IGN Review of Cartoon Network Racing
Mario ruined racing games for everybody else. His colorful collection of cars and carnage has been copied continuously since 1992, when the first Super Mario Kart established the formula of characters + karts = fun. This latest mascot mash-up comes courtesy of Cartoon Network. It seeks to follow the plumber's lead, as so many have done before. And as so many have done before, it stops well short of catching Nintendo's mustachioed man. It's Cartoon Network Racing, and it feels like racetrack rerun.
The stars of six separate series are here to compete, including icons from Johnny Bravo, Dexter's Laboratory, The Powerpuff Girls, Cow and Chicken, I Am Weasel and Courage the Cowardly Dog. Looking at that roster, a sense of disappointment sets in almost immediately – sure, some major titles are in that group. But they were major five years ago. Today none of those shows sees regular play anymore, as the Cartoon Network schedule is filled with newer toons like Foster's Home for Imaginary Friends, Camp Lazlo and My Gym Partner's a Monkey. No representatives of those fresh franchises are here. We're stuck with yesterday's news – the Network's B-list.
We're also stuck with yesterday's gameplay. Cartoon Network Racing is trying to be Mario Kart DS, and achieves its aim of cloning that title's overall feel. But after accomplishing that feat, the game stops. It doesn't do anything new. There was potential to take the standard mascot racer design and expand upon it, pulling in the strengths of the featured cartoon licenses – but that potential's mostly squandered. The small sense of it that does comes through presents itself through the bar.
Displayed in the upper-right corner of the top screen, the Toon Energy Bar begins each race on empty. You can fill it up by collecting stars scattered across each course, or by successfully using attack items against opponents. When full, the meter will flash and your character's Toon Power can be activated. Each power is unique. Boy genius Dexter will fire a scientifically savvy shrink ray to cut his foes down to size. Rough, tough Powerpuff Buttercup will sear the road ahead with frying laser eyes. Courage invokes his cowardice to yelp with fear, causing anyone nearby to spin out of control.
The character-specific super attacks are nice to see, especially since the game's array of normal items are all directly derivative of those found in Mario's trips to the track. There are oil slicks that work like banana peels, chili peppers that emulate Super Mushrooms, and even a flying bomb that is a direct rip-off of Mario Kart's leader-seeking Blue Shell.
For all the copying going on here, you'd hope to find the game's track designs to be a suitable substitute for those found in the Mushroom Kingdom. Unfortunately, the fun must not have fit through the Warp Pipe – Cartoon Network's tracks are a mixed bag of uninteresting environments and frustratingly difficult design decisions. There are several instances of unavoidable bottlenecks here – small, cramped sections of track that demand too much precision to navigate amid a pack of seven other rival racers. You'll find yourself falling off into pits far too often, or running into solid walls and obstacles. The flow of each race is broken in these places, if it's not already shattered by the too-prolific placement of shortcuts.
Now Mario Kart itself has been criticized in recent years, called out for not having enough variety and alternate paths in its tracks. Cartoon Network actually addresses that, interestingly enough, but not in a very sound way. There are many shortcuts and secret passageways to exploit in this game. The problem is that the A.I. knows exactly where each one of them is. The shortcuts lose all their appeal when every single racer is using them, effectively rendering the "real track" useless.
If you stick with Cartoon Network Racing long enough and push past the frustrations, the fun factor does eventually increase. There are only 16 courses here, but there are plenty of unlockable extra speed settings and hidden characters. The game even capitalizes on its television affiliation by including three full cartoon episodes, each of which is presented with applaudable clarity – much better than what we saw from the Game Boy Advance Video format a few years ago. Finally, two simple mini-games can be found. One is a sketchbook, transforming the touch screen into an animator's lighted drawing desk. The other is, remarkably, the first-ever curling design to hit the DS. Finally, a developer that watched the Winter Olympics and realized the stylus could simulate sweeping the curling ice! That inclusion is unexpected, but more than welcome.
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