2019 was always going to be a fantastic year for the kart racer genre because 2019 is the year that the videogame gods deemed worthy of having the best ever kart racer be remastered in. That game of course is Crash Team Racing: Nitro Fueled (or CTR for short). Releasing this game was supposed to be a slam dunk at letting the general audience know that a bandicoot can drive way better than a certain plumber. However 2019 also gifted us race fans a sleeper hit that went under the radar for pretty much every one, until it flew past us all and screeched loudly to the finish line. Yes, While the Sonic and Sega All-Stars racing games were received relatively well, none of Sonic’s efforts ever wowed, until Team Sonic Racing (or TSR). And so another name was put in the hat for the best kart racer of 2019 (and possibly all-time honestly). Having played and loved both for many hours on end it is honestly hard to say who deserves to be atop that highest podium spot. That is why I’m writing this article, to pit one against the other in all the aspects that make up a legendary kart racer and see who wins the most accolades, and ultimately the title of the best kart racer of 2019. I genuinely do not know which game will be taking the trophy home come the end of this article, but I am very excited to find out.
The first thing that hits you when experiencing any videogame is the look of it. Graphics and art style go a long way to your enjoyment of a piece of entertainment, and while at a glance these two games may look like very similar Saturday morning cartoons starring talking-ish animals, on further inspection they are presented way differently. TSR has your more generic, flat, animated cartoon look. Jungles don’t particularly look lush, instead more plastic, and textures can feel a little bland. The one place TSR does excel is in its more vibrant neon locations such as the exhilarating casino tracks. On the other side of the track however CTR’s visual department definitely had the benefit of more budget as the game’s punny Fur K is dazzling. Seeing Crash’s fur bounce around as you drift over the sandy beaches of his home, with said sand getting stuck on the wildly spinning tires of his kart is impressive every time I load up a track. The amount of detail put into the game’s look always had me looking up in awe, especially given how just a month ago the only way to see these tracks were through the lens of ugly polygons. Honestly the visuals are so breathtaking I found myself distracted by how good they were many times and ended up face planting straight into a wall, or praying for Aku Aku’s assistance whilst flying off the track and plummeting to my death.
Round 1 goes to CTR
Nobody buys a kart racer if the characters you can drive as are some boring randomers whose personality makes them closer to sentient cardboard than interesting human. Thankfully these two games do not have this problem. CTR brings everyone’s favourite bandicoot, his allies, and a lot of his foes to the racing-party. Going a step beyond the original, the remaster extends the roster to include characters that have never even been playable before, such as the original Crash Bandicoot’s damsel Tanya, and characters from the original CTR’s sequel; both pleasing long-time fans and giving new comers a plethora of animal themed racers call their main. TSR also pulls a great amount of characters from Sonic’s long and confusing past/future, with a good mix of friends, enemies, and frenemies. Getting to see Sonic, Shadow, and Silver prove who is the fastest when they put the pedal to the metal is a blast. However in their selection TSR has Big the cat, a stupid, weirdly spoken, and annoying creature that pops in the story mode cutscenes way too often and seems to suck out the enjoyment of anything he is present for.
Round 2 goes to CTR
Not only do the characters you’re playing as have to be good, but the vehicles you’re driving have to be cool too. CTR’s basic, but classic design for their bare bones karts are a testament to less is more and when I think of kart racers the default vehicles are what come to mind. With the remaster though you can now customise your speed wagon to be a mini sports car, off-road beast with glowing tires, or even a hovering spacecraft. But these changes are all just cosmetic and don’t impact the way you actually drive, all that is locked to the character you use, and those stats can’t be upgraded or changed to suit your play style. In TSR though that is exactly what kart customisation is. While CTR’s karts are similar to the ones used my Mario and his ilk, Sonic’s choice of kart are bigger, badder machines that look like if Hot Wheels partnered up with Sonic. Not only is their look cooler, but throughout the game you unlock different bumpers, wheels, spoilers, and so on. All change how your kart behaves, making them stronger against attacks, more nimble around corners, or faster than the speed of light. Getting to tailor each character’s kart to their personality was a blast and made seeing them in races very satisfying. Sure it’s cool to see Crash in a spaceship but here I can make Knuckles’ kart a tank and give Sonic’s the speed to break the sound barrier. Plus getting these upgrades is a fast and frequent experience that is always giving you something new to play with, unlike CTR’s unlocking system that feels like a long and dissatisfying slog.
