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80's OVERDRIVE

Why retro-flavoured racing has found its home on Nintendo Switch

Hotshot Racing retro racing game Switch

From F-Zero’s Mode 7 scaling on SNES to PlayStation’s Ridge Racer conversion, chances are you were once wowed by a classic racing title and that’s why you’re reading this today. Nintendo Switch has seen a wave of vintage racer conversions and new, retro-themed racing games over the past couple of years and it’s very refreshing after so many years of the industry chasing realism alone.

The reason racing games were traditionally featured prominently in the launches of consoles in generations past is simple: fast-moving graphics are exciting and are perfectly suited to showing off the graphical capabilities of any new generation of hardware. Well, all the modern consoles have amazing graphics now, but it’s Nintendo Switch that best allows developers to tap into this nostalgia and allow you to get a burst of vintage racing fun wherever you choose to play.

F-Zero Switch

But, why Switch? While it’s true that the 3DS before it featured reworkings of classic arcade games in multiple dimensions (most notably OutRun and Power Drift), Switch gives you the ability to enjoy these games on a huge TV in your living room, or even on a huge projector screen if you have access to one. The hardware may be diminutive compared to beasts like Xbox Series X and PS5, but nonetheless, the comparatively humble Switch is still powerful enough to provide better-than-arcade experiences.

For instance, M2’s treatment of Virtua Racing runs at double the frame-rate of the arcade original and in HD resolution too, making the friendly little handheld a more convincing way to play the game than the £10,000 coin-op of the early 1990s. And when the game itself is often on sale for just a few pounds or dollars, that’s pretty damn amazing.

Virtua Racing Switch pit stop

This also extends to titles from the PS3/360 generation, which have come to Switch looking better than ever, most notably GRID Autosport, Burnout Paradise and Need For Speed: Hot Pursuit. All of these games look better than they did upon first release and they’ve got their DLC crammed into them as well where appropriate. While Switch may not provide the ultimate way to play the games when they’re playing in 4K on the bigger machines, Switch is still giving you classic racers in their best ever incarnations, and all playable on the train.

But I’m not just talking about ports of old games. Retro-themed racers are also finding their spiritual home on Nintendo’s hybrid console. Hotshot Racing from Sumo Digital plays on the nostalgia for early 90s-era Virtual Reality by drawing its cars and track with flat-shaded polygons. At risk of having people shout “NEEEEEERRRD” at me in the street, I put it to you that a light-sourced, flat-shaded polygon is still exciting. I know graphics have got better over the decades, but rear wings changing colour as they rotate in virtual sunlight are still so cool. They also avoid falling into the Uncanny Valley seeing as there’s no realism in a dude with 10 triangles for a head. I’ll never get bored of 90s-era, flat-shaded virtual reality visuals, they’re awesome.

They also never age, apart from in the few years immediately after them. Take, for instance, Dire Straits’ MTV-targeted video for Money For Nothing. Mark Knopfler said they made a huge mistake by spending so much money on computer-rendered visuals that were massively outdated just a year or two later.

But did it really age badly? Look back at it now and you’ll see a certain charm, not primitivity. That’s what’s happened to retro racers, and the 4K age is only making them better, not worse, which is not something you can say for early texture-mapped games, which often look hideous when scaled up.

80's OVERDRIVE

Then there are the pseudo-3D games like 80’s Overdrive, a game which is clearly a tip of the hat towards the Super Scaler arcade coin-ops of the 1980s, namely OutRun and its sequels. Admittedly, the gameplay doesn’t feel as exciting as the games it’s emulating (perhaps due to the straighter tracks that make up much of the first couple of hours of the game), but the quality of scaling, carefully-considered colour palette and density of trackside objects make this the kind of game we could only imagine in the ’80s themselves. And again, it’s super-cool.

The Switch seems to have become the new home for Indie titles, now that PlayStation Vita has finally given up the ghost, and it’s clear that a lot of developers are now trying to make the kind of racing games they always dreamed of when they were children. Heck, I even had a broad grin on my face playing the slot car racing section of 51 Worldwide Games.

And you can name the influences on modern retro-tinged titles as you go through the list. Hotshot Racing wants to be like Daytona USA, FAST RMX is a throwback to Wipeout and F-Zero, and Rock ‘N Racing Off-Road may be basic, but it’s clearly a throwback to Super Off-Road with its bumps, jumps and fixed camera, single-screen tracks. For a couple of quid, that’s plenty fun enough for anyone who misses their Sega Game Gear.

There has been a dreadful opinion for some 20 years now that ‘arcade’ is a dirty word, but that thinking doesn’t seem to have hurt the games catalogue on Switch. Pick-up-and-play immediacy of the kind we used to pay 10p for each go is one of the console’s greatest strengths, along with a digital distribution system that allows developers to take chances and still make some money back. Heck, some games even appear in the sale for less than 10p.

I’ve seen games selling on the eShop for £0.08. It sounds ridiculous, but if you can convince 0.1 per cent of the near 80-million Switch owners to buy your game for 8p, you’ve still made £64,000. Sure, you could easily argue such prices devalue full-price games, and the quality of a game being sold for 8p is likely to be questionable, but the point is it’s entirely possible for a small team to take a chance on Switch and still make not only the kind of game they always wanted to but also a decent wage.

For some who do it for the love of video games, that is enough. Any artist who can make a living from their art is doing well and Switch enables that for a lot of people.

Horizon Chase Turbo

Indeed, my first stop whenever I pick up my Switch is the ‘On Offer’ section of the eShop just to see if there’s a bargain to be had. If I saw a retro-themed racer for 95 per cent off, I would give it a go. Sure, I got stung by trying the still-abysmal Xenon Racer, and Gear Club Unlimited just hasn’t got any mojo to speak of, but then you stumble across something like the phenomenally playable Horizon Chase Turbo, which features a superb four-player split-screen mode.

Again suiting Switch’s focus on immediacy but also its focus on local multiplayer. It’s worth so much more than its asking price, and even its DLC is comparatively piffling, probably purchasable with the Gold Points you’ve earned buying AAA games.

Switch is the place to go for retro-flavoured racing. So check out Horizon Chase Turbo, Sega Ages Virtua Racing, OutRun, Crash Team Racing: Nitro-Fueled, Hot Shot Racing, 80’s OVERDRIVE, Rock ‘N Racing Off-Road (which is admittedly very simplistic, you have been warned) and Burnout Paradise. If that lot doesn’t scratch your itch when it comes to retro racing, nothing will. If it does? Well hey – you’re very welcome.

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