Sometimes a game comes along and just wants to be a bright, happy bit of fan service, and to criticise it for that, and not being something that it’s not, seems a bit silly. As a bright and happy bit of fan service, Chocobo GP is wholesome, charming, cheerful and executed with precision. It looks great, and plays well enough that the real appeal of the experience, the characters, can shine. It’s a character mascot event, in other words, and it does that perfectly.
Of course, you’re going to see comparisons to Mario Kart when people talk about Chocobo GP. They are, after all, both nominally kart racers, and Mario Kart is the sales and mindshare king of this genre. Mario Kart is going to come out on top in most people’s estimation because it has more tracks (especially with the big DLC drop coming up), and was built on the kind of budget that Nintendo throws at its most potent properties. But do you know what Mario Kart doesn’t have? Chocobo. People are going to somehow overlook that, but it’s actually important. The people who are going to be interested in Chocobo GP are going to be interested in it not because it’s a kart racer, but because it features the Chocobo, the Moogle, and various other cutsey characters from Square Enix’s iconic roster of mascots. In the eyes of the people that will be interested in this game, the value in it is how well it delivers the fan service, and not whether it’s comparable to another kart racing game with an entirely different bunch of characters. A far better point of comparison for Chocobo GP would actually be Chocobo Dungeon (also on Nintendo Switch) because that, too, is as much a delivery mechanism for Chocobo as much as it is anything else.
So how well does Chocobo GP work as mascot delivery fan service experience? Incredibly well, is the answer. Wonderful remixes of iconic tunes will fill your ears as you zoom around levels that are clearly representative of the Final Fantasy heritage. But, most importantly, the developers have focused on putting an expansive range of characters into the game, and made sure that each character has their own personality on track (complete with fun taunt buttons). Not only does that mean that there’s plenty of variety in the races themselves, but additionally, the story mode can be a sequence of nonsense interactions between a wide variety of beloved characters. You’ll need to play the story mode to unlock all the characters, and while it’s not exactly Tolstoy in its storytelling quality, after so many massive and complex RPGs it has been downright refreshing to tap through bubbly, cutsey nonsense between races. This is also a good progression system that drip-feeds you characters at a perfectly adequate rate.
Outside of the story mode, there is, of course, the single player GP. On paper, this mode features a lot of cups, but that’s deceptive in a way since, across those cups, you’ll encounter a lot of variations of the same track, rather than a constant barrage of new tracks. People are going to be critical of the lack of content in this game as a result, and that is fair enough. It would have been nice for Chocobo GP to be a little more expansive in scope. Still, what is there is nicely varied and designed. Elsewhere there is a time trial mode, and shaving seconds off the time and trying to sneak past the ghosts is always a fun and rewarding process. The developers clearly wanted you to spend the bulk of your time playing online, however, with 64-racer tournaments being a major feature, to go with the more standard single race that you can organise online with buddies. I will say that I’m not sure that Chocobo GP will maintain a community that large for those tournaments, given that it’s only the Chocobo fans that are going to persist in playing. However, in concept, they are a great idea, and with that being a feature available on the free-to-play version, perhaps it will defy my expectations and you’ll be enjoying tense tournaments over the years to come. Especially with season passes encouraging people to keep coming back.
The moment-to-moment kart racing is both excellent and familiar. Everything that has become standard for the genre, from speed boosts from drifting to the ability to do tricks in the air after a jump for another speed boost, has been faithfully implemented into Chocobo GP, with tight controls and nicely designed courses making nailing the perfect racing line a thrill. The “innovation” in Chocobo GP is the way items work. Rather than being able to carry one or two, here you can have up to three, and if you have two of the same item, then you elevate it to the next “tier” of potency. This closely emulates how Final Fantasy games handled the tiering of spells (Fire, Fira, Firaga), and it introduces some quick strategy into the action – do you throw a weak spell immediately, or try and pull together a massive tier-3 incantation to really turn the tables?
What lets Chocobo GP down a little is just how frequently those items come into play to up the difficulty when you’re racing against the AI. On more than a few occasions I’ve been cruising in first place at the last lap only to end up coming dead last because a string of attacks pummelled me into the asphalt. Furthermore, it never seems to matter how well I race because the opponent will always been on my heels. I know that all kart racing games have some degree of this “rubber banding,” and I do like the chaos that these items introduce in kart racers (even when I’m on the receiving end), but there’s a delicate balance that the genre needs to strike that it allows for skill to still matter, and Chocobo GP does feel a little too much like a passive magic show at times.
It’s hard to stay mad at Chocobo GP, though, even when you’re hit with what feels like an endless barrage of magic. The game’s just too bright and cheerful. Obviously, your mileage is going to depend on whether you’re a fan of Chocobo. Not just Final Fantasy, but also this specific series of cute mascot characters. If you are, though, you couldn’t ask for a more loving treatment. The expansive roster, the adorable presentation, and the quality kart racing mechanics will combine to give you something that you just might prefer over Mario Kart. The latter might be a bigger and tighter racing experience, but Chocobo GP has a killer weapon up its sleeve that makes all the difference: Chocobo.