Scorching blue skies, snaking roads, crudely animated spectators: Hotshot Racing really knows its arcade racing staples. This exercise in pure, unapologetic nostalgia is a loving tribute to early 1990s driving games such as Ridge Racer, Virtua Racing and Daytona USA, with a flat-shaded polygonal art style, primary colour cityscapes and overexcited voiceovers that perfectly recall that heady era of coin-up design.
A single-player Grand Prix mode puts you through progressively tougher circuits and competitions that comprise joyous remixes of much-loved Namco and Sega raceways, the background scenery filled with fairground rides, skyscrapers and ocean views. One minute you’re hurtling through a city with trains zooming past, the next you’re on a mountain pass swerving between ski lodges. For gamers of a certain age, much of the fun is in spotting specific retro references – a ferris wheel here, a whale diving over the racetrack there – while attempting to keep up with the savagely competitive pack.
Races are close and chaotic; there are only seven other cars on the circuit but they stick with you throughout each lap, constantly nudging your bumper or outright smashing you into the barriers. This is easily survivable at Normal difficulty, where you can clatter into other cars and grind along the guard rails without losing too much speed, and recover from spins. But go up to Hard or Expert in the latter Grand Prix competitions and a tap from another car or a corner taken at slightly the wrong angle can have devastating consequences for your race position. From this point on, you’re in proper Ridge Racer territory, memorising every corner and developing a specific, perfectly angled approach for each one. Racing veterans used to the unyielding difficulty of authentic 1990s arcade games will savour the challenge.
What makes this game more than a straightforward tribute is its modernisation of classic driving controls. Tapping the brake puts the car into a drift that’ll whip the backend right around into even the tightest corners; however, the designers allow you to steer intricately while the wheels are locked and craft long, arching glides across the track. It’s gloriously unrealistic and thrilling, adding new layers to your driving tactics as you swerve through hairpin turns and between rival drivers. A boost gauge, filled by slipstreaming other racers, delivers a few seconds of massive acceleration. The effect reminds me of early 2000s driving series Burnout – which is no coincidence, as Hotshot Racing’s creative director Trevor Ley also worked on that series.
Accompanying the Grand Prix mode are several single race options, including Cops and Robbers, where “criminal” cars are chased down by police cars in a fun nod to Need for Speed, and Drive or Explode, where you have to stay above a certain speed throughout the race or your car blows up. Everything can be played in split-screen multiplayer with up to three friends in the same room, or with eight players online.
Running at a breathless 60-frames-per-second and with tiny loading times, Hotshot Racing is a slick callback to a much-loved era of racing games made by people who are clearly passionate and knowledgeable about the genre. Older players will get all the references; newcomers will enjoy a bright, exhilarating game that forgoes modern frills for pure, seamless racing entertainment.
Hotshot Racing is out September 10; GBP15.99.