Five Great Racing Games That Aren’t Mario Kart

(originally posted June 20th 2014)

So, how about that ‘Mario Kart 8,’ eh? One of the most hyped games of 2014; one that increased Wii U sales by 666% (truly work of Satan himself). I can safely say it is one of the best ‘MK’ games I’ve played – maybe even the best. But you know where you are with ‘Mario Kart.’ Every game has been at least of decent quality (except for the GBA one) – with ‘Mario Kart,’ fans of the mascot racing genre can sleep easily.

But imagine, if you will, that ‘Mario Kart’ never existed. Maybe somewhere, in a parallel universe or alternate history, Nintendo never considered sticking their mascot in a go-kart. It’s a grim and terrifying image, I know, but do not worry, because even without it, there are plenty of great cartoony racing games that can fill up an evening with friends, and here are five of them.

1. Lego Racers (N64, PS, PC)

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It’s admittedly been years since I’ve played this game but I vividly remember having so much fun with it. We’ve always been swarmed with Lego games before all those popular movie tie-ins, and ‘Lego Racers’ was a particular stand-out.

The most notable features were being able to build your own driver and kart from scratch, and how you built the latter affected its performance. Heavier cars will be faster but have poor acceleration and the reverse is true for lighter cars. If you put a lot of bricks on the left side but none on the right, your kart will tilt constantly to the left. Already, you have freedom with how you build it, with more and more parts becoming available as you clear the Grand Prixes. It very much feels like you’re playing with Lego, obviously.

I always remember finding it quite challenging too. Maybe it was because I was young and terrible but victory was always incredibly satisfying, especially as the circuit leaders were presented in cutscenes as some of the most arrogant bastards you’d ever meet. However, I have learnt that due to the nature of how the power-ups worked, it was very easy to manipulate the game and snatch an easy victory.

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Still, the game is a lot of fun, with a nice variety of courses (though there are only thirteen – half of the Grand Prixes are just previous ones with the tracks mirrored) and some very memorable characters, with final boss, Rocket Racer, being a particular favourite. Sadly, its multiplayer was limited to two players, so I wouldn’t recommend it for when friends come over. Its main theme was catchy as hell, though. In fact, have a listen, and let it be ingrained for all time.

2. ModNation Racers (PS3, PSP)

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This one was very much the ‘LittleBigPlanet’ of the racing genre, until the actual ‘LittleBigPlanet’ racing game came out. Not only could you build and customise your driver and vehicle, you could even create your own racecourses, and my God was it cool.

Admittedly, I found the whole thing overwhelming and didn’t spend much time on it, but the amount of detail you could put into it was amazing; the scenery, what the roads were made out of, how many jumps, bridges – the possibilities were endless.

The game focused heavily on online, so you could share all of your creations with the world and could download everyone else’s wacky racers and such. A quick look and you’ll see the likes of Spiderman, Ratchet and Goku – it was like the ultimate racing crossover.

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As for the game itself, well, it was fun from what I remember. You had your items, your crazy (but rather unmemorable) courses, your tricks – it was like a more down-to-earth ‘Mario Kart.’ Highly recommended for those who love customisation and want something to get their creative juices flowing. Also for those who were left wanting more from ‘Lego Racers.’

3. Kirby Air Ride (GC)

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This one’s more interesting than great. Players would take control of Kirby and pilot around a variety of Dream Land locations. The vehicles moved forward automatically and the A button was used for all other controls, such as braking and inhaling enemies. The latter was a neat combination of racing and the typical ‘Kirby’ gameplay, as you could use the powers from the enemies to attack the other players.

Unfortunately, the game got very boring very quickly. There was little variety in its characters (the only other characters were Meta Knight and King Dedede, and they had their own specific vehicles that they could only ride) and there weren’t that many racetracks either.

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It did have a mode called City Trial, where four players could explore a wide area and complete random objectives within a time limit, gaining upgrades for their chosen vehicle to use in a random challenge that followed afterwards. Me and my friends always went to this mode, and had so much fun screwing each other over, exploring every nook and cranny of the city and seeing Dyna Blade rain fiery vengeance on the place.

And though not many people have played it, it’s clear that creator Masahiro Sakurai has a fondness for the title, as elements of it have returned in ‘Super Smash Bros Brawl’ and ‘Kid Icarus: Uprising,’ and the upcoming ‘Smash Bros’ for 3DS will have its own version of City Trial. If you’re after something different from the usual mascot racer, give ‘Air Ride’ a looksee. You may find something you love about it.

