Mini Reviews July 2017

I’ve got another batch of three mini reviews for you here. These are games that I played in June.  We’ve got an old-timey Gameboy game, an endless runner and an indie game jam entry. Grand Prix cars, solar powered planes and scooters.

F-1 Race (Nintendo, 1984/1990)

F-1 Race is a Pole Position style game from Nintendo for the NES and Gameboy. That tells you almost everything you need to know about it. You’ve played it ,or games like it, a thousand times already. I played the Gameboy version for a while because a friend of mine really likes it. It’s not very original, especially by the time the Gameboy version came out in 1990, but it does what you’d expect a game like this to do and does it pretty well. It has short levels which are ideal for a handheld game, it’s pretty challenging and it has really funky music. It’s fun in the way that all games like this are, but that’s about all you can say.

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Race the Sun (Flippfly, 2013)

Race the Sun by Flippfly is an endless runner where you control a solar powered plane and attempt to fly as far as possible before the sun sets. It first came out in 2013 and has done the rounds on all the major platforms since then. It’s the not the sort of thing I’d play normally but I ended up really enjoying it. The stark, minimalist graphics look really stylish and the soundtrack is also really good. It contributes nicely to the atmosphere and tension of the game. What makes this game great for me are the controls, which are super smooth and responsive. I also enjoy playing in the first-person mode but that be a bit stressful sometimes. To keep things feeling fresh, Race the Sun generates a new landscape every day so even though all the same elements are always there, you’re not playing the exact same levels over and over. I’m sure most people reading this have already played Race the Sun but if anyone hasn’t I can strongly recommend it.

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Scoot Scoot (Watch Yr Step, 2016)

I found Scoot Scoot when I was looking for racing games on itch.io. It’s a scooter agility/autocross game that was created for the “A Game By It’s Cover” game jam in 2016. As it’s a jam game there’s not a whole lot to it but it’s really fun and well-presented. You drive your scooter around a course marked out by traffic cones in a car park and aim to complete 3 laps in as short a time as possible. You’re penalised for touching the cones and rewarded for riding fast through the speed traps spread around the course. It’s just a goofy little game with 1 level but it’s actually quite addictive. It’s available from the creator’s itch.io page (here) under a pay what you like scheme. If you do choose to download it I suggest giving them something because it’s absolutely worth supporting.

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NASCAR: Dirt to Daytona (Monster Games, 2002)

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NASCAR: Dirt to Daytona is considered to be one of the best NASCAR games ever made. It’s a perennial contender on top 10 lists and throughout my research it’s been consistently referred to as the best NASCAR game available on a console. I haven’t played nearly enough of the other contenders to say if Dirt to Daytona truly is the best of all time but from my experience with the game I certainly don’t have any reason to doubt that claim.

NASCAR: Dirt to Daytona was developed by Monster Games, the people behind NASCAR Heat, another very well-regarded game with the same license. They would also go on to develop Excite Truck and Excitebike: World Rally for Nintendo. It was released for the Gamecube and Playstation 2 in 2002 and as you would guess from the name, it features racing from a local level right through to the NASCAR Cup Series.

There’s a few things that stand out to me about this game, namely the depth and range of the content on offer and the attention to detail present in the game. Dirt to Daytona offers a good choice of ‘fast action’ modes such as single races, championships and two different challenge modes as well as a very long and in-depth career mode. There’s a lot of fun to be had whichever mode you play but the career is where the game really comes into its own.

The career mode starts you off at the bottom of the ladder, racing a street stock on local dirt tracks and trying to climb through the ranks to reach the NASCAR Cup Series, stopping off in the Modified and Truck divisions along the way. Whenever you start a new division you’ll have a car with only the most basic components fitted so earning money to buy upgrades is essential. You earn money in two ways, from your finishing position in races and from your sponsors. Finishing higher up the order will attract more lucrative sponsorship deals but big money also comes with high expectations and more challenging sponsor objectives.

Playing the career mode takes a significant time investment but NASCAR fans will appreciate its depth and the satisfaction that comes from building your racing team from the ground up. If a long-term commitment isn’t your thing, there’s still plenty of content in the ‘fast action’ modes. The single races and championships will keep most players entertained for a long time and the challenges provide a real test of your driving skill in a variety of conditions.

