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Atari Karts (Jaguar) artwork

Atari Karts (Jaguar) review

"One of the rarest cartridge games produced for the Atari Jaguar is "Atari Karts". It was released near the end of the Jaguar's lifespan, and never had a chance to sell in substantial numbers while Atari was still ‘alive’. Atari Kart has always been in demand, and so even now it still costs plenty: the typical selling price for a complete boxed game is often $50 US or more. Some vendors still have new copies in stock, but those generally cost $70 plus. Wow! $70 seems like a heck of a lot to ..."

One of the rarest cartridge games produced for the Atari Jaguar is "Atari Karts". It was released near the end of the Jaguar's lifespan, and never had a chance to sell in substantial numbers while Atari was still ‘alive’. Atari Kart has always been in demand, and so even now it still costs plenty: the typical selling price for a complete boxed game is often $50 US or more. Some vendors still have new copies in stock, but those generally cost $70 plus. Wow! $70 seems like a heck of a lot to pay for a game released more than a decade ago. Is Atari Karts really worth that kind of money?

As you might guess from its name, Atari Karts is an absurdly blatant rip-off of Nintendo's "Mario Kart" racer games. That series is one of Nintendo's most successful franchises, and with good reason: a large number of gamers enjoy these kiddie-style racing games. The graphics tend to be cartoonish, as the emphasis is placed on racing fun rather than accurate simulation. Mario Kart was a huge financial success for Nintendo - can you really blame Atari for wanting a taste of that success?

Atari Karts opens with some attractive and colorful menus that allow you to select a variety of options. You can choose to either play against computer-controlled opponents or have a split-screen race against a second human player. You can also select one of several different karts to race, each of which has different characteristics for handling, speed, and acceleration. Initially only the first of the four difficulty levels is unlocked, and in each level you can choose to run one of three cup tournaments. Each cup consists of four different tracks, and if you successfully place high in all three tournaments you can finally race against a previously hidden kart.

The various race circuits use a wide variety of scenic backgrounds: the icy Arctic, the rocky Southwest desert, a country dirt road, a beachfront, - even an alien planet! The tracks are loops, ranging from simple to twisty. Scattered around each track are power-ups that offer bonuses or penalties that alter your speed, change your steering ability, etc. As you race around the course, you need to watch out for puddles of oil or water that can cause you to lose traction and spinout for a second, possibly costing you a race. If you don’t place in the top four of seven karts, you'll have to run the race again to qualify for the next course. If you perform well and place in first, you can unlock additional karts and tracks.

Unlike most kart racers, there are no weapons you can use against the other drivers, except just one power-up that reverses their steering input! Firing off a missile or dropping a mine in front of one of your fellow racers is a highlight of most kart racing games, and this lack of weaponry really hurts Atari Karts. Without any weapons, this game is essentially an updated version of the old arcade classic Pole Position: you simply drive as fast as you can, steer your way through the corners, and overtake the other cars. As far as game play goes, this is just an average racing game without the ability to beat up on the other drivers - or avoid their attacks!

So why on Earth would anyone be willing to pay more than $50 to play an average racing game? There is just one word: graphics! Atari Karts is truly a treat for your eyes - the visuals are absolutely fantastic!

First, the programmers used a display similar in style to the Super Nintendo's "Mode 7" racers such as Mario Kart or F-Zero. A large bitmap is displayed in such a way as to look as though it's stretching off into the distance. The track surface is drawn on this bitmap, creating the illusion of a moving road surface as the bitmap is rotated and moved.

Next, huge detailed sprites are used to show each of the racer's karts. Although these sprites are 'only' 2D, they depict the karts from several different angles, forming a reasonable facsimile of a spinning or rotating 3D object.

So far this game doesn’t sound any different from Mario Karts, but the artists working on Atari Karts used an absolutely incredible depth of color and detail for the tracks and backgrounds. Playing this game is like watching a painting in motion! What I find particularly impressive are the layers of bitmaps used for parallax scrolling in the background: this gives each track a deeper, pseudo-3D look.

The graphics are also oriented to children and a family audience as the various racers have a goofy cartoon look. This is the sort of videogame you'd be happy to see your five year-old nephew or niece playing.

As far as the audio goes, the theme songs are mellow and pleasant, but perhaps not as memorable as some other Jaguar tunes are. Unfortunately, the sound effects used in Atari Karts are only mediocre at best: I think the tire squeals and car bumping noises are just acceptable, but frankly the motors sound like badly-tuned lawnmower engines. Of course, I suppose that's typical for small kart racers - but I still don't like the sound.

It's an interesting experience to play Atari Karts, perhaps the best racer for the Jaguar, "back to back" with the notorious Checkered Flag, a Jaguar cartridge that is almost universally hated. When I try to compare the two experiences, I think both have equally impressive graphics for mid-1990s console games. Checkered Flag and Atari Karts both do a credible job of creating an environment of movement and speed. Just as Atari Karts is spectacular at building the illusion of a 3D racetrack with its 2D engine, so to is Checkered Flag with its 3D engine, designed at the beginning of the "polygon era" of videogames. Unfortunately, the difference in game play quality is immediately apparent the first time you try to drive through a curve: Checkered Flag's twitchy and sensitive input often sends you crashing into the roadside scenery, while Atari Karts control zooms smoothly through the corners.

Do I recommend Atari Karts? If you're itching for a new racing game and have $50 burning a hole in your wallet, I say go for it! You'll be getting average but acceptable game play, but the fantastic visuals will almost certainly impress the hell out of you. On the other hand, if you find the price tag is a bit high, try taking a look at the Jaguar motorcycle racer Super Burnout: it also has impressive graphics (though they’re not up to Atari Karts' standards), but this cart is far more common and more affordable.

Score: 8/10

5=average, 6=above, 7=good, 8=very good, 9=excellent, 10=... well, I’ve never seen a game I’d call a perfect 10, but Tempest 2000 is close.

LS650's avatar
Community review by LS650 (May 24, 2007)

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