Publisher: The Game Factory
Release Date: December 5, 2006
Kart racers are a time-honored template for many licenses and franchises. Developers may try to clone Mario Kart's accessible controls and tracks, colorful visuals, and playful appeal, but many end up with mutated versions of Nintendo's series over a genuine replica. Cartoon Network Racing is one such instance: a bland application of the Cartoon Network license onto the kart racing template, and one that won't appeal to anyone but youthful fans of shows like "Johnny Bravo" and "Powerpuff Girls" who also happen to hate Mario Kart DS, seemingly.
Negating the superiority of Nintendo's kart classic, Cartoon Network Racing does do some good by sporting some unlockable bonus content, a good cast of characters, above-average voice work and presentation, as well as functioning four-player Wi-Fi. From the start, nine diverse characters are available to race, with a total of 20 playable at the game's outset. You'll grab the wheel as Mandark, Dexter, Mojo Jojo, The Powerpuff Girls, Cow and Chicken, Johnny Bravo, Courage the Dog, Professor Utonium, Dee Dee, and others across three modes: (online) versus, time trial, and championship. Each character sports a ride that represents his/her role in the show (Mojo Jojo's giant hat, Mandark's mech, and Dee Dee's unicorn-mobile), and each boast different rates of top speed, acceleration, as well as a weight and handling ability rating.
Though the unconventional styling of some of the rides is a nice touch, many of the cars are awkwardly shaped, which actually ends up affecting their maneuverability on the road between the clunky controls and what's represented on screen. Bunny Bravo's shopping cart and Courage's pumpkin head vehicle are prime examples — these oblong shapes add a sense of confusion during certain turns because their roundness doesn't really give away the car's true direction. It doesn't help that any random tire or oncoming obstacle will put your car into an awkward halt, either, and the lack of real visual or (a variety of) audio cues doesn't help make the experience feel too exciting.
In championship mode, players will find some interesting replacements for the "cc" speeds: normal, souped-up, soupered-up, and flipped-out, each represented by an appropriate number of jalapeno peppers, the item that also acts as the stand-in for turbo-boosting mushrooms. But even more memorable are the championship cup names: Cowardly, Booger, Pork Butt, and Chemical X, each containing four tracks.
Though the levels are simply modeled and sport similarly uncomplicated textures, the visual depth (we hesitate to call it "draw distance") that some levels display is actually fairly impressive. "Cross Townsville Traffic," a track based on the Powerpuff Girls' home city, shows buildings and skyscrapers well into the distance, and this adds a sense of scale that other kart racers may lack. Unfortunately, added details seem to come at a cost of a framerate that flows at an uneven pace, which is a cardinal sin for any reflex-based game. The visual window-dressing doesn't even make up for uninspired design, however, as many of the tracks simply feel like they're taking up space with way too many lengthy stretches and few vertical elements to differentiate them. There are a handful of easily discovered shortcuts, but overall, the track design lacks a tightness kart racing aficionados appreciate.
Two kinds of speed boosters propel you along the road — some that move you horizontally, and the traditional forward-moving kind. There are also collectable stars that decorate each roadway, and if a player obtains enough, he can activate a chain-chomp-like autopilot that pulls your kart forward for a few moments with no worry of injury. These extras can't make up for the overall very poor physics, however. Most cars, especially the heavier ones, lack a real sense of speed or torque, even when power-sliding.
In terms of items, because the game is a series of series, representing all of their universes at once might lead to some contradictions. The developer made some compromises in this regard, opting for more aggressive-styled items than you might find in Mario Kart, such as missiles, tire spikes, oil slicks, magnets, and shields, to name a few. Aside from winning races, grabbing the gold coin on each track will award you funds toward purchasing unlockables, which is, if anywhere, where Cartoon Network Racing shines.
Three short, decent-quality cartoons from different Cartoon Network series are on hand, but through the "Toon-Up Shop," players can also pick up two mini-games: a sketchbook and "Kart Kurling." While each doesn't carry much appeal, they do represent an attempt by the developer to add something original to its game. Along the same lines are the individual upgrades available for each character's car, which actually only allow you to race at higher difficulties.
Conveniently for consumers, Cartoon Network Racing nicely fulfills its stereotype as a licensed kart racing clone: an unsurprising mediocre mirroring of one of gaming's most popular casual racers. There is some quantity to make up for the lack of quality — namely in some unlockable bonus features and a well-rounded cast of 20 playable racers, but at the end of the day, you're simply better off making laps around Luigi Circuit than "Townsville Raceway."