Atari Karts was released for the 64-bit Atari Jaguar on December 22, 1995. The Atari Jaguar was discontinued three months later, making Atari Karts one of the final, and rarer, games released by Atari. Based on mediocre reviews, I came into Atari Karts with low expectations. It's hard not to compare it to the excellent Super Mario Kart (1992, SNES), and I'm sure that was Miracle Design's inspiration. So alas, after forking out more than I usually do for obscure games, I finally landed myself the illusive Atari Karts.
The first thing you'll notice in Atari Karts are the graphics. They are simply gorgeous. Simulating the Mode-7 style pioneered by Nintendo, and then taken to the Nth degree, Atari Karts proves the Jaguar has more horsepower than the aging 16-bit systems of the day. While Super Mario Kart features little color and a generally cartoony style, Atari Karts is rich with detail. Additionally, there are hills and valleys, which really make Atari Karts feel like a 3D title.
The second thing the game does right is utilize the Jaguar's hardware to scale the sprites. Whether it's your opponents or roadside obstacles, everything scales very smoothly, larger and smaller, to help sell the 3D illusion. Third, there are 4 layers in the background, 3 of which scroll, which add to the depth and richness of th environments. Lastly, the game moves along at 60 FPS without a hiccup. No slowdown, just buttery smooth goodness.
My next praise is for the controls. The steering is precise and responsive, allowing you to easily avoid roadside obstacles and makes passing maneuvers a joy. If you turn too much too fast, your kart will slide. If you maintain a slide too long you will spin out. The mechanics work out fairly well, and you never spin out for no reason.
Atari Karts starts off with 4 difficulty levels: Beginner Challenge, Warrior Challenge, Miracle Challenge, and Jaguar Aces. Beginner Challenge is the only level initially offered. Each difficulty has 3 sets of races to complete: Borregas Cup, Carleton Cup, and Tempest Cup. After winning the three cups, you have a 4th challenge, the Miracle Race, which is a single race against a boss. If you beat the boss, you get his kart and the next difficulty level opens up.
The difficulty in Atari Karts ramps up quite well. The Beginner Challenge is a breeze, and I finished in first place throughout. The Warrior Challenge offers more aggressive opponents, and trickier turns. The Miracle ramps things up with even more aggressive opponents, twisty circuits, and more hazards. Jaguar Aces is actually quite difficult, requiring perfect runs in order to finish.
The tracks themselves are fairly short, with each 5 lap race taking between 1:00 and 2:30 minutes. They are logically laid out though, with a good variety of turns and straights, leaving plenty of opportunities for passing.
The different environments include an alien planet, snow, beach, dirt road, castle, desert, Asia, and lava. All of them offer a unique color schemes, different obstacles, and it's own soundtrack. The actual layouts often repeat across the environments though.
Atari Karts features a rather bland soundtrack. Each environment features it's own musical track that help match the theme, but none of it sounds better than what could be done on lesser hardware. Though I must give a shout out to the Halloween themed track, it features a great track that sound excellent and fits the theme well. Too bad that quality wasn't heard through the rest of title. On an interesting note, the music that plays in-between races sounds exactly the same as the music that plays during Jimmy Fallon's Thank You Notes skits.
Many have complained about the lack of weapons in Atari Karts. The game features 5 power-ups total, a rabbit gives a temporary speed boost, the speed arrow gives a burst of speed, a wheel which reduces friction, "steer" which eliminates skidding, and a heart provides an extra life. There are 2 hazards, a turtle that slows you down, and a reverse steer icon that reverses the steering controls.
Unfortunately, all the items accept for the "Steer" and "Wheel" are activated as soon as you drive over them. It would have been nice to save the "Rabbit" boost and use it on a straight away or the final lap when you need it. While Atari Karts certainly doesn't feature the diverse selection of weapons and power-ups that Super Mario Kart has, I don't feel it ruins the game. Atari Karts puts a greater emphasis on racing than combat. And the racing is good.
I do enjoy Atari Karts, but it's not quite perfect. The racer's are fairly generic and forgettable. The karts each have their own attributes however, including speed, acceleration, and steering. The races are far too short, with some laps taking as little as 14 seconds. What really keeps it from being great are the damn reverse steering hazards. Because the icons are flat with the track, it can be hard to tell what you're about to drive over until it's too late. A reverse steer icon will pretty much ruin a race. It's annoying and frustrating, and you can't turn them off.
Overall, Atari Karts is a solid title. While it lacks some of the sophistication and charm of other games of it's type, it's extremely playable and offers a good challenge. The graphics are sharp and smooth, and show off the Jaguar 2D power well. Those looking for a decent Jaguar game should definitely give it a try. Recommended, if you can manage to find it.
Graphics 8/10 - Bright, colorful, and detailed
Sound 5/10 - Generic effects and soundtrack
Game play 7/10 - Smooth controls, challenging game play
Overall 7/10 - Good, but not great, little Mario Kart clone