There are times in games, as in life, when we are forced to face the dark – moments that seize and interrogate the better angels of our nature, in which we claw our way closer to what it means to be human. And then there are times when we might like to see a dingo that’s been genetically spliced with a crocodile riding a go-kart. In moments such as those, we must be thankful for Crash Team Racing, which came out on the PlayStation in 1999 and which is out today on all consoles in the form of a lavish remake, courtesy of developer Beenox. And should Dingodile not sate your thirst for the zany, how about Doctor N. Gin, whose head is half missile? Or Crash himself, for that matter: an upright marsupial compulsively clad in blue shorts and boots.
How such crazed and cartoon-bright designs were whipped up by the same studio that gave us Joel and Ellie, in all their sweat and sorrow, I’ll never quite wrap my head around. With Crash Team Racing Nitro-Fueled, Beenox has been tasked not with creation but with its treacherous cousin, recreation, and thus risks the hopes of a million fans – each as lunatic as the creatures on the karts – should it stall or stray from the track. I’m pleased, relieved, and a little sad to report that Beenox has done the work of a master mechanic – stripping away the rusty plating of old polygons and buffing the chassis, which requires no reinvention, to a bewitching gleam.
If you’ve no appetite for the mad then you can take comfort in the mechanical. Naughty Dog’s creation was the final word in kart racing; with a tongue lolling on the wind, it lapped Mario Kart with sheer technical prowess. The powerslide mechanic is the finest the genre has seen: one shoulder button hops into a slide; the opposite shoulder button crunches down on the bite point for a boost when the bar at the bottom turns red. Do this three times, and you hit your maximum speed with your exhausts fiery and flaring, like a bull’s nostrils. The weapons, too, improve upon the template set out by Mario Kart. For the red shell, there are homing missiles; the green shells are bombs that roll like bowling balls; the banana skins become beakers, filled with toxic gloop. It’s as though Mario had been given a Gothic, Saturday-morning makeover.
Then there are the tracks, which I always imagined were the result of a weekend hippie retreat for burnt-out 3D platformer level designers, in which they were encouraged to free associate with crayons and tabs of acid. All those skyward-looping ramps and yawning gaps in the ground, they have the appearance of the wacky and the cooked-up, but they were fiendishly technical and punishing. Playing it then, and now, feels like a brutal tour through the battlegrounds of platformers at the end of an era. The scenery, which whips by in a fuzzy fluorescent blur, is rife with platformer staples: the beaches, the arctic caves, the mad-scientist laboratories, the sewers, the castles, the Columbia-style speedways in the clouds. The original CTR had the finest selection of tracks of any kart racer, and they’re all here, as joyous and cruel twenty years later as they were back then.
So why, having raced through the game over two delirious nights, should I now feel spun-out and glum? The boom of 3D platformers filled some previously uncharted nook in my childish brain. All those floating platforms, in their newly jagged fullness, managed to summon brave new elements with craggy clumps of colour: not grass but green, not sky but blue, not fur but brown and spiky. What’s more, these worlds were always meant to be taken at speed, so as to smooth the edges with a blast of motion-blur and a dab of imagination. But not anymore. Beenox has beautified the memory to the point where I’m driven to slow down to take it all in. ‘It looks as good as you remember it’ goes the platitude so often affixed to the remake, but if our memories are as sparkling as this, is it any wonder so many remakes fall short, burned up by the nitro-fuel of nostalgia?
‘You can’t go home again’ goes the platitude, posed by Thomas Wolfe and applied to the wistful urge that moves us to repeat the past. Playing Crash Team Racing Nitro-Fueled this past week, I’m not so sure. Games, it seems to me, are able to cart us back closer than any other medium can. Remakes like this one that Beenox has pulled off so wonderfully are an exercise in painstaking recreation. And I think as much as it succeeds, in wiping clean away the marks of time and caking my memories in chrome, it doesn’t – can’t – get me back over the finish line. Perhaps I’ll never get there again, but for a glorious few evenings, it was a joy to linger on the home straight.