The racing-game genre has expanded dramatically over time, with elements like combat, stunts, time rewind and even soccer added to the mix. And while simulation games are frequent, the most enduring sub-genre is probably the kart racer. We have good old Mario to thank for that, but Mario Kart isn’t the only such game out there. Case in point: All-Star Fruit Racing, which recently released for Nintendo Switch, PS4, Xbox One and PC.
Promotions before the All-Star Fruit Racing release date billed it as “inspired by Mario Kart,” so my ears perked up. My kids’ did too, in part because they don’t own a Nintendo system but frequently play Mario Kart at friends’ houses. We all hoped this Xbox One kart racer would live-up to its advance billing.
Well, the bones are there, but the game lacks meat. There are a bevy of modes, from time attack and custom races to online multiplayer and Career. Career Mode is the largest, as it offers 11 Cup challenges comprised of a half-dozen races each. As with many racing games’ career modes, you earn points in each race based on your finishing position. These points are tallied at the end of each Cup, and if you place in the top three at the end of the season you unlock the next challenge. Unfortunately, your mid-Cup progress isn’t retained. If you have to leave the game after three races, for instance, you’ll have to replay those races once you return to the game. Your progress is saved once you complete a Cup, but not until all of its races are complete. With all the system memory available on these platforms, it’s hard to imagine how mid-Cup saves were overlooked.
Mechanically the game is definitely inspired by Mario Kart. Throughout each race you drive over coins to activate power-ups or traps. Some coins are mystery bubbles, while others are color-coded by one of four fruit types. Gather enough of a single color, and you’ll fill-up one of four tanks that correspond to the controller’s face buttons. Once a color’s tank is full, you can activate its power-up. Alternatively, you can wait until you’ve filled-up two, three or four tanks and then unleash a more-powerful move. In theory this allows you to experiment with different color combinations to create distinct weapons. In practice, it’s just too complex for races that move this quickly, and the different power-ups aren’t differentiated enough in power or effect to really justify building-up your coin collection.
Each track includes a bunch of boost triggers, or you can generate your own boost by drifting. You’d think this would lead to a bunch of drift races, but it’s not as fun as it sounds. The game already handles a bit on the squirrelly side, and customizing the tires (or other elements) doesn’t seem to impact the handling. Cup challenges early in the game are lonely affairs. If you get out front you’re often there to stay, and if you make a mistake and end-up in back, you’ll seldom regain your position. I’ve always disliked catch-up mechanics, but All-Star Fruit Racing seems to have swung the pendulum too far in the opposite direction. As a result, the early races are a bit boring. Things get tighter once you hit the third Cup, though mistakes are even more unforgiving. This is understandable when the mistakes are user error, but not when you press left and see your car drift to the right. Really.
In some respects, All-Star Fruit Racing is reminiscent of the original Xbox launch game Mad Dash. Like Mad Dash, All-Star Fruit Racing moves fairly quickly and has alternate paths that are frequently hard to see, let alone navigate toward. That may not seem like a bad thing until you consider that Mad Dash released in November 2001. Gamers’ expectations for racing mechanics and track design have evolved considerably. The Mad Dash comparison is again appropriate when it comes to visuals. All-Star Fruit Racing feels like the lovechild of Mad Dash and LEGO Friends. Part of that is the cartoon-inspired design, but part is the fact that every racer is female, and the bright colors are straight out a LEGO Friends instruction manual. The bright colors, in fact, are one aspect that makes track navigation difficult. So many colors are used so often that it can be hard to distinguish the race track from the set dressing. In some races you’ll spend the first two laps just trying to comprehend how a track handles. Good luck winning, then, if you’re in a three-lap race rather than five. And Lord help you if you’re playing in one of the later Cups, where there are more point-to-point races that you never even have the luxury of navigating more than once.
This was compounded in multiplayer. Thanks again to Mario Kart, we expected split-screen multiplayer to be an absolute riot. It was more of a chore, and even my kids quickly tired of it. If the game was challenging to navigate in single-player, imagine splitting that over-stimulation across multiple independently moving sections of the TV screen. Not only was it more distracting than necessary, but it inspired a bit of vertigo and just wasn’t enjoyable.
We had high hopes for All-Star Fruit Racing. My kids were especially excited by its potential. But the game’s mechanics were too complex for my nine-year-old daughter, and there wasn’t enough variety or “guy stuff” for my 12-year-old son. My kids liked the idea of not having to play Mario Kart at their friends’ houses, but they’d rather do that than try their hand again at All-Star Fruit Racing.