Arcade Racing Perfection

Take a trip back to the mid to late 1990s and early 2000s, and step into any arcade.  Past the pinball machines, light gun shooters, and crane games, you’ll find the coin-op racers.  Daytona USA, the Cruis’n series, OutRun, Sega Rally, the list goes on.  The low-poly racers that provided high speed thrills for a couple quarters out of your pocket, and a chance at bragging rights against your buddies or holding the course record on a highly used machine.  That was my fucking jam.

Time has not been kind to arcades in America, and the formerly frequent sightings of classic machines has dwindled.  With console and online play taking over the need for hot-spot gaming areas, the classic arcade racer experience is held onto by new developers with the urge to burn rubber much like my own.  And while some recent iterations don’t quite nail the complete experience, Hotshot Racing can stand tall as one of the best arcade racers to grace any platform.

Let me explain.  Hotshot Racing is an arcade racer in its purest form, with industry vets Lucky Mountain Games and Sumo Digital, the former having its hands dipped in several racing titles throughout the years, looking to nail the early 21st century need for speed for the modern times.  All the normal fixins are present: single races, grand prixs, and time trials hold the fort.  But what needs to be explained in fine detail is everything else that was meticulously crafted into this racer, because it’s hard to really understand how much love and time was spent showcasing the history and love of the sport until you start peeling back some of beautiful inclusions in Hotshot Racing.

For starters, Hotshot Racing handles its speed like a dream.  There are two main components to keeping your car in first place: drifting and boosting.  Drifting will be the most common tactic to get around each track, as a simple tap of the brakes will push your car as close to sideways as you want.  Drifting feels super rewarding, and can be an absolute trip in specific vehicles which I’ll get to in a bit.  Boost is accumulated through successful drifts and slipstreaming, or drafting, opposing racers.  Each vehicle can hold 4 bars of boost and it’s an instant injection of speed to push yourself past the competition.  Racers like Sonic and SEGA All Stars Racing will push drifting to be a constant to where if you ain’t drifting, you ain’t winning.  Hotshot Racing smartly doesn’t combine a good drift with an immediate boost as sliding across the track will deplete your speed, and you can and will get passed.  It’s a fancy risk-reward tactic where drivers have to choose whether to sacrifice a lead and top speed for the accumulation of boost, or take the straightaway as fast as possible but lose the chance of filling up for later.

That boost can be an absolute make or break when you start to get comfy with the game’s racer AI.  To say the AI is aggressive is an understatement, but I absolutely love it.  Arcade racers of old have this natural tendency to put the player against the clock (to get all your quarters of course), and instead of having difficult opponents, AI racers will be slapped on in large numbers and players have to dodge and weave while running clean enough laps to not get timed out.  Hotshot Racing has you duking it out with racers that legitimately feel like they want the win more than you do, and they will bump and slam into you to make sure they get it.  What’s ingenious about this is that Hotshot’s options to gather boost would require the player to drift around unnecessarily if the player had a big lead.  If the AI racers are on your tail, flying past you with their own boost, and forcing you to either spend or save your boost, it makes every race intense.

The aggressive racing also ties into Hotshot’s eight characters.  For an arcade racer I was not expecting this much character in these guys and gals: from American grease monkeys to British playboys, to a literal Android-but-no-he’s-a-human-participant-what-are-you-talking-about.  Racers come with their own backstory, giving a surprisingly grounded reason for their will to win, and each character even has a special cutscene when winning a Grand Prix.  Each racer comes with four vehicles to choose from, each a different style of driving: Balanced, Top Speed, Acceleration, and Drift.  The little easter eggs tied to each racer are a blast to see included: James Bond-esque vehicles for Aston, Initial D-like drift machines for Toshiro, and Cole Trickle’s stock car ala Days of Thunder for Alexa: don’t think that reference was lost on everyone.  Beautifully specific details like right side driver seats for foreign vehicles and rear wheel or rear engine vehicles drifting differently due to weight distribution and turning style is such a compliment to fans of the craft that I can’t help but applaud the extra effort.

Each vehicle boasts a staggering amount of customization to properly outfit each car the way you want.  Different hoods, wheels, spoilers, color palettes, steering wheels, dashboards for the in-cockpit view, and accessories are available to unlock.  It took me off my seat seeing nearly 800 pieces to collect, which are unlocked via in-game money earned by completing races, as well as completing car and driver specific challenges; with how many challenges there are, it would’ve been nice to have had the option to see which challenges were left in a single list, but as far as I saw the only way to check is to finish a race and see the updated numbers in the results screen.

Once your car is set Hotshot’s courses capitalize on that fresh low-poly slathered in beautifully rich tones that are a feast for the eyes to indulge in.  4 courses on each of the 4 categories round out the 16 stages available, each stage being able to be mirrored out the gate.  Races through bustling downtown cities, to Jurassic Park styled jungles and mountaintops that are worthy of paintings.  The music accompanying each stage does well to keep up with the speedy tone of the cars, and keeps a beautifully electronic vibe in 6th gear.  The course designs could do with some more varieties in difficulty, but each track is still a thrill to play.

Alongside Single Race, Grand Prix, and Time Trials (good luck with those staff ghosts), Cops and Robbers and Drive or Explode complete the playable modes.  Cops and Robbers has robbers driving laps collecting cash for speedy runs while avoiding the cops who are there to fucking destroy the robbers.  Robbers are given 100HP that they lose chunks of on hit, and cops get invincible cars as well as a serious increase in boost gain so they can try their best to T-bone the living Hell out of whatever poor soul is in the way.  Drive or Explode plays like Burnout if it was on the set of Speed.  Vehicles have to drain the HP of other drivers by hitting walls or other drivers, while also maintaining an ever increasing top-speed.  Stay under the desired speed for too long, and your car becomes a ticking time bomb that’ll explode after a few seconds.  These modes are absolutely hysterical, especially when bringing your friends into the mix.

Don’t think I forgot to mention the buttery smooth online play, because man, this is the cherry on top for Hotshot Racing.  Complementing a 4-player split screen that is compatible with Steam’s Remote Play Together, Hotshot piles up to 8 players in one lobby to play any track or mode minus Grand Prix and Time Trials.  AI racers are available to fill in the blanks if wanted, and any customizations made on your specific vehicles are carried onto online, showing everyone how much cash you’ve thrown around.  A couple hours of playing online garnered no hiccups or lag, and playing with friends in such a tightly contested style of racing is incredible given how much can be going on at one time.

Hotshot Racing pulls no punches in solidifying itself as one of the best arcade racers ever made, but combining all of this content with a price tag at $19.99, with more content coming in a free post-launch update soon, is even more ridiculous.  With blistering speed complimented by genius design choices, an absolutely absurd amount of customization, and the beautifully crafted love letters to the four wheels of racing and its arcade predecessors, Hotshot Racing places itself valiantly alongside the best games of 2020.

Reviewed on Steam.