For a brief period in my elementary school years, I lived only a few doors down from my grandparents. Every morning and every afternoon, I would sit on the floor in the comfort of my grandmother’s giant CRT, watching all the cable TV shows that my parents, who could not afford cable, would otherwise not allow. Mostly I enjoyed early Nickelodeon hits like Rugrats, Doug, Rocko’s Modern Life, The Angry Beavers, Kablam!, Hey Arnold, Ahh Real Monsters, and, if I was lucky, Ren and Stimpy. In an otherwise dull, limited, and extremely miserable childhood, they were a little bright spot in my life: the safety of the nylon carpeting and manufactured paneling, the little bowl of strawberries from her garden, served to be sprinkled with sugar, still wet in the colander she’d washed them in. If anyone could be nostalgic about a Nickelodeon videogame, it would definitely be me.
Imagine, then, my cautious (but hope-tinged) bemusement last week when I received an email about the upcoming Nickeloden Kart Racers, a kart racing game starring “iconic” characters from the Nickelodeon channel’s classic programming. Said to include SpongeBob SquarePants, Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles, Hey Arnold!, and the Rugrats (and more), the game promises 24 slime-themed tracks, and is being handled by GameMill, a studio known for similar titles for similar clients, including Cartoon Network: Battle Crashers, a Cartoon Network crossover series game, and Frozen: Olaf’s Quest. Likely the game isn’t meant to be a huge seller, but rather, support existing intellectual properties while not dipping their toes in the big boy pond of mainstream games. But the question is there nonetheless: as a network that is fighting to maintain its relevance in the face of YouTube and Cartoon Network, is nostalgia really enough to carry anything built on Nickelodeon properties?
Undoubtedly this is a game that seeks to chase Nintendo’s success with both Super Smash Bros. and Mario Kart. These two series have been immensely popular in part because they rely on a wide roster of already-established characters that the audience has been familiar with for decades. While the games themselves are very fun to play, arguably a huge portion of their appeal is sheer nostalgia, without which these Nintendo titles might not be nearly as entertaining. Where fun is concerned, the comfortable will always win out over the unfamiliar.
Imitators have attempted to copy this formula before. Anyone remember the ill-fated PlayStation All-Stars Battle Royale, the fighting game from 2012? Starring characters like Kratos from God of War, Fat Princess, Nathan Drake and Sackboy from the LittleBigPlanet series, its roster was undeniably packed with popular characters that are primarily associated with Sony consoles. But despite each of their individual popularity, the line-up lacked a certain cohesion, and the nostalgia factor for any single character alone was not strong enough to tie the whole team together. It also highlighted exactly how important the warm memories of our old favorite characters really are; without the literal decades-long buildup that Nintendo established in our childhoods with their bright, innocuous, kid-friendly characters, the novelty just isn’t there. PlayStation All-Stars Battle Royale disappeared quickly and was never spoken of again.
Recently, the reboot of Rugrats was announced, and I imagine this game is intended somewhat to coincide with its release. Nickelodeon has a lot of quality, well-beloved programming to pick from if they need a full roster, so as far as that goes, they’re covered. But given GameMill’s track record of serviceable-but-not-exactly-stellar tie-in games, I’m not expecting much. Even if the game is wildly fun on its own merits, it won’t be easy to compete with the others like it on the market. And as far as the nostalgia goes…I’m not sure it will be enough.
Holly Green is the assistant editor of Paste Games and a reporter and semiprofessional photographer. She is also the author of Fry Scores: An Unofficial Guide To Video Game Grub. You can find her work at Gamasutra, Polygon, Unwinnable, and other videogame news publications.