Last year when the Guinness Book of World Records chose Super Mario Kart as the most important and influential console game ever, a lot of journalists and games enthusiasts scoffed — myself included.
Even though the Mario-themed cart racer is unquestionably entertaining, it’s difficult to give the game too much serious critical consideration. After all, Kart isn’t even an original intellectual property, it’s always been a Mario side project. It’s almost the equivalent of Rolling Stone magazine naming Paul McCartney’s Wings the best rock band of all time, or TV Guide calling A Different World the most influential TV show ever.
But after gaming’s recent splurge of three Super Mario Kart inspired releases in the same month, I’m slowly beginning to change my mind. The Mario Kart influences are less obvious in Disney’s Split/Second — a slick racer that plays like a Michael Bay wet dream where revved-up race cars barrel down highways and have the power to blow up everything around them with explosive grandeur. Sony’s ModRacers Nation, meanwhile, is the type of naked rip off that has earned it the affectionate title of “Mario Kart-clone.” And then there is the curious case of Blur , which is perched somewhat awkwardly between Split/Second and ModRacers Nation on the Mario Kart scale.
Since it is made by Bizarre Creations (makers of the shiny, “arcadey” Project Gotham Racing series, Blur’s subtitle should have been “a mash-up of PGR and Super Mario Kart.” As it turns out, this isn’t necessarily a bad thing.
Most of the things that made Project Gotham Racing a fine racer are in Blur. The racing still requires some of the finesse and skill needed for a hardcore simulation like Gran Turismo, but the slavish devotion to realism that dominates the sim-style racers is enhanced with the layer of outrageous fun that comes from power sliding and drifting through hairpin turns.
There’s also an impressive number of vehicles to choose from in Blur, widely ranging in makes and models from revved-up European super cars to rusted out old Beetles and massive 4×4 SUVs. It’s not always a case of one kind of car always being the best. For example, the off-roaders are better suited for dirt tracks while the cars with super-grippy handling seem equipped for navigating narrow inner city driving.
Because the graphics tend to be more on the realistic side and there are no wacky characters or themes, the Super Mario Kart portion of the game instead comes from Blur’s focus on power ups. Most are nearly direct copies of the items that you can drive over and obtain in the Nintendo racer. The Nitro is the equivalent of a Mushroom, the Mine is a Banana Peel, and the Shunt is a Red Shell. And the Lightning? Well, it’s nearly the same as Lightning from Mario Kart, but (thankfully) without the power of shrinking your competitors.
What makes the system more rewarding than most Mario Kart games, however, is that the use of the power ups tend to be more strategic. You can hold up to three power ups at once, and instead of being forced to use a weapon that you don’t want to and having to discharge it, you can drop one and replace it with something that you actually want. Plus, almost every power up can be used in multiple ways and has a countermove. If an opponent sends a shunt your way, you can outmaneuver it, activate an area of effect shockwave called the Barge, or send a missile or mine behind you to prevent it from wrecking you.
Blur also corrects Mario Kart’s love of randomness and engineering “worst to first” finishes. Ever since Super Mario Kart 64, the kart games tend to stack the deck for the bottom half of players so that they can easily grab blue shells and the best power-ups. In Blur, power ups are always in the same place each lap and never randomized, so you have to get by on your skill much more than on computer assisted luck.
Now for the bad news. Blur’s single player mode feels shallow and more than a bit frustrating. You progress through a simple set of races, each anchored by a “boss” type of driver at the end of each section. Complete enough races and meet all of that boss’s conditions, and you’ll unlock the next bracket and new cars along the way. If you defeat the boss in a mano y mano match, you’ll steal their ride along with a power up enhancement.
I had fun with single player for the first hour or two until the game’s A.I. decided that I would repeatedly get my ass kicked by the computer-controlled drivers. I like a challenge, but it’s never a good sign when you want to toss your controller through your TV after getting beat for the 10th straight time.
It’s really the online multiplayer that kicks Blur into an extra gear. Bizarre Creation’s wisely implemented Modern Warfare’s constantly updating micro-unlock system, in which you can unlock new cars, upgrades, challenges for more experience points and even new types of matches like a Demolition Derby-style crash ‘em up.
The highlight is the 20 car multiplayer races. They are admittedly chaotic, but it’s a rare kind of adrenaline rush to finish in the top three and survive all of the high octane action.
Don’t expect Blur to finish in Guinness’s top 50 video games list anytime soon, but this “Mario Kart for Grown Ups” deserves to be considered one of the best racing games of this console generation.