Sony has been lacking a truly compelling Mario Kart clone for… well, for ever. We’ve had a whole spectrum of games which have attempted to ape Nintendo’s pole position racer, from the truly awful ModNation Racers: Road Trip, to the mediocre LittleBigPlanet Karting and at the other end of the scale, the surprisingly solid Sonic and All-Stars Racing Transformed, which was a great early addition to the Vita’s line-up.
Next to enter the ring is Table Top Racing, from developer Playrise Digital Ltd. Originally released on iOS back at the beginning of 2013, the Vita port hit the store on August 5th. So how does this title measure up against all those that have come before? Does lightning strike where it hasn’t before with Table Top Racing or are we left with a lame fizzle? Well, there is good and bad news from Playrise’s Vita entry. Ever the optimist, I’ll start with what’s great about Table Top Racing.
Gamers of the mid 90’s will remember the Micro Machines series of racers, which featured a top down view as you careered around various giant scale environments, from school desks to kitchen tops, with the titular Micro Machines. That visual style has been used in Table Top Racing, though the camera is in the style of Mario Kart, as in, behind the vehicle. The mix of the two styles is pleasantly robust, offering that great Micro Machinery feel, with the much more controllable Mario Kart view.
There are 8 different (and reversible) tracks to race on, from places like a garage workbench to a kids play area, but my own favourites are the picnic and Japanese restaurant courses. The colours are bright and really pop on the Vita’s screen, and all the bangs and flashes are very pleasant to look at.
Beyond the games visuals though, probably the best feature of Table Top Racing is the amount of different race modes. There are six in total, including the usual time trials and straight up races, but there are some interesting ones like ‘Pursuit’ which sees you having to chase down another vehicle and crash into it before the time expires, and ‘Elimination’ in which the last place racer is eliminated after each lap, adding real impetus to ensure you are never in last place for long.
There is of course a pure Mario Kart style event called a ‘Combat’ race, where vehicles can pick up special weapons and bonuses by driving through ‘item’ boxes. Along with the usual boost type items, you can use these power-ups to attack other opponents or to defend yourself from their attacks, creating some quite frantic action with bangs and flashes going off all over the place. It’s nice to have those other race modes in the game, but ‘Combat’ races are the ones that will keep you playing in the long run.
As you complete races and cups, you’ll earn a star rating from 1-3. The more stars, the more coins and the more coins, the more you can spend upgrading your vehicles. In a nice touch, beyond simply improving acceleration or handling, you can upgrade your wheels with special wheels that bestow unique bonuses — for example Bling Wheels earn more coins for each race won, while Shield Wheels give a 5 second shield each lap. I like how these upgradable wheels allow you to customise the vehicles to your own particular playing style without drastically unbalancing the game.
There is much to like in Table Top Racing but there are also problems which, while not game braking, add up to cause needless frustration. Most heinous of all is the total lack of instructions in the game. On first starting up, you have no way of finding the control scheme, which results in a period of trail and error as you start races and simply have to press all the buttons and screen icons until you figure it out. Not the end of the world, but totally unnecessary when a simple screen showing the controls would be enough.
It’s also quite confusing at the start what all the different race modes mean and how they relate to the Mario Kart-ish ‘Grand Prix’ style ‘Season Finales’. You can’t simply enter the Grand Prix events, instead you must work your way through a series of individual events of the various race modes, unlocking access as you go until you reach the Season Finale. The Finale events themselves consist of 3 ‘Combat’ races during which you attempt to finish in as high a position as possible to ensure you end up at the top of the standings.
My grievance with these Finales is that they are arguably the most enjoyable aspect of the game and yet they are locked away behind the individual events. Competing in a cup style event where each race counts toward the next one is much more enjoyable than simply competing in a random time trial just so that I can unlock the next race in the chain. Also, on a somewhat petty note, you begin each of the three Finale races in last place, regardless of where you finished in the previous race. To me, that just felt like a cheap trick to give the computer an advantage and is definitely a step back from the likes of Mario Kart and Sonic.
However, perhaps the most important missing feature is a mini-map, showing racer positions along with the course itself. You never really know how you’re doing besides your position number. How far you are from the front or rear of the pack is anyone’s guess. The lack of a map also means there are many times that you drive right off the track since you never know what’s coming up on the next bend in the course.
I mentioned before about the ‘item’ boxes used to pick up special power-ups. Again, this could just be me being picky, but I don’t like how if I have a stored power-up and drive through an ‘item’ box, the box doesn’t disappear. One of the most useful tactics in Mario Kart for when you’re in the lead is to purposefully take out those boxes to prevent the following player from blasting you in the ass. This tactic is completely moot in Table Top Racing because of this.
The final negative point I want to make is the inclusion of micro transactions, which allow you to quickly buy the coins needed to upgrade your vehicles and is totally superfluous. Since the game started it’s life on iOS, it’s not so surprising to see them in the Vita version, but I really dislike their inclusion here. I understand the reasons why developers add them, but really they have no place being on Vita.
So yes, while the above points are not game breaking, when added together they serve to make Table Top Racing a pretty decent game, and not the great game that it could have been. I did have fun playing it and the Season Finales were definitely my favourite events, but it’s a long way from Sonic and All-Stars and in a whole other universe to Mario Kart. It may be unfair to compare Table Top Racing to Nintendo’s seemingly unstoppable franchise, but let’s be honest, that is the benchmark toward which all kart/miniature racing games aspire.
Sebastian has been playing games since the age of 8, cutting his teeth with Nintendo and Sega, and now can usually be found dying repeatedly in online FPS’s. Really, he should just quit. Open world RPG’s and grand strategy games also see him lose his sense of reality for several months of the year. You won’t him on twitter though since he lives in a cave