Review

LittleBigPlanet Karting

Unbreak My Kart

LittleBigPlanet Karting relies on its users to save it from predictability.

By Ryan Smith • November 14, 2012

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.

LittleBigPlanet Karting

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.

LittleBigPlanet Karting

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.

LittleBigPlanet Karting
Developers: United Front Games, Media Molecule
Publisher: Sony
Platform: PlayStation 3
Price: $60
Rating: E

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  • Mercenary_Security_number_4

    “I initially wrote off LittleBigPlanet as a Super Mario-style game awkwardly mated with an art teacher’s Pinterest page.”

    Well good thing you didn’t tell anyone that, since when LBP came out pinterest hadn’t launched yet.  They would’ve thought you were a witch. 
    Ok, that’s me being a jerk.  I understand what you mean.  But seriously, tell me you know no one plays LPB primarily for the pre-made levels.  Please tell me you know that.

    • Aurora Boreanaz

      I too was going to make the Pinterest comment, light-heartedly.  “Caveman Grok no like this game, it remind him of bad Zynga copy!”

      LBP looked neat to me, but I’ve never owned a PS3, so that scratches any chance of checking it out.

    • Fyodor Douchetoevsky

      I’ve literally stayed up all night playing a single Little Big Planet custom level. LBP is awesome, Zooey Deschanel is the worst. Although I don’t like the floaty jumps, but mleh, I can deal with it.

    • http://twitter.com/RyanSmithWriter Ryan Smith

      I’m sort of scared to tell you if I knew that.

      • HobbesMkii

        Yeah, if I were you I wouldn’t answer that. It seems like a trap.

      • Mercenary_Security_number_4

        last week I made Teti cry and now I’ve got Smith scared.  I think adding the Christopher Judge icon has made me seem more impressive.

        • Drew Toal

          Wait til I add Tuff Turf-era James Spader.

  • ferrarimanf355

    I never got into Mario Kart. The unbalanced weapons that punish you for doing well just turned me off after the fifth blue shell.

    Blur is the best Mario Kart clone. Such an underrated gem.

    • Mercenary_Security_number_4

      Yeah, Mario Kart is designed to punish strategy and reward being a preschooler.  Its a good game to play against your relative’s little munchkins, since if you forget to go easy on them the game will do it for you.

      • ferrarimanf355

        There are so many better kart racers. Blur, Crash Team Racing and Sonic and Sega All Stars Racing are my top three.

        Sonic and Sega All Stars Racing Transformed is one I’m dying to get my hands on.

        • WorldCivilizations

          liked for CTR

      • Enkidum

        @ferrarimanf355:disqus I loved the shit out of Sonic & Sega, haven’t heard of Transformed yet. I can’t get my kids into it, though, because they’re attracted by the ease and brand name of Mario. Which is too bad, because I bought it ostensibly for me to play with them.

    • http://twitter.com/RyanSmithWriter Ryan Smith

      Like I said, I used to take this position with Mario Kart but I’ve softened over time. The original SNES version actually had the best balance when it comes to power-ups.

      • Steve McCoy

        Yeah, the original Super Mario Kart doesn’t have the blue shell, and it’s still the best. People in the back are more likely to get the lightning bolt and star, but those are more fun than the blue shell because while they help the trailing player, they also don’t directly hurt the leader unless the trailing player can make contact. The two players have to directly compete.

        With the blue shell, the same person can be at the back of the pack the whole time, firing blue shells, never making any progress, while the leaders are just swapping back and forth, without necessarily interacting.

        • Shawn Hudson

          I don’t have as much experience with Mario Karts outside of the original SNES one, but I distinctly remember lapping my friends on certain levels. It sounds like the newer Mario Karts quelled that and thus made it much shittier. Also, I remember one track where you could bypass half of the course through a well-timed jump. Nothing like cheating to make a racing game that much better!

    • HobbesMkii

      I’ve been playing a lot of Mario Kart 64 (which I personally suck at) against a friend (who has owned it since it came out and therefore tends to own me at it), and I disagree with the idea that the weapons are unbalanced.

      I think it’s sort of the perfect together game that everyone can agree upon because everyone will have fun and enough playthroughs will guarantee that everyone was a winner at least once. My buddy clearly dominates me in most matches, but there are times when luck plays to my hand enough that I can pull into the lead in maybe one out of five races.

