Hey! An arcade racer! It’s been a long time! Before I go on and talk about HotShot Racing, a tangent first.
Is it just me, or is there a complete category of games that are just building on past titles (almost with carbon copy precision) without using the original brand name? Just yesterday I saw an upcoming indie title, a 1 vs. 1 fighter, clearly looking like and playing like Bushido Blade, without the trademark. Then there’s this Wipe-out clone without the official name, BallisticNG. And I could go on. What’s interesting to me is that they are NOT cloning recent games - that used to be a thing. When Doom came out, within a couple of years every big publisher had a Doom-like game in their line-up. No, here we are witnessing something different, with (mostly) indie devs cloning/recreating much older games or genres that are not really popular anymore. I wonder about the economics of those. Do they sell well enough because of the semi-brand recognition for older gamers? Does the appeal to nostalgia work? It probably does well enough as there’s no sign of the trend stopping any time soon. The point may also be to bring such games to other platforms while they used to be exclusives of one console or another.
Anyway. HotShot Racing will seem INCREDIBLY familiar to you if you ever stepped into arcades in the early 90s. Let’s say it’s “inspired” by racers from SEGA such as Virtua Racer (for the looks and drift mechanics) and Daytona USA for the rest (cars, general feel). And I must say it’s pretty well done - it reminds me of Interstate 76 (now an old game in its own right) when it came out, going against the trend of more textures and realism by falling back to bare polygons. If you have a good artistic sense, it can work. And HotShot Racing’s devs have great artists, if I may say so. Pretty much every track is gorgeous, from the vivid color palettes, to the fine work with polygons to create decors surrounding the tracks. I cannot say you will have much time to have a look at them since your focus is on speed, speed, and more speed. Still, it’s refreshing to look at how 3D games can differentiate themselves and still look absolutely great.
At the beginning you have to select your driver, and there’s about 8 of them. Apart from the characters having their own voice-over in-game, they have slightly different cars you can choose from, with different parameters for acceleration, drift and speed. Add to that another option to choose automatic or manual transmission and that’s the amount of choice you can make before racing. Don’t expect to tweak the suspension or your gear settings here.
The mechanics are as simple as way back then since SEGA’s Outrun. You have a limited amount of time to reach the next checkpoint on each track - if time runs out, the game is over. To make it, the best way is to drift beautifully in every curve on the way. The longer you drift, the faster you recharge your boost gauge (it has 4 bars). The other way to recharge your gauge is to stay just behind other cars (slipstream) but that’s harder than it looks as everyone moves quite fast. Once a boost unit becomes available, you can use it to trigger greater acceleration for about a dozen seconds - this way you can overtake opponents, and make it to the next checkpoint well on time. That’s it. Rinse and repeat.
There’s no damage or penalty involved in hitting other cars. As you race the AI cars keep bumping into you and they are by far causing more annoyance than the track’s easy curves. Every race lasts for 3 laps and a lap is typically done in less than 2 minutes so one race is about 5 minutes tops. Fast enough to enjoy it even in short playing sessions.
If you feel like playing against other humans there’s always a 2 player split screen mode locally, and an online multiplayer lobby with up to 8 people. Problem is, I was never able to find any public game going on. If we believe SteamCharts, the multiplayer part of the game is already DOA, like too many other games.
Now, while I admit I am quite impressed with the production quality, this is a not a perfect picture. Once you get used to the drift mechanics (and that does not take long), there’s no real challenge in the game anymore. My first 2 races I finished last, barely reaching the last checkpoint on time. By my fourth race I was in the top 3. 10 minutes later I was winning every single race without even trying very hard.
On to the next Grand Prix with 4 new tracks I had never seen before, I finished first every single time. Third Grand Prix, same story on new tracks once again. Fourth and last Grand Prix, same story. And no, this is not because of my mad 1337 skillz. To be honest, I routinely fail to finish other arcade racers in normal difficulty. I think I can identify what’s happening: while the tracks look very different from each other due to the great work in the art department, they feel about the same. Same kind of curves. Same wide roads. It’s almost predictable as long as you know you have to drift left or right, the rest is mindless technique.
It’s a game where you never have to slow down. And slow downs are everything in driving games - even in the arcades. They provide a rhythm and a pace to the track. Without such pace, every track feels the same, pedal to the metal.
In Hotshot Racing there’s a clear recipe to win every single time:
- Drive fast enough to always be in the pack - don’t bother trying to be first.
- Drift, drift and drift again in curves even when not necessary to charge your boost bars often enough.
- Use them once in a while if you feel you are falling a little behind.
- Keep 1 or 2 boosts for the last lap’s final moments, and overtake everyone just before the finish line like a cheat.
It’s also possible to stay ahead of the pack, but not worth the effort as the AI seems to cheat anyway (always finding a way to overtake you even if you make no mistakes) since you can win by focusing on the very last hundred meters instead.
This is why such games, no matter how closely they seem to be in the style of older giants, are actually different from their ancesters. Daytona USA and Virtua Racer made you hit the brakes several times in every track, no matter how arcadey they were. Driving in the grass or hitting walls would make it a lot more difficult to pass the next checkpoint. It’s a fine balance. If anything, Hotshot Racing is much closer to a light version of Ridge Racer, where you don’t even lose much speed when drifting.
And Ridge Racer is not very fun to play to begin with. There are other arcade racing games such as Mario Kart where you don’t really slow down and instead use drift to cut corners. In such games, there’s another layer on top of the driving to keep things fun and a little random: bonuses and weapons.
I need to call Captain Obvious here, but if your game only focuses on driving, it needs to be have some satifying driving experience, whether it’s an arcade game or a simulation. Something that you need to build muscle memory on and progressively get better as you train. Some learning curve that goes beyond 5 minutes. The fact that I could win in all tracks without even trying is a sign it’s missing substance.
I ended up trying the harder difficulty settings, hoping for more challenge. In Hard mode, opponents are a little faster but the technique I described above still works flawlessly. In Expert mode, AI-cheat is activated to the extreme. Competitors go faster than you by default and a small mistake will leave you behind for good. In any case, the driving remains unchanged, which is a shame. At the end of the day, no mode is really more fun than the others.
Nonetheless, here’s hoping that Hotshot Racing is successful enough to deserve some kind of sequel. After all, they got everything else right, they just need to make the driving a little more involved, and the tracks more challenging and unique, and they could have an excellent game in their hands. Easy advice, I know, as the hardest part in designing a game is to find that exact sweet spot.
In the meantime, just know that Hotshot Racing works flawlessly as far as I could tell on Proton - with excellent framerates on a mid-range graphics card (GTX970 ~ GTX1060) even at UltraWide resolutions. Now a good question would be to test this on a potato and check if the deliberate lack of textures and photorealism altogether translates to great performance even on modest machines.