Retro Respawn – Atari Karts

For Christmas this year I got the Atari 50: The Anniversary Celebration for my PS4 (I still haven’t got a PS5 or the whatever-they’re-calling-the-XBOX-these-days yet, and I don’t know if/when I will, so I’m sticking with my trusty current console. And whilst we’re here, what is with Microsoft giving all of its consoles weird names? At least Sony numbers them appropriately to make this stuff easy). I think it’s a fantastic collection, and I say that as someone who wasn’t even an Atari fan back in the day (I cut my console teeth on a ZX Spectrum). One reason I decided to give the collection a look was because it had some Atari Jaguar games on it, and I’ve always had an interest in that infamous failed console. This led me to putting a reasonable amount of time into Atari Karts, so I thought I’d write a bit about it, if it’s all the same to you.

Released in December 1995 for the Atari Jaguar console, Atari Karts is exactly what it sounds like, namely a kart racing game with Atari characters. Anyone who has played a game in the Mario Kart series will know what to expect here. You pick a racer and then kart race around a variety of tracks, with the occasional power-up helping you along the way. Amass enough points and you get to take a trophy home with you and possibly unlock some new racers along the way. I’m not sure how authentic the gameplay experience of Atari Karts is on the Atari 50 collection in comparison to if you were playing it on an actual Jaguar console, but the version found here does allow you to reassign buttons, and it also includes a digital version of the instruction booklet, which are both nice touches.

Oddly, the default controls have the circle button as brake, which isn’t an especially convenient place to put it, so having the ability to reassign the buttons was something I was quite thankful for. I think if I had to find the best word to describe the gameplay in Atari Karts, the one I’d probably end up settling on would be “serviceable”, because that’s essentially what it is. I wouldn’t say Atari Karts is a bad game, but it’s not especially thrilling either, with the races kind of just tootling along and never really generating much in the way of excitement. There’s reasonable variety to the tracks, and there is some generous banding on the easier difficulty levels if you happen to fall behind in the early going (such as when I got stuck on the scenery mere seconds into my first race), but you can never escape the reality that Atari Karts just lacks the punch of other games in the kart racing genre.

In some ways the general okayness of Atari Karts might actually work against it as if it was an all-time stinker of a game that didn’t work at all, then at least it’d be memorable and there’d be plenty of material for me to work with. I stuck with Atari Karts perhaps longer than I really wanted to, but that was partly down to a desire and hope that it might start showing me something more. Upping the difficulty certainly presented a heartier challenge, but I also felt the difficulty curve itself was handled quite well, and I never really felt like the game was being unfair. The ability of being able to save when you want that the Atari 50 collection allows you is certainly welcome, and I wonder if I perhaps would have been a tad harsher on Atari Karts if I was playing it on original hardware without those additional quality of life features included?

Graphically, Atari Karts looks mostly fine, but the visuals aren’t especially eye-catching. There’s some parallax scrolling and decent amount of colours, but despite that, the game has quite an overall gloomy veneer to it, which doesn’t really make it feel fun. Indeed, if I could throw one particular criticism Atari Karts’ way, it would be that it lacks charm and just isn’t enchanting in the way the best kart racers are. Kart racing games in general are there to be wacky, vibrant and fun, and Atari Karts just never gets there the way games like Mario Kart, Crash Team Racing and Speed Freaks do. It didn’t help that I didn’t really have much of an opinion on the racers you can select from either, aside from the fact that some of their designs just look “off” and sometimes border on the grotesque. Whether you are a regular Nintendo player or not, you at least get a colourful and wacky cast to race as, which just adds to the general feeling of fun that the games have.

I certainly don’t regret playing Atari Karts, and I’m willing to bet that had I owned a Jaguar back in the day and this was one of the games I owned, I probably would have put some reasonable time into it. Even though I wasn’t especially digging the game when I played it for this particular article, I still stuck with it and gave it a chance to win me over. Again, Atari Karts is not a bad game. I think it got between 5-6s out of 10 when it came out, and I’d say that’s pretty fair. It’s absolutely playable, so it has that going for it, if nothing else. However, it has nothing particularly special about it, so I’d struggle to recommend you going out of your way to play it. If you like your Atari, then it’s fine as an addition to a collection of other games on Atari 50, but Atari Karts isn’t a killer app that you desperately need to track down so you can play it on the actual hardware.

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