Fresh off the court from the surprisingly fun Family Tennis 3D, the world's most competitive family returns to the 3DS eShop to hit the racetrack in Family Kart 3D. Developed by Arc System Works - yes, they of Guilty Gear and BlazBlue fame - this is a simple, straightforward kart racer that fails to stand out from the crowd, but still packs some solid fun for fans of the genre.
Following the basic template set down long ago by Super Mario Kart, the gameplay in Family Kart 3D sees players racing seven other drivers for first place around colourful courses, picking up items and firing whimsical weapons at one another to get ahead. Grand Prix is the main mode, and after selecting a difficulty (Beginner is available from the beginning, while the next two levels need to be unlocked), you'll choose between Bronze, Silver, and Gold Cups containing four courses each. There are also Time Trial and Free Play (single race) modes, along with a Quick Play option that will randomly select a driver, kart, and course before dropping you right into a race - a nice feature for portable pick-up-and-play sessions.
There are eight racers to choose from in Billy's family, including his sister Sarah, Mommy and Daddy, Nan and Gramps, Auntie, and the mysterious 'Cuz'. Don't expect too much in the way of wacky personalities here - aside from their unusually cutthroat family outings, Billy's brood is made up entirely of everyday people, and each driver controls exactly the same. Handling differences do come into play in the eight selectable karts, however. There's the well-rounded Winged Warrior, the easy handling Pretty Parasol, the farm-friendly Green Tractor, the Model T-like Classic, and the slow but environmental-conscious Eco-Upcycler, a cardboard box with wheels that's - hilariously and wonderfully - the best car in the game by a long shot.
Once you're out on the track, Family Kart 3D controls pretty well. The Circle Pad steering is smooth and responsive, the 'A' button accelerates, 'X' uses an item, 'R' is used for drifting, and 'L' triggers a boost. Drifting and boosting are handled a bit differently here than in the Mario Kart games; drifting around corners fills up a three-part meter in the bottom-right of the screen, and once at least one section is full, you can hit the 'L' trigger to cash in for a serious speed boost. It's a fun system, but the execution leaves a bit to be desired. The problem is that the game is very particular about how you drift: you need to start steering first, and then tap the 'R' trigger - doing both at the same time, or in the opposite sequence, does nothing. It seems like a small issue, but it takes a while to get used to, and even then, can be frustrating if you forget or need to change directions quickly.
The heart and soul of any kart racer is in its courses, and while the dozen on offer here are solid enough, they lack the variety and quirky fun you'd expect from the genre. Each one is unique in terms of layout and feel, but several of them share the exact same art and assets - the second race of every four-course Grand Prix cup is always an ice level, for instance. And 'ice' is far and away the most exotic theme you'll find - the other nine tracks alternate between fairly similar settings like 'countryside', 'city', and 'mountain'. Déjà vu sets in rather quickly, and it's not only because of the limited variety; one of the best tracks, "Seaside Resort", bears more than a passing resemblance to Mario Kart DS' "Delfino Plaza", right down to the line-drying laundry.
The weapons, picked up by driving through rainbow mystery blocks, are also similar to those in Nintendo's kart classics. There's a homing missile, a shield, an oil-slick, a forward-firing bomb, a Bullet Bill-like auto-pilot, and an engine overhaul that improves your kart's handling for a brief period. They're a bit bland - until the deep dysfunction of Daddy firing a heat-seeking missile at daughter Sarah dawns on you - but overall, it's a good mix of projectiles and defensive items. There's no way to fire the missiles or bombs behind you, however, which renders them rather useless when you're in first place.
Family Kart 3D gets a lot of mileage out of mimicking Mario's karting adventures, but it missed one of the best parts in the process: there's no multiplayer to speak of. The AI can give you a run for your money on the highest difficulty, but there's really no substitute for weapon-slinging shenanigans with other human players, and the game's long-term appeal is stymied by its single-player limit.
It does deserve praise for its online leaderboard support, however. By choosing "National Ranking" from the title screen, Time Trial aficionados can upload their best runs for each course and see how they stack up against the extended family. It's worth noting that "National" seems to be the wrong adjective here, as the top spots for most courses are occupied by Eco-Upcycler-driving Japanese players. If you enjoy perfecting your runs and rising through the rankings, the leaderboards should add a good deal of replay value.
Graphically, Family Kart 3D is serviceable, but distinctly underwhelming. The chunky textures and blocky environments recall early Nintendo 64 or even Playstation releases, and characters are very sparsely animated (as when they spin listlessly in place when hit with a weapon). The camera also has a bad habit of failing to adjust for uphill climbs, with the road ahead often becoming unhelpfully obscured by the HUD on ascending sections of the track. On the plus side, everything is appealingly colourful, the action moves smoothly at a consistent framerate, and the 3D effect looks great.
The background music is catchy and jazzy, with a classically arcade feel that fits the lighthearted racing well, and the Japanese voice samples are repetitive but fun. Family Kart 3D has a fatal flaw though, coming in the form of a particularly grating sound effect: for the entire time you're drifting, your kart gives off a horrendous, high-pitched screech - you can actually feel the fingernails on the blackboard - and in a game where the boost system depends on drifting, it borders on unbearable at times. If you're sensitive to sounds, be prepared to play this one with the slider all the way down - a separate SFX volume control would've made a huge difference.
Finally, it has to be said that kart racers tend to be mascot-driven for a reason. A little personality goes a long way in these games, and while Billy's anime-styled family is somewhat charming in its overwhelming averageness, the absence of any character-specific weapons or vehicles means each member feels much less distinct here than in Family Tennis 3D.
A competent and completely unabashed clone of Mario Kart 64, Family Kart 3D offers up predictable kart racing fun, and gets more right that it does wrong. The presentation and controls lack the easy finesse of the best games in the genre, but they certainly get the job done. It won't win any points for originality, and a lack of multiplayer means it's not going to kick Mario Kart 7 out of anyone's racer rotation, but younger gamers and karting fans hungry for another game to leave an 'A' button imprint on their thumbs will find some straightforward fun here.