and has made numerous appearances on different shows and movies, she fits the brand.
A major entry is the inclusion of the aforementioned pit crew characters. These are non-playable characters from the different represented properties that appear in the form of equipable bonuses that give you different advantages during your races. I likened this mechanic to the Spirits found in Super Smash Bros. Ultimate; these are bonus representations of characters we love, and it’s another way for us to have control over the race.
Different pit crew combinations can offer different things. A favorite of mine is using April from Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles as my “pit captain”, which allows me to get a substantial boost and turn temporarily invincible after filling my slime meter. Paired with Grandpa Phil from Hey Arnold!, who gives me a bonus Yahoo Soda after every item box, garnering another boost. This allows me to get ahead of the pack quickly and continuously maintain my lead. The pit crew mechanic was a welcome addition to the game, and I enjoyed seeing what minor characters might appear as I progressed and unlocked more and more.
This time around, there’s also online multiplayer, meaning you can take all your friends from elementary school and finally prove to them that Heffer would absolutely beat Angelica if it came down to it. Like any good nostalgia trip, everything is better with friends, and it’s the best when you can settling hypothetical rivalries.
GRAPHICS/AUDIO – HI HO DIGGETY
The art style of NKR2 really charmed me. The characters (with the exception of Jojo Siwa, who slightly succumbs to the uncanny valley) have an almost claymation appearance. It’s a style that fits in with each property’s unique design and is actually reminiscent of The Jimmy and Timmy Power Hour, which brought the 2D characters of The Fairly OddParents to the 3D world of The Adventures of Jimmy Neutron: Boy Genius. Ironically, neither of these properties are represented in Nickelodeon Kart Racers 2: Grand Prix.
Maybe it was the game’s actual performance, maybe it was due to playing on a Nintendo Switch Lite, but I do have to mention a little performance issue that I experienced while playing through the game. At times where I was in the middle of the pack, with five or six other racers on-screen, there were noticeable frame drops. It seemed like any time there was a lot going on, either between the number of actual karts or the number of items being used at once, things seemed to hang for a split second or two. Now, an easy solution to remedy this would of course be to get better, but as you’re first getting your bearings or attempting a faster speed tier, you’ll encounter it more often.
The levels have been designed beautifully. They really feel like they’ve been ripped from their respective shows, and I’m really impressed by the sense of authenticity that I got from them. Levels like Glove World let me spend more time in a sight gag from twenty years ago. I was able to drive through O-Town for the first time and it gave me a sense of tangibility in regards to these properties that I’ve spent my life enjoying.
The music and audio is, admittedly, again something I don’t really pay much attention to. There still isn’t any voice acting. You won’t hear a lovable rendition of “Happy Happy Joy Joy” to go along with Stimpy’s dance animation. But the music feels like what you’d see in the respective cartoons, and that was immersive enough for me.
My largest problem with the game is incredibly petty, but it’s also extremely important. There is no reference or mention of Rocket Power, which I feel is criminal. I understand the decision to include a currently-contracted actor as a playable character. But, imagine if instead of driving through what I assume is a nine-year-old’s fever dream, we got to play as Reggie driving around the streets of Ocean Shores? I guess that ties into my biggest question: what the heck did the licensing agreements entail to get this game out? How much more involved would it have been to get even recycled sound clips for the players?
I really enjoyed playing through all of the courses and challenges that the game had to offer. The number of pit crew members, racers, and tracks were unexpected and exciting. I got to spend as much time as I wanted tearing the road up as Reptar, and that’s something that I’ve wanted to do for decades.
Nickelodeon Kart Racers 2: Grand Prix was reviewed on Nintendo Switch. A key was provided by Sandbox Strategies.