We've never been short of racing games. The past few months alone have seen heavy hitters like Need for Speed: Most Wanted, Forza Horizon and WRC 3 all scream onto the tarmac. There's one sub-genre of racing that hasn't fared so well, however. The karting game.
Once, these nimble little knockabout racers were everywhere, with practically every game or TV show that could muster enough characters to fill the starting grid getting its own branded kart racer. Mario Kart and Crash Team Racing led the pack, but few will remember Woody Woodpecker Racing or Pac-Man Rally. And the less said about Star Wars: Super Bombad Racing the better.
Mario Kart sequels aside, the karting genre has dropped off the radar in recent years, but it may be about to stage a triumphant comeback. No less than three karting games are due out this month, and they're all looking pretty great.
Play. Create. Win!
First off the grid is SONY's LittleBigPlanet Karting, on sale from November 9th. Developed by United Front Games, the studio behind ModNation Racers, this PlayStation 3 exclusive is a cuddly romp through various hand-made courses as Sackboy races to defeat The Hoard, an alien race that grabs the bits and bobs that make up Sackworld, and then sits on them rather than making fun stuff.
Making fun stuff is a large part of the game, however, as collecting prize bubbles during races means you can customise your personal game pod with stickers and patterns, while the Create Mode brings together features from both LittleBigPlanet and ModNation to allow players to quickly and easily put together their own courses. If you want to get really fancy, you can even use the track designer to create entirely new game modes, such as tower defence challenges.
There are all the community features you'd expect from LittleBigPlanet as well, with options not only to race against each other, but to tackle story races co-operatively and share the things you make and find.
If you prefer your racing with a crisper arcade outlook, rather than lashed together out of wool and cardboard, then SEGA's Sonic & All-Stars Racing Transformed will soon be here. The sequel to Sonic & SEGA All-Stars Racing, it once again finds a collection of classic SEGA characters - some legendary, some utterly obscure - taking to the track. The twist this time is that every vehicle will automatically transform to adapt to the terrain. Drive into water and your car becomes a boat! Launch yourself off a ramp and it becomes a plane!
Each character has its own unique vehicle, depending on their personality. As well as characters from Super Monkey Ball, Golden Axe, Shinobi and other classic SEGA games, real life NASCAR racer Danica Patrick joins the pack, as does Wreck-It Ralph, the star of the upcoming Disney movie about the secret life of video game characters. If you pick up the Xbox 360 version, you'll be able to use your Avatar to join the gang yourself.
Developed by Sumo Digital, the Sheffield studio behind the recent superb Out Run revival, you can expect the racing model to be absolutely rock solid, while SEGA's iconic blue sky approach to visuals means it's a colourful and characterful joy to play. It goes on sale from November 16th for Xbox 360 and PlayStation 3. A Wii U version will follow on November 30th, when Nintendo's new console launches.
The Winning Formula?
Last, but certainly not least, is F1 Race Stars from Codemasters. This companion game to the long-running and critically acclaimed F1 simulation series isn't nearly as interested in realism as its big brother. You'll race as cartoon versions of real F1 drivers such as Lewis Hamilton, Fernando Alonso and Sebastian Vettel, around tracks loosely inspired by the actual 2012 F1 season. It's not such an outlandish idea - after all, real life kart racing is often the first step towards an actual F1 career - but as this is a game for all the family don't be too surprised if famous tracks like Monaco have been enhanced with a few ramps, loops and stunts, all served up with social multiplayer fun in mind.
The game came about after Codemasters realised that there was a wider Formula 1 fan base that wasn't up to the stiff challenge of a full-on simulation. "It was very much our vision from the outset to create an F1 game that everyone could enjoy, be that kids, family and friends, or mates before and after the pub," senior producer Chris Gray has said. F1 Race Stars will be available for PlayStation 3, Xbox 360 and PC from November 16th, with a Wii U version to follow.
So it seems that go-karts are more like buses. You wait ages for one, then three turn up at the same time. The good news is that each of these games pushes this evergreen genre into interesting new directions, playing with the proven Mario Kart formula to serve up distinctive experiences. Whether you play one of them, or try them all, here's hoping we're seeing the full-time return of this fantastically entertaining genre.