...until you realize it's microsanction-city, that is.
It doesn’t take a genius to recognize that Chocobo GP bears little tonal resemblance to its Final Fantasy progenitors, what with the brooding sadsacks and multi-layered epics substituted by deformed, doe-eyed Behemoths and kiddie cartoon escapades. Yet, there’s something to be said about Chocobo GP’s own tonal dissonance. Within a span of three minutes, we’re treated to an opening cinematic accompanied by a rock guitar, a gritty, cutthroat version of the Chocobo theme arranged with all the brutality of a monster truck rally, and then a peppy sing-along for the main menu that’d be right at home on Nick Jr. (“Ah, how well we get along~ But oh, when the race is on~ No one can stop me on my way! Straight! To vict-tory!”)
Alas, I’m unfamiliar with the original Chocobo Racing, so I can’t claim if such discordance was present within the 1999 PlayStation racer. That said, I find myself oddly charmed by it all – it’s one cog in how earnestly Chocobo GP engages in its off-beat identity. The roster cameos, along with a plethora of references and in-jokes elevate the tongue-in-cheek story mode, which certainly doesn’t dismiss the game’s prestigious Final Fantasy origins. That’s all well and good, but it’s the predominantly self-contained cast and world that welcome us into a wholesome little kart racer that’s just fun to dive into, regardless if one is familiar with Square-Enix’s RPG franchise or not.
Now, whether it succeeds as an unabashed Mario Kart clone is another thing entirely. While I’d like to think it’s more than an agreeable substitute, things get decidedly less “wholesome” when it comes to Chocobo GP’s blatant monetization model. Oh yes, Square-Enix wasn’t shy about getting greedy with this kid-friendly racer. Everything from microtransactions to Season Passes are here, and while such purchases aren’t necessary to enjoy Chocobo GP as it currently stands, the way this game pushes players into opening their wallets does raise valid concerns over its long-term support and appeal.
A shame, given how approachable and fun the actual racing is. You won’t be farming Gyashal Greens to raise those feathery Chocobos here, for even a passing familiarity with Mario Kart (or any other kart racer, really) will help you settle into the dusty dirt roads of Chocobo Farms. An original cast of colorful characters from Clair the Moogle to Camilla’s Pa (yes, that’s his name!) burn rubber alongside iconic faces in Terra Branford (Final Fantasy VI) and Vivi Ornitier (Final Fantasy IX), lobbing spells every which way as they compete to achieve their one, true wish.
Much of Chocobo GP boils down to Magicite: spells contained within color-coded Magic Eggs. Featuring a veritable blend of offensive and defensive spells, everything from Fire projectiles to Shell shields to Haste speed boosts quickly induce anarchic chaos upon the pavement. Developer ARIKA was wickedly clever in how they implemented Final Fantasy’s library of spells; for instance, Doom will instantly begin a countdown upon its unlucky target, and even the most vigilant racer will find themselves frantically pressing the R button to rid themselves of the reaper. (And let’s not forget the Swap portals, which either teleport you front or back depending on, respectively, their shifting from blue to red hues. Akin to tripping on your own Banana Peel, do heed caution when the track gets crowded!)
Through clever use of Magic Eggs, you can even upgrade your spells. Each egg is divided into Bronze, Silver, and Gold variations, and “leveling” up your spells accordingly will provide stronger spells. (In other words, a weak little Fire can turn into a big, homing Firaga). Truth be told, this isn’t always a guaranteed process – sometimes you’ll just obtain a new, individual spell, so your magic-use comes down to your best judgment. (Putting it this way: sure, you can level up your handy Bahamut transformation spell to rampage through the opposition, but seeing as you’re likely already in last place, wouldn’t you want to use that right away?)
Chocobo GP also takes a page from Mario Kart 8 Deluxe in its use of Magicite Shards. For those not familiar, in Mario Kart 8 Deluxe you collect coins on the tracks to increase your max speed. Chocobo GP’s handy shards operate in the same way, but there’s another important reason to hoard ‘em: they’ll fill up a gauge that lends special abilities that, when utilized properly, can swiftly turn the tide. These brief power-ups go a long way in differentiating each racer with a touch of personality. For example, Chocobo’s ability is initiating a skate-fueled speed rush, whereas Ben the Behemoth’s has him lifting his vehicle above his scaly shoulders to stampede across the track with reckless abandon.
