Mostly in my articles, I like to make big breakdowns heavy on design theory and analysis to learn more about video games as a creative medium, and the reason for that is very simple; I’m an aspiring games producer hoping to land myself a grad job when I finish my masters, and it’s my way of reinforcing my learning about game design.
…But I never touch on why exactly I enjoy the idea of making games so much, and the reason for that is simple: when I was around 11 until I was maybe 15, there was an explosion in the kinds of games that focused all around creativity and made me realise just how much I enjoyed making things for others to enjoy, and that type of game was immortalised in my personal holy trinity, a trinity that goes as follows:
- LittleBigPlanet 2, the game that taught me the fundamentals of coding and let me explore level design, as well as providing that happy space for me to learn about my creative self in the warm embrace of Stephen Fry’s praise.
- Minecraft, the game that taught me the fun of creative collaboration, as friends and I spent our after-school time logging into massive servers and creating gigantic cities, complete with vast castles for us to live in and winding streets for visitors to explore.
- Finally, Modnation Racers. The game that, more than anything, let me have fun with what I created. With the other two, the building was 90% of the fun, but with Modnation Racers, what I made was only the start.
So, for those who are just now hearing about this game, a little recap.
Coming hot off of the trendsetting heels of the original LittleBigPlanet, ModNation Racers aimed to combine similar user-made content with a fun, original racing game that took the basic shell of ‘Mario Kart’ and gave it a new, energetic, rebellious spin. Complete with a single-player campaign with a story and characters all its own.
You played as ‘Tag’, a newcomer to a grand go-kart racing tournament, with the gimmick that you changed your appearance and kart on the fly between races, never coming out of the garage looking quite the same, and this was because the game was built around letting you build whatever kind of car you wanted. Your task was to work your way through the ranks of the tournament, following the exploits of a commentator comedy duo, and winning races against a vast array of champions, each with their own track and gimmick – A Roman legionnaire here, a Viking there, all culminating with a showdown between you and your arch-nemesis, the Italian world champion racer and coffee enthusiast, Espresso.
The quote “Hello my dear, perhaps we should go back to my Tuscan villa, so you can eat coffee beans from my perfect Italian toes” still haunts me to this day.
What’s not coming across here is the high-octane, fun, rebellious attitude that oozed from every corner of the game, stretching from every slapstick cutscene to each track of the punk-pop soundtrack. This game made you feel like a spray-painting, long-haired, skateboard-riding cool kid at every opportunity, all in beautifully cartoonish and colourful ways.
When game critics and creators talk of ‘atmosphere’, they often refer to the crushing weight of Bloodborne, or the creeping unease of Silent Hill, or the creaking susp ense of Dead Space… But anyone who’s followed my articles for long enough will know that it’s not these ideas that hold my attention. I crave joy. For me, it’s games like Modnation Racers that still flavour my thoughts a decade on. I’m drawn to odd and wonderful games like Life is Strange, and World of Goo, and Pokémon. Modnation stands proud amongst those games for the amount of liquid fun the game exuded from every moment.
None of this has even begun to touch on the actual game, and what a game it is. As mentioned earlier, it’s a kart racing game that at least visits the same doctors as ‘Mario Kart’, but with the knockabout, kooky fun turned up to 11 and refitted with an extravaganza of rockets, jet boosts, and wicked skate ramps. Whereas Mario Kart feels floaty and childish, Modnation feels punchy and teenage, with added mechanics that keep the races varied and interesting. Without getting to lean financially on a reliable franchise, the developers put extra effort into making the game damn fun in its every moment.
Instead of simply getting a speed boost whenever you perform a trick or drift around a corner, the game instead rewards players with a boost meter, which can be expended to travel at high speed for everywhere between a quick top-up after a tight corner to a mad dash down the finishing straight. Or, it could be tactically used to fuel a temporary shield to protect from attacks. And on top of that, cars could perform a sideswipe to actively knock others off course and gain a bonus to your boost meter- making you feel like a cheeky devil and giving the karts real weight and danger factor, as opposed to simply being other people playing the game in your vague vicinity. No, in ModNation, the track and the other racers were both trying to kill you, but you had the tools to deal with them and make it a real competition, not just a lucky draw on who pulls the blue shell at the right time.
Plain and simple, this game ruined ‘Mario Kart’ for me. Once I’d experienced what a kart game could be with such a vibrant personality of its own and such fun and varied mechanics that let you think about how not just how well you were playing, Mario Kart just seems weak and lacking, even in its most recent iterations.
And, of course, there was a track editor. Without the shackles its cousin LittleBigPlanet had of trying to be a platform for all different kinds of things, Modnation racers stuck simply to being about one thing: letting you play more of the kind of stuff you could enjoy in the single-player. To that end, the editor was both powerful and simple to use, simply having less need for the hours of Stephen Fry-ing in your ear. It was easy, it gave you fun results quick, and it made you hunger for more toys to play with, which sent you straight back to play through more of the single-player- you may have beaten the octopus monster, but do it with a banana balanced on your head and you’ll get to keep the banana. That kind of thing. It took me weeks, but I managed to bunk off enough English literature homework to get every item in the game and then spent several more weeks crafting new tracks for my friends and me to enjoy.
That was, of course, until I got my friend banned from PSN for dressing him up like a stripper.
My very soul weeps and the idea that ModNation Racers will never receive a proper sequel (As opposed to the PS Vita Port) and will never truly get the recognition it deserved, given the closure of the developers ‘United Front’. But if you have a PS3 lying about, you owe it to yourself to grab this game and give it a try. It might possibly be a shadow of its former self with empty servers and no one to play with, but even the single-player alone is worth giving a shot.
(And if you’re looking for my personal track and racer, Try doing the search for ‘Canvas’ and looking for the one that looks like a shirtless, filthy painter, and then take him out for a spin on ‘Picturesque Hills’. Yeah, I could do better nowadays, but I was 13 and dinner was ready.)