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The aspect of Dirt to Daytona that I’ve seen given the most praise and attention is the physics engine. It’s an excellent mix of simulation and arcade. With the assists turned on most people will be able to turn laps and race but you’ll still need to take a realistic approach to how you drive. You can’t just mash the throttle and expect to get round corners without taking some of the outer wall with you. Turning off the braking and stability assists gives you a more realistic experience and unlocking the optional ‘hardcore physics’ turns the game into a very serious affair indeed. With the available driving options you can turn your game from ‘serious fun’ to ‘serious business’. A noteworthy aspect to the solid driving physics is the car tuning. You’re provided with as full a range of tuning options as you’d find in any modern simulator and from what I gather from other people who actually know what they’re doing, everything works exactly as it should. If, like me, you don’t know your camber from your Camembert, the game provides 2 sample setups for each track that work as a good baseline and even work well without any tweaking unless you’re playing on the highest difficulty setting. Players who know how to set a car up properly will certainly get a bit more out of Dirt to Daytona but the layperson playing on a moderate difficulty setting can get by pretty well without touching the setups at all.

The AI is probably worth mentioning too. For a 14-year-old game it’s pretty astounding how good the AI drivers are in this game. They’ll race you hard and aren’t afraid to muscle you out of the way but there’s none of the pointless aggression that you see from the computer in a lot of modern games such as the Grid series. They struggle a little with regaining control if they get knocked loose and pit-stops tend to turn into a traffic jam but overall they’re very good opponents and they drive quite consistently.

If Dirt to Daytona falls short in any areas it’s in the graphics and the patchy licensing. The two bottom divisions are mostly made up of fictional drivers and tracks and the truck and cup series don’t have full coverage either. It’s not a big complaint but there are some notable omissions that a fan would probably notice. In terms of the graphics I think the game captures the look and feel of the tracks really well but the detail in the models really shows the game’s age. I normally play this game in the Dolphin emulator with the resolution cranked right up and that does a lot to improve the look of the game. That’s definitely how I would recommend you play this game today.

The depth and breadth of the content on offer in NASCAR: Dirt to Daytona combined with the great physics and AI make it one of the most complete oval racing games available on a home console. Whether or not it’s the best console NASCAR game is still open to debate but even so it remains an enjoyable and satisfying game that offers at least as much to a player as modern titles.

Extreme-G 3 (Acclaim, 2001)

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This is a futuristic motorcycle racer developed and published by Acclaim. It was released for the Gamecube and Playstation 2 between 2001 and 2002.

I had this on the Gamecube when it was new. I played it quite a lot at the time but my decision to revisit it was more down to wanting to see what games I could run in Dolphin than any real desire to play it again. In spite of this I actually ended up playing for a few days and even completed it. This game has aged a lot better than I had expected.

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Extreme-G 3 is quite a typical game of this type and it doesn’t stray particularly far from the Wipeout template. You race through futuristic environments at breakneck speeds using a selection of weapons while balancing your shared shield and speed boost energy. Like the Wipeout series, Extreme-G 3 also features licensed music. All the artists featured are affiliated with The Ministry of Sound.

It got decent reviews at the time, quite a lot of 8s. It got a lot of praise for its sense of speed and the quality of its tracks. I would agree that those are definitely the game’s strong points. The tracks are like roller-coasters with banked corners that flow into one another, huge changes in elevation and exciting features such as jumps, loops, corkscrews and my personal favourite, the underwater tunnel. The other main area of praise, the sense of speed, is also a real selling point for this game. I’ve not played many games from this period that can match Extreme-G 3 for sheer speed and even fewer that let you visibly break the sound barrier.

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As well as these two strengths there are a few weaknesses in the game which the passage of time has done nothing to diminish. Firstly, a few of the environments look a bit bland. I think they always did actually and it really goes heavy on the motion blur. You can also find yourself racing alone for extended periods as the field stretches out along the track. If you’re lagging behind you can feel like you’re miles away from anyone and don’t have any indicator of the time gaps to the front or back.

These are only minor issues but I do have a couple of bigger gripes about the game. The first is the weapons system. Your weapons are permanent upgrades that you buy in a shop so both you and your opponents carry them throughout the game. The AI drivers seem to really like the micro-mine weapon in particular. These are little bouncing orbs that you scatter behind you and remain on the track for a few seconds. They’re not a long-term problem but every overtaking opportunity carries the risk of getting a face full of exploding jet balls that can bring you to a dead stop. The other larger problem I have with the game is the huge spike in the difficulty curve near the end of the single player mode. Most of the races are a fair challenge and they gradually become more difficult until the last two or three events which suddenly become incredibly frustrating. The difficulty isn’t insurmountable but it’s a brick wall in the middle of what was a steady challenge up to that point.

