On your marks, get set, GO……….!!! with Mario taking a commanding lead and setting the early standards of how a kart racer should be made, the race for the next best 16 to 64-bit kart racer is at full swing! We had a large smorgasbord of kart games around the 90s, ranging from BC Racers, Crash Team Racing and of course my beloved Diddy Kong Racing. Could a true underdog like Atari Karts take home the crown? Atari Karts is a 1995 Jaguar exclusive made by Miracle Designs and published by Atari. I put the pedal to the meddle and see what this racer has to offer!
You can initially choose from up to 7 playable characters, with the ability to boost your racer roster to an impressive 11 by unlocking 4 boss characters! Bentley Bear is probably the most well-known Atari Karts character, simply because he is the only character with an Atari past (I am happy to be proved wrong here). I personally do believe the game missed a trick by not using the Atari back catalogue more. How cool would it have been to control a Tempest ship, or an alien from AVP, or how about the giant bald green head from Cybermorph spouting “where did you learn to drive?!”
In defence of the characters within the game, they are all well drawn and do seem like an interesting bunch, especially Ptarmigan the rather sinister looking snowman and Haratari the samurai. Maybe they could of all been bought back together in a kind of Smash Bros fighter?
The 4 new “boss” characters are unlocked by defeating them in a single race. This in turn, is made available if you complete each of the 3 cups in each of the 4 difficulty settings. This boss race would later become quite a big feature in Diddy Kong Racing, so credit to the games developers for adding this nice little twist. The new characters are notably better all-round drivers than the original motley crew, with Miracle Man offering you the best speed, acceleration and grip of all racers. I found the enticement of unlocking these characters as a great incentive to really put in the hours on the track.
There are four difficulty settings in Atari Karts, ranging from Beginner, Warrior, Miracle and finally the hardest setting of them all; Jaguar Aces. I found this game challenging, and you can certainly notice the fair increase in difficulty as you notch up the levels, without feeling completely out of your depth.
I really enjoy the overall look and feel of this classy kart racer. The graphics are bright, colourful and overall quite charming. I love the cartoony and well-drawn characters and the tracks are well animated albeit with quite simple backgrounds. It is clear a lot of love and attention has been poured into the overall look and feel of this game, and I often find myself playing a quick few tracks after a busy day at work. You could argue that the game could be more graphically enhanced, especially compared to other 64-bit racers which appeared just around the corner, but the Mario Kart plus graphics remind me of a simpler and possibly more accessible time.
Unlike many previous kart racing games, this game includes hills! Sadly, neither Damon or Harry Hill are unlockable characters. I am talking about the roads that go up and down! This addition sounds trivial, but I do feel it adds something to the tracks (which admittedly can be a bit dull at times). The hills are well animated and obviously impact your karts speed and acceleration.
A huge plus point of this game is the amazing gameplay. Controlling your karts is so responsive and you if crash or fail to make a correct turn, well, you only have yourself to blame! The controls are also simple to pick up, with the usual accelerate, brake and power-up button at your disposal. One slight negative was the cumbersome use of sharp turns at your disposal. With a traditional Jag pad you can swing round corners with the number-pad keys, however I would love to play this game using a pro controller as the shoulder buttons would be much more accessible during a nail-biting race!
The game sadly does let itself down a bit with its weak array of power-ups. In the game these are split into two categories; bonuses and hazards. Bonuses ultimately help you while racing and hazards will either impact you or a rival player negatively. My favourite bonuses include the white rabbit, which gives you a long boost of speed and the wheel bonus which removes all friction – but as you can see, there is nothing very innovative or original here. The hazards bring a bit my order (or should that be disorder) to proceedings with the red and green icons, which temporarily reverses either you or your rivals’ controls, often to great comedic effect! The remaining hazard icon is the turtle shell! Unfortunately this is not a rip-off of the Mario Kart projectile shell power-up, it simply slows you down! Surely the addition of some firepower in the game would be a no brainer?
Two player mode is where this game really shows off its true colours. Atari Karts is one of my favourite multiplayer Jaguar games, simply because it just oozes great fun and is accessible to all standards of players. The ability to beat your nearest and dearest to the finish line is very satisfying. The 2-player split screen is handled very well, and the games smoothness and crisp graphics are hardly affected from the one player mode. Could this game have even boasted a 4-player split screen and taken full advantage of the Jaglink? Maybe I am asking a little too much there.
The gameplay is top notch, the graphics are colourful and memorable and the pick up and play feel of the game lends itself well to a quick few races if you are strapped for game time. Overall, I really enjoy Atari Karts and it is well worth trying out this charismatic racer if you get your hands on a copy! However, this may prove difficult as it is one of the rarest and most expensive games on the system, simply because it was released right at the end of the consoles life cycle in limited numbers. So not quite first place, however there are certainly worse ways you can spend your evening!