“As long as you’re having fun, that’s the key. The moment it becomes a grind, it’s over.”
“The following is a contributor post by the Slipstream Mage.”
Isometric and fixed view racing games are not a common thing these days. If you’re not familiar with the genre, don’t be surprised, there aren’t a ton of entrants to the field. But you may recognize some of the big names – Super Sprint, Ivan Stewart’s Super Off Road, Rock N’ Roll Racing, and Neo Drift are on the short list of successful and playable fixed perspective racers. Rare’s NES masterpiece of radio-controlled racing, R.C. Pro-Am, was where I cut my teeth on this style of racing game. R.C. Pro-Am’s seemingly wonky controls may have put off many a casual gamer, forcing them to use the d-pad to rotate their car on a fixed axis, regardless of the direction of motion. But given time, the patient player would find that the controls became intuitive in the fixed view as you panned around the track.
This was what I hoped I was in for when it came to 21c.Ducks’ latest game, Super Pixel Racers. By all accounts, this looked to be the modern update to that NES favorite. Turns out, it really does scratch that R.C. Pro-Am itch, right down to the look and sound, but not so much the feel. Let’s dig in.
Super Pixel Racers works hard to revive that nostalgic chunky 8-bit look that so many of us 30- and 40-somethings revere. You’ve got that fixed isometric view, forcing 2-D pixels to be laid out in a fixed view that tricks the eye into thinking it’s in 3-D. The camera does pan with your car’s movement, but the perspective remains fixed. Fans and other objects ringing the track have simple animations and are intentionally repetitive. Everything looks bright, colorful, and very mid-80s flavored. That’s clearly the goal here.
The throwback vibe is improved upon and modernized just a bit by the coarse-grained filters that are laid over the base track, giving a slight hazy look to everything. It’s as if you were looking through a dusty pressbox window. Coarse pixelized particle effects are also added to show exhaust, flying gravel, and sparks coming off the cars. It all fits well with the overall theme of the throwback graphics here. And it is pleasant to the eye for the pixel art aficionados. That said, if you aren’t a fan of this graphical look, you’ll be disappointed with the look of this game. But then, those folks aren’t the target audience, anyway.
Track environments vary from gravel/dirt to tarmac, and there are varying conditions (sunny, rain, snow, day or night). Inclement weather is represented by an additional filter over the base track with raindrops or snowflakes modestly obscuring your view. There are 10 total car models that are sufficient likenesses of a number of real, recognizable cars (Mini Cooper, Lancia Stratos, Lambo Gallardo, etc. are here but unnamed/unlicensed), and allow for a number of pleasing color/livery skins.
Nothing present in the game’s look would do anything to convince you that you aren’t actually sitting in your friend’s dimly lit basement in 1987, passing the controller back and forth (R.C. Pro-Am was single player, after all) while slurping down some generic grocery store root beer.
Your starting grid always consists of 8 cars
Like the game’s appearance, the sound effects and background music is decidedly throwback too. Sound effects are fitting and simple – the cadence of the ringing starting line lights, squealing tires, and the drone of the engines are all there, sounding off above the chiptune-style background themes.
A number of the songs that run in the background almost seem to teeter on the edge of plagiarism. One theme sounds suspiciously like a Ninja Gaiden level theme. Another has hints of Elmer Bernstein’s 1984 brilliant score from the original Ghostbusters movie. And some tracks tread near the original R.C. Pro-Am tunes. I chalk all this up to sincere tribute and love of the era, and not outright theft.
It all makes for an enjoyable, but simplistic auditory experience. Nothing is grating or distracting, but it’s not going to stand out much more than “gee, that kinda sounds like something I remember from somewhere 30 years ago”. The audio fits the throwback theme, and that’s all it really needed to do.
The controls for Super Pixel Racers allow for two options, and initially, I expected that I would want to use the R.C. Pro-AM/Super Sprint-style rotational controls. This involves using the stick to rotate your car clockwise/counterclockwise, without regard to the direction the car is moving. After struggling with this method of control I was previously adept at, a few races in I decided to switch to the directional controls. Despite my nostalgic feelings for the rotational controls, I found myself having much greater success simply using the stick to nose the car in the actual direction I wanted to go in (I’ll call this ‘vector based controls’, I guess). Sometimes the old ways, aren’t always best (as much as I sometimes cling to that notion). But there is a reason for this, and it’s not that the rotational control/D-pad gameplay is simply antiquated.
Start out in C class, and work your way up to A+ class.
Along the way you earn these little, err… dioramas?
The primary reason I struggled with the R.C. Pro-Am-style controls here was due to the fact that power drifting is a required skill to succeed at Super Pixel Racers. Using rotational controls to recover from oversteer was troublesome for me. The old school racers I loved didn’t overwhelm with heavy drift/oversteer physics. And here, the only way to quickly negotiate hairpins and tight S-curves in this game is to power drift your way through them. Once I switched to the vector-based steering, I started regularly winning races and progressing into the upper classes of cars and tracks.
Aside from mastery of steering your ride, the other major aspect of gameplay is the drift slide/nitro boost combo. The aforementioned need to drift into tight turns is initiated by braking with the A-button and hard turning into the curve. As you do so, your nitro boost level builds up. With that nitro, you can then slide your thumb over to the B-button and use that boost to power out of the slide and into the straight or reverse your drift into the other rotational direction. This is also a bit tricky and takes some practice. It’s critical to learn this system by the higher class races and more complex tracks. Once mastered, you’ll find your thumb sliding back and forth over the A- and B-buttons, occasionally depressing both as you negotiate the track.
