Start your engines, and fasten your seatbelts for another Naughty Dog creation. In this case it's CTR: Crash Team Racing from 1999, which also happens to be the greatest kart racing game on the PSone. Released in the same year as Speed Freaks, and colourful mascot racers like Bomberman Fantasy Race on PSone, Crash Team Racing stood out with balanced gameplay, excellent controls, and reliable kart manoeuvrability. This combined effectively with graphics and a soundtrack that conveyed the fun and vibrancy of the Crash Bandicoot universe.
If you read the Nintendo Life review of Super Mario Kart, the original SNES title set out a solid template for gameplay in kart racing games. Crash Team Racing adheres to this model as you hop into a power slide around corners, collect ten Wumpa Fruit to make your kart juiced up, target speed boost pads, and use weapons and track shortcuts as a strategy towards victory. Just like in Super Mario Kart, on lower difficulties during the Arcade mode's cups, a rival character will appear consistently on top of the leader-board for each race, yet this rivalry becomes less prominent on the hard difficulty, as crossing the finish line in first against aggressive AI competitors becomes more chaotic.
However, Crash Team Racing adds to this gameplay rule-set by encouraging the player to constantly combo turbo boosts. You can begin the race with a boost start, and time another quick burst forward whenever you return to the track after falling off the side. For example, racing around the brilliant Polar Pass track is most effective by constantly sliding around tight turns to build up your Turbo Boost Meter, combined with hopping into longer hang-time jumps for an extra boost. The dependable physics and tight controls when adjusting your kart in mid-air to stay in complete control on the icy roads shows how much Naughty Dog worked on getting the feel of Crash Team Racing right.
The game innovated further by enabling you to have juiced up, more powerful weapons after collecting ten Wumpa Fruit littered around each track. Naughty Dog implemented an equilibrium between weapons and power-ups, with forward propelling weapons including Bowling Bombs, Tracking Missiles, and Aku Aku/Uka Uka Masks, which provide a speed-up with temporary invincibility. They are well balanced against items that can be fired backwards in defence, like Explosive Crates and N. Brio's Beakers. Importantly, Warp Orbs that target first place don't feel as cheap as the blue shell that was first introduced in Mario Kart 64.
It's understandable to consider that imitation is the sincerest form of flattery in Crash Team Racing, especially as race courses like Dragon Mines, Tiny Arena, and Cortex Castle seem heavily influenced by the Kalimari Desert, Wario Stadium, and Bowser's Castle tracks respectively in Mario Kart 64. More accurately, with Adventure mode's inclusion of diverse tasks like Time Relic chases, CTR letter hunts, crystal collection bonus rounds, and one-on-one boss garages, Naughty Dog's game is more directly comparable to Diddy Kong Racing. In a four out of five star review inside Issue 14's 'Xmas 1999' edition of Arcade magazine, Emily Newton Dunn concluded that, "Crash Team Racing is a surprisingly good game but only because it borrows from practically every other game in the genre."
The variety of Adventure mode is the highlight of this kart racer, as you drive between four main locations (N. Sanity Beach, The Lost Ruins, Glacier Park, and Citadel City), and face off against four boss garage racers across the world map's interconnected hub areas. This is before unlocking the last challenge against the final boss, Nitros Oxide, with an Oxide Station track that impressively traverses through glass tunnels with a view to outer space, and it includes the game's biggest and most exhilarating, long hang-time jump.
Sticking to the design template of the original Super Mario Kart, the starting eight selectable characters are balanced between acceleration, handling, and top speed. Therefore, N. Gin and Coco Bandicoot have excellent acceleration, Polar and Pura's karts handle brilliantly, Crash Bandicoot and Dr. Neo Cortex are averagely balanced, while Tiny Tiger and Dingodile are large characters with the fastest top speed. Their personalities shine through as they shout in excitement, for example when they pass another racer or unleash a weapon, as N. Gin will shout out "one for the road", or Coco exclaims "Bandicoot power!"
Progression throughout the game is designed to enable the player to master the intricacies of controlling the karts. This is apparent in Slide Coliseum and the wide open roads of Coco Park, which are specifically arranged to give space on the tarmac for the player to learn how to power slide and boost. Tapping the opposite shoulder button when the Turbo Boost Meter turns red, or when you kart's exhaust smoke visibly turns black, results in a drift boost, and you can do this up to three times.
