If Media Molecule’s “LittleBigPlanet” was Sony’s pitch to get fans of Nintendo’s “Super Mario” games to pick up a PlayStation 3, United Front Games’ “ModNation Racers” represents a play for the “Mario Kart” crowd.

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At last week’s Game Developers Conference in San Francisco, I had a chance to sit down with United Front’s William Ho and a representative from Sony’s San Diego studio to try out the game on the PS3 and PlayStation Portable. Both versions are due in stores on May 25.

“ModNation Racers” should feel familiar to anyone who’s seen a kart racer in action. Your little cartoon character will speed around the course in his custom-built kart. As you speed up and drift around corners, you’ll gradually fill up a “boost” meter, which you can use to get a little extra push when you need it. Power-ups for attacking your opponents are littered throughout the course and can be used immediately or stored until you get three of them, at which point you can unleash a more powerful attack.

What sets “ModNation Racers,” the second game in what Sony is dubbing the “Play, Create, Share” series, apart from the “Mario Karts” of the world is its robust track-, kart- and character-creation tools. Like its predecessor, “LittleBigPlanet,” “ModNation Racers” makes it easy for players to share their designs with the millions of users of the PlayStation Network.

What really impressed me, though, was how easy United Front has made it to create content for the game. Don’t want to spend hours creating a unique look for your driver? Just hit “random” and either go with what they give you or make subtle refinements. Ho hit random and got a cute little driver with a Hannibal Lecter mask. (And yes, as with “LittleBigPlanet,” “cute” is the adjective that will most often be used to describe “ModNation Racers.)

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Although there are seemingly infinite customization options for your vehicles, Ho assured me that the game’s vehicle design system emphasizes form over function. No matter what features you add to your kart, you don’t have to worry about weight or aerodynamics. It’s an interesting contrast with one of my favorite games on the Xbox 360, “Banjo-Kazooie Nuts & Bolts.” That game was a true tinkerer’s delight; every little tweak had the potential to radically alter the way your vehicle handled. While this freedom was nice in theory, it alienated a lot of casual players who wanted to spend five minutes building a car and then take it out on the track.

Of all the creation tools I saw in action, the track-building feature impressed me the most. Ho showed me how a player could quickly choose a track theme – desert for our example – draw a course outline and then hit a command that autopopulates the entire track with scenery and power-ups. (You can even hold down a button once you get tired of drawing and the track editor will automatically close your loop.) Of course, if you want to micromanage every aspect of track creation and put in your own scenery, you can do that, too.

There’s a fine line between making track-creation tools accessible to everyone and dumbing them down to the point of alienating your most hard-core customers. “ModNation Racers” seems to have it all figured out. Ho explained that the track creation tools that ship with the game are the same as what United Front used while developing the title. It’s features like these that make me think Nintendo needs to play attention to what Sony is doing with its Play, Create, Share series, lest it wake up one day and discover that many of its most popular franchises have been eclipsed on one of its rival’s consoles.

The PS3 version will let up to four players play on the same console, and two players will be able to play together online, making “ModNation Racers” a good bet for families, couples or frequent party hosts.

PSP version

The handheld version of the game for the PlayStation Portable controlled much the same. Obviously, with the reduced processing power of the PSP, the track-creation tools aren’t as mind-blowing as what I saw on the PS3 build of the game, but they’re plenty deep.

The Sony San Diego representative explained that the PSP version will include a few wrinkles and features not found in the PS3 build, such as exclusive tracks and specific props and accessories. It’ll also include a game mode called “last man standing” that’s a variation of the typical racing-game survival mode. As in most racing games, once the first lap is completed, a timer will start counting down. When the timer hits 0:00, the player currently in last place will be eliminated, and this process will be completed again after each lap. The twist in “ModNation Racers” on the PSP, however, is that the player in last place will have access to unlimited speed boosting. Once that player gets out of last place, the player he overtakes will gain the same ability, setting up a frantic game of leap frog to avoid elimination.

Races on the PSP version of the game will support up to six players.