Kartography #3 – Mickey’s Speedway USA

Kartography is my regular series in which I look at licensed kart racers throughout gaming history, and figure out where they fit on my all-time karting game leaderboard.

For more information on my scoring policy for Kartography, check out this introductory article.

Nintendo / Rare
Nintendo 64, Game Boy Color (N64 version covered)

The first two Kartography entries – in which I treaded the murky waters of Hello Kitty Kruisers and Garfield Kart – looked at fairly recent titles.

Not all karting games were released during the shiny HD era, though. With that in mind, it’s time to dive into the blurry-as-all-hell world of the Nintendo 64 (where possible, I always play and capture games on original hardware, not emulators).

Up next, then, is an N64 karting game from legendary UK studio Rare. No, not that Rare N64 karting game: Diddy Kong and chums can wait. I’m talking about the other one.

With its odd focus on real-world locations and relatively restrained racing controls, can Mickey’s Speedway USA overtake Hello Kitty and Garfield and claim the top of the Kartography leaderboard at this early stage?

At the very least, it offers one thing the others don’t: a plot. Pluto has been kidnapped by the Weasels, so you have to race across America to find and rescue him.

(That doesn’t really explain why you’re doing it in the form of a bunch of GP cups, mind you. You’d think the various Disney characters would be helping you rescue Pluto, not actively trying to hinder your progress by insisting you beat them in a race before you can continue.)


The licence

You may not have heard of Disney, so let me fill you in.

Oh, I’m such a joker. My sides, they crease. Obviously, the Walt Disney Company is the world’s biggest media company, partly helped by its acquisitions of Pixar in 2006, Marvel in 2009 and Lucasfilm (aka Star Wars) in 2012.

For this game specifically, though, we’re looking at bread-and-butter Disney in the form of the Mickey Mouse universe, the characters who helped make the company the global powerhouse it is today: the House of Mouse, as they say.

Mickey Mouse was created way back in 1928, and remains a much-loved character worldwide more than nine decades later. With his constantly positive attitude in the face of any challenge, he’s just what we need in Brexit Britain. Or something.

Licence score – 5 out of 5

There are few characters more widely recognised than Mickey Mouse, so it goes without saying that having him and his pals in your game is going to shift plenty more copies by default.

His star may have waned a tiny bit in today’s world of Pixar and Frozen, but Mickey will clearly still be an enormous Disney brand for decades to come.


The racers

Mickey’s Speedway USA initially boots with a fairly thin roster of six characters, but that can eventually be expanded to nine. Ten, if you’ve got some extra kit.

You see, if you have the Game Boy Color version of the game and a Transfer Pak, you can unlock another character.

Naturally, in the name of complete research, yer man Scullion hopped onto eBay and bought said GBC version in order to give you the complete roster you see before you.

Mickey Mouse

First introduced – 1928

Weight: ***
Handling: ***
Acceleration: ***
Speed: ***

The main man himself – well, the main mouse – first made his debut in Steamboat Willie on 18 November 1928 and hasn’t looked back since.

In this game he plays the Mario role, as you would expect.

With a bunch of stats that are flatter than Holland, he’s the very definition of an all-rounder.

Here’s an interesting little bit of trivia, though, that Warren Spector revealed during an ONM interview for Epic Mickey:

In that game, and this one too, no matter what way Mickey turns his head you can always see both his ears. Even though it makes no physical sense, he always needs to have his iconic look so that he can always be identified in silhouette.


Daisy Duck

First introduced – 1940

Weight: **
Handling: ****
Acceleration: ****
Speed: **

The only Daisy in karting games who matters, Donald’s girlfriend is similar to her beau in that she isn’t wearing anything on her bottom half, which is fairly outlandish.

She plays the typical ‘female’ role that spanned numerous gaming genres in the ‘90s (and carried on past the turn of the millennium), a role that dictated that all women in gaming should be light and weak.

