For years, I’ve inoculated myself from the cloying charms of the LittleBigPlanet series. The games made me feel the same way I do when I watch a Michel Gondry movie or any form of entertainment involving Zooey Deschanel—like I am being bodyslammed by cuteness. I initially wrote off LittleBigPlanet as a Super Mario-style game awkwardly mated with an art teacher’s Pinterest page. I wasn’t interested in guiding Sackboy, Sony’s mute cloth mascot, through a crafty world to collect an exhausting amount of textiles and trinkets—the kind of stuff you might discover on the bottom shelf of a Jo-Ann Fabrics store. The game seemed to consider me more of a hoarder than a player.
But as a casual connoisseur of go-kart games, I promised I’d keep an open mind while playing Sackboy’s first venture into motorsports. LittleBigPlanet Karting is a collaboration between Vancouver developer United Front Games, who created the 2010 kart game ModNation Racers, and U.K.-based Media Molecule, the minds behind LittleBigPlanet. In many ways, Karting is exactly what you might expect from the combination of the two. The kart racing, with an emphasis on simplicity and deep customization, evokes ModNation Racers, but this time there’s a thick coat of Etsy-shop style on top. The visuals of cardboard and cloth, the myriad collectables, and the dulcet tones of British narrator Stephen Fry are all borrowed from Sackboy’s realm.
Speaking of borrowing, the core of Karting is ripped from the pages of the “Generic Video Game Kart Racer 101” playbook—eight drivers compete by speeding past each other on a host of diverse tracks while gathering power-ups that can be used to boost speed, sabotage opponents, or defend against attacks. Driving skill is a factor, but so is the luck of the power-up draw, and the system is rigged to favor close races. At any given moment, the racers at the back of the pack have greater odds of landing an overpowered super boost, like a giant boxing glove that automatically propels you toward the front and a “fast-forward” function that does much the same thing.
I’ve always had mixed feelings about these rubber-banding special effects. The purist in me argues that it rewards players for being bad at the game, but the upside is that it helps level the playing field between players of disparate skill and creates a sense of playful chaos. (And really, I can’t imagine a scenario in which lapping my friends in a cartoony kart game would add to my sense of personal fulfillment.)
The world of Karting is broken up into several creatively themed planets, each dotted with a handful sublevels. Instead of clichéd Ice or Underground maps, you negotiate your way through fantastical creations: puddles of chocolate sauce and giant cupcakes in the bakery-themed Victoria’s Laboratory, for instance, or deadly appliances in The Progress Emporium, a world that parodies optimistic 1950s consumerism. Then there’s The Space Bass, a futuristic space-funk world that feels like a George Clinton hallucination come true. Out of the 71 total levels, less than half are pure races. Some are battle modes where you carom around a small playfield and wage cute-weapon war on rival drivers, while others present you with random tasks like jumping over pastries on a conveyor belt.
Things get even more eccentric when delving into user-made levels. Karting features a robust track creation and sharing system, and while I personally have no interest in making my own Sackboy Speedway, it’s fun to play the ideas of others. In one user-generated race, I slowly ascended a mountainside as an enemy fired a missile in the form of a cow at my back fender. Another amateur auteur’s battle level is set in a massive submarine that slowly submerges and fills with sea water as you fight.
It’s these wild and wonderful rabbit holes that help Karting transcend the usual trappings of kart games. Like an intramural kickball league, it’s a game concerned less with fierce competition and winning trophies and more about the joy of goofing around. That may also be the case with previous games in the series, but I was too curmudgeonly to realize it. With its makeshift go-karts and a goofy steering wheel controller (sold separately), Karting offers a new enticement into the Sackboy realm—it’s a gentle hug instead of a bodyslam.