Charinko Hero: The Best Kart Racer You've Never Heard Of

For part 2 of the GameCube retrospective series, I'm jumping a little bit down the list to Charinko Hero, a 2003 kart (technically tricycle) racer from Banprestro and starring characters from both Kamen Rider and Ultraman. As you might guess, it never released outside of Japan.

Charinko Hero
The seaside cave course

Charinko Hero (Banpresto, 7/17/2003)

Right, so this won't surprise anyone after the title, but let's get it out of the way immediately: I love this game. That sounds absolutely bonkers at first glance, because all you'd see is a licensed kart game with 8 tracks for a grand prix mode with 6 racers, a local multiplayer mode that only takes 4 racers, and time trial. That's not much! On top of that, the first course isn't terribly interesting and the tricycles control like, well, tricycles. Corning is hard.

Charinko Hero
This course features a mid-race rocket launch

And yet you'll start to see what makes it shine pretty quickly. That meter in the bottom left is for stamina, which lets you get off your tricycle and run for a bit, letting you go faster at the cost of slightly reduced control and more speed going into corners. You'll spin out if you push it past the maximum value, but it will recover at a speed dependent on your character stats as you don't use it. It's like having a rechargeable Mario Kart mushroom that you can use whenever you want, and it's fantastic.

Charinko Hero
This one is comparatively boring, but there's still a flyover

The other unusual symbol you might notice in these screencaps is the blue shield above the middle map. You can collect those at a few points on each course, and they let you use your character's unique special technique. All of these are different, ranging from flying kicks that can be used to attack and dodge obstacles to a storm of fireballs to, in my preferred character's case, a something pretty close to a Mario Kart star. There's a surprising amount of strategy in figuring out when these shields are best used.

Charinko Hero
Sometimes your character wants to show off

The minimap probably doesn't need an introduction, but it's secretly showing this games greatest strength: the tracks. Sure, the first one (pictured third here) is nothing you haven't seen before, you can tell just from the maps that the tracks get crazy from there. The one above this paragraph has an optional shortcut through a bathouse, another lets you ride a rollercoaster if you sneak behind a stage, and my favorite is in a disaster-struck port that partially collapses each lap so that you're racing a slightly different path each time. The secret third cup in particular has some of the best track design I've seen in a racing game, bar none.

Charinko Hero
The bathhouse is secretly the fastest route

Having said all that, Charinko Hero isn't quite perfect. It makes sense that the tricycles don't control all that well, sure, but that means that you never quite have that satisfying sense of flow that you get from a more agile racer. More problematically, there's no period of immunity after getting hit by an item, so in crowded parts of the track you can sometimes be hit by three or four in a row, which is just as frustrating as it sounds. The game accounts for this with some stealthy rubber-banding that keeps every race reasonably close, but that only helps so much in the moment. That said, a lot of the items have tells before they hit and the controls get better the more you use them, so it's possible these problems would go away after enough time with the game.

Charinko Hero
How about a haunted house?

It should go without saying that I highly recommend this game if you have any way of playing it. The GameCube's region lock makes that somewhat more difficult to do with a physical copy, but used prices also aren't that bad and I think the game would be perfectly playable even if you can't read Japanese at all. The course descriptions rarely contain anything important and there's no tutorial, so you're really only missing being able to read your character's stats. Hardly the end of the world.

Charinko Hero
You can't ride that part of the roller coaster

It's a real shame that this is so unknown outside of Japan, but I get why Banpresto didn't think a racing game based on a license the rest of the world has barely heard of had a chance. I'm sure it's somewhat more enjoyable if, unlike me, you have more than the most basic knowledge of the source material, but even without that it's a great time. Give it a try!

Time to beat: 2-3 hours to see credits, but you could spend a lot longer going for the fastest time on each track

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