Developing a kart racer is hard.
It’s forgivable to forget that sometimes! Nintendo often makes it look easy. And… simple? Mario Kart games often feel basic and obvious, fun games for sure but ones that get there through apparent means.
But playing most of the franchise’s competitors makes you remember just how much craft and balance you need to make a kart racer work. It’s doable, for sure! We’ve seen that over the years, with releases like Blur and Sonic & All-Stars Racing Transformed giving Nintendo a real run for its money. But more often, a game falls flat despite its best efforts.
So how does Chocobo GP fare?
Well it doesn’t start from scratch. A sequel to original PlayStation release Chocobo Racing, Chocobo GP builds on that game’s foundation. And that PS1-era Final Fantasy influence is clear. Its items are Magicite, with effects that grow if you collect more of the same type before firing. Its cast includes Vivi and Steiner, among mainstay creatures like Moogles. And the game’s first “season” additions, Cloud and Squall, show that they’re sticking to this time period for a while yet.
The Magicite item system can be an interesting layer to manage. Instead of item boxes, the color-coded pickups come in bronze, silver and gold. Gold is usually the best, giving you two of the same element, but silver guarantees it’ll match your last type and is a better choice sometimes. (Bronze is just random, but hey, it’s something!)
The selection of attacks does its best to provide rubberbanding without a blue shell. They often benefit players behind you as well as yourself when you use them. For example, color-coded red and blue portals warp you forward on the course, while sometimes allowing others to follow and occasionally catching someone off-guard in front of you and teleporting them the other direction. Character super attacks can put boosts on the board for others, too.
This is an interesting idea! And there’s a degree to which it works, though it could use some fine-tuning. Like those portals? Sometimes they’ll orient poorly and shoot you right off the course or into walls, and you end up further behind than you were. And the well-known Mario Kart phenomenon of a near-endless barrage of items that hit you at the finish line and steal away your victory? Yeah, Chocobo GP has that too, and it in many ways feels worse. Even on a lower difficulty, you can often lead the whole race only to finish 7th because of the severity of attacks and recovery time afterward.
So how is the driving? And how are the tracks? The answer is… fine? Chocobo GP recycles environments to provide a few variations of tracks, a reasonable use of development resources that inevitably leads things to feel a bit samey. And it does feel like it could benefit from locales that were a bit more on-the-nose references to classic Final Fantasy.
The driving feels a bit floaty at times, but it’s tolerable enough. The main element holding it back? Control options. Chocobo GP offers three configurations in the options menu, but all of them map acceleration to the Switch’s tiny shoulder bumpers and none of them let you really utilize the much larger and more comfortable triggers instead. It’s weird! And something you might expect from a multiplatform port designed for a different gamepad layout. (This can, and should, be addressed in a patch. We hope.)
The structure of Chocobo GP is a bit strange, making us think that it may have moved back and forth between a paid release and a free-to-play title in development. At release, there’s a “lite” version that can join local multiplayer and participate in the 64-player GP mode. Upgrading to the full release gets you a larger suite of options, a story campaign and more characters.
We weren’t able to test GP before launch — it really does require that many players — but it’s billed as the main attraction of the game and clearly attempting to capitalize on the battle royale trend. The top four players in an eight-person race continue up the ladder, with a final round determining the overall winner. We were, though, able to test the game’s multiplayer connections with individual and circuit races, and didn’t experience hiccups. Which is a good sign! But we’d still expect the usual crowding problems around launch day.
That story mode, though! Hey, let’s talk about that for a minute. Have kart racer story modes ever been particularly successful? There’s something about the randomness of item hits, especially in Chocobo GP, that make strict success-failure conditions more frustrating than fun. You can turn down the difficulty and push through to unlock most of the characters and rewards, so it’s tolerable. But there’s a reason Mario Kart hasn’t gone down this path.
The visuals of Chocobo GP are fine, if unspectacular. Its interfaces do feel a bit like a cheaper mobile game at times? But it’s tolerable. The soundtrack is also mostly fine, with one huge exception: its menu theme. Rarely have we encountered a song as annoying as this one, with inane lyrics that mostly just list character names. Please add an option to pick another song, Square Enix.
Chocobo GP fares better than most Mario Kart competitors, delivering a rough-around-the-edges experience that’s still fundamentally fun most of the time. Its weaknesses and frustrations, though — combined with the incoming deluge of new Mario Kart 8 Deluxe tracks — will likely limit its audience.
Chocobo GP is launching March 10, 2022 on the Nintendo Switch eShop.