The cynical amongst us might look at a third-party kart racer on a Nintendo system and wonder: really, what's the point? With Mario Kart 8 in its Deluxe form on Switch arguably the pinnacle of the plumber's long-running racing series, you'd be forgiven for thinking any developer putting a kart racer on a Nintendo platform has some sort of Blue Shell death wish. Let's not forget, Mario Kart 8 Deluxe isn't just successful, it's the most successful game on the entire platform. What chance does any studio have against that juggernaut?
Undeterred by the intimidating, portly figure in pole position, developer ArtVostok has brought Meow Motors to Switch, a kitty-filled kart racer that despite generic presentation actually manages to provide some diversion and a few racing thrills. Don't get us wrong, Mario won't break a sweat when he sees this in the rear view mirror, but the fact that Meow Motors manages to stay on the track at all is something of a pleasant surprise.
The generic feline-theme and a drab front-end isn't the most promising of starts. Career mode is split into ten 'events', each with races split into three types - straight Races, Drift competitions where you earn points the longer you slide by hitting 'B' while turning, and Strike events where you have to destroy as many other drivers as possible using the items on offer. The Drift score races were easily our favourite and put us in the mind of any number of arcade racers as we gracefully slid around corners racking up points, threading the accelerator (which sits on the 'ZR' trigger with the brake on 'ZL').
Your performance on each course will net you up to three stars which accumulate to unlock progress to the next events along with new cars, characters and items. A different cat in your cockpit will give you a perk - Lily, for example, causes the oil gauge to empty slower when you press 'X' to leave a slick across the road, so you can choose a character that suits your play style.
The three-star scoring set-up works well enough to provide a simple sense of progression, although there's little reason to return once you're done. After enjoying the Drift challenges, Strike races were much less engaging, especially at the beginning when the limited number of items makes combat a little drab. The basic pee-shooter seems to highlight the target that it's going to hit, but it's imprecise and difficult to know if you're having much of an effect on the karts ahead. It lacks the meaty feedback of a well-aimed green shell, and although an item that throws a shark at your target to gnaw on their cranium for a few seconds is fun the first few times, the novelty wears off fast.
Holding down 'A' charges your items to make them more effective, although it's hard to tell the difference in practice. There's a nice little bit of strategy introduced by a meter that gradually refills as you race enabling you to either boost with 'Y' or leave an oil slick as previously mentioned. It's hardly complex, but combined with the drift mechanic and competitive fellow racers, it's enough to stop events becoming boring.
The circuits themselves are occasionally difficult to read with turns appearing at short notice. There's enough variety, with a mixture of desert, coastal, forestal and snow-based tracks to keep things interesting, although the multi-levelled, gravity-defying courses from Mario Kart tend to make anything that sticks to the old terra firma feel unambitious.
Technically, Meow Motors is competent, if unimpressive. Each race begins with the camera spinning around your chosen feline and the textures popping in on the track around it. While racing, things stay smooth enough at or around 30fps. There's nothing really to tax the hardware, and it would have been nice to have the good solid 60 that we're used to when it comes to the finest karting, but we didn't have any massive complaints or issues - certainly nothing that prevented us from winning races.
A solid 2-player mode rounds out the package and lets you customise your races as you see fit for some head-to-head bouts. It's unremarkable, but pleasant - a sentiment that just about sums up Meow Motors perfectly. With Mario casting such a shadow on the genre, it's easy to think there's no point even turning up on race day, but Meow Motors offers a fair few racing thrills (and, indeed, spills) and drifting around its unremarkable tracks was a pleasant way to pass a couple of afternoons, even if we were thinking of how much spicier karting can be with some anti-grav strips and a green shell.
Meow Motors won't blow your socks off, but it's a decent little racer if you're a cat person who enjoys drifting. It's not going to trouble the kart-racing big boys, and the visual feedback is lacking when it comes to using projectile items, but drifting is fun and if for some reason you're bored of the obvious Nintendo-branded alternative and you see this cheap, you could do a lot worse. The 2-player mode may keep you occupied for a while after the campaign and, generic presentation aside, we certainly didn't have a bad time in the company of these felines, even if we knew we could be having it so much better elsewhere.