Review: Meow Motors (Switch)

Cats on tracks.

By Joshua A. Johnston. Posted 10/17/2019 18:00 Comment on this     ShareThis
The Final Grade
grade/score info
1-Up Mushroom for...
Budget price; some cool in-game mechanics; solid physics; cute cats
Poison Mushroom for...
Bland graphics; forgettable music; career mode isn't that compelling

Genre-defining titles are both a blessing and a curse. A game that writes- or rewrites- the book on a genre can open up entire new worlds of opportunity for future games, but it can also create big shoes to fill. How many times have we seen a blockbuster game carve out new territory only for future games to flounder in their quest to imitate such excellence? Since the first installment of Mario Kart on SNES, kart racing games have struggled to imitate the master at work. Not for lack of trying though, as kart clones have been around since the SNES days, including a few nice successes. But kart games are inherently challenging, since things like kart physics, game balancing, AI drivers, and track design are not at all easy to do.

Meow Motors is a recent attempt at the kart genre. It’s a creation of ArtVostok, a Russian-based developer who, as of this writing, lists Meow Motors as its only released project. Meow Motors is a multiplatform game, released for PlayStation 4, PC, and, of course, Switch. It retails across the board for $14.99, putting it firmly in budget price territory at launch.

This game has two modes: a career mode and a quick race mode. The career mode begins with some storyboard-style scenes that suggest the barest notion of a plot (yes, there’s an attempt at a thin plot here) followed by a gradually unfolding series of races. Players in career mode must tackle various circuits, each with a handful of races. Each race awards stars based on certain criteria, and earning enough stars unlocks new cars, new characters, new weapons, and new circuits. Career mode has an easy, medium, and hard difficulty setting that can be changed at any time. Of note: players can only have one career save file per Switch account. That means if your sibling starts a new game on your account, you’ll lose all your progress. Since not all Switch owners will have separate accounts for separate players, this might be a consideration for some players.

There are a couple of key differences between career mode and quick mode. Quick mode, for one, offers 2-player multiplayer, while career mode is strictly solo (unfortunately, no 4-player mode). Quick mode also unlocks several cars, drivers, and a full range of power-ups and tracks right off the bat, while career mode requires players to work for all of these things. Quick mode also lets players choose specific rules for play, something not available in career mode.

In case it isn’t obvious, quick mode feels like a more fun out-of-the-box experience than career mode. Players who want to dive right in might find career mode to be more of a chore, especially since there doesn’t seem to be much of a narrative reason for career mode- the aforementioned plot largely disappears after the opening sequence. (Contrast this with Mario Kart 8 Deluxe for Switch, which has most of its core content unlocked, including tracks and players, right from the start.) The one virtue of the career mode is its tutorial, which is helpful for first-time players.

The in-game kart experience is, in many ways, a familiar thing for veteran kart players. Meow Motors uses a system of racing and combat that is not unlike Mario Kart, from the potential to get a quick start out of the gate with well-timed acceleration to the ability to pick up weapons in the field and use them against enemy karts. If you’ve played Nintendo’s kart racer, your learning curve in this game will be shorter than if you had not. Meow Motors isn’t a complete clone, though, as there are differences in controls and design that set the two apart. Button placement is different, for example, with Meow Motors placing acceleration and drifting in different places than Mario Kart. In addition, Meow Motors uses a button scheme that includes acceleration, deceleration, drifting, weapons, dropping weapons, nitro, and oil. It takes a little time to get all the button placement down, and to be honest this reviewer prefers Mario Kart’s button mapping. Unfortunately, Meow Motors doesn’t offer any customization options here. One more nitpick: unlike Nintendo’s kart racer, this game doesn’t give players any sort of track map, so the only way to figure things out is through practice.

Another difference from Mario Kart: Meow Motors lets karts take damage. Hits with other players or with in-game obstacles hurt the kart, and a damaged kart is slower, handles worse, and is generally a bigger pain to drive than a healthy kart. There are in-game repair power-ups that can heal a kart, but they’re not always easy to get at, and a hobbling kart can become a liability. The game doesn’t have any sort of health bar, so it’s not clear when a kart gets to the disabled point other than when performance starts to decline and the kart starts to appear rickety. Karts cannot be destroyed, but a damaged kart definitely makes the job harder, especially on turns. Physics are a big consideration in any racing game, and to its credit Meow Motors does pretty well. While handling can feel a bit loose sometimes, in general karts go where they’re supposed to, and impacts behave mostly the way you’d expect them to. The game isn’t overly onerous on how it penalizes collisions, so karts aren’t necessarily dead in the water if they have a large accident.

Less impressive are the game’s production values. They aren’t bad, per se, but this is definitely a game that looks and sounds basic. While the kart racers and their rides have a decent artistic touch, the tracks themselves feel a bit on the bland side, lacking the kind of atmosphere one might hope for in a kart racer. That’s not to say that they’re terrible, but the tracks aren’t exactly memorable. This doesn’t have to be the case: All-Star Fruit Racing, another budget racer, has much better graphics, so it can be done. As with graphics, in terms of sound, there isn’t much to write home about. The music is adequate- at least it’s not grating- but none of it really stands out as memorable. It also seems that race tracks use a random selection of music rather than attaching specific tunes to specific tracks, which hurts the atmosphere of each track. Instead of feeling like a collective experience, it’s more of a random assemblage of music and location.

One more note: the AI. It’s … okay. Enemy kart drivers aren’t particularly imaginative, and they seem to have a habit of clumping together, but they pose enough of a challenge that solo mode will require some skill, especially on the highest difficulty mode.

So, is this worth a buy? It’s got some flaws, but given the price point, Meow Motors actually works pretty well as a kart racer. It’s got a decent assortment of things to do, and players who enjoy this kind of thing might find something to like here. On those merits, there’s something to be said for this game. The problem is that, unlike the other platforms Meow Motors released on, on Switch it has to lurk in the shadow of Mario Kart 8 Deluxe. Between the two, there’s no contest: in almost every way Mario Kart 8 Deluxe is a tighter, better-looking, more complete game. It’s more expensive, too, so in that regard one might see Meow Motors as having the virtue of costing less.

In short, if you’re a Switch owner who has played Mario Kart 8 Deluxe to death and you’re looking for a cheap change of pace- or if you’re a fan of supporting indie titles- you might consider Meow Motors. On the other hand, if you’re just out for a kart racer, you might be better shelling out the extra money for Nintendo’s game.

Nintendojo was provided a copy of this game for review by a third party, though that does not affect our recommendation. For every review, Nintendojo uses a standard criteria.

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