Having looked at the site’s recent stats, it seems that if I want to drive traffic to VGJunk I should write about more games that A) people have actually heard of or B) star raunchy Italian pop stars. With that in mind, here’s an article about an obscure racing game that’s about as raunchy as a Susan Boyle concert at the Vatican. It’s Neko Entertainment’s 2005 Gamecube version of Cocoto Kart Racer!

As the title screen appears and the game blasts out some jolly, bouncy horn riffs, it’s impossible not to be reminded of Mario Kart: Double Dash, which also begins with a static title screen and jolly, bouncy horn riffs. Of course this is going to remind you of Mario Kart, it’s a kart racing game. There aren’t many kart racing games that won’t remind you of Mario Kart, such is the indelible stamp Nintendo left on the racing genre with the Mario Kart series. In the case of Cocoto Kart Racer, however, the similarities might be even more pronounced than usual.

After picking your game mode from the usual list of suspects - championship, single race and multiplayer – it’s time to select your character. Characters are pretty damn important in a kart racing game, and the decision to put their famous faces in go-karts rather than enclosed vehicles like cars when they created the Mario Kart series was a true stroke of genius on Nintendo’s part. That’s why so many other franchises with casts of recognisable stars – Sonic the Hedgehog, Crash Bandicoot, Nicktoons and so on – have seen kart racing spin-offs, because you can have a racing game while still showing off your bankable stars.

Cocoto Kart Racer does not have any bankable stars, of course. They were all created by the game’s developers in a charmingly doomed attempt to forge some kind of Cocoto universe, and they appeared in a few other games besides this one: a platformer, a lightgun shooter and even a fishing game. Sadly for them, Neko Entertainment’s vision of a vast, genre-spanning Cocoto franchise never really got off the ground, but are any of these characters worth remembering? Probably not. They’re a strange, rag-tag mix of animals, imps and gremlins, all of them designed with a bug-eyed, mildly grotesque art style that absolutely screams “European CGI kid’s TV show.” Seriously, the first time I saw these character I was convinced they’d started out as a low-rent CGI kids show, the kind of thing you’d see on Kix sandwiched between Lego: NEXO Knights and the Angry Birds cartoon. Maybe that was Neko Entertainment’s plan for them all along, but alas, it never came to be and so we’re stuck with this game.
Of the characters available at the beginning of the game my favourite was probably Scritch, who appears to be some kind of skinless zombie beaver that’s been squeezed so hard its eyeballs are bulging out. There’s also a mole, a “brainy” gremlin thing, a gecko and green imp called “Baggy.” I really don’t want to know how Baggy got that nickname.

As his name’s in the game’s title, I figured I should start out by playing as Cocoto himself. He’s definitely the Mario of the game, in that he’s an average all-rounder, although you can select different cars so if you really love the thought of playing as Cocoto but want a faster car with less grip then you can have that too. Cocoto is also a devil, presumably spawned in the sulphurous pits of Hell and dedicated to the spiritual corruption of mankind.

Here he is on the loading screen, wistfully dreaming about human suffering. Let’s hope his eponymous kart racing game isn’t his attempt to darken the souls of all those who play it. Also, Cocoto’s weird hand-feet are creeping me out. He’s evolved opposable toes so he can hold two extra pitchforks when he’s on sinner-poking duty.

Okay, here we are with some actual racing, on the enigmatically-named “Glaboon Track.” I have no clue what the heck a glaboon is – perhaps some crystalline outer region of Cocoto’s demonic homeland? Whatever it is, that’s where we’re racing, and a very familiar sort of racing it is too. The kart racing sort, naturally, with the obvious accelerating and braking to be done, as well as buttons for making your kart hop into the air and for powersliding around corners. There’s no fancy “blue sparks” style tricks to be done with the powersliding, not as far as I could figure out, but it does help you get around corners.