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The flaws I’ve outlined didn’t really spoil my enjoyment of the game, in fact Extreme-G 3 exceeded my expectations, but I know that for some they could be deal-breakers. The Extreme-G series produced some of the better Wipeout clones out there and this one in particular is definitely above average. I think I would still recommend this game on the strength of the tracks alone, at least in the short-term. I enjoyed it but I don’t think I’ll be playing it again in a hurry. It might be a good idea to look up some cheats so you can just jump in and try all the tracks without having to go through the full single player mode.

 

Riptide GP Renegade (Vector Unit, 2016)

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Riptide GP Renegade is the latest entry in the Riptide GP series from Vector Unit. Like its predecessors it’s a futuristic watercraft racer with a mixed emphasis on racing and stunts. I enjoyed the previous game in the series when I played it earlier in this year. I think this instalment makes a lot of small improvements that add up to a significantly better game with a lot more personality.

The basic structure of the game is similar to the earlier games in the series. You race in a series of events consisting of a variety of race types and earn XP, cash and stars which let you unlock rider perks, vehicle upgrades and more races respectively. A major addition to Riptide GP Renegade is a story mode which acts as a framing device to link the different race events together. It’s a very simple story but it provides a framework for progression and unlocking more vehicles and riders.

Vector Unit have made a lot of cosmetic improvements since the previous game. The graphical style is very similar to Riptide GP 2 but with more detailed environments and better rider and vehicle animations. It still doesn’t look like a big budget game, because it isn’t, but it looks fine to me. It’s bold and colourful just like an arcade racer should be. The tracks, as well as looking nicer, are generally much better overall. There wasn’t anything particularly wrong with the tracks in the other games but they’ve taken things in a much more Hydro Thunder-like direction this time which can only be a good thing. There’s more alternate routes, more huge waves, more stuff happening in the background, just more of everything in general and it’s great. There’s maybe one track in the game that I’m not as fond of but even then it’s not bad.

The handling has changed a little bit since the last game. It’s much lighter now and feels a lot better. I didn’t dislike the way the last game handled but in comparison to this it feels very heavy.  Even though the handling is lighter than it was in Riptide GP 2, it’s still very easy to get to grips with and new players will be able to just jump right in and play without any problems. The stunts work the same way as previously, by hitting different analogue stick combinations, and they seem to be mostly the same. I think there might be more tricks added at the top end of the scale, there’s some pretty crazy ones that you can unlock later on and I don’t recall seeing them before.

Overall, Riptide GP Renegade is a good game at a good price. It’s easy to get into but becomes very challenging as you progress through the story. It’s a much better game than the already pretty decent Riptide GP 2 and it’s probably the best watercraft racing game since Hydro Thunder Hurricane, which Vector Unit also made. It looks pretty good for a game made by such a small team. It certainly looks professional even it probably didn’t have a huge amount of money behind it and in my opinion it looks the way a game like this should, simple and bold.

I’ve always been a fan of  budget games that punch way above their weight and this certainly fits the bill. I give it a firm recommendation. It’s available now for PC, PS4, Android and iOS with an Xbox One version on the way.

 

Mini Reviews 18/07/2016

I haven’t given you anything to read for a while, so here is a trio of mini reviews to look at while I work on some other things for the future. All three games are readily available through emulation, the second hand market or are just plain free. No steering wheels required either.

Racing Hero – Sega, 1990 (Arcade)

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Racing Hero is one of Sega’s less well-known arcade games, it combines elements of Outrun and Hang-On.

You race your motorcycle between checkpoints against the clock through a series of internationally themed levels that are split into two halves. The first half of each level takes place on an open road amongst traffic and the second is a closed road with only your motorbike-riding rivals for company. At the end of each stage you then pick from one of two new stages to progress to. This is similar to Outrun‘s  branching route structure but with a menu between stages instead of a road junction.

Splitting the levels into two distinct halves feels quite odd to me. It doesn’t really impact how the game plays as such, you’re essentially doing the same thing in both halves, but it’s a little thematically jarring. This combined with not selecting your next stage while on the road means the game doesn’t flow quite as well as some of Sega’s other games, especially the Outrun series.