      Compare that to any other competitive game and that’s a pretty significant application of balance. Contrast that to a competitive game like Halo, where in local multiplayer play against my friends, I’ll win hands down, every single time, provided I have at least one functioning thumb, due to my familiarity with the game. It’s to the point where we all immediately reject the idea of playing it, because we know no one will really have a good time with it–my friends won’t enjoy losing time after time, and I won’t enjoy causing my friends repeated anguish (well…maybe that’s not true, but it’ll get old after a while, in any event)

      Mario Kart‘s innate “unfair” power-up distribution where players in first are saddled with bananas and single red shells, while players in last get the lightning bolt and the blue shell regularly forces players who want to maintain first to adapt in ways that plain old racers or multiplayer shooters don’t. Frankly, I don’t think the blue shell is as much of a hassle as people make it out to be (although I’ve rarely been on the receiving end). My buddy is either too far ahead for it to make a notable difference, or he purposefully falls into a close second place in order to avoid it, then steams past the person it hit.

      It really seems to me that the problem you’ve got is less that the game “punish[es]” skill, than that it automatically imposes a handicap on players who would otherwise dominate the playing field (and their friends). I think that’s because Mario Kart was really designed to be played with three other people sitting in a room with you, having fun. It’s a form of skill welfare, if you well, that tries to raise people without much in the way of advantages to a level where they’re at least competitive, if not actually the competition. It actually strikes me as a brilliant approach to competitive game design.

      • http://twitter.com/RyanSmithWriter Ryan Smith

        You’re making the argument that I’ve really come around to as far as competitive balance. It’d be nice in more games like Halo where you could set sliders when playing with friends to give less skilled players some advantage (sort of like bowling and golf handicaps?) 

        Some sports games lets one player play on a Rookie difficulty level and others play on All-Star and that feels like a good system.

        • HobbesMkii

          GoldenEye allowed players to have handicaps. And even if you didn’t want to set them, you could always just play on a cramped map with Proximity Mines: the great equalizer (and a lot of fun in their own right!). Halo 3 attempted a similar system with its Matchmaking computer, but because that system is predicated on a specific ranking number that the player had to earn, it often meant unbalanced play; a player who was scored as a 1 because they’d just started more often belonged in the 7 or 11 category, meaning that legitimate 1-3s got the short stick when it came to matchmaking.

          More games could benefit from examining the successes of N64 competitive play.

        • Jackbert322

          @HobbesMkii:disqus Does the recent remake Goldeneye Reloaded have handicaps? Because that might make the perfect game I’ve been looking for to play with other people. The sports games don’t work because the only one with controls the average person can quickly grasp is MLB The Show, and games take two hours there. I mentioned this below; I really want a game to play with my younger brother, and Goldeneye really does sound like it could work, especially with handicaps.

        • HobbesMkii

          @Jackbert322:disqus I wish I knew the answer to that question. A quick survey on Google didn’t turn up anything, but I’ll admit I didn’t search too hard.

        • Jackbert322

          That’s aight, @HobbesMkii:disqus . I can search in a more detailed manner, just wasn’t sure if you played the remake and knew the answer off the top of your head, thereby saving me three minutes of work :)

        • BarbleBapkins

          Mario Kart Wii lets you turn off the really overpowered items (or all items if that’s your thing) which is a feature I wish every game in the series had. Otherwise, the crazy blue-shellness does get in the way of actual exciting races between equally skilled opponents, but that is probably one of the reasons Mario Kart makes an excellent party game.

          When my non-videogame playing friends come over, its a game they actually suggest playing. Being in the same room (and sharing a few beers) with the people you are playing against makes the randomness much less annoying.  Playing online with strangers, and getting knocked from 1st to last right at the finish line is not quite as enjoyable.

      • Boonehams

        The biggest problem I’ve had with the recent iterations of Mario Kart (namely Mario Kart Wii) is that as a single player game, it’s one of the least fun and most frustrating games I’ve ever personally played. Content is locked away and its release is predicated on how well you rank in the races. With the amount of randomness in the game, if you’re playing by yourself in order to unlock everything, it’ll make you angry enough to punch an orphan.

