We’re afraid we've got some bad news for you. If you opened this review expecting a typically sarcastic put-down of the latest half-hearted karting game with a cartoon licence cynically slapped onto it, you’re going to be deeply disappointed. Turns out this one's actually quite good.
To be fair, you'd be forgiven for expecting otherwise. The first Nickelodeon Kart Racers got an absolute kicking on this site for being underwhelming in practically every department. Hats off to the developers, then, for turning things around so dramatically for Nickelodeon Kart Racers 2: Grand Prix. This is everything the original game should have been, and will appeal far more to Nickelodeon fans new and old.
The most immediately noticeable difference is the character roster. The first game only offered 12 characters from SpongeBob SquarePants, Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles, Rugrats and Hey Arnold, which was perfectly fine for fans of those series, but given it was supposed to be a celebration of all things Nickelodeon, it felt woefully undercooked. This time there are a much more impressive 30 characters to choose from.
The previous four franchises are still covered, but joining in now are characters from the likes of Rocco's Modern Life, Invader Zim, Avatar, CatDog, The Loud House, Danny Phantom and Ren & Stimpy. Even the deeply irritating JoJo Siwa is in there for the young bucks, which does throw up some questions: if live-action people count, we’d have loved to have seen representation from such classic gems as Kenan & Kel, Pete & Pete or Clarissa Explains It All, but maybe we're getting a bit too ahead of ourselves. The point is, things are far more varied this time.
As well as the main roster, there are also seventy supporting characters who can be unlocked. Each of these characters comes with their own unique abilities: some of them are permanent perks (Rocco’s dog Spunky lets you drive over rough terrain without losing speed, for example), whereas others require you to fill your slime meter by collecting slime while you race, then triggering their ability with a button (take Plankton from SpongeBob, who can detonate an explosion that slows down nearby karts).
You can choose three assist characters before you race – two with permanent abilities, and one with a slime meter ability – and while the skills applied to each of them are fairly arbitrary and don't make sense in the context of the characters themselves, it does still put a face to what is essentially just a large list of unlockable perks, and does make it easier to remember what each perk does when you’re trying to come up with a trio that best suits your racing style.
As an example, we personally prefer to get to the front of the pack as quickly as possible then try to increase that lead, rather than taking part in combat by firing missiles or using shields. Our own chosen trio, then, is Eugene from Hey Arnold (who gives you a speed boost every time you take a hit so you can quickly recover), Really Really Big Man from Rocko’s Modern Life (who automatically triggers a boost when the slime meter fills up) and April O'Neil from TMNT (who lets you then manually trigger another boost once the meter is full). Look, we know we aren’t talking Fire Emblem here, but the fact there’s any strategy at all makes it more engaging than most karting games.
The Grand Prix mode consists of seven cups and there are three speed settings (which essentially act like your 50cc, 100cc and 150cc from Mario Kart). Grand Prix mode consists of seven cups, and you’re awarded 1-to-3 stars depending on how well you do: three stars are for winning all four racers, naturally. While things are relatively simple in the two slower speeds, the top speed option ramps up the AI level quite a bit and as such it’s going to take you a while to three-star all seven cups (thankfully you only have to win them to unlock their respective characters).
Added to this is a Challenge mode where you take on 42 separate one-off missions – target shooting, time trials, battle racers and the like – and unlock six more characters along the way (like Shredder and Reptar). These will only take a night or two to get through, but it at least mixes things up a little: that said, we’d have liked a high score or best time feature so you could replay challenges and try to beat your previous attempt. As it stands, once you’ve beaten a challenge, there’s no real incentive to do it again.
This isn't the only issue the game suffers from. Performance is a little bit better than the disaster that was the last game, but it's still not perfect. Although for the most part you'll be racing a fairly stable 30 frames-per-second, whenever there are a lot of karts on the screen (most notably at the start of races) things can get quite choppy. Thankfully, split-screen multiplayer doesn't appear to make things even worse, though we were only able to test it with two players due to that pesky virus you may have heard about. As such, we're not sure whether bumping it up to three or four players can result in further performance issues.
It's also a real shame that none of the characters have voice acting. They do have their own bespoke animations that give them some degree of personality, particularly when you win a cup: for example, Stimpy does his Happy Happy Joy Joy dance. The lack of voice acting is a real loss, though, especially during races where you may as well all just be controlling the same characters with a different skin applied. We’d have loved to have had Ren yelling and calling his opponents a bunch of “eediots” while SpongeBob gleefully sings his way through a race. Even soundalikes would have done the job if legacy voice actors were the issue.
It’s not perfect, then, but despite its issues, we had an infinitely better time playing through this game than we did sighing our way through its underwhelming predecessor. While it clearly still won't make Mario sweaty under his cap or have Sonic quivering in his red sneakers, there’s a strong argument that Nickelodeon Kart Racer 2 now has the bronze medal when it comes to karting games on the Switch.
After the disaster that was the first game, this is a remarkable turnaround. With far more Nickelodeon series represented, improved track designs and a power-up customisation feature that lets you enhance your personal racing style, Nickelodeon Kart Racer has gone from one of the most disappointing racing series on the Switch to probably the best one that doesn't feature plumbers or hedgehogs.