Perhaps lost in the shadow of high-profile Xbox launch games like Halo, Dead Or Alive 3 and Project Gotham Racing, the unusual platform/racing hybrid Mad Dash was a reasonably well-hyped game but a relative dud upon release. It's a game that takes characters reminiscent of sly cartoon creations like Pinky And The Brain—sarcastic, mildly vulgar, and (at least in theory) catering as much to an adult audience as they do children—and tosses them into a world that borrows heavily from modern 3D platformers such as Banjo-Kazooie and Jax And Daxter while incorporating racing elements such as those found in Mario Kart. Unique, yes—and fairly clever as well, but still too caught up in platforming conventions to be compelling. And although the game is certainly different and well designed enough to be engaging for a while, its shortcomings—including a major design issue Ill mention later—hamper the experience too much to let its accomplishments outweigh them.
The characters are like Warner Bros. characters infused with the crudeness and dry wit of a Matt Groening creation. Scatological humor, though, is (at least in this writers opinion) not humorous by default, and some of the more crude lines in the game lack panache and come off flat. Still, the characters are amusing and the thin but light-hearted plot sets a nice backdrop for the action. The characters have different special abilities that give them unique advantages in the game and allow them to access parts of the levels that other characters cannot. You choose from an initially small list of characters and build a team as the game progresses, ideally varying your character selection based on their abilities.
The gameplay itself is like Banjo-Kazooie at mach three. Although it is essentially a racing game, the feel is much more akin to platformers, heavily focused on item collecting, dodging or stomping on cartoony villains, and carefully navigating your characters as they run, swim, climb, swing, surf, and slide through the level at a blistering pace. The levels are surprisingly big, diverse, and full of things to do. Smooth, relatively simple graphics keep the game humming at brisk 60 frames per second and the screen stays very busy without a hint of slowdown. Playing a plaformer at this speed with so much going on made me wish that I saw more of them that moved like this. In fact, I would go so far as to say that the game would have been far more enjoyable had it nothing to with racing, but was simply a fast-paced platform game. That is because the core element of the game suffers from one big, ugly nail in the coffin:
Souring the entire single-player racing element, the game utilizes an automatic catch-up system for the computer-controlled characters. Now matter how well you're doing, it will only take a mistake or two to lose, and if you're losing, you may only need to capitalize on one or two golden opportunities to win the race. In theory, it makes the game more fun because it is almost always a close race. In practice, this unfair design fails to reward the player for skillful gaming. Instead, most of the odds of winning depend on the players knowledge of secret paths and shortcuts.
Lastly, a lack of much in the way of unlockable treats keeps the experience too short to make the flawed gameplay worth revisiting. Its too bad, because Mad Dash has all the right ingredients: an original concept, fast gameplay, excellent level design, appealing characters, and high production values. But as the game wears on, the weakness in the racing design and the over-reliance on platform conventions make the fun as fleet-footed as the characters.