Two new titles are taking Nintendo on at their own cheeky karting game. But will it be Sonic and chums, or a cartoony F1 line-up who get the top podium spot?
Games go to the kart races
Since Nintendo unleashed the new Wii U console with typical mushroom-jumping jolliness last year, there's one thing we can be certain of: a new Mario Kart. Although it hasn't yet been announced, the Wii U version of arguably the greatest multiplayer game of all time is about as inevitable as Mario's Movember-busting facial hair.
But with nothing on the horizon just yet (Nintendo HQ is clearly trying to figure out how to incorporate heat-seeking tortoise shells into the console's new bells-and-whistles controller), there are two new racing games that have both taken several banana-skin-slipping pages out of Mario Kart's somewhat influential book.
The game with its hat seemingly tipped most acutely towards Nintendo's original is Sonic & All-Stars Racing Transformed (PS3, Xbox 360, Wii U, 3DS, Vita), the follow-up to 2010's hugely successful Sonic & Sega All-Stars Racing.
At first glance, it could be seen as Mario Kart with Sega characters - ranging from such obvious choices as Sonic and Knuckles to the likes of Dr Eggman, AiAi and even the current heart-throb Wreck-It Ralph - in place of Nintendo's usual suspects. It's jolly, silly and ridiculously frantic. But after a few goes, this karter really comes into its own, with convertible vehicles, a huge array of special moves and roller-coaster-style tracks that go way beyond the standard follow-the-path affairs and take you around lava-spewing volcanoes (complete with dragons) and an entire fleet of military ships.
Perhaps the most eye-catching element is not just the game's huge variety of karts, which can each be mastered and developed separately, but their ability to switch instantly to either planes or boats, depending on how the track changes. Pass through a special gate in the race and suddenly your four-wheeled motor does a Transformer-style shift and becomes a jet engine, complete with new controls, moves and speed boosts (and several new ways to crash). Hit the water on particular tracks and it becomes a boat, which slows things down a bit but offers opportunities for jumps.
With fewer boats and planes but more caricatures of real-life racing drivers comes F1 Race Stars (PS3, Xbox 360, PC), Codemasters' curiously cheeky Mario Kart-esque twist on its F1 racing series. Out go any concerns for tyre pressure or anything remotely serious, and in come 11 genuine international tracks, each with somewhat implausible additions such as loop-the-loops and power-ups, and bobble-headed caricatures of current F1 stars. For some local fun, the Yas Marina track takes you on one of the Ferrari World rides and into the Yas Viceroy hotel.
The merging of real-life and fantasy often works rather well, with elements such as slipstream and braking on corners there to please the genuine racers and enough forms of attack to make Mario Karters smile. But there's a whacking great downside in the limited number of levels, and anyone with more memory than a fish is likely to tire easily, despite the large number of game modes.
Between the two karting options, Sega's blue hedgehog-endorsing outing gets the Mario Kart nod. It's packed with an exhausting number of options, vehicles, characters and tracks and the car/plane/boat switch is an excellent addition (one that the next Mario Kart should take note of). But for those who like their F1 and just can't be bothered with the dreary technical aspects, F1 Race Stars is definitely one to try out, if only for its quirky rendition of Yas Marina.