4. Diddy Kong Racing (N64)

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While ‘Mario Kart’ is usually considered the king of a game system’s racing games, many would argue that ‘MK64’ was dethroned by this gem of a title. ‘Diddy Kong Racing’ was unique in that it had a story, which saw the alien Wizpig come and take over an island to assert his dominance as the greatest racer in the galaxy, prompting Diddy and chums to race across the island and defeat him.

While the Adventure mode was probably the most memorable thing about the game, featuring Trophy races, Battles, Silver Coin Challenges, boss races (which at the time terrified me due to the music and the bosses’ voices) and a bunch of hidden goodies, the rest of the game was damn fun, featuring a range of themed tracks (many of which have been ingrained into my brain due to repeated plays) and the awesome feature of racing in cars, hovercrafts and planes, depending on the course. To a young child, racing in the air was an amazing opportunity.

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It was further testament to how amazing a company Rare was at the time; the game also featured Banjo and Conker from ‘Banjo-Kazooie’ and ‘Conker’s Bad Fur Day’ respectively, two other beloved N64 titles. While the cast lacked star power compared to ‘MK,’ I certainly found them memorable, and as a child, playing as the hidden characters Drumstick and T.T seemed like a fantasy – the main game was rather tricky.

The game got a DS remake in 2007, which added the elephant genie, Taj and Wizpig himself as playable characters and some extra customisation features, including a track creator, as well as replacing Banjo and Conker with the less interesting Dixie Kong and Tiny Kong. The game was certainly fun (and it was the version that saw me actually beat the Adventure mode) but it felt weaker than the original, as the new features weren’t all that great (the track creator was bare-bones) and getting a boost at the beginning of a race forced you to use the stylus for cars and planes, and the microphone for the hovercraft, which was just awkward. Also, the redone voice-acting just felt wrong (why is the Indian elephant British?) If you can’t get the original, then the DS version is a suitable way of playing the game, but I’d still recommend the original.

5. Sonic & All-Stars Racing Transformed (PS3, XB360, Wii U, PC, PSVita, 3DS, iOS, Android)

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Sonic is no stranger to the racing game. I mean, when your character is called the Fastest Thing Alive, putting him in a racer is a no brainer. Unfortunately, Sonic’s success with the genre has been mixed. There were the two ‘Sonic Drift’ games (which sucked), ‘Sonic R’ (which I like only for nostalgia) and the ‘Sonic Rider’ series (which ranged from being ‘okay’ to ‘oh God why?’)

In 2010, Sumo Digital managed to make a racing game that starred the Blue Bomber and was almost as good as ‘Mario Kart’ – ‘Sonic and Sega All-Stars Racing.’ Its success then led to the superior 2012 sequel, which might be a contender for Needlessly Longest Title Ever.

The game starred Sonic and friends, alongside a plethora of recognisable and not so recognisable Sega characters, including NiGHTS, Ulala and Amigo, as well as some very random guest stars like the titular ‘Wreck-It Ralph’ (no doubt a result of Sonic’s cameo in said movie) and real-life NASCAR driver, Danica Patrick. The PC version even starred the Heavy, Spy and Pyro from ‘Team Fortress 2.’

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Despite the rather random roster, I still consider this to be a top-notch racing game. Its primary feature is that your cars would transform into boats or planes depending on the terrain – kind of like ‘Diddy Kong Racing’ except you get all of the vehicles at once. Not only that, some of the tracks would actually change with each lap. The ‘Panzer Dragoon’ course would have you drive over a wooden bridge one lap but on the next, it would be destroyed and you’re forced to take a different route via plane. The transformations between the vehicles feel practically seamless and there was rarely a dull moment thanks to the energetic tracks. It also wasn’t as unfairly easy as its predecessor and had a much wider range of tracks.

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There was also a single player challenge mode which saw you taking on a variety of different tasks; winning races, avoiding vehicles and destroying tanks etc. Its difficulty ranged from testing your skills to testing your patience, but getting three star ranks on all the missions is incredibly satisfying for hardcore completionists.

Out of all the games in this list, this is probably the easiest one to find (I’m surprised there isn’t a version you can play on your bloody toaster) but any of these titles are ideal, whether alone or with buddies. ‘Mario Kart 8’ will no doubt dominate the genre for a couple of years but when the hype dies down and we get a bit bored with it, we’ll always have these stellar runners-up to entertain us afterwards.

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