As such, her acceleration is quick and her handling is sharp because she’s so light, but her speed is poor as a result because ladies and that (see also: Peach in Mario Kart, Chun-Li in Street Fighter, Blaze in Streets Of Rage).

Just in case the stereotype isn’t driven entirely home yet, if you choose her on the character select screen then change your mind and cancel, she’ll say: “Fine, I’ll just go shopping then.” I know that seems like one of my bad jokes, but try it.


Goofy

First introduced – 1932

Weight: ****
Handling: **
Acceleration: **
Speed: ****

Goofy’s my favourite Disney character, in case you were wondering.

Throughout the ‘40s and ‘50s he starred in a hilarious series of ‘how to’ shorts, which really do stand the test of time today.

Karting logic dictates that if some characters are light and nippy, others must be heavy and lumbering.

That’s the case with Goofy, whose lankiness gives him a heft that lets him easily barge opponents out of the way, but whose kart takes a while to accelerate as a result.

Still, once he picks up pace, his kart can go faster than most of the competition.


Pete

First introduced – 1925

Weight: ****
Handling: **
Acceleration: **
Speed: ****

Believe it or not, Pete has been around for even longer than Mickey, making his debut three years earlier in the animated short Alice Solves The Puzzle.

He’s always been a bad guy, even back then: the cartoon was censored in America because of a scene in which he smuggles bootleg whisky past customs in a pelican’s mouth. Hey, we’ve all done it.

Each of the initial six characters in the game is actually a direct match with another in terms of stats. Because he’s also something of a chubby funster, Pete’s stats are identical to Goofy’s.

This means he too is slow at accelerating, has a high top speed and can plough through opponents like they were made of paper. That’s what happens when you’re a drunk driver, I suppose.


Minnie Mouse

First introduced – 1928

Weight: **
Handling: ****
Acceleration: ****
Speed: **

Minnie’s been Mickey’s partner ever since day one, appearing alongside him in Steamboat Willie.

That means their 90th anniversary is almost coming up: not bad when you consider the average lifespan of vermin is two years.

Given that she’s essentially just Mickey with a dress and a bow on her head, you’d imagine Minnie’s stats to be the same as those of her rodent Romeo.

Don’t forget that golden ‘90s rule, though: since she’s female that means she has to be light and weak. As such, her stats are the same as Daisy’s.


Donald Duck

First introduced – 1934

Weight: ***
Handling: ***
Acceleration: ***
Speed: ***

What’s that? You can barely understand anything Donald says? Now you know how I felt when countless ‘hilarious’ English folks used to say it to me when I lived in London.

In reality, Donald is something of a troubled soul. He’s a fun-loving guy and adores his family, but his temper always gets the better of him.

He’s basically the animated equivalent of Vin Diesel in the Fast And The Furious films, is what I’m saying.

Naturally, since he’s another loveable everyman (well, everyduck) and arguably the second most popular character in the game behind Mickey, he shares Monsieur Mouse’s stats.

This means he’s another all-rounder with no real strengths to speak of, but also no major weaknesses. Except for diction, of course.


Dewey

First introduced – 1937

Weight: **
Handling: ****
Acceleration: *****
Speed: **

To unlock – Get a gold trophy in the first three cups on Amateur

The first unlockable character and one of Donald Duck’s three triplet nephews (I bet you can tell where this is going), Dewey is easily recognisable by his blue outfit.

A fun-loving little duck with good times on his mind, Dewey does a good job of hiding the fact that he and his brothers murdered their father (that’s my theory, anyway).

Once you unlock Dewey things start to get a little more interesting, because he breaks slightly from standard karting stat conventions.

Although for the most part he fits the ‘light’ character role and has similar stats to Minnie and Daisy, he has better acceleration, rendering them both useless.

It’s not really clear what the logic is here: maybe ducks who commit patricide are more likely to put the pedal to the metal in a rage.