Round 3 goes to TSR
You have your racer. You have your Kart. Now all you need is a place to race. Boy do these games have a lot of that. TSR offers a wide range of varying locals, from the sun bleached sands of Egypt to a casino and of course a trip back to those green hills, and while they are all decent tracks that challenge your abilities as a racer, none are all that memorable. CTR does not have that problem. There is a reason people wanted this game back, and one of the big ones is because of its classic tracks. From the splashing sewers to the ruins of a temple mid-thunderstorm, a mine with deadly obstacles, and a neon green laboratory (my personal favourite) each is an enthralling ride both visually and mechanically as each will have you testing all of your karting abilities throughout the course. You may think this one is a little unfair as CTR has the benefit of having tracks that have been raced upon for two decades almost, and that is a valid concern. But if that was the case I wouldn’t also be enamoured with the tracks Beenox included from the original CTR sequel, or their brand new track. The fact that they are just as enjoyable and memorable, as well as how awesome it is to have them included in this package makes this point have a clear winner.
Round 4 goes to CTR
This one is tough. For all their faults, Sonic games always have one thing, a killer theme. Whether it be Sonic Heroes’ classic anthem, Sonic Forces’ hype machine, or TSR’s classic cheesy rock track, all fit the cool kid vibe Sonic always gives off and when they hit their highs during gameplay you can’t help but get lost in the moment and have nothing on your mind but going fast enough to deserve such a cool background song. But Sonic puts all of his eggs (I don’t think hedgehogs lay eggs) in one basket, meaning the rest of the soundtrack just kind of feels like lesser copies of that epic main theme. CTR on the other hand has a groovy assortment of tracks that when listened to conjure picture perfect mental images of the course they play on. Not only is each one different enough so you can pick out one from the other, but each is as good as the last, having you humming along to its beat well after you turn off your console.
Round 5 goes to CTR
And thank god you can’t help but hum those tunes because you will have literally nothing else to do as you await the merciful end of CTR’s egregious load times. Feeling 10 seconds longer than they should (at a minimum), every time I play this game with friends the biggest complaint is always how long we have to wait between intense battles of speed. TSR’s were just fine, no complaints there.
Round 6 goes to TSR
After all of that we finally get to the part that everyone comes to a kart racer for, the driving, how good does it feel to tightly drift around that corner, or boost over a nigh impossible gap, how truly satisfying is it to see your friends choke on the dust left by your red hot tires. Before we see whose mechanics are better and more enjoyable to play, firstly both of these games are spectacular in this category. CTR’s rhythm game like approach to drifting and boosting is infectious. Whilst hard to master at first, once you get a handle on when to, and how to optimise your time on the track using this mechanic, the results make you feel like a racing god. The driving as a whole feels tight and precise and really makes you work for the gold. TSR isn’t easier to play by any means, but in comparison to CTR, it kinda is. Using a never ending drift to dominate your opponents, spiralling down the coiled track looks and feels cool and is a lot more accessible. But that’s not saying there isn’t any depth to TSR’s systems. Maintaining your drift for the majority of the course is the best way to win a race and not an easy feat to do. Layer on top of that TSR’s emphasis on team work, having your pack leader’s slipstream be a source of boost for their slower companions is a neat addition that changes up the normally very competitive track. In the spirit of team work you can also get items from your friends, which helps in a pinch. And when jumping over those impossible gaps, while CTR has you timing the jump perfectly to get the highest peak and longest boost on landing, TSR lets you do multiple flips in all directions. Less skilful, but a lot of fun nonetheless. Again, both of these games are a hell of a lot of fun to play for very different reasons, but there can only be one winner. While CTR’s gameplay feels a lot more satisfying when you master it, TSR’s is balls to the wall fun no matter what level you are at whilst also bringing a lot of refreshing ideas to the kart racing genre.
Round 7 goes to TSR
But what’s the point of racing if there’s no challenge? Both of these games come with a varied list of difficulty modes and in CTR the difference between easy, normal, and hard is quite staggering. Easy is, well, very easy, maybe too easy. Medium doesn’t crank the difficulty up enough, seemingly only giving one AI opponent the ability to actually race and be a rival. Hard, however, is just ridiculous. From 0 to 100,000, all of a sudden these racers who seemed to be more focused on sucking their thumbs than actually trying to beat you become speed demons. While that may sound like a fun challenge, it’s not, for the simple fact that on hard mode CTR isn’t fair. On a straight the other racers are literally faster than you, and since you can’t upgrade your speed, that is just how it is. No grinding can fix this embarrassment, it is just how the world works in hard mode, making every race set to this difficulty aggravating as there is seemingly nothing you can do to get onto your torturers level. TSR delivers a much fairer and better paced difficulty curve that players of all skill levels find the difficulty just right for them. None are completely a walk in the park, with each still finding a way to keep you on the edge of your seat and questioning whether first will be yours come the finish line. And on its hardest difficulty, TSR is an adrenaline fuelled time where you have to be on you’re a game throughout the entirety of the course, or risk losing any chance at holding up that golden trophy.
