Toybox Turbos (Codemasters, 2014)

Toybox Turbos by Codemasters isn’t a Micro Machines game, but you could be forgiven for thinking it was. It’s by the same developer, has the same toy car theme and includes a few pretty direct call-backs to this earlier series. Make no mistake, this game wears its inspiration on its sleeve.

The main single player mode is split into 7 levels each made of 5 race events of various types including standard races, overtaking challenges and time trials. You can choose from 4-6 vehicles per level which are unlocked with in-game currency plus additional vehicles that you unlock by completing the final head-to-head events. It’s pretty easy to collect enough coins to unlock everything with no grinding at all, which makes a nice change.

Toybox Turbos is a much more chaotic game than the classic Micro Machines series. The handling can be a bit wild and woolly with some of the cars and there are weapon pickups and environmental hazards which add a more unpredictable element to the game.  I know weapons are always a bit of a sticking point for some people but I don’t think they’re particularly annoying in this case. There’s only a small selection of them and once you’ve been hit with one you get back up and running very quickly. It’s a silly game that doesn’t take itself very seriously but it doesn’t lean so heavily on the whacky elements as to spoil the fundamentals of the racing.

If Toybox Turbos falls short anywhere it’s longevity. Maybe it’s because it reminds me so much of Micro Machines that I’m expecting it to have the same breadth of content that those games had. I just can’t help but feel that there’s a few things missing even it’s just adding a couple of outdoor tracks or the old speedboats in the bath kind of level. Don’t get me wrong, it’s still got good things in it. Any game that lets you drive a dustbin wagon is a win in my book, but it would feel more complete with few extra bits and pieces.  At heart, these games have always been more fun as a multiplayer experience so if you’ve got friends who want to play it then the single-player lifespan of the game becomes irrelevant anyway.

Toybox Turbos is available for Xbox 360, Playstation 3 and PC via Steam.  With the 360 and PS3 being a bit old hat these days, PC is probably your best choice. It’s got a budget price tag and is frequently discounted so you can pick up copies for yourself and your friends at a reasonable price. Either way, whether you’re playing this alone or with friends, I can firmly recommend this game.

 

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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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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.

 

Indianapolis 500 (Papyrus, 1989)

The first Indy 500 themed game we’ll be looking at this month is Indianapolis 500: The Simulation by Papyrus Design Group. This was released for the Amiga and DOS PCs in 1989. Papyrus were around for a long time and made some very popular and influential racing simulators, most notably NASCAR Racing 2003 Season. The source code of that game would later be used as the basis for the early builds of iRacing.com which was co-founded by Papyrus co-founder David Kaemmer.

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The game simulates the full race weekend of the Indy 500 from practice through to qualifying and then finally, the race itself. The field is made up of the real entries for the 1989 race including their qualifying order. You as the player take the number 17 car which was driven by Rich Vogler who qualified in 33rd and last place for the race.

The 1989 Indy 500 is remembered for its dramatic finish which saw Al Unser Jr and Emerson Fittipaldi fighting for the lead 6 laps ahead of their nearest rival, Paul Boessel in 3rd place. With 2 laps to go, Unser and Fittipaldi were running side by side until they collided in turn 3 sending Unser into the wall and Fittipaldi to the first of his two Indy 500 wins.

Indianapolis 500: The Simulation let’s you choose to race any of three cars; a March, a Lola or a Penske. In its baseline setup the March is the slowest and easiest to handle, the Penske is the fastest and the Lola is in the middle. You can tune all these cars to your liking though if that’s something you’re into. With the right setup, even the March can be a competitive car. There’s all the different setup options you’d see in a modern sim: tyre pressure, stagger, camber, toe-in, all that kind of stuff. If I’m being honest, I don’t really understand it myself. Luckily there are still some FAQs floating around on the internet that include some good  car setups.

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You’ve got a few options for the kind of race you’d like to have. You can choose to race 10, 30, 60 or the full 200 laps. Each increment gradually adds more realism to the race, you start off at 10 laps with no cautions or player damage then 30 with just no damage and then full realism for 60 and 200. This also includes the need to look after your engine and occasionally take on fresh tyres and fuel.

This game is old but for 1989 it looks excellent. The track is recognisable with all the major landmarks present. You can make out the famous pagoda and the yard of bricks on the start finish-straight and all the grandstands including  the distinctive VIP salon just outside of turn 2. It’s as accurate a depiction as you could get back then. With old 3D games you quite often get frame-rate issues but when you play it today in Dosbox, it’s pretty smooth. The same can’t be said for the Amiga version unfortunately.

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With the game being 27 years old, the graphics aren’t the big draw here. What still makes this game worth bothering with is how it plays. After all this time, it’s still a lot of fun. The handling can be a bit challenging but it’s supposed to be. With a joystick or a mouse it actually handles well but it’s certainly not a game to be playing with keys.

Although this is a good game and in general it’s aged very well, there are a few rough edges. The AI is a bit clumsy. They have a habit of running you off the road and lapped cars don’t yield to you, quite the opposite in fact. This is compounded by the vision you have in the car; it’s not always easy to tell if you’ve completely passed somebody. There are rear view mirrors but they’ve got a very narrow field of view and you don’t have a spotter feeding you information. Your most useful cue is the noise of the other car’s engine. I play with my own engine noise turned off to make that process a bit easier. Also  the DOS version’s engine sound is like a swarm of angry, metallic hornets so the less I hear of it the better.

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Indianapolis 500: The Simulation sets out to do one thing, recreate the experience of a single race. It does this very well and with an amazing amount of detail for the year it was made. Like all the best simulators, Indianapolis 500 balances accessibility and realism very well. For the skilled player it provides a detailed and challenging race that will reward dedication and practise. It lacks the driving aids that a modern game would have for newer players but with the base car setups and the shorter race formats anyone can get up and running, turn laps and have fun quite quickly.

iRacing Diary 2 and 3

Here’s the next two iRacing videos. I won’t be posting them in pairs after this, it’ll go down to one every week or two. Excuse the clumsy audio ducking in episode 3, there were just a few too many breaks in the narration to leave the engine noise uniformly low. If people complain loudly enough I’ll re-upload the video with tweaked audio.

Introducing my iRacing Diary

I’ve decided to do something a little bit different for a couple of months. I’ve signed up for 3 months of iRacing and I’ll be making a video series about my experiences playing it. I know it’s a little bit outside of what I normally cover but I’m not really a strong believer in the arcade vs sim dogma that the internet is so fond of. It’s okay to like either kind of game, or both.

I’ve made two videos, an introduction and a proper first episode. I’m not great at narrating or audio but hopefully this will give me a chance to improve a little.

Don’t worry though, this isn’t going to be the only thing I’ll be posting. I’ll still be waffling on about old arcade games a few times a month too. This won’t have a regular schedule, just an update when I have something to share. It’ll be a couple of times a month probably.

Anyway, here are the videos. Hope you don’t fall asleep listening to my soothing voice.

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.