Louie

First introduced – 1937

Weight: **
Handling: *****
Acceleration: ****
Speed: ***

To unlock – Get a gold trophy in the first three cups on Amateur and Intermediate

Sure enough, the next unlockable is Dewey’s brother (and accomplice to the crime), Louie. He’s the one in the green jumper, and he’s a BEAST.

Louie also urinates heavily on the ‘light racer’ convention, but he takes things one step further than his blue-shirted brother does.

While his lightweight nature means his acceleration is naturally high – as is the case with other light racers – he’s also got good top speed, which is unusual. This means the whole ‘acceleration vs speed’ battle is punted out the window: the lad’s got both.

More ímportantly, though, he’s also got the best handling in the game. Given that handling is far more crucial in Mickey’s Speedway USA than most other karting games, this – combined with his general nippiness – makes him the best character in the game by far.


Huey

First introduced – 1937

Weight: ***
Handling: ***
Acceleration: **
Speed: ****

To unlock – Connect the Game Boy Color game using an N64 Transfer Pak

In a cruel twist by Rare, you can’t complete the famous triplets without also owning a copy of the Game Boy Color version of Mickey’s Speedway USA.

Only by plugging your GBC cart into the N64’s Transfer Pak gizmo and inserting that into your N64 controller will you be able to unlock the crimson-shirted mallard.

In reality, it probably isn’t worth the effort unless you desperately just want a complete roster, because there’s really no point in playing as Huey if you already have the immense Louie available.

He’s more or less a tweaked version of Mickey and Donald, only with slightly better top speed and weaker acceleration.

Also, for some odd reason, despite being the identical twin of Dewey and Louie he’s apparently heavier. Maybe he’s carrying the weapon they killed their father with.


Professor Ludwig Von Drake

First introduced – 1961

Weight: *****
Handling: *
Acceleration: *
Speed: *****

To unlock – Get a platinum trophy in all five cups on Professional

This Austrian professor is one of Donald Duck’s uncles. He’s a scientist and psychologist who’s obsessed with collecting university degrees.

Given that he’s a brainbox and Scrooge McDuck (one of Donald’s other uncles) is a billionaire, I’m starting to see where underachiever Donald’s temper comes from.

He’s very much a Marmite character in this game, in that some people will swear by him and others (including me) loathe him.

He’s basically an exaggeration of the other heavy characters: his extreme weight means he can barge even Pete and Goofy out of the way, and his top speed is easily the highest in the game.

However, his acceleration is painfully slow, and his kart turns like one of those zamboni ice-cleaning machines, so he’s frustrating as hell to play as.

He’s even more frustrating to unlock: getting a platinum cup in all five GPs (especially the insane fifth one) is the gaming equivalent of crawling naked across a bed of nails that’s been dipped in vinegar. I expect a lot of respect and love for getting him purely for the sake of taking this screenshot.

Racers score – 3½ out of 5

Mickey and chums may be global superstars, but that doesn’t mean starting with only six characters isn’t still a little disappointing, especially when one’s Pete. Nobody cares about Pete.

When you then consider that of the four unlockable characters three of them are identical triplets, you start to wonder if perhaps expanding out a bit to include the likes of Clarabelle, Horace, Chip ‘n’ Dale or maybe even Scrooge McDuck might have been a good idea.


The vehicles

As you’ll soon discover, Mickey’s Speedway USA is a no-nonsense karting game.

Because of this, each character drives a standard issue kart, with no fancy doo-dahs or anything else that makes them look flamboyant in any way.

The only thing that differs between each character’s kart is their colour. Mickey’s is red, Minnie’s is pink, Donald’s is yellow and so on.

That aside, they’ve clearly all been to the same kart shop and bought the only model in stock.

Vehicles score – 2 out of 5

Well, at least they bothered to give them different colours.

It would’ve been nice to at least see different karts for different weight classes, though.


The tracks

There are 21 different tracks in Mickey’s Speedway USA. The first 12 are available from the beginning, split between three different GPs.

Once you win gold in each cup, on all three difficulty settings, you’ll unlock the fourth GP. Getting the fifth, meanwhile, is a strangely elaborate process involving finding hidden vehicle parts.

Finally, there’s a secret 21st track which can only be played in Time Trial mode. Here’s a look at them all:

Traffic Troubles

INDIANAPOLIS – A nice easy track to start with, based on the real-life speedway track. This is very much your Mario Circuit equivalent.
SAN FRANCISCO – The first of many street tracks. You can’t race on the Golden Gate Bridge, but you do get to speed up and down the city’s famous hilled streets.
NEW MEXICO – Another easy track, with a cave section and waterfalls. Don’t get too cocky, they don’t stay this easy for long.
GRAND CANYON – The longest track in the game. It’s straightforward enough but the track’s littered with dusty sections that can slow you down.

Motorway Mania

LOS ANGELES – The most basic track in the game, this is just a big figure-eight course. Powerslide the hell out of it.
ALASKA – “My wife recently went on a trip up north.” “Whereabouts?” “Alaska.” “Why, don’t you already know?” HAHAHAHAHA. Um, standard snow track, this.
LAS VEGAS – Full of bright lights, but given the N64’s low resolution and blurry visuals it ends up more like how Vegas probably looks to an alcoholic at 4am.
PHILADELPHIA – Pity the poor folks of Philly, because as far as Rare is concerned the best thing to represent their city is a nondescript dock area with crates and ships.

Freeway Phobia

DAKOTA – A short track, but one with enough strategically placed speed boosts that you can bomb round most of it at high speed if you can hit them all.
SEATTLE – According to this, Seattle is known for its kebab shops and storm drains. No wonder Kurt Cobain was so miserable.
NEW YORK – This street course has a fork at one point, which makes things interesting. Not massively interesting, mind you, but let’s take what we can get.
CHICAGO – If you thought Philidephians got it bad, at least their track was outdoors. The entire Chicago course takes place in the city’s sewers.

Victory Vehicles

To unlock – get gold trophies in the first three cups on Beginner, Intermediate and Professional

YELLOWSTONE – Things are starting to get a little tricky now, and the tracks are getting narrower. This one has a few sharp turns too.
WASHINGTON D.C. – This has you travelling around the grounds of the White House and even entering the building. Clinton was president when this game came out, so mind the drapes.
EVERGLADES – Probably the most depressing track in the game, this one’s got loads of bogs and swamps to slow you down.
MALIBU – Well, it’s about time you were rewarded with a beach track. Malibu has a boardwalk section right at the end, which leads to numerous crashes and many a harsh word.

Frantic Finale

To unlock – find the four hidden car parts, one in each of the four previous cups

HAWAII – The last cup is an absolute nightmare, though this is probably the easiest of a bad bunch. It’s another beach track, and the only thing you really have to look out for is fallen coconuts on the ground.
OREGON – Known these days for being hipster central, back then that wasn’t the case. Most of this one takes place in a forest, but there’s an infuriatingly narrow bridge section which can turn the air bluer than Donald’s blouse.
TEXAS – Another hazardous course full of big loopy turns. If you haven’t mastered powersliding by now you might as well horse your controller into a bin.
COLORADO – Without a shadow of a doubt, the hardest and most infuriating track in the game. Full of sharp turns and cliff edges, if you don’t nail this one perfectly you can forget it. I spent a good 90 minutes trying to finish this one in 1st place on Professional.

Time Trial exclusive

To unlock – unlock the Frantic Finale cup, then go to the main menu and choose Practice. Head to the barn section and run over 20 of the eggs the chickens lay.

NEW ORLEANS – The elaborately hidden bonus time trial track takes place on a cruise ship, and is just a standard loop with a few columns dotted around to get in the way.

Tracks score – 3 out of 5

For the most part, the track layouts are well designed, and each usually has at least one decent shortcut you can learn to deviate from the main route.

That doesn’t hide a the fact that a trip across the USA is a strange theme for a Mickey Mouse game, though: you could literally place any character from any franchise in here and the game would feel no different.

There’s nothing particularly Mickey Mouse or Disney about the tracks, in other words, which feels like a missed opportunity.


The power-ups

There are eight power-ups in the game, and naturally each can directly be linked to a Mario Kart equivalent.

Just to be nice and annoying, the game gives each item a ridiculous name. They’re the inventions of Professor Ludwig Von Drake, you see.

Here’s the full line-up.

Unified Token Delivery System

Tokens can be found on the track and increase your top speed, up to a total of ten.

Collect any more than that and nothing will happen, though you’ll at least prevent your opponents from getting them.

This item gives you three of the little sods.

Mario Kart equivalent – Coin


Carbo-Beverage Spritzer

This fizzy can of soda can be activated to give you a temporary burst of speed.

There’s a satisfying little kick back before your kart boosts forward.

This kick back gives you time to quickly line up the direction you’re facing so you can go nice and straight.

Mario Kart equivalent – Mushroom


Un-Expressway Paint Splotcher

This one drops a big green puddle of slime behind you, causing opponents to spin out.

You can also lob it in front of you to create a puddle ahead.

There’s a cheat you can unlock to turn it rainbow-coloured, in case you fancy going all Pride Month.

Mario Kart equivalent – Banana


Incredi-Flated Baseball Chucker

An explosive baseball which blows up the first car it hits.

You can throw it ahead of you and it’ll bounce off walls, but only for so long until it rolls to a stop and just lies there on the track.

Alternatively, you can drop it dead behind you.

Mario Kart equivalent – Green Shell


Micro-Wheeled Tracechaser

If there’s someone just ahead of you and you can’t seem to catch up to them, this little beauty has you covered.

Activating it makes a little remote-controlled car appear. This speeds along the track, homing in on the car in front of you and taking them out.

Be wary, though: it homes straight in on them without taking its environment into account, so it only really works if you can see them in front of you. If they’ve turned a corner, it’ll plough straight through the corner and blow up.

Mario Kart equivalent – Red Shell


Antigrav-O-Kit Magno Flyer

Rarer then the Tracechaser, the Magno Flyer performs a similar task but does it far more effectively.

Instead of heading straight for the nearest opponent without any regard for the scenery, this little plane follows the contours of the track.

This means it can turn corners, making it much more likely it’ll hit its eventual target.

Mario Kart equivalent – Blue Shell (sort of: it still only goes for the car in front of you, not in 1st)


Shellac-O-Matic Shield Shell

The classic “what’s that? You’re doing terribly? Here, have this” power-up.

The Shield Shell puts a big bubble around you and increases your top speed dramatically.

This lets you drive over grass and mud and blaze through enemies, causing them to spin out.

Mario Kart equivalent – Star


Stormy Weather Whenever Engager

This is the rarest item in the game, but it’s not clear why because the Shield Shell is far more effective.

If you end up getting it, triggering it will make a rain cloud appear above every enemy.

This slows them down to a crawl and prevents them from using weapons for a short while.

Mario Kart equivalent – Lightning

Power-ups score – 2½ out of 5

A hefty ‘meh’ here, I reckon.

Each of the items is lifted from the Mario Kart playbook, and none of them feel truly satisfying. The Baseball Chucker in particular is so inaccurate that I killed myself with it through a dodgy rebound more than I hit an opponent.

Nothing here is particularly offensive, mind. It just isn’t very inspired either.


How it plays

This section is a mini review of the game. It’s available in both video and written form, so you can choose how to enjoy it. My recommendation is the video, because you’ll get to see the game in action too. But if you’d rather read it, or can’t stand my bassy Scottish accent, the entire script from the video is underneath.

Considering it’s made by the same studio behind Diddy Kong Racing – a game that did its best to mess about with the conventions of the still relatively young karting genre – it’s strange how restrained Mickey’s Speedway USA is. Well, at least on the track.

There’s no elaborate adventure mode with open world hubs like Diddy Kong had, no option to switch between cars, boats and planes, no boss battles against giant one-off opponents and no fancy drifting system.

