A Ride in Need of More Fluids

I know you’ve played at least one: either deep within a now derelict arcade in the mall or on a childhood console. Whether you slapped quarters into its slot or popped the CD into the disc tray, the sights and sounds of the arcade racer holds a special place in the hearts of gamers. For me, my go to was always Daytona USA on the Sega Saturn, and I remember going to arcades way out of the way to immerse myself in the 90s tunes and fast paced gameplay.

I know I wasn’t the only one who missed this. As I grew older, I noticed with an increasing amount of “retro” games made in style of the classics I grew up with. Seeing loving embraces of the classics like OutRun, Super Hang-On, and Cruis’n USA will always get my attention. So when Repixel8 announced it’s addition to the genre with its love letter to the likes of Virtua Racing in Formula Retro Racing, my childhood politely pushed my hand to purchase it.

If you were looking for that sweet injection of nostalgia, FRR hit it on the bullseye. Each of the 8 courses provided are beautifully done in low-poly fashion, with each stage popping off the screen in gorgeous, vibrant colors that provide a sense of wanderlust that was palpable in the arcade days. Stages will take you to dirt ovals, crowded forests, Initial D-esque mountain tops, and even a nice nod to the real life Monaco GP. The landmarks to floor it through are a very nice variety of visual gusto and balanced difficulty with a small, yet killer soundtrack and are a blast to play through.

After you choose your stage you’ll have the option of decking your vehicle out in array of 20 different colors. It’s a nice aesthetic selection, though sadly there isn’t any other way to tinker your vehicle outside of playing with an automatic or manual transmission. Playing the more involved manual transmission offers a slightly higher max speed as opposed to the simpler automatic. Implementing a simple ranking system ala Daytona USA to specialize in handling, acceleration, and max speed would do wonders in offering the risk/reward system that made striving for faster times in previous titles so engrossing.

It’s especially noticeable when FRR‘s core gameplay leans so much into that risk/reward category. To win in the higher difficulties on each course, each stage having a Beginner, Advanced, and Expert difficulty, you’ll have to hit to learn your apexes. Most tracks can be navigated with the pedal to the metal, and hitting S-curves and sharp turns without letting off the gas is thrilling each time it’s done. It’s only a shame that these tense moments of high-speed thrills are so combated by the AI opponents, the collision detection of the vehicles, and the tracks themselves.

To put it bluntly, the AI is erratic. Having 19 other drivers on the course is not the problem, as it allows the drafting mechanic to shine as much as possible which I’ll get to in a moment: the problem is how these 19 drivers handle themselves on the track. FRR‘s opponents, like most arcade racers, feel like they have a personal vendetta against you, which really isn’t a fault: obviously, they don’t want to get passed just as much as you don’t. But in a weird shade of added realism, when racers so much as graze each other there’s a chance these cars will lose control almost immediately and wreck.

AI drivers will hit the brakes harder on turns so you have a chance to pass, but also are faster than you out of each turn, so your windows are narrow. Add on a weird issue where drivers will brake and steer unpredictably, sometimes swerving down straightaways, and you’ll start to second guess your moves in a game where split second decisions are the difference between a personal best and restarting the race. FRR tries to deal with this with a drafting mechanic that pushes your car’s speed to beyond the normal limit, but taking the reward of the extra speed never feels worth the impending doom that could happen at any moment. This tense racing doesn’t feel like a natural inclusion to your need for speed against the ever-ticking countdown to your Game Over, but more so due to an unintentional byproduct of backhanded problems that will only infuriate more than excite in the long run.

On the Advanced and Expert difficulties, a hard enough bump into another car or hit against the wall will have your car break into a bunch of low-poly pieces. On Beginner difficulty your car will not break, but will just hit the wall and keep going. While this sounds nice for the more aggressive driver, a lot of the walls have little collision issues that will jut out far enough so that when your car makes contact it will just stop. There is no indicator to where these are. You will just hit one, your car will park itself, and your race is over.

As of this review controller usage is not without its own problems. Despite feeling like the de facto way to play FRR, shifting on an wired Xbox 360 controller is currently broken. Gears tend to double shift, going from 5th to 7th gear or from 5th to 3rd gear for example, instead of going one up or down. This makes playing manual transmission on road courses near impossible unless navigating on keyboard.

But if you manage to circumvent these issues, and beat the odds to be the first past the finish line, you’ll collect a trophy signifying your victory. Trophies are collected on each track for each specific difficulty, for a total of 24 to obtain. FRR also includes an Eliminator mode, which is a fun take on the customary Survival mode that tests how many laps you can complete while staying within the front ten positions against increasingly faster opponents. If you want to practice any courses without opponents a Free Practice mode gives you as much time as you need to practice your corners.

But in terms of content: that’s it. Two modes and Practice, 1 car, and 8 courses. Genre staples like course modifications, Mirror and Reverse races for example, are missing, the aforementioned car selections are not provided, and the exclusion of local and online multiplayer really shuts down a lot of necessary ways to keep FRR fresh and worth coming back to.

Where the quality of Formula Retro Racing stands is how far you’re willing to let Repixel8 cut corners, much like the tactics needed to run a solid lap. The amount of time used to craft a smooth-as-butter arcade experience that stands firmly with the genre’s greats is offset by the exclusion of everything else needed to keep your hands on the wheel. Keep an eye out for future updates, but until then, keep this car in the garage.

Reviewed on Steam.