We don’t get a lot of arcade-style racing games anymore, do we? I don’t mean “arcade racing games,” in the sense that they aren’t sim-like, but games that are styled after old-school racing games that were actually played in arcades. It’s been a while since I’ve seen a game of this kind, but Hotshot Racing is attempting to fill the void in the subgenre.
Hotshot Racing has all of the hallmarks of a classic arcade racing game. It’s easy to learn, but hard to master. It has a small set of distinct racers, each of which can use four cars that each have different stats, placing them in one of four different classes: Balanced, Acceleration, Speed, and Drift. It’s both a race against other racers and against the clock. It’s the kind of game that you would usually only see in arcades because the timer is intended to limit session times and encourage additional spending, which is a refreshing change of pace, even if not necessarily something I’ve specifically been looking for.
As far as racing games go, it comes off as fairly basic. As in Mario Kart 64, there are exactly 16 tracks that are split into four Grand Prixs. None of these tracks have interactable elements and very few even have that many twists and turns. An even smaller number have extremely basic obstacles that block lanes. There are no traps or jumps. There are no hard turns. While there are four different environments, each with four tracks, the fact of the matter is that tracks largely feel the same.
The driving model is similarly simplistic. Exempting bumping into other racers, the only time that I ever felt that I was at risk of hitting a wall was when attempting to time drifts properly. It never feels like you’re going to veer off course due to driving poorly, even in a Speed class car. Your car always does exactly what you think it will, which means that there’s practically no learning curve, but there are also no tricks to learn. One of the worst side-effects of this is that Speed class cars are particularly bad at drifting, but attempting to avoid drifting and instead slow down to take turns will put you at a distinct disadvantage. There’s exactly one way that the game is meant to be played, which is a detriment to the fact that it does have multiple classes of car.
Furthermore, there are no power-ups and there is no damage model. The only controls are steering, gas, brakes, and boost. You can drift, as well, but drifting is simple in nature. Boost power is built up through drifting and slipstreaming, or drafting, and lost by hitting walls. It can only be spent once you’ve saved up enough for a full boost.
When playing against AI, I found that the boost was largely a recovery mechanic. There were a few times when I used a boost to ensure my victory at the very end of a race, but there was rarely a time, even on Hard, that I was playing well and felt that boosting was absolutely necessary.
It also feels a bit odd to build up boost power by slipstreaming. Slipstreaming offers bonus speed by following behind another car. For that to build up power for more bonus speed feels like an obvious snowball mechanic. Can’t pass someone? Just follow behind them until you build up enough boost power to boost past them.
Perhaps the developers thought that simply drifting wouldn’t build up enough boost power for Drift class cars to make up for their lack of speed, but surely there’s a better solution. For example, the amount of boost power built up by drifting could have scaled differently for cars with a higher drift rating. Instead, this solution makes Balanced class cars the obvious choice; they have decent acceleration and speed, as well as being able to drift reliably. This gives them an advantage over Speed class cars, which can’t drift reliably, and allows them to simply outclass Drift class cars.
The way that the game’s difficulties are balanced doesn’t do it any favors either. Most players will probably play the game on Normal difficulty at first, but Normal is a bad representation of the game. Again similar to Mario Kart 64, