When Super Mario Kart was released in 1992, it was more than simply a spinoff of Nintendo’s most prolific series, and ended up being one of the most influential games of all time in itself. Not only did it usher in a new style of multiplayer/party games, but it singlehandedly created its own sub-genre, the “kart racer.” It seems like every cartoony/mascot character under the sun has had a go at trying to replicate Mario Kart, though very few of Mario Kart’s imitators could really stack up to the real thing, with Diddy Kong Racing and Crash Team Racing probably being the two examples that have carved a legacy of their own in the genre. That’s not to say that all of the imitators have missed the mark, however. The Sonic and All-Stars Racing duo were solid additions, and I personally have some very fond memories of more esoteric entries like Bomberman Fantasy Race and Chocobo Racing on the Playstation.
Chocobo Racing was, of course, an offshoot of Final Fantasy, placing various characters from that franchise in a more cartoony setting apropos to the kart racer genre. Being released in 1999 – a time when Final Fantasy found a new popularity on the Playstation – you would think that Chocobo Racing would have made a little more of a splash than it did. But, like many Mario Kart clones, it came and went. A 3DS sequel was originally planned more than a decade later, but joined Mega Man Legends 3 as one of those notorious early 3DS cancellations. That was that, it seemed. Never did I imagine Square would ever actually follow through with a sequel to Chocobo Racing.
It was a pleasant surprise then, when Square announced that they were, in fact, finally making a sequel to Chocobo Racing during a Nintendo Direct in 2021. Chocobo GP is that sequel, released exclusively on the Nintendo Switch twenty-three years after the original. Though the final game is a bit of a bittersweet pill to swallow. On one hand Chocobo GP is a fun, nostalgic kart racer (and it’s just nice to see Square remember something other than Final Fantasy VII or Kingdom Hearts for once). But on the other hand, Chocobo GP was plagued by a number of bugs at launch, and features a series of other shortcomings that prevent it from being the game it could have been, not least of which being its love affair with microtransactions.
I feel like the gameplay of the kart racer needs very little explaining at this point, but to summarize: Chocobo GP sees players select a number of characters either from or inspired by the Final Fantasy series (and the spinoff ‘Chocobo’ series). Players compete in races and can collect power-ups to help themselves or hinder other racers in order to get first place. Again, this is a genre that has played closely to the rules Mario Kart established for it, but Chocobo Racing did add a little Final Fantasy twist to the proceeding in that the power-ups – referred to as “Magicite” in Chocobo GP – can be stacked up to create more powerful versions of itself (admittedly, Diddy Kong Racing beat it to that punch). Additionally, each character also has their own special move, which can be activated after filling a meter by performing speed-boosting drifts.
The core gameplay is enjoyable, and the game controls well. There is a big complaint to be made, however, with how debilitating getting hit by even a single item is. In Mario Kart, you expect to get hit by an item or two during a race, but you can recover from it pretty quickly. In Chocobo GP, getting hit once stops your character dead in their tracks, and it takes a good few seconds before the player can even move again. Similarly, don’t expect the speedy recovery provided by Lakitu in Mario Kart if you fall off a track in Chocobo GP. Here, if you fall off stage, the guy who saves the player slowly picks them up (backwards), takes time to turn them around, and then places them back on stage. These may sound like small complaints, but with the very nature of the genre, it becomes pretty aggravating when basic elements like these take so much time. It’s less chaotic fun and more frustrating.
As for the characters themselves, they have their ups and downs. In Chocobo Racing, most the characters were the basic Final Fantasy archetypes (Chocobo, Moogle, White Mage, etc.), with only a few specific characters from the franchise’s history. That’s also true here, only now even the archetypal characters have names (except for Chocobo himself).
Along with the titular bird, there’s also a girl Chocobo named Camilla, her father (aptly named ‘Camilla’s Pa’), and a Fat Chocobo named Clair. There are also two Moogle characters, one named Atla, and a helmet wearing Moogle named Racing Hero X. I guess with characters like these, Chocobo GP is leaning more into the Chocobo series, as opposed to simply using the general Final Fantasy creatures and enemies. That’s okay, though I don’t really see the point in having so many similar characters.
There are plenty of others, however, like a Behemoth named Ben, and a White Mage named Shirma. For more specific Final Fantasy characters, there’s Terra, the heroine from Final Fantasy VI, in her Esper form. And we also have Vivi and Steiner from Final Fantasy IX. Those are all welcome additions that, again, differ from what Square’s selective memory can usually be bothered to remember. But, if you just have to have Cloud and Squall in your game, they’re unlockable “seasonal” characters, who can alternatively be purchased individually.
The character selection is a bit of a mixed bag, but then again, Mario Kart 8 gave us Pink Gold Peach, so at least Chocobo GP is willing to search its franchise’s history for characters, instead of repainting a series mainstay and calling it a new addition.
Less forgivable is the fact that Chocobo GP only features eight racetracks. For the record, that’s less tracks than Chocobo Racing, which had ten. Granted, Chocobo GP features alternate versions to certain courses, but they basically just rearrange a couple of the obstacles. The tracks here aren’t particularly memorable, either, which makes their short supply all the more crippling. Some may argue that Square can add more courses with updates, but the fact of the matter is the base game needed more tracks. I would have been fine if the developers spent less time on all the unlockable trinkets, and a little more time creating extra courses.
Chocobo GP features a small variety of modes, the best of which being an online tournament up to 64 players. There are also versus modes, time attacks and custom races. There’s even a story mode, though that too is a mixed bag.
The story mode is essentially just races interspersed with cinematics. There’s no hub world to traverse or anything. The cinematics themselves are little more than basic animations of the characters being plastered in front a static background, complete with text boxes and questionable voice acting. While these cinematics do have some humorous moments (particularly when it comes to the characters pointing out Camilla’s Pa’s ridiculous name), they ultimately drag on way too long. The story mode itself seems strangely padded out, despite its simple setup of “pick a race and watch a cinematic.” The story mode should ultimately be looked at as a means of unlocking most of the characters, and little more.
On the plus side of things, the game’s bright, cartoony visuals look great, and they’re matched by a fun, bouncy soundtrack (I enjoy Chocobo GP’s vocal theme song, even if the lyrics are little more than saying the characters’ names).
Unfortunately, Chocobo GP ran into some bigger issues at launch, including some egregious bugs. During separate play sessions, I encountered tournaments that wouldn’t load subsequent rounds and often got hit by items that didn’t appear on-screen. Most ridiculously, I rightfully came in third place during one race, which randomly continued another lap after it should have ended, and then it counted me as coming in last place. Not every race I played was such a disaster, but these glitches and bugs were bad and frequent enough to sour the experience. At the very least, the game is receiving updates and patches to fix these technical issues, but you never want to launch a game in such an unpolished state.
Worst of all, however, are Chocobo GP’s paywalls. Mario Kart Tour could get ridiculous with its paywalls as well, but at least in that case, the game itself is free. But Chocobo GP is a fully priced retail game that still has the nerve to demand its players pay more money to unlock characters, karts, and in-game currency. You can unlock all the seasonal rewards by playing and levelling up, but Square made sure the process was as long and tedious as possible to make such progress (I almost wonder if the lack of courses was deliberate, to create more monotony so players would cave in faster).
Square has said they will make the levelling up process more accessible in upcoming seasons, but it kind of feels like the damage is done. Especially when one considers the in-game currency (mythril) has an expiration date when earned by player experience but doesn’t expire when purchased. Classy.
Unlike a lot of people, I am not one who believes simply wanting to make money from one’s product is a bad thing. However, the sheer insistence of Chocobo GP’s paywalls would be greedy even for a free-to-play game. For a fully priced game to demand so much from players’ wallets is pretty lowdown (especially for a game marketed towards kids).
Ultimately, this is what dampens what should have been a fun sequel to an oft-forgotten game from yesteryear. I think there is a fun game in Chocobo GP, but Square chose to bury it under its own monetization model. And I think the game’s other shortcomings are a direct result of this. Imagine if Square had enough faith in the game to sell itself, then maybe more development time could have been used polishing the game instead of spent thinking of new ways to charge players.
Chocobo GP should have been a delightful throwback right out the gate. You can still have some good fun while playing it. It’s just a shame you have to turn a blind eye to so much in order to do so.
Here’s hoping a potential Bomberman Fantasy Race sequel doesn’t suffer the same fate.