Round 8 goes to TSR
If you can’t beat them with skill, throw something explosive at them and see what their precious skill does then. Items are one of the main tropes that separates the kart racing genre from its more serious and realistic contemporaries. As a fundamental piece of the genre, you aren’t a good kart racer if you don’t have good items. Let’s be honest, Mario Kart set the standard for what assortment of items are best seen in a kart racer, and neither CTR or TSR breaks the mould in this respect, but one does do it better than the rest,. What the items do in TSR is a great resource for any speed-fanatic, but the way in which they are presented is kinda confusing. Not very well-versed in the Sonic mythos, all the items in TSR are wisps, little creatures that do cool things. The only problem with having your items be wisps is that they all kind of look the same. Sure they are all in different colours and the game does its best to make the wisp logos for each item look different on the screen, they are all in the end the same squid looking things. If you had the choice to have your targeting item look like a missile or the red version of every other item you can use, I think I know which you would choose. Plus the items in CTR are just cooler. Sure they fundamentally do the same things, but leaving a box of TNT for someone to smash into, or rolling a bomb down the track to that idiot in first’s doom is a lot more satisfying.
Round 9 goes to CTR
The reason no one buys a kart racer for, but here has a surprising amount of effort put in to it. CTR’s story mode is a very basic tale. A speed-freak alien wants us all to compete against him for the fate of the planet. We win and everything stays the same. He wins with his manacle and hilarious laugh and the planet becomes a car park (like it already kind of is). Then with a healthy mix of modes, a fast true path for those who don’t want to play anything but the pure racing, some beautiful Fur K realised cutscenes, and genuine laughs from cartoony physical humour throughout, the story mode of CTR is an experience that can be just as short or long as you want it and is filled with the series’ loveable charm. TSR’s story is a bit more complicated with a mysterious rich guy giving the hedgehog group a set of experimental sports karts to test out in increasingly difficult scenarios. From racing to destroying robots in a time limit, here there are also varied modes, but instead of Fur K cutscenes filled with laughs, TSR delivers static visual novel like segments that are filled with cringy lines delivered by just as cheesy voices. On top of that the final two chapters of the story really start to drag, as the recycled content both story wise and in mission type becomes very apparent and begins to make the whole experience feel very drawn out.
Round 10 goes to CTR
Kart racers are games made for, well, racing. But if that is all it has, the experience can get stale very quickly. That is why time trials, battle, and various other modes were invented to keep you coming back for more. TSR has a myriad of modes that really changes up how you play the game and tests the different skills needed that help you become number 1 in a race. From coin collecting circuits that have you drifting around the course with pinpoint accuracy, a robot destroying battle that makes the game feel like a racing version of the classic Sonic games, getting the highest scores by popping the most balloons while cruising around a track, each mode is fun and unique, keeping the TSR experience always feel fresh and challenging. CTR’s modes are less creative than TSR’s, but just as fun. Battle mode pits you against your friends in an arena where to get first place you have to simply destroy everyone else. CTR mode makes you collect the letters of the acronym of the title, each letter is hidden in interesting places that (even though I’ve played these tracks for around 20 years straight) had me looking at the tracks in whole new ways finding new secrets even now. And then there are the time trials that have you going around the tack as fast as you can, but there are also boxes throughout that pause the timer for a certain amount of time to help keep your ending score the lowest it can be. CTR’s modes kept the game from getting monotonous, and brought surprises to a game that is now almost as old as me, but none were better than just simply racing. With TSR though, the modes were just as fun, and sometimes more fun, than racing. The extra level of innovation that TSR brings to the table shines here creating modes that I hope other kart racers shamelessly copy.
Round 11 goes to TSR
So, after all of that, who comes out on top to be 2019’s best kart racer? Let me just count and see…
2019’s Best Kart Racer is…
Crash Team Racing: Nitro Fueled
Crash Team Racing: Nitro Fueled = 6
Team Sonic Racing = 5
And there you have it, a close match and one well fought by both parties. Honestly both of these games are some of the best of the genre and deserve a play whether you are a kart racer addict, or whether someone’s mentioned it as a party game at your next meet up.
But do you agree? Are there any other kart racers from beyond 2019 that could beat CTR? Voice your opinions in the comments down below and thanks for reading.