Then there are the weapons. As usual in this kind of game, you collect power ups by driving into icons that litter the track, and they’re very much the kind of special attacks you’d expect. Speed boosters are common, as are projectiles that either travel in a straight line or home in on your nearest competitor. In this instance, Cocoto has surrounded himself with the warm, protective embrace of spinning lava balls. And yes, because comparing Cocoto Kart Racer to Mario Kart is absolutely unavoidable. they’re all the sort of thing you’ll be familiar with if you’ve ever played a Mario Kart game. A little too familiar in the case of the lightning power-up, which electrocutes all the other racers just as it does in a Mario Kart game.

Yes, there are a lot of power-ups in this game. A few too many, even, with special attacks that are either identical to other special attacks or have differences so subtle I couldn’t figure them out after several hours of play. For example, one of the “fire straight ahead” projectiles is a demon-appropriate red trident, but you can also pick up orbs that do the same thing. Or there’s the “trap” items that you drop behind your kart, one of which freezes your opponents in a block of ice to slow them down and another that coats your opponent in a gooey blob to, erm, slow them down. Very few of them are visually interesting enough to warrant inclusion and the sheer number of them means it can be difficult to remember, in the heat of a race, which item has what effect. I came for a race, not a test of my memorisation skills. At least those icy crystal pillars look nice.

After a dodgy first lap spent trying to get to grips with the controls and exactly how the drifting works, I managed to haul myself back up to third place by the end of the race. That sounds more impressive than it is, because there are only six racers on the track. Still, after this first race I feel like I’ve got a handle on the physics of the game, helped by the fact that it feels very similar to, you guessed it, a Mario Kart game. I’m only playing through the first championship (the “Silver Pot”) on normal difficulty, so I’m confident I can make my way to the top of the leaderboards.

Next up is the Cerber Track, a rocky, volcanic course that spices things up by adding a lot of jumps into the track. You can see a ramp in the background there, it’s the glowing yellow thing. There’s not much else to say about the ramps. They’re just ramps. However, sometimes they have rings floating above them, and if you jump through the rings you get an extra speed boost – but often they’re a little too high for the ramp itself to reach. This is where your ability to make your kart jump by pressing L comes into play, because you can use it for the little extra height needed to hit the rings. In fact, I think this is the only use of the jump, because I tried hopping over obstacles and the other player’s traps and it didn’t work. You can easily get through the game without ever pressing the jump button, which probably explain why I completely forgot it existed until I was in my third championship.

Oh hey, looks like we’ve solved the mystery of why this is called the Cerber Track. There’s an enormous, three-headed, fire-breathing devil dog in the middle of the stage, which is pretty cool. You drive towards him down a long straight while Cerberus launches massive fireballs at you, which is a fun bit of gameplay and definitely the stand-out section of this track, even if it does feel very familiar. I’m sure some other kart racing game had you driving directly toward a big fiery projectile launcher while swerving around its attacks, but I can’t quite recall which game that was.

This is the Venusia Track, a jungle-themed raceway that momentarily stopped me comparing Cocoto Kart Racer to Mario Kart by making me think of Crash Team Racing instead. That’s kind of weird, actually, I’ve probably played about forty minutes of Crash Team Racing in total and that was a long time ago, so I’m surprised I remember it at all. I think maybe it’s that I’m remembering the Crash Bandicoot games as a whole, because the Venusia Track shares a very similar aesthetic of tropical plants and vaguely “native” stonework. I’m sure the Crash Bandicoot games were much more visually varied than that but again, I didn’t play much of Crash Bandicoot either. I never really took to Crash, I’ll be honest, and neither did anyone else I knew growing up, so it’s always a surprise to me when there’s some Crash Bandicoot news and lots of people get very excited. Maybe I’ll go back and play Crash Bandicoot again one day to see whether I’m missing out. Let me know in the comments if this is a spectacularly bad idea and the original Crash Bandicoot has aged about as well as a the comedy stylings of Jim Davidson.