Released less than a year after Crash Bandicoot 3: Warped, the graphics and music in Crash Team Racing meld to showcase how it made perfect sense for Naughty Dog to set its kart racing game in the world of Crash Bandicoot. The mood is pitched well from the funky title screen music, and the Crash Cove track sets the tone from the start with steel drums and tropical sounding music while racing across a beach, past wooden ships.
The soundtrack by the music production company Mutato Muzika -- including composers Mark Mothersbaugh and Josh Mancell -- fits brilliantly with the themes of the Crash Bandicoot surroundings and the setting of each track, from the scientific blips and beeps of N. Gin Labs to the breezy, windy themes of Hot Air Skyway, as well as the frantic boss race music. Papu's Pyramid has a catchy flute tune, you can hear the Wild West mine carts clattering to the rhythm of Dragon Mines, and Polar Pass' chiming music has a festive sound to replay during Christmas time.
Great track design, combined with vibrant colours make the game a visual PSone feast. For example, lush red carpets, stained glass windows, and rainy ramparts in the aforementioned Cortex Castle still look vivid two decades later. It's even plausible that Crash Team Racing's imaginative, elevated Hot Air Skyway may have influenced the design of the Sky Garden track two years later in Mario Kart: Super Circuit on Game Boy Advance.
Seven secret characters are hidden on top of the eight starting line-up, to create a total possibility of 15 racers. They're unlocked by repeatedly beating N. Tropy's Time Trial ghost, and completing coloured Gem Cups in the Adventure hub’s Gem Stone Valley, which are only available after collecting CTR Tokens and coming first throughout CTR challenges in Adventure mode. These add value in a similar way to collecting the letters SKATE in PSone's Tony Hawk's Pro Skater, because searching for CTR letters helps to uncover secret routes and shortcuts. However, some CTR letters will only be reached by a skilled driver; for example, the letter 'T' in Crash Cove where you must turbo boost jump from a pool to a wooden bridge, across to a ship. Relic Races also help you to hone your skills as you collect numbered crates that temporarily freeze time.
The game's difficulty is accessible to complete Arcade mode's cups, and finish the basic story ending by beating Nitros Oxide after coming first in the 16 main Adventure Trophy Races. If you hurry, it takes less than one and a half hours to complete Adventure mode, but this is an unsatisfactory, less than 50% complete, rushed conclusion where Oxide may have given up on world domination, but still declares, "at least you still haven’t gathered all my Time Relics", so "you’ll never be able to claim you are the fastest."
It's worth completing all four Arcade mode cups on hard difficulty (Wumpa Cup, Crystal Cup, Nitro Cup, and Crash Cup), because this unlocks new arenas in Battle mode, which alongside Vs. mode includes a four-player option, if you have a multi-tap for your PSone. This was also a selling point for kart racers like Speed Freaks, although the original PlayStation hardware struggles to keep the frame rate consistent in Crash Team Racing during a busy two-player Arcade mode cup.
Released in September 1999 in North America, Crash Team Racing will soon be celebrating its twentieth anniversary, so the timing of the release of Crash Team Racing Nitro-Fueled on PS4 this year is apt. While it's an unfair equivalent, it will be interesting to see how the solid gameplay mechanics of the PSone game translate in the PS4 remake when directly compared to the modern champion of the kart racing genre, Mario Kart 8 Deluxe. Regardless, 1999 saw the release of Ridge Racer Type 4 and WipEout 3, and in the same year Crash Team Racing found its place proudly on the podium besides these games, not just as the best kart racer, but as one of the greatest arcade racing games on the PSone.
Considering that Nintendo popularised the template for kart racers on the SNES, in 1999 Naughty Dog fine-tuned the sub-genre's gameplay mechanics with first-rate physics and controls in Crash Team Racing on PSone, which encourages you to combo Turbo Boost Meter and jump hang-time speed bursts. Even if its fantastic track design seems directly influenced by Mario Kart 64, and its diverse Adventure mode suggests inspiration from Diddy Kong Racing, Crash Team Racing surpassed decent cutesy racers like Motor Toon Grand Prix 2, Speed Freaks, and Toy Story Racer on the original PlayStation. It also bettered mascot racers like Sonic R on SEGA Saturn, so Crash Team Racing's imaginative visuals, funky soundtrack, and addictive arcade gameplay ensures that it belongs at the front of the fifth-generation's karting pack, alongside the finest kart racers on Nintendo 64.