‘Hotshot Racing’ review: recapturing the rush of classic arcade racers

Retro visuals combined with smooth and tight mechanics to suit modern tastes

Some racing games have a sense of prestige about them – why else do we see Gran Turismo or Forza at a hardware reveal, pushing their photorealism and ray-tracing? Hotshot Racing has none of that pretense. It pines for simpler times when it was purely about the thrill of keeping your foot on the pedal, beating the clock, then going for another spin.

The charming game recaptures ’90s arcade racers in all their glory, including skies as blue as on a summer’s day. Its deliberately low-poly aesthetic certainly nails the look of early arcade racers, like Virtua Racing, as well as the challenge of not just staying ahead of the other racers but also beating the clock counting down on the top of the screen.

It’s been a passion project 10 years in the making for solo developer Trevor Ley, with co-development from Sumo Digital, a studio with a solid reputation on bringing arcade racers to home console since OutRun 2 on the original Xbox back in 2004. The result is a flawlessly polished indie arcade racer.

Hotshot Racing feels especially great on Nintendo Switch where it maintains a smooth 60fps. The lack of analogue triggers is also no issue, especially when you’re going to have the gas down the whole time and just a slight tap of the brake is needed to get your car drifting corners with ease.

But while it does rev up the nostalgia, Hotshot Racing has also been fine-tuned for modern sensibilities. Whereas arcade cabinets were designed to swallow more coins, the countdown timer here is much more forgiving and almost just there for show. The handling and mechanics also feels tighter and more reminiscent of ’00s racers like Burnout, including a boost meter, while getting behind lets you take advantage of slipstreaming.

The game also has more character than the old-school driverless racers by actually featuring a roster of eight blocky but stylish drivers from around the world. The short endings you get for winning a grand prix is a nice touch and reminiscent of Street Fighter II, although your mileage will vary on their voice quips during races.

Drivers aren’t determined by ability, as each has a selection of cars, which range from an all-rounder to ones that excel more at acceleration, top speed or drifting. They’re also quite customisable so you can spend the money you win from races to buy a whole range of cosmetics, some which are only unlocked after meeting certain conditions. But given this game’s minimalist art style, there’s something rather redundant about getting a new exhaust or spoiler.

Hotshot Racing
Hotshot Racing. Credit: Alan Wen / Sumo Digital, Lucky Mountain Games

The game comes with all 16 tracks, over four themed locations across four different grand prix tournaments, unlocked from the start. Each track feels wonderfully varied and vibrant with cool details in the scenery (there’s one especially cool nod to Daytona USA). The tracks are also not necessarily more challenging than the other so it doesn’t really matter which order you race.

While you can comfortably win each grand prix on the standard difficulty, the two other difficulty levels properly ramp up the challenge if you’re looking for it, where the AI won’t hesitate to leave you quickly in the dust. That’s a good kind of challenge as opposed to just aggressively running you off the road, so it will definitely take some practice to utilise your drifts and boosts to keep up.

Of course, racing against other players is where the real fun is at, and you can do that easily with local split-screen for up to four players or online with up to eight. Here you can also make use of two extra modes, ‘Cops And Robbers’ and ‘Drive Or Explode’.

Hotshot Racing
Hotshot Racing. Credit: Alan Wen / Sumo Digital, Lucky Mountain Games

The former has players competing to see who can earn the most money, either as the robber stealing cash by reaching the checkpoints first, or the cops who can take down the robbers and then also turn them into cops. I personally found this mode too unpredictable and there’s not a whole lot you can do if you’re languishing in the middle of the pack. It also seems a matter of luck who can smash into the last remaining robber and therefore bank the most cash to win.

The latter mode fares better and is a cross between the movie Speed and a battle royale where cars have to maintain a certain speed or gradually lose their health and eventually, well, explode. It’s genuinely nerve-wracking as the music gets faster with the rising minimum speed after each checkpoint, making the slightest bump a potentially fatal mistake. There’s also room for deviousness as you can whittle down an opponent’s health by bumping into them and then boost off.

Hotshot Racing
Hotshot Racing. Credit: Alan Wen / Sumo Digital, Lucky Mountain Games

Altogether a modest package, it’s still far more generous than the days when an arcade racer had three tracks, an automatic and manual car, and that was your lot. More than just a trip down memory lane, Hotshot Racing is an exhilarating indie-sized treat filled with charm – and honestly, I could drift around for hours.

‘Hotshot Racing’ launches September 10 for PC, PlayStation 4, Xbox One and Nintendo Switch.

Our Verdict

Hotshot Racing is a victory lap for nostalgists while also reigniting the pure fun and adrenaline of drifting and boosting. It may lack in enticing extras, but when it gets the fundamentals so right, that’s all that matters.

Pros

  • Colourful vibrant low-poly aesthetics
  • Boosting and drifting feel great
  • Higher difficulties are genuinely challenging
  • ‘Drive Or Explode’ is excitingly tense

Cons

  • ‘Cops And Robbers’ is underwhelming and unpredictable
  • Unlockable cosmetics feel redundant given the art style
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