Written by: Rik
Date posted: February 17, 2016
I’d have to put go-karting in the same category of dread-inducing organised fun as paintballing – a more stressful version of driving on the road, except where your fellow drivers consider themselves to be in a largely consequence-free environment – and my main memories are of constantly having to brake or swerve in order to avoid reckless manoeuvres by cocky little upstarts. With the odd exception, though, karting games have very little in common with the real thing (I vaguely recall a couple of sim-style titles bearing the Michael Schumacher name) and most instead tend to follow the lead of Mario Kart (a series at which I am so terrible, this is the only time I’ll mention it).
However, despite boasting a colour scheme borrowed from a packet of Jelly Babies, SuperKarts is a little more like your standard arcade racer than a novelty character based effort. There are novelty characters, in the form of eight national stereotypes of varying levels of offensiveness, but except for an avatar and a colour scheme, there’s little to distinguish between them on the track. All the karts are represented by the same sprite with the same oddly neckless driver and, as far as I can tell, performance is identical regardless of the character selected. There’s enough there, though, to be able to cultivate a burning hatred for a particularly successful opponent, which I guess is the bare minimum requirement for this sort of thing.
SuperKarts has two main modes, arcade and championship, both involving the same basic principles of lap-based racing against opponents across a number of different circuits. Each circuit features occasional obstacles as well as a number of pickups, including cash that can be combined with prize money to upgrade your kart between races. The main difference is that the arcade mode requires you to finish in the top 3 to progress, otherwise you lose a life, while in the championship you are awarded points for where you finish, and can be as shit as you like. There are three levels of difficulty, which provide variation in both the standard of opposition AI and the cost of upgrades, and if you can’t stomach the whole thing, you can choose to limit the championship to the races from the first or second half of the full season.
I personally preferred the championship mode, as it seemed slightly more satisfying to accrue points, plus the setup is slightly less contrived: you can focus on racing rather than acquiring cash and other pickups (which is more of a necessity in arcade mode), and winning – rather than just finishing in the top 3 – becomes more important. Still, you can save between races in either mode, so you’re spared the unnecessary frustration of repeating more than one race, which is a relief, given the deceptively tricky nature of the action.
There’s a bit more to SuperKarts than you might initially think, although some of the additional elements and supposed nuances don’t actually seem to mean much and can be ignored altogether. The racing is fairly ‘pure’, in that you don’t feel like the AI is cheating, and the maintenance of a good racing line is as important as the management of pickups and generally not crashing. Getting stuck on the scenery is the most reliable way to mess up, although if you manage to keep your composure and locate the reverse button in good time, it needn’t be fatal.
The three main pickups are turbo, super-tyres and oil, and while tactical use of the first can make a difference, the others didn’t seem desperately effective, and I doubt that you need them at all really. This was good news for me, as to hit the key to cycle through them and then deploy each at an appropriately strategic moment while driving would likely have been beyond my limited reflexes and powers of dexterity, although that says more about me and the speed of the action rather than the control scheme: SuperKarts is otherwise perfectly playable on keyboard.
I should also point out that I played on medium difficulty, which I found plenty challenging enough, but maybe there’s more of a need for the other pickups on the harder setting – if so, I had neither the desire, nor the skills, to investigate much further (hard mode is hard). The same applies to pit stops, too, which I managed to ignore completely (except for a couple of occasions where I took a wrong turn and entered the pit lane by mistake), although this was possibly down to my chosen race length of 4 laps. I can’t remember shortening this from the default, and it seemed an appropriate race length for an arcade racer: long enough to recover from small mistakes, and short enough to retain some madcap urgency without becoming too repetitive. I guess there’s a chance that longer races with pit stops might have made for a deeper and more involving experience, but I don’t think so (I’m not sure it belongs in this kind of racer: I even found the refuelling annoying in my old Atari ST favourite Lotus Esprit Turbo Challenge, of which SuperKarts is vaguely reminiscent).
Anyway, if you keep the laps low, investing in a larger fuel tank at some point puts any worries about pit strategy out of your mind. Another tip is to put money into strength so you don’t have to be too concerned about collisions with other racers. In general, victories can be tricky with the basic karts during the early stages of the championship, so at times it can be a case of picking up points where you can in order to stay in contention, before pushing for victory during the second half of the season.
Appearance-wise, SuperKarts doesn’t seem very 1995 – in fact, I was reminded of its existence when revisiting an old PC Zone for information about Wing Commander III. The two games don’t really seem to belong to the same era, and mentally I’d placed SuperKarts as an Amiga port, even though the briefest moment’s consideration would have told me that it came too late and was too technically advanced to have run on 16-bit machines. This was also one of those CD games that was largely indistinguishable from the disk version, where you found that the CD was just full of pretty meaningless bumph (like an intro movie) and the actual content could have fitted onto a couple of floppies. But while the engine looks as if it belongs in a Wolfenstein 3D-era shooter, it works well for the most part, although SuperKarts’ strongest races are the simplest, with more complex circuits occasionally suffering from being a little too visually cluttered and too easily the cause of a fatal wrong turn.
Overall, SuperKarts is pretty good fun, and fulfils most criteria of a decent arcade racer: it has simple controls and a focus on driving rather than gimmicks, while the action is fast and involving enough to induce sweaty palms and the feeling that you really should have another go at that last race. It is also, in the tradition of arcade racers, thoroughly disposable. Still, there’s plenty to keep you occupied for a little while in single player mode, and maybe more in the unlikely event you have friends who are willing to participate in split-screen multiplayer.