Welcome to the first edition of Nostalgia Obscura, the series that shines a spotlight on the hidden gems from gaming’s past…
This time we look at Muppet RaceMania, a kart racer that was far better than it had any right to be. We discuss why it innovated and improved on its contemporaries, and arguably outperformed Mario Kart.
Everyone has that game that they played to death back in the day, which no one else seemed to check out, or at the very least, doesn’t get the love and appreciation it deserves.
Our series Nostalgia Obscura looks to shine a light on just this sort of game. Those hidden gems that are hard to play outside of their original hardware, that never got a remaster and yet still helped to shape a generation’s taste in gaming…
I’m starting with Muppet RaceMania.
I’ve always been a huge fan of the Muppets, but being a 90s kid, the films of that era will forever be my favourite. Muppets Christmas Carol, Muppet Treasure Island… Muppets From Space!? Art, every single last one. That’s why I couldn’t wait to get my grubby, six year old mitts on Muppet RaceMania.
This game is so hard to get hold of now. I had to pick up an old Blockbuster rental copy not to crack 25 quid. At least I’ve got the Powerline number if I ever need instant game help.
Originally released in 2000 for the PS1, it’s a kart racer featuring characters and courses from the first 20 years or so of Muppet movies, including Muppets From Space, the most underrated film in the franchise.
Around this time, it felt like every major entertainment property was trying to shoot out a Mario Kart clone, even M&Ms, Antz and the slightly spoiled cream on top of the crop, Star Wars Super Bombad Racing. God I love that game! Sidebar, we also have a Star Wars list of the best games, so check that out if you have the time. But Muppet RaceMania was different. It had 25 playable characters compared to Mario Kart 64’s paltry 8. Sure, most of them had to be unlocked, but that makes everything you do feel important and satisfying with constant rewards. Plus who wants to play as Toad when you can play as Dr. Bunsen?
It saw the first appearance of some more obscure fan favourites like Janice, Scooter and Link Hogthrob since the death of Jim Henson and voice actor and Muppeteer Richard Hunt. It also proved to be the last time Frank Oz would voice all his characters before retiring from the show, making it a surprisingly important entry in the history of the Muppets.
As for game modes, most of your time will be spent in the straight races. Each course is preceded with a great FMV from whatever movie it’s based on. It really helps to frame the track in the context of the movie, giving it a real sense of authenticity, whether or not you’ve actually seen the film.
But if you haven’t seen Muppets From Space, you’re really missing out. It has Hulk Hogan playing an evil bodyguard and David Arquette playing an even evil-er scientist, it’s great.
Each track is chock full with secret shortcuts to find, fruit to give you a speed boost and weapons to blow up your opponents. Speaking of the latter, although there are only four items you can use, they’re littered all over the track, much more so than your regular kart racer, with two slots available to bank items a whole three years before Mario Kart Double Dash would give you the luxury.
Much like Mario, there’s also a hilariously chaotic battle mode, where you have to blow up everyone else before they blow up you. Rather than the multiple lives you might find in other games, RaceMania uses a health bar in a similar style to Destruction Derby. Personally, I kind of prefer this, it just keeps everything all the more tense when you’re down to your last sliver of life.
But where this game really innovates is with its stunt mode. Effectively a kart racer-cum-platformer, you have to navigate an obstacle-laden course in the quickest time possible. You have to make full use of your jump ability, pinpoint turning and raw skill to prevail, and gunning for those highscores can get super addictive. I’d love to see this added to Mario Kart. Can you imagine an adaptation of World 1-1 from Super Mario for your kart? It could be amazing.
Now that’s the laundry list of what Muppet RaceMania offers, but how does it play? Well, it’s an acquired taste for sure, especially if your experience of kart racers starts and ends in the Mushroom Kingdom. It’s definitely a lot looser, feeling more like a real R/C car than anything, and bouncing off walls on sharp turns is basically just par of the course.
Fortunately, you can turn while stationary, not needing to move forward or backwards to change direction. This makes it so much easier to make the awkward turns necessary to access all the secret routes, not to mention get the lowest times in stunt mode.
Overall, once you get the hang of it, it’s an absolute blast. The looser controls just adds to the chaos of everything, and while it means there’s probably no future in a Muppet RaceMania esports league, the multiplayer still makes for barrels of laughs even 20 years later.
And that’s the thing, this is a game that needs to be played with others. While it does have an objective-based adventure mode, its singleplayer appeal is much more limited, and playing it again by myself in the height of Lockdown just wasn’t the same as playing it with friends.
That’s why we need a remaster, remake or at least a rerelease. Muppet RaceMania would be unbelievable with online multiplayer, especially with updated textures and HD resolution. Hell, you could even add Walter from the 2011 film if you absolutely have to.
But alas, developers Traveller’s Tales have been way too busy churning out LEGO licensed games for the past 15 years, which are also fun, but come on, are you telling me there’s no longer an audience for a Muppets themed kart racer?
So what have we learned today? Muppet RaceMania is better than Mario Kart 64 and Muppets From Space is the best Muppets movie.
I hate when that happens.