There’s been a surprising trend in gaming over the last few years, and it’s one that I can definitely get on board with — hyper-stylized isometric racing games.
We’ve been treated to excellent driving sims for the past decade, but the arcade racing genre has been left wanting. Outside of the Need for Speed franchise, the offerings have been few and far between.
“Is it an insult to call a racing game cute?”
But in the place of arcade racers in the style of Burnout, we’ve been treated to several games that scratch the pick-up-and-play itch of retro racers.
The latest game to tap into this style comes from the developers at the Canadian indie studio, Original Fire Games — Circuit Superstars.
If you have any memories of games like F1 Racing, Micro Machines, or even the original Grand Theft Auto titles, you’ll feel a sense of nostalgia as you pick up the controller with Circuit Superstars. Booting it up you’ll be greeted with straightforward menus, Euro-inspired background music, and a charmingly polygonal art style.
It took me all of 15 seconds to jump into my first race and another two minutes until I was fully accustomed to the controls. From that point forward it was all about braking softly, accelerating out of the apex, and keeping my line.
Unlike some of the other isometric and top-down racers I’ve played in recent years, Circuit Superstars feel like it’s less about driving a perfect race, and more about competing for the top spot. In Art of Rally — another isometric racing game with colourful graphics — the controls are a lot more demanding than the art style would have you believe. In contrast, Circuit Superstars manages to blend realistic physics with tight controls that are forgiving enough to not feel like you need to restart the race every time you accelerate too quickly out of a turn.
With a variety of vehicles ranging from rally cars to trucks, the controls feel familiar enough to not leave you steering off the road with each new circuit, but still distinct enough to make each vehicle stand out. Driving a formula car demands precision, while trucks feel looser, requiring you to pay attention to their weight going into turns.
Aesthetics aren’t everything
Is it an insult to call a racing game cute?
Circuit Superstars bills itself as a racing game made by racing super fans, but the art style is surprisingly welcoming to casual players. Each vehicle is a miniaturized version of its real-world counterpart, allowing you to customize them with different paint jobs before each tournament.
But despite the intuitive control scheme, there are some elements to the game that aren’t as clear for newcomers. The game features fuel consumption, tire degradation, and body damage, so if you’re not careful, you’ll be out of the race unless you make a pit stop. These elements aren’t clearly communicated to the player. You’ll probably experience a flat tire or two before you realize how to recognize the signs of needing to stop.
The game also doesn’t offer a manual save option for tournaments. If you begin a tournament that has races with ten laps, you’d better be ready to strap in for a full 45 minutes. While you can pause the game, losing that progress was never something that I was happy about when I needed to quit mid-tournament.
And despite the variety of vehicles, the course selection does become repetitive after a certain number of races. I never found myself zoning out entirely, but with the limitations of the isometric perspective, Circuit Superstars doesn’t do enough to keep the races from getting stale by the time you’ve completed each of the major tournaments.
The game also falls short in terms of variety — that goes for its music, visuals, and courses — but it makes up for it with a clean design, a surprising level of challenge, and excellent controls.
Despite all of that, even after finishing all of the courses, I’ve found myself coming back to it in-between my sessions of heavier games such as Returnal. It’s a perfect palette cleanser to wrap up my gaming for the night.
And for those that appreciate split-screen gaming, Circuit Superstars offers local multiplayer. There aren’t many racing games that I can recall in recent years that offer the ability to play with friends offline, and Circuit Superstars does it beautifully. Up to four players can play on a single screen, causing far more mayhem than if you play alone.
In single-player, I tried to avoid hitting other cars when possible to keep my vehicle in the race without needing a pit stop. But when playing against my partner, it was all-out war. It wasn’t a battle of making it to the finish line first; it was a battle of making it to the finish line at all. And that’s just what I needed.
The developers from Vancouver have clearly poured a lot of passion into this project. It may not have the polish of larger racers when it comes to quality of life features or an incredible soundtrack, but it’s nailed the fundamentals.
Image credit: Square Enix