        True story: I was playing the N64 Bowser Castle track on Mario Kart Wii and was coming to the final stretch. There’s a part where you make a jump over a lava pit, make a 90 degree turn and the finish line is right there. I was in first place coming up to the jump when a blue shell hit me and I tumbled into the lava. When Lakitu placed me back on the track, I was in fourth. “Well, I can still get a first for the cup with a fourth place in one race,” I thought. Just then, fifth place came screaming in with an invincibility star, ran into me and knocked me back into the pit. When Lakitu put me back on the track again, I was in tenth. Eleventh and twelfth passed by me as I crossed the jump. Up until that moment, I never screamed at a game to go fornicate itself, but I can’t say the same for today.

        In a game that random with such blatant rubber-banding, locking away content in the single-player mode is just poor game design, if you ask me–plain and simple. Not all of us have our friends/family at our disposal to play a few fun rounds of multiplayer mayhem. Some of us look for a fun single-player experience and quite frankly, I doubt I’ll ever go to Mario Kart for that ever again.

        All that said, I still think Mario Kart: Double Dash is one of the most fun co-op experiences I’ve had.

  • Fyodor Douchetoevsky

    It’s like Mario Party. Completely not balanced in any way that makes sense, but still hilarious with a couple of friends. I mean, no one takes Mario Kart seriously. If they do they are lame-os. Same with Super Smash, now that I think about it (though my friends are the no items, final destination crowd so I don’t play that with them anymore). 

    • ferrarimanf355

      I just fail to see the fun in Mario Kart and that there are better alternatives. Just my two cents.

    • http://www.avclub.com/users/merve,96925/ Merve

      My friends also like Final Destination with no items. I didn’t know that was a thing. In any case, I prefer fighting on the batshit insane stages that keep transforming into different stages or turning upside-down. Why take the wackiness out of a game that was never meant to be taken seriously?

      • BarbleBapkins

        The one friend of mine who likes to play SSB is the same way. I just don’t see how removing sentient bombs, laser guns, lightsabers, and pinball bumpers from a game is supposed to make it better.

      • alguien_comenta

        The only stages I truly hate are the scrolling ones

        • http://www.avclub.com/users/merve,96925/ Merve

          I usually play as Kirby, so I can win those stages by being cheap and staying near the top, but I can see why they’d be annoying for other characters.

        • alguien_comenta

          @Merve2:disqus I usually play Ness/Lucas so I guess that’s also a factor.

        • http://www.avclub.com/users/merve,96925/ Merve

          I can see why that would be tough. 75% of the time I mess up Ness’s lightning bolt thingy and end up booting myself downwards and off the stage.

      • His_Space_Holiness

        Argh, freshman year memories flooding back! My suitemates had Melee, and every match was Fox vs. Falco, Final Destination, No Items. It was the most boring thing imaginable. They just did it OVER and OVER and OVER.

        Then again, my character of choice was Mr. Game & Watch, so I clearly hitched my wagon to silliness long ago.

        • http://www.avclub.com/users/merve,96925/ Merve

          My college SSB sessions used to last long into the wee hours of Friday and Saturday nights. When I wasn’t using Kirby, Mr. Game & Watch was my character of choice too. I remember yelling “I’M GOING TO FEED YOU BACON UNTIL YOU DIE” a lot.

        • The_Misanthrope

           Yeah, I’m pretty sure Final Destination/no items is the preferred SSB setting for tournaments.  There must be a pretty serious fighting engine beneath all the wackiness to attract such a crowd; To me, it always felt like Super Button-Mashy Bros.  But when playing it as a party game, why wouldn’t you leave all that shit in?  Nobody wants to play a party game when the one or two super-talented players dominate and show off.

      • BROedipus

        I actually really like the competitive aspect of SSBM. The fighting system is just so that you pretty much will never hit a point where you just can’t stop getting better at the game. That said, I don’t get why people like to bore it up on Final Destination. Really, though, there’s a time and place for every type of play. For example: 99 life battles fighting against three level  9 computers (preferably with all three AIs being fox) in a team battle while you’re drinking alone, brooding in a dimly lit room.