Oh right, yeah. This game. Got distracted by Crash Bandicoot for a second there, folks. Anyway, Venusia is a decent track with a little variety to it, with sections such as this large ice field where you can take the less-slippery but more time-consuming outer path or drive straight through the middle to save time at the risk of skidding into the ice-skating turtles that clutter the centre of the area. I like the cobwebs that dangle from the branches overhanging the track, too: if you drive through them they stick to your kart and slow you down for a moment, and it feels like a fun, organic way to introduce a different kind of obstacle into the action – one that doesn’t just make you spin out, but has a slightly different effect on your chances of winning the race. Plus, if you’re lucky you can nudge your opponents into them, which is helpful because the other racers seem a lot worse at avoiding spiderwebs than they are at swerving around all your carefully-laid trap items.

Overall I’d say that Venusia is probably my favourite track in the set of five that make up the first championship. It’s fast-paced, it’s got a few interesting hazards and the visuals changing from jungle ruins to ice areas and back again is fun. That said, this might be a case of damning with faint praise, because Venusia Track isn’t that interesting and on the whole the tracks in Cocoto Kart Racer fall slightly on the dull side. They’re never bad, and they mostly have a decent sense of flow to them, but they’re rather lacking in the shortcuts, optional routes or exciting gauntlets you’ve come to expect from a kart racing game. The big Cerberus is the exception rather than the rule, let's put it that way.

There are also a couple of places in each track where it’s a little too easy to get stuck amongst the scenery, as you can see. It’s not game-breaking or anything, but it can be a little annoying when Cocoto suddenly decides to dedicate his life to the extremely close study of these archaeologically important ruins.

There’s more jungle action in the Bo-Bong Track, a merry jaunt through the twisting treetops, a race spent powersliding around the mighty trunks and half-expecting to run over an Ewok. It’s a real step up in difficulty after the other tracks, with lots of hairpin bends that require a certain amount of planning to get around without embarrassingly wedging your kart bonnet-first into the apex as the other racers easily glide past you.

Oh, here’s something else I suppose I should mention: you can collect golden apples as you race, up to a total of nine. You just drive over them, it’s not like you have to trick Atlas into fetching them for you or anything. Look, I spent a lot of time reading about Greek mythology as a kid and I’m not going to miss a chance to make a “golden apples” reference, okay? Anyway, the effect is subtle but I think that for each apple you have (up to total of nine,) your top speed is slightly increased. This would mean the apples work in the same way as the coins from Mario Kart, and as the odds of a gameplay mechanic in this game not being lifted from Mario Kart are slim to none then I’d say that is definitely how the apples work.

The final course of the championship takes place on the Zaron Track, a sort of celestial highway amongst the clouds and Cocoto Kart Racer’s equivalent of Rainbow Road. If you look at the track map, you can see Cocoto is about to enter a series of extremely sharp hairpin turns, which is a shame because it’s probably the worst bit of all the tracks. I understand what they were going for, but the bends are so awkward to negotiate they they slow the action down to a crawl – except the CPU players have no trouble blasting through this section at maximum speed, especially if you’re in the lead and they’re rubberbanding their way back towards you. It might just be the way I play racing games, but it did feel like the course layouts in this game meant that karts with lower top speed but better control and grip had a distinct advantage over faster, more slippery vehicles.

I do really like these angels, though. They fly around trying to spread the light and grace of the Lord by dropping anvils on people’s heads. I say people, all these racers are grotty little weirdos, and frankly if there’s a demonic imp driving a hotrod through Heaven then verily it is the angels’ sacred duty to crush the interloper using the methods by which the Roadrunner would smiteth Wile E. Coyote.

Here’s a hateful little thing about this game: every time you overtake (or are overtaken by) another character, they say “hello!” in an extremely irritating, high-pitched, digitally-manipulated voice. It is extremely grating, especially in situations like the one above where all the racers are crammed together and it ends up sounding like singles night at a packed Minion bar.