Mastery of the drift-boost is critical to winning events and races.
With these controls in place, there’s a level of complexity that exceeds Super Pixel Racer’s 8- and 16-bit predecessors. And that’s good. This leads to a more satisfying experience, even though you may feel frustrated at first. Work at it enough, and the controls become comfortable and second-nature.
Both online and couch co-op/split screen multiplayer methods are available to experience. Split-screen is limited to 2 players and is challenging as you lose approximately 50% of the single player wide view of the track. This makes it harder to anticipate your turn entry and exit points and leads to a messy and collision-heavy race.
Online multiplayer can accommodate up to an 8-car grid. Unfortunately, despite multiple attempts to test this mode out over the span of a month, I was never able to find even one single soul to race against. Hopefully, this isn’t indicative of the possibility that I am writing this review for myself.
Blocky, boring cars await you at the start of the game.
Difficulty is adjustable via sliders accessed in the options menu. I stuck to the default difficulty level (7 of 10 on the slider bar), and this maintained a solid challenge level for me throughout my career progression. Career mode starts you out with your slowest batch of cars to work with (Class C), and as you complete and finish top 3 in races, you unlock additional races, tracks, and game modes. Higher class cars that open up get faster and more unwieldy. Other modes that open up expand beyond the simple race and win formula, and add to the challenge (more on those later). If you are working to open up the entire game, this game poses a solid challenge provided you don’t dummy down the difficulty level.
Bank up your wins and cash to get this Class A Concept racer, fastest in the game.
There is some annoying rubberbanding AI in the circuit races, but upgrading your cars regularly seems to stave this off to some degree. If you’re not familiar with the term, ‘rubberbanding’ simply means that if you build up a lead against the AI, it will force the computer-controlled cars to ‘snap back’ at your lead, effectively shrinking your lead despite the competency of your driving. AI drivers are also rather aggressive, so expect to be bumped and jostled, especially in the early parts of the race (see video below).
A quick race in 60 seconds… short and sweet.
Despite the 8-bit era roots and pleasing pixelized appearance, this game does not pick up and play as easy as the predecessors it aspires to emulate. I think this is a good thing, and the gameplay here is more satisfying as there is a learning curve to deal with to progress. However, it may frustrate some that first pick up the controller expecting Super Pixel Racers to play exactly like R.C. Pro-Am. The physics are different than I expected, but in a good way. If you can weather the initial storm in determining what steering control style you prefer and the drift/boost technique, you’ll find yourself hooked. If you can’t get there, you’ll be shut out from the real fun.
If you’ve found yourself comfortable with the controls and you’re enjoying your time winning races, you’ll find that there is much to unlock everything the game has. Cash you earn can be invested in buying new cars, which in turn can be used on upgrades to make yourself more competitive. This loop fits perfectly into a long-term replay situation. Given the high and escalating price of upgrades, it is fortunate that cars need not be maxed out to have success (at least at the default difficulty).
In addition to the standard races, the game also has several other game modes to keep you engaged within the career mode. A drifting mode (accumulating points for sliding around) and a demo-derby mode (wreck a set number of cars to place and advance) are fun and change it up a bit, as well as encouraging you to upgrade other aspects of your car that are not necessarily critical for straight up races.
You will get bored with the tracks, even though there are 15 total (not even half of R.C. Pro-Am’s 32). Race circuits have a decent amount of variety in their aesthetic appearance, but all play the same. Despite the variety of surfaces dirt/gravel/tarmac and weather, the physics involved here don’t seem to change in this regard. And here is no vertical relief or jumps to any to the tracks, and so expect to stay grounded all game.
Most races and events last less than 2 minutes total, so you can run through multiple iterations of these activities quickly. There are also Land Rush and Rally modes that extend play through procedurally generated non-circuit races. Land Rush has the player drive continuously for 3 minutes, trying to reach and hold the top position. Rally is the most difficult mode in the game and forces you to make it to checkpoints every 20 seconds before you get some time restored to your every declining timer (think Outrun). These modes add variety to career progression. Completionists will want to keep racing to see everything the game has to offer, but expect things to feel grindy for all but the most dedicated of racers if you want to start knocking off some of the accumulative achievements/trophies. Barry Gibb warned us of this up front. Once this game becomes a grind, the fun is over.
My Personal Score: 7/10
I really enjoyed my time with Super Pixel Racers, and even though it didn’t play quite like the games it harkens back to, it turns out that I might just like it better than those classics. It still looks and sounds like my childhood, but adds a layer of gameplay sophistication that I appreciate. And it scratches that isometric view itch.
Bottom line is, once you get comfortable with the controls, this game is a blast. You’ll want to take first on every event and win every cup. Unfortunately, because online multiplayer options are essentially dead, and the career mode is limited, the game becomes a grind to needlessly upgrade cars that are already at championship level. Once you reach this point, the game only accommodates the most grindy of achievement hunters.
But up front, the game is fun and nostalgic in spirit. There is sufficient nuance to the gameplay and enough game modes to keep you happy to play through the career mode. If you liked the 80’s predecessors in this genre, then you’ll enjoy Super Pixel Racers.
Aggregated Score: 6.0
The Slipstream Mage has been a gamer for over 35 years and got his start begging for quarters from his parents at a hotel pool game room. Racing games from every era are in his blood – challenge him to a lap time at your peril! Find him @JTorto40 on Twitter.
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Categories: Game Review