There was a time in gaming where azure blue skies were a prerequisite if you wanted to race a car. Ferris wheels, suspension bridges and helicopters always hove into view, as inexplicable slot machine rolls span above the track. With a history that spans Outrun, Virtua Racing, Sega Rally, Daytona USA and Ridge Racer, the arcade racer was a bountiful form that’s lost its footing in recent, photo-realistic times. Sumo Digital’s Hotshot Racing isn’t just an attempt to revive the genre, it’s a knowing love letter to the racers of the past.
Hotshot Racing looks like the missing link in that inimitable arcade racing history. Its low-poly art-style sits above Virtua Racing, but behind Ridge Racer, and its simple but charming outlook is designed to tickle all of the most nostalgic parts of your brain. There’s a Ferris wheel here, a beach-side patch of road there, but beyond the most obvious pastiche there are smaller elements that speak to the arcade racing veteran. If you’re of a certain age, there will be unduly asked-for gasps and laughter at every turn.
We know that the folks at Sumo Digital are utterly enamoured with the racing genre, and Hotshot Racing is them splurging their love all over the screen. The drifting mechanic is a straight take on the single button launch found in Outrun and Ridge Racer, and getting your back end out is joyfully simple, as it were.
Drawing further on that arcade racing heritage, drifting not only looks exceedingly cool, it also steadily tops up your boost meter, with four segments to fill. It certainly ups the speed of the game, bounding you around the track with a heap of motion blur in tow, but you soon learn that it’s not the race-winning mechanic you’d expect it to be.
Hotshot Racing boasts some serious rubber-banding, launching cars forward to challenge you, or helping you get back to the front if you’re stuck at the back of the pack. You’ll find that no matter what you do, you’ll be embroiled in a constant battle for position. That boost might get you a few seconds respite at the front, but any advantage it gives you will soon be lost. I soon started to simply hold onto the boost until the end of the third lap and use it to speed my way into the lead at the last moment.
That should render Hotshot Racing virtually inert, but instead you’ll still find that you’re enjoying yourself. All that rubber-banding actually keeps things so close that you never switch off. You’re never bored, sat at the front with a commanding lead, but are instead you’re fighting for every win.
Hotshot Racing’s biggest problem is actually that it’s all over a little too soon, and its means of drawing you back in are distinctly limited. There are four cups, each made up of four races, giving a total of sixteen tracks. While you will initially be wowed by the loving homage to Sega Rally, Virtua Racing et al, the jungle tracks and sphinxes as scenery, you’ll feel like they ran out of ideas by the time you’ve seen your third Ferris wheel. The tracks are also beset by a distinct lack of drama when all the mechanics are there for some intense drifting action.
Each cup has three difficulty levels, and as you ramp things up you will need to know exactly what you’re doing in each and every race. There’s something pretty major to affect that though, in the shape of the game’s… “interesting” collision mechanics, which see your car bounced around like it’s a plastic go-kart rather than half a ton of metal.
If you take the wrong knock you’ll end up straight in the barriers, from which you’ll then have to crawl back into contention. Admittedly, the rubber-banding will probably help you out, but it all adds an element of frustration that the vivid sun-soaked visuals can’t quite block out.
There are a variety of ways to pass your time beyond the GP mode, with classics like the Time Trial available for you to try and perfect your performance, and there’s the very welcome addition of a four player split-screen mode where you can clash with some of your retro arcade racing buddies until your heart’s content.
There’s also a bevy of unlocks for each and every racer, and their individual cars, which is a fun little diversion, but you earn so much money that you can probably buy nearly every part you want within a single cup.
Unfortunately PC isn’t the best place to play Hotshot Racing right now, as besides a few occasional performance hiccups during races the game seems to have a real problem identifying controllers correctly. I actually played the majority of the game on the keyboard, making it a real throwback to my earliest racing game memories. Maybe that was Sumo Digital’s intention?