Well, I did it: despite winning only two of the five races, I topped the championship leaderboard and took home the trophy. That’s really all you get by way of celebration, the image of a spinning trophy that I don’t really feel like I earned.  It’s a little disappointing, sure, but I suppose I wasn’t expecting a big production or anything. Winning the championship also meant I unlocked both the next championship and a brand new racer.

Well, I guess that answers the “what’s a Glaboon?” question.

So, after spending a decent amount of time with Cocoto Kart Racer, I have come to some conclusions about it, the main one being that it’s actually pretty good. Well, the core mechanics, the racing itself, that’s good. It controls well, there’s a decent sense of speed, your CPU competitors have some rubberbanding but it rarely feels totally unfair. It’s a solid, uncomplicated kart racer that provides racing action that is more enjoyable to play than you might expect at first glance. Is it is much fun as a Mario Kart game? No, of course not, but then it wouldn’t be. What kind of budget do you think Cocoto Kart Racer was made with? Ten percent of a Mario Kart game’s? Five percent? Neko Entertainment must be commended for creating a game that, mechanically at least, doesn’t feel cheap. This is particularly astonishing given that Neko Entertainment’s most famous game is probably Crazy Frog Racer.

However, Cocoto Kart Racer has one huge problem: blandness. A lot of it just isn’t very interesting. Most of the playable characters are dull and lack any personality whatsoever, the track layouts are competent but rarely rise above that very low benchmark, the graphics are merely passable and the soundtrack is so forgettable it may as well not exist. Then there’s the big kicker: as far as I can tell there are only five types of track. When you get to the second championship, rather than a whole new set of courses to race on you get another Glaboon Track, another Cerber Track and so on, except they’ve been expanded or modified in a manner similar to Ridge Racer. I’d say on average half of each track is a new layout while the other half is the exact same circuit you raced on in the previous cup, and this lack of variety severely curtails the impetus to keep playing in the hope you’ll see something new. Maybe this changes in the final cup but I highly doubt it, and it looks like I’ll never find out: despite winning the second championship twice, the final set of tracks didn’t unlock.

Oh well, I got a lady squid out of it. In a game packed with uninteresting characters, a posh squid dripping with jewellery is definitely the cream of the crop.

Perhaps you could extract more enjoyment from Cocoto Kart Racer via the multiplayer modes. I wouldn’t know, not having any friends nearby while I toil away at these articles during the wee hours, but it does include multiplayer races and the ever-popular battle mode, perfect for starting vicious arguments over the clearly biased nature of the “random” power-ups, why do you keep getting the homing piranhas, this is bullshit!

If you do want to give Cocoto Kart Racer a go, you’ve got plenty of options when it comes to platforms. It was released on the Wii, the PS2 and on Windows, as well as there being reworked versions on the handhelds of the time. Pictured above is the Game Boy Advance version. I had a quick go at it, but it’s not nearly as good as the console versions. To sneak in one last Mario Kart comparison, the console versions of Cocoto Kart Racer are much closer in quality to a console Mario Kart game than the Game Boy Advance version is to Mario Kart Super Circuit. On the plus side, I found a code for the GBA version that let me play as a large ape called Bo-Bong. When compared to the other characters, I think he might be bigger, faster and stronger too.

Like sticking a turbocharged engine inside a Skoda Octavia, Cocoto Kart Racer is respectable under the hood but boring to the point of embarrassment on the outside. Okay, that might be a bit harsh: I’m just disappointed it didn’t go all the way with the horror theme promised by the main character being a devil. You can definitely have fun playing this game, which is more than can be said for many games I write about, but it’s the empty, unsatisfying fun of playing I Spy on a long coach trip. A noble effort doomed to failure by a lack of budget and (possibly) ambition, hampered by the existence of other, more exciting competitors, then. Maybe one day I’ll try the other games in the Cocoto series, although playing the fishing one as the squid lady might raise some uncomfortable ethical questions.

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