Racing Hero was developed for the X-board arcade hardware, the same platform as Super Monaco GP. It’s a good looking game but perhaps not as good as its more famous stablemate or some of Sega’s other work from the late 1980s and early 1990s. I think the lack of a tight thematic focus contributes to that. There are a lot of nice individual elements in the game but they don’t really fit together as much as you would normally expect from Sega. The music however, is up to Sega’s usual high standards. It’s very melodic and catchy, in fact I’ve got it stuck in my head while I’m writing this.

Despite my grumbling about this game’s thematic issues, Racing Hero is actually okay.  It isn’t terribly original but the actual mechanics of the game are fine. If you’re looking for an old racer that you’ve never played before then you’ll probably still enjoy it for a while. You can play it in MAME and the controls are easy to set up with an analogue joypad.

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Pico Racer – kometbomb, 2016 (PICO-8/browser)

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Pico Racer is, in my opinion, the best racing game to date for the PICO-8 “fantasy console”.  It’s a checkpoint racing game very much like the sprite scaling racers of the 1980s and cites inspiration from games such as Pole Position and Buggy Boy.

I’m often a little bit sceptical of modern “retro” games but I really like this. The creator has really made the most of PICO-8’s limitations and given us something that not only looks and feels authentic but is genuinely fun to play. I especially like the night stages, I think they’re really effective and have a bit of a Rad Racer feel to them too.

You can play this in your browser using the keyboard for a cheeky bit of skiving at work (during your scheduled breaks of course) or download it to use with the PICO-8 fantasy console.  You can find it here.

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Championship Pro-Am – Rare/Tradewest, 1992 (Megadrive)

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This is Rare’s classic and hugely influential RC Pro-Am remade for the Sega Megadrive.

For anyone who hasn’t played the original, RC Pro-Am is an isometric game where you race little remote-controlled trucks around a total of 24 tracks. You progress to the next race by finishing in the top 3 and along the way you can collect weapon pickups to destroy your rivals and vehicle upgrades to improve your acceleration, top speed and cornering ability.

This version of the game is virtually unchanged from the original NES classic. The only notable difference is the addition of extra AI trucks to race against. It also features a graphical upgrade that I’m quite a fan of. It improves the overall appearance of the game while remaining faithful to the style of the original.

At its core it’s a bare-bones isometric racer but it’s so well made that even to this day, it remains a great game. The handling is really slippery and lively and although the tracks are simple, the races are fast and challenging. It’s  so much fun to play that you’ll probably even forgive the aggressive AI rubber-banding.

I’ll have a closer look at the RC Pro-Am series as a whole some time in the future.

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Mini Reviews 22/04/2016

There’s a lot of games that I’d really like to talk about but I can’t always find enough words to give them their own post. Here’s 3 games that fit that description. They’re all good, you can easily play them in an emulator and they’ll all give you a  weekend’s worth of fun.

Eliminator Boat Duel (NES)

I’ve got to admit, I only started playing this because of the box art. It looks like somebody’s vaporwave mix-tape but there’s a decent game hiding behind it.

Eliminator Boat Duel is a one-on-one boat racer by Sculptured Software. It was quite a late release for the NES, it came out in North America in 1991 and Europe in 1993. You race across point to point courses that switch between top-down and chase perspectives against a cadre of larger than life weirdos. It looks quite good for an NES game although it recycles most of its graphics and environments. That’s easy to forgive considering the hardware and even though the tracks are made up of only a handful of art assets, they all have a unique route.

It’s not very boat-like in the way it handles, but it feels good otherwise. It has a nice, gradual difficulty curve and it’s got a lot of personality. I went in with low expectations and came out pleasantly surprised.

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Mario Andretti Racing (Genesis/Megadrive)

This is an EA Sports published game that bears the name of racing legend Mario Andretti. There were a lot of real-world motor sport games on the SNES and Megadrive and most of them were very similar. This one stands out because of the variety of styles of racing it features; you can race either stock, indy or sprint cars. The last of those is interesting because I think sprint car racing is badly under-represented in games. You could probably count all the games featuring that style of racing and still have a couple of fingers left over. You could compare this game to Al Unser Jr’s Road to the Top as that’s also a celebrity endorsed game featuring multiple styles of racing but I think this is much better overall.

It’s not licensed by any real governing bodies but the tracks are all clearly based on real circuits with fake names. Hardware limitations mean that the tracks and environments are quite sparse but they make a good effort to follow the layout and manage to include some small elevation changes.

Mario Andretti Racing is a fairly standard but very well made motor sport game with all the level of polish you would expect from an EA Sports title. I play this game quite often so you’ll most likely hear about it again at some point.

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bit Generations Dotstream (Gameboy Advance)

Let’s finish with something a little bit different.