While there’s a number of scenic original tracks as well as familiar locations in Gold Saucer, Zozo and Alexandria, Chocobo GP doesn’t number too high in total courses, instead “dividing” each individual track into Short, Long, Technical, and Hyperspeed versions. Some may walk away longing for a meatier selection of original tracks, but you may find these different versions more palatable to your tastes. Let’s be clear: these racetracks won’t blow you away as per the wild imagination of Mario Kart 8 or Sonic and Sega All-Stars Racing Transformed, but they still take the right lessons in course design: telegraphed obstacles, clever shortcuts, and tight corners prime for drifting.
Topped off with a buttery-smooth 60 FPS, Chocobo GP operates with every last facet of a successful kart racer. That vindicating thrill when you successfully execute a perfect drift, speeding ahead of the competition? That’s in there. That caution you gradually glean from pulling off speed-boosting ramp tricks, lest you accidentally crash into a wall? You’ll be heeding that. Not every element holds up to scrutiny – recovery cooldowns from projectiles last too long, I’ve found – but* Chocobo GP is a racer that ultimately respects the player’s skill as much as our knowledge on all things Final Fantasy. (Prick your ears just right on a certain track, and you just might hear the Chocobo Theme interwoven with Final Fantasy V*’s Battle on the Big Bridge.)
Skill that, alas, I was unable to test in its titular Chocobo GP mode – an online survival tournament featuring up to 64 opponents. Unlike other lucky members of the press, I was unable to find a match during this pre-launch period, but with how much of Chocobo GP’s feedback loop apparently hinges upon online play, we ask that you watch this space.
Thankfully, Story Mode is the perfect avenue for players to shed their training wheels, enticing us with unlockable rewards amid quick tutorials. That we’re treated to a light-hearted Final Fantasy parody is a delightful perk – anyone familiar with Puyo Puyo Tetris’s off-the-wall antics will feel right at home here, where an adorable cast of faces new and old foster camaraderie among quick-fire running gags and deep-cut references. (“Well, that got grim fast,” says Atla the Moogle upon hearing Vivi’s wish.) With its lenient difficulty allowing progress even if you didn’t place first, fledgling racers can simply zip on by in Easy Mode, whereas hardened veterans irked by the chatter won’t have to stay in Story Mode’s graces for long.
Between these individualized skits and the Series Races – offline “tournaments” divided into monster-themed cups – you’ll earn Tickets to unlock characters and rides…and that’s where things get rocky. See, completing Story Mode doesn’t necessarily unlock its assembly of characters and vehicles, but rather availability via the in-game shop. In other words, you’ll constantly be on the grind to fully enjoy everything at your leisure. Nothing new in the world of kart racers, sure, but Chocobo GP goes a step beyond by presenting no less than three different forms of currency. In addition to Tickets, there’s the ever-familiar Gil, obtained via Chocobo GP tournaments, and Mythril, which requires a trip onto the Nintendo eShop and purchase real-world money to obtain.
It’s all rather taxing to wrap your head around, and with the game’s reserves of Tickets inevitably drying up upon devoted play, it’s very obvious Square-Enix wants to push players into monetary investment. Simply put, there’s a reason why fan-favorite protagonists in Cloud Strife and Squall Leonhart are locked behind the upcoming Season Passes – limited-time affairs according to the game’s press release. For kids, it’s a payment model that parents might not be comfortable with; for us grown-ups, it’s a cynical cash-grab symbolic of industry practices that you might be hesitant to support.
I would imagine that many players might not be willing to plop down extra cash on top of Chocobo GP’s $50 price tag. Square-Enix obviously foresaw this backlash, hence the existence of Chocobo GP Lite: a free-to-play version that offers online-only play with a handful of characters. If nothing else, it’s an acceptable gesture: hesitant players can dive in and decide if the full game’s for them.
And yet, I still ask, why does all this exist at all? (Yes, we know, money!) While an honest critique of Chocobo GP would conclude it’ll never topple Mario Kart, it simply doesn’t have to. It’s a charming little thing with all its honey-dipped fanservice and infectious choir of kazoos and meows; an appropriate bench-warmer ready to heed the call when we need a break from Mario and the gang. But such practices depict Square-Enix’s brazen lack of faith for a niche, digital-only spin-off. Furthermore, what unfortunate timing for their corporate meddling – now Chocobo GP finds itself in the awkward position of competing with Mario Kart 8 Deluxe’s much-belated Booster Course Pack.
Whether cynical business decisions will kneecap Chocobo GP’s marketability remains to be seen, but while nostalgic Chocobo Racing fans desiring to put on their skates and revisit their childhood favorite might grit their teeth and shell out some cash, I truly wonder who else who will commit themselves to the grind for what’s an otherwise solid racer. Regardless, the digital keys to the ignition will be handed out on March 10th – will you take them?