    • alguien_comenta

      SSB needs to be played with all items and on a random stage, I don’t get the “competitive crowd” at all.
      These games are great party games, I have other competitive games (SF4, FIFA whatever, DoA), but none allow the less skilled players to have fun. I still win most of the times, but the losers don’t feel that far away, and if you lose you can just laugh at how X random thing happened and fucked you over.
      Mario Party is a completely different beast, at the end it starts doing some Calvinball shit and giving stars at random. Weird, weird game

  • Enkidum

    Damn, I’m going to have to buy this once it goes on sale – sounds awesome.

    It would be extra awesome if the degree of rubber-banding (and other similar things) was customizable as well. So you could create totally hardcore levels as you saw fit.

  • Jackbert322

    I’m not sure about this game. The rubber banding makes it seem like it could be a game my little brother and I could play competetively without strangling each other, but I though the same about Marvel vs Capcom 3 (never played the fighting game genre at all), and he lost his shit when I won two in a row after he won the first game. Also, noted LittleBigPlanet and ModNationRacers fanboy Greg Miller from IGN didn’t like this game, which makes me apprehensive because of his said tendecy to absolutely rave about a game from either franchise. @twitter-71287667:disqus , did you try out the creation tools at all? Like @Mercenary_Security_number_4:disqus said, LBP isn’t for the developer’s levels, it’s for making your own. Also, it’s not like I loved either LBP or its sequel, got the first for free with the PSN outage, and the second for free with PS+, played the first a decent bit but stopped eventually, and still haven’t really felt like playing much of LBP 2. But part of the reason for that was the floaty platforming, and this is a racing game, a genre which I enjoy. In conclusion, I’m a wishy washy blockhead.

    • http://twitter.com/RyanSmithWriter Ryan Smith

      Jackbert,

      I liked playing a lot of other people’s levels but just don’t have the motivation to make my own. It feels too much like work to me. From the little experience I had with the track creation tools, it seemed pretty comprehensive. There was a lot of tutorials explaining how to do it. 

      As I said, I really enjoyed playing this game and making my customizable Sackboy–I made a Victorian style version complete with monocle, cape, hat and he drove a mini Zeppelin. 

      For what it’s worth, I played this game with two female non-gamers, and they liked it even more than I did.

      • Jackbert322

        All right, just wondering if the creation tools were up to par with other games in the series. Miller’s review seems to be an outlier in comparision to other reception, I was just surprised he was negative about it, given his opinions on other games in the series. I didn’t create much in other LBP games, but I think I would be much more motivated to create an expansive and detailed track rather than level, just because of my gaming tastes. I’ll look around for vidoes and such, but given your experience playing levels others made, it’s probably okay.

        I’m assuming your last line was in response to my statement about my brother. Well, he’s not exactly a non-gamer, but he’s new to it, and instead of trying to get better, he just does really easy missions in Toy Box mode in Toy Story 3. So far he’s gotten stuck in LittleBigPlanet, Ratchet & Clank: All 4 One, and the Story mode of Toy Story 3, and doesn’t actually care about finishing the game. Really bothers me actually. Damn his generation, with their iWhatsits and Mad Birds. They don’t know how to WORK HARD, how to POWER THROUGH. When I was a young’un, back in the days when the DS was new…

        I’m thinking a game like Goldeneye Reloaded might actually be better to play competetively against hin. In fighting games, neither of us know what we’re doing, and in kart racers, luck is a big factor, so I can’t actually go easy on him, in terms of specifically lowering my skill level. On the other hand, in Goldeneye Reloaded, I can just not try as hard, and go for winning 60% of the time. Can’t do 50%, gotta let him know who’s boss.

    • alguien_comenta

      Maybe you should try playing co-op games with your brother

      • Jackbert322

        HAH thanks for the suggestion, but no, those don’t work AT ALL.

        • alguien_comenta

          Yeah, I know the feeling. My brother is not much of a gamer now (mostly plays Racing games, although I managed to hook him into AC). The times we tried to play co-op he just got pissed at me for trying to help him (ok, it was also my fault, people usually don’t look kindly at people pointing out how they’re doing everything wrong), the only ones we enjoyed were brawlers (Turtles in Time, specially). Those are simple to grasp, and if you play with infinite credits there are really no stakes so no reason to get mad