Review: Dirchie Kart

Roaring retro racing

The first attempt on XBLIG to capture the spirit of 16-bit kart racers like Super Mario Kart was Wacky Karts, but this title suffered from an unforgiving balancing and "wacky" controls that made it mostly unenjoyable. Now a new contender by independent developer BrownBot has arrived on the marketplace, and their game Dirchie Kart does a way better job at delivering a fun kart racing experience. The full version includes ten different race tracks, three game modes, Avatar support and four player split screen matches. Battle and Drag events are accessible only in multiplayer mode and offer three Battle arenas and one Drag track. Due to a lack of multiple players, this review focuses on the single player component but will at least give some impressions gained from plugging in a second controller and checking out some two player split screen features. The standard single player race mode gives sufficient insight in what this game is about, though.

Before starting a race or a cup, you get to pick a driver from a range of illustrious characters including a Darth Vader look-alike, a Captain dressed only in underpants (WTF?) or a weird ape man with an afro haircut. If none of these well designed funny characters should suit your taste, you can also put your Avatar into the seat of one of the three vehicles. The truck has lots of armor but gains only a little boost by drifting and can carry only one power-up, whereas the racecar has the least armor but can carry three power-ups and gains the most boost. If you can't decide for an aggressive or defensive racing style, the Caddillac offers a setup with a good balance between the two. You can also modify if power-ups should be picked up by driving through question-mark-boxes on the tracks or by buying them in a shop before every race with coins collected during the races. The latter adds a strategic component because you're able to configure your setup according to the track you're about to race. Finally you select one of three engine classes which determines the speed and difficulty of the races.

For beginners, I recommend picking the lowest class as the AI drivers (or at least one of them) are relatively hard to shake off and know how to use power-ups. These are made up of the usual suspects such as nitros, rockets and mines, some of which can be shot forwards and backwards. The driving itself feels great due to responsive controls and some nice physics which make you feel the shifting weight of your car while drifting around corners, all the while having full control over the friction between the track and your vehicle. The button configuration offers the standard trigger setup for accelerating and braking. Holding both triggers while steering enables you to slide around corners and supplies an automatic speed boost once you finish drifting. Power-ups can either be selected and activated via the face buttons or with the right stick, the latter being the more intuitive and fluid feeling option as you select items on the horizontal axis and fire them forward or backward by moving the stick into the respective direction. The only gripe I have with this well-thought-out setup is the lack of a reset button. A lot of times you will end up crashing into a wall because you've been hit by a power-up (or due to a lack of driving skills) and will come to a complete halt facing the wall. Then your only option is to go backwards first and to manually reorientate your car to get back on the track, which takes a lot of time and sometimes makes it hard to catch up with the other racers again. A reset button or an automatic reset really could have helped to find back into the race a little less tediously. As it is, the penalty for getting hit can be a little unforgiving sometimes.

In terms of level design the tracks in Dirchie Kart are a mixed bag. The cars, drivers, power-ups and graphical effects such as smoke and dirt have a cel shaded look, whereas all ground textures are pixelated to emulate 16-bit visuals, which makes up a neat looking blend of visual styles. True to their 16-bit ancestors, all tracks are completely even without any hills or slopes whatsoever, something I expect to see in a modern racer, even if it's retro themed. Most tracks have real-world settings such as stadium racetracks, the country-side, a marsh or a wintery mountain and offer a vividly colored scenery setting the right mood for the fun races, whereas some tracks such as "Crack Hack" have an undefinable setting with the race taking place on a plain green, tiled floor surrounded by a black void. This track seems somewhat unfinished and visually uninspired, which is a shame because racing it is rather fun as it is the only track providing ramps and aerial shortcuts. Other tracks have similar unique properties. "Boggy Marsh" has a truffle somewhere on the track which - if picked up - makes a pack of truffle pigs chase your car. The truffle can be passed on to other drivers by hitting their car, making them the pig's prime target, which is a hilarious variation and implementation of some pass-the-bomb-gameplay. "Coulrophobia" is a clown-themed track that has clown figurines chasing the drivers and pushing them into walls and clown-heads on the sides of the track shooting at them. On many tracks you can fall off of the track's side edges which makes maneuvering tight corners an exciting affair and is also a welcome alternative to get rid of opponents by pushing them off, if only temporarily. Even if a car loses all its energy, it's not taken out of the race but is rather replaced by a motorbike that is not able to use any power-ups. Only by driving over spots marked as "Pits", the original vehicle can be restored.

The only game mode allowing you to completely destroy your opponents is Battle, which is only accessible in multiplayer, offering three rather blandly designed arenas that could have used some more polish and more interesting features. There are no CPU racers available in this mode, so at least one friend is required to play it, and hunting each other down is certainly great fun. In contrast, Drag mode appeared rather boring, requiring drivers to race only a short straight, which I can't imagine players doing more than three times as there are no obstacles or power-ups on the track, which could have made this mode a little more exciting. In general, it's quite obvious that this title is really big fun with some friends but rather lacking as a single player experience. The developer is very aware of this, putting a note on the boot-up-screen saying "Contents best enjoyed with friends", but if you don't mind repeating the two cups on each difficulty setting on your own to gather all the trophies, you'll be busy for at least half an hour (probably longer, depending on your driving skills) in the single player mode.

Considering the overall package, there is a lot of value in Dirchie Kart for a mere 240 MSP, with colorful 3D graphics at a steady framerate, great arcadey driving physics and tons of fun in multiplayer modes. The sound effects and the midi background music may not be overwhelming, but they perfectly complement the strange humor of the game, which I began to appreciate the first time I won a cup, only to be rewarded with a golden trophy in the shape of a heap of poo. If you like racing games and kart racers in particular, I strongly recommend at least checking out the trial, in which you have access to more than half of the game (within the 8-minute-timelimit, of course), so it should be easy to find out if this game is your cup of tea. Good racing games are very rare on the indie games marketplace, so don't miss out on this one. Next to MotorHEAT, Dirchie Kart is my favorite XBLIG racer.

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