Dotstream is an abstract racer for the Gameboy Advance. You race a coloured line around minimalist vector-graphic style courses while making use of traditional racing game mechanics such as drafting and pit-stops. It’s part racer, part maze game, part Snake. It has a few game modes including a particularly interesting ‘formation’ mode where you control multiple lines at once. You unlock extra levels in that mode by winning the Grand Prix events.

A combination of simple controls, stylish presentation and a great soundtrack really make it stand out from most of the Gameboy Advance’s sizeable library of racing games. It doesn’t have a very large selection of tracks but it’s quite a challenging game so it’ll still keep you occupied for a while.

There is also a Wiiware version of the game called Artstyle: Light Trax. I haven’t had a chance to play it yet but it looks to be different enough to require a separate write-up.

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F1 Race Stars (Codemasters, 2012)

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F1 Race Stars is a Formula One themed Kart racing game from Codemasters, developers of the official Formula One games as well as Dirt and Grid and a host of other popular racing franchises over the years. It carries an official license and uses the teams and drivers from the 2012 F1 season. I’ve been playing this game on the PC but it’s also available for the Xbox 360, PS3 and Wii U.

This is a bright and colourful game with a lot of personality. The cars are all quite cute with their scaled down proportions and the driver caricatures are all recognisable; some are rather unflatteringly accurate in fact. There are 28 drivers in the game, 24 real and 4 fictional. There are no weight classes so all the vehicles have the same performance but each team has its own special ability. Some are more useful than others but you can race almost equally well with everyone.

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There are 11 tracks with a further 4 available as DLC and they’re all based on modern F1 circuits but rather than following their layout precisely they use them as a jumping off point. Each track includes some of the elements of the real world circuits such as the start-finish straight and memorable corners but they soon veer off into crazy-town with roller-coasters, tunnels, jumps and other fun features. Each track has multiple short-cuts and a locked door with a hidden key that opens a special alternate route. The track-side environments are full of details and features unique to their locations and everything has the level of polish you’d expect from a big developer like Codemasters.

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There’s a few really big differences between F1 Race Stars and most other kart racers. These differences are probably what will determine how much you like the game. The first is damage. If you get hit with a weapon, bits of your car fall off and you slow down. You can repair your car at the pit lanes that are dotted around the track. I feel conflicted about this feature because on the one hand it fits the theme but also it seems to punish you twice for getting hit with something. You lose time from the hit itself then you lose even more from your reduced top speed and the diversion down the pit lane. This alone will put a lot of people off the game. The weapons themselves will be familiar to most players, there is an equivalent to all the usual Mario Kart items plus a couple of extra ones that relate more closely to F1. The most notable of these is the safety car that bunches up the field and allows back-markers to catch up.

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The second big difference from modern kart-racing norms and possibly the most potentially deal-breaking is the handling. F1 Race Stars doesn’t have drifting. The developers decided that as F1 cars don’t drift, the cars in this game shouldn’t either. Instead you have to drive smoothly through the corners and horror of horrors… use the brakes! I think it handles very nicely but it’s not what you would expect from a kart racing game. Drifting has become an expected feature like rocket-jumping or circle-strafing in first-person shooters so to leave it out is a controversial move. Although you can’t drift there is a cornering feature that sort of replaces it but not quite. A few corners in each track allow you to build up a speed boost by releasing and pressing the throttle up to 3 times, the boost activates when you leave the designated area on the corner. It’s meant to represent the KERS regenerative braking and power boosting system that F1 cars have used since 2009. It’s a unique feature that reinforces the theme but it’s a bit difficult to explain and takes some getting used to.

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“Takes some getting used to” is probably a good way to describe this game. My first impressions were mixed but I’ve really warmed to as I’ve played more of it. Overall I thinks it’s a good game with well thought out tracks and I actually like the way it handles. I appreciate that it tries to do things differently but I think that also makes it divisive. It’s just a little too different from other kart racers in some important ways and lot of people just won’t get along it for that reason.

Games such as Mario Kart 8 and Sonic and Sega All-Stars Racing Transformed have set a very high standard for modern kart racing games and although there is a lot to like about F1 Race Stars I don’t think it quite matches up to its competition. Both those games can match or beat this one on presentation and features plus they’re a lot easier for a new player to get into. If you only want to play one modern kart racer, try Mario or Sonic but if you’re an F1 fan or want to see a game that approaches things a little differently then maybe you’ll get something from F1 Race Stars.