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Beanotown Racing

Game development doesn’t get any more join-the-dots than this. A few courses (some locked), a few quirky characters (some unlocked) and three game modes – all together now: Single Race, Championship and Time Trial. This could be Speed Freaks or Mario Karts or any other quirky racing game, but boxed up in a Beano package.

This PC racer is obviously aimed at Beano’s young readership. The weekly comic has, along with sister The Dandy, a cast of truly original characters. From the cow-pie consuming Desperate Dan to the slipper-dodging Roger, from Minnie the Minx to Bananaman, the Beano and Dandy “brand” is bright, wacky, and colourful.

Hence the comic-strip panel styling of the menu system and the play-school colour schemes of the tracks and cars themselves. The vehicles (they can’t really be called cars) offer a noticeable variety of handling styles and performance. Minnie’s rocket-powered skateboard is a lot stodgier than Gnasher’s jet-powered kennel, for example.

Special weapons also represent the stars of the comics. Banana skins are dropped to create havoc behind; Dennis has tomatoes to fire, and Minnie’s pea shooter has a machine-gun effect on those ahead. Pickups abound, and you’re not restricted to character-specific ones, either. This means that anyone can pick up and use the holy cow-pies that give Desperate Dan his pep. There are the usual hazards to avoid; puddles, miniature rain clouds and a good stock of immovable objects. There is also a mean handful of speed strips to give racers a rapid boost, normally above some kind of drop.

Beanotown and its hinterland offer some fairly ho-hum racing tracks. A haunted castle, a school and the Dandy Embassy are mostly indoor courses, with staircases, landings, porches and even a sewer. A Wild West level features dusty stretches, a winding mountain trail and a jagged cavern pitted with lava-filled pools. While that may sound a bit challenging, it’s possible to steam straight through the cave without mishap. In essence, it’s not challenging.

The tracks are short and simple, but manage to throw up a few confusing stretches nonetheless. The replay value, such as there is, lies in learning the tracks by heart, and two or three goes will be enough for that.

There are wide, forgiving stretches on many of the tracks, as well as nastily jagged hair-pins which will see plenty of pile-ups. Difficulty settings have a marked effect on how quickly the pack will punish you for smacking into a corner. At the highest level it’s as good as game over as soon as you stop.

A quick glance around the course environment shows large swathes of pastel shades and a mostly clean and uncluttered setting. This is a good thing, but it could have been better. Everything seems a little cold and sterile, and the zany warmth of the comics seems missing. This is partly down to design, and partly to the PC’s notoriously harsh graphics.

At first glance Beanotown Racing is well-presented, well-balanced and without horrible flaws. One hour-long session later, however, and we had unlocked all characters and tracks, and felt a little cheated. Granted, and we must repeat this mantra, this is a kiddie game, but it’s worth bearing in mind that Beanotown Racing might out-race even the most skittish of young attention spans. I mean to say it’s all over a bit quickly, for my (and your) money.

Brevity is only part of a larger problem. While simplicity is excellent and necessary for a children’s game, it shouldn’t translate into shallowness. Apart from the ease with which everything is unlocked, there’s so little in the game beyond the straight run-through of each lap, race and championship. Although one or two tracks offer short-cuts or detours rich with pick-ups, they’re all very short indeed, and you’ll soon be driving on autopilot. And once you’ve won a championship there’s very little incentive to do it again.

The unlocking of characters (like Plug and Brains) works with the traditional, time-worn method of winning a race using a particular driver. The same goes for tracks. While there’s no arguing with successful formulae, it feels very much by the numbers.

Beanotown Racing is an odd thing. It’s a given that this type of easy-peasy family racer is made for consoles. Funny, then, to see it on a PC, with keyboard racing and mouse-driven menu. I would have thought that more kids are exposed to games consoles than PCs. Nonetheless, it’s well-enough packaged as a piece of PC software. What a shame it’s so shockingly unimaginative.

Beano and Dandy are both strong “properties”, as the h**-bound imps of marketing would say. To older fans of the Bash Street Kids and Corky the Cat, desperate for some primary-coloured nostalgia, we would advise a visit down the newsagents rather than the game shop. Beanotown Racing on the PC is to a proper racing game what a colouring book is to a comic. Just don’t expect to see anything new or interesting, or even very good in this game. On the other hand there’s no arguing with cross-media marketing, especially if there’s a child at your wallet.

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