I’ve just had one of the best arcade racing experiences of the past 20 years and I really didn’t expect it. Formula Retro Racing hit PS4 (and PS5 backwards compatibility) recently and it’s a mere £4.99 on the UK store. Seeing as it looks like Virtua Racing, with its flat-shaded polygons and golden era F1 car designs, it was a no-brainer for me to click ‘Purchase’.
But while the majority of the game is not quite up to the standard of the title it’s imitating, one part of it reignited a feeling I’ve not experienced in years: Monte Carlo on Expert.
When I loaded up the Formula Retro Racing, I’m not ashamed to say I was expecting to ace it immediately and assumed I would be able to stick it on Expert and beat the game straight away. So I set it on the hardest difficulty, browsed the available tracks and saw Monte Carlo – home of the Monaco Grand Prix, of course – and figured this would be the making or breaking of this racer.
And to my utter amazement, I didn’t even make the first checkpoint. ‘OK, momentary blip,’ I thought, and tried again. Fail. What was wrong? More tries – fail, fail and fail again.
So I was forced to eat humble pie and backtrack. I still didn’t want to lower the difficulty, but I tried the first track instead. Even that took me a few goes, but I learnt more about how the game works. Letting off the accelerator gives you significantly more cornering traction, and you can slipstream rival cars for a speed boost. But what really stood out to me was the mechanics of the manual gears option.
More than any other game, you must keep the car’s engine revving within the power band because if you don’t, it actually loses speed. So you need to always have the car revving in the orange segment of the tachometer or you’ll be going nowhere fast. That’s not exactly realistic, but if ever you wanted a game to force you to learn how to make manual gears work, this is the one to do it.
At this point, I won at all the tracks I could on Beginner. Fair play, the game has depth and challenge. But now I figured I had a better grasp on what was needed to beat Monte Carlo on Expert, I jumped back in. And that’s when the evening took a massive turn for the better.
Formula Retro Racing’s Monte Carlo Track on Expert is the perfect arcade racing challenge. Not a perfect gameplay experience, mind, as the wrong sort of collision with the barriers can make your car stop and start going backwards, but the balance of risk vs reward and the constant sense of peril is magnificent.
The other cars move around dangerously and that often means they’ll bang into you. Do this at full speed halfway through the swimming pool section and you’ll both be launched into the air in a flurry of physics objects, leaving you sat in the survival cell of your car as all the other bits of it bounce down the road.
This can happen to other drivers too, and sometimes you’ll see them flip ahead of you, adding spectacle to the smooth motion and careful driving.
The car handling is imprecise enough to be unpredictable, but at the same time consistent enough to feel fair. I personally like to hold the analogue stick forward to make my turning smooth, but even doing this produces a little loose waggle as you climb the hill towards Casino Square.
So you grit your teeth and squeeze past as there’s usually more room to pass on the right all the way around the outside of Massenet before diving down the inside at Casino itself.
Then you learn which gears to use, and master the hairpin in third, flooring it earlier than you would in a sim, and just trim your speed to make it around the corner into the tunnel.
The Nouvelle Chicane can be taken flat-out, as is Tabac after it. And all the while you’re being careful to avoid the rival cars, tiptoeing on the edge of disaster at 150mph. And it very often does end in disaster, and any kind of lost time at this difficulty level is likely to mean you won’t reach the next checkpoint. So I found myself constantly starting, crashing, retrying.
What you end up with, then, is fleeting moments of absolute beauty. Nailing three cars through Massanet and emerging on the run-down to Mirabeau in the slipstream of a rival, complete with vortices whooshing around you is just magnificent.
The otherwise merely reasonable graphics look gorgeous when you have Green Hill-esque flat-shaded palm trees lining the track, and the large wheels and big rear wings are vintage iconography of a long-lost time. It’s a rare chance to sample the excitement that so much early ’90s gaming provided.
I must stress Formula Retro Racing isn’t a classic overall. The track design lacks that killer imagination of Sega’s ’90s output, and ironically I did find myself longing for some textures early on. But if you would pay £5 to have the kind of racing challenge that was commonplace in the early 1990s – that of Super Monaco GP II or Virtua Racing – then this is absolutely worth the admission fee.
Did I beat it? Yes, actually, after hours of trying suddenly it just clicked and I was first by Lap 3, able to just Time Attack the remaining laps and comfortably take the win. But is that the hardest track in the game? Heck no – the Mountain circuit (which you unlock last) is way too hard for me at the moment, even on Beginner.
I honestly don’t know if it’s worthy of the time needed to beat that, but I’ll be happy to have another go at Monte Carlo on Expert any time I turn on the PS5. It’s superb.