It’s perhaps this last factor that’s the most important, considering how your racing ability is such an important part of this game, more so than most other karting titles.

Sure, it’s always important in every racing game, but because Mickey’s Speedway USA’s items are fairly low-key and weapons-based carnage is so rare here, most of the focus isn’t on smacking your opponents off the track but out-performing them on it.

Powersliding, then, isn’t a case of trying to get a speed boost or anything like that. It’s there to help you take corners sharper, and nothing else. It all feels very muted and even a little serious for what’s usually a ‘zany’ genre.

This extends to the tracks too. When your character roster includes anthropomorphic mice, ducks and dogs, you’d be forgiven for expecting them to be racing around a bunch of weird and wonderful environments.

Instead, its ‘tour of America’ theme has you visiting such fantastical locations as Oregon, Seattle and Philadelphia. Not exactly Fantasia: The Game.

In a way it’s probably just as well that Rare stuck to the basics, because the one or two occasions in which it strays from convention are arguably the game’s weakest elements.

Most notably, the process required to unlock the final cup is some real cryptic shit. Each cup has a vehicle part hidden in an obscure place on one of its four tracks: you have to find all four parts before the last cup is unlocked.

In this day of Google that’s maybe a breeze to figure out, but at the turn of the millennium the internet wasn’t quite so widespread and I’m sure many a confused child was left scratching their head.

That strange process aside, what we have here is a straightforward affair. This may sound like a criticism but it actually isn’t: by stripping away most of the wacky hijinks and focusing on the fundamentals, Mickey’s Speedway USA actually delivers a competent racing game.

It just doesn’t really feel like it fits the tone of the licence. This is a Mickey Mouse game, and you don’t generally picture the likes of Donald and Daisy Duck driving round New Mexico.

It’s also extremely difficult, as is the Rare way. Winning the cups on their basic difficulty settings is easy enough, but doing so on the Professional setting starts off tricky and just gets progressively worse as you take on harder cups and the tracks begin to gradually narrow.

By the time you reach the last cup, the appropriately named Frantic Finale, and take on its obscenely difficult Colorado mountain course with its sheer drops and sharp turns, that way madness lies.

Its extremely erratic frame rate doesn’t help matters much, either. The Nintendo 64 was known for poor frame rates back in the day, and this is a perfect example of that. When things get frantic it can start to look less like a racing game and more like a holiday slideshow from your aunt’s trip to the States. It can make getting round some courses far more difficult than it should be.

It actually serves as a good indicator of how far we’ve come: when I look back at old reviews of the game at the time I see references to a “consistent frame rate” that “rarely gets jumpy”. But take a look at the footage above (which is all captured direct from the console, not an emulator), and tell me that wouldn’t be considered an abominable frame rate in this day and age.

All this aside, Mickey’s Speedway USA is a decent little karting game. By showing a little restraint and not having missiles flying all over the place, Rare lets the actual racing come to the forefront. While that racing gameplay isn’t perfect, and its high difficulty can be frustrating for younger gamers, it’s still of a decent enough quality that you can enjoy it today, terrible frame rate and all.

Review score – 10 out of 15


The verdict

26 out of 40

And so, Mickey Mouse takes pole position ahead of Hello Kitty and Garfield.

Yes, its weapons may be uninspired, its roster may be lacking a little extra oomph and its oddly ‘realistic’ tracks may be notably non-Disney-like.

However, the sheer quality of the racing mechanics shine through and help give the game that little boost it needs to claim the new top spot.

There’s still plenty of room for improvement, though, so it’ll be interesting to see how long it remains the champ.

Leaderboard

26 – Mickey’s Speedway USA
20 – Garfield Kart
13 – Hello Kitty Kruisers


Mickey’s Speedway USA was released on Nintendo 64 and Game Boy Color and has never been re-released.

Next up on Kartography: it’s time to ditch the wheels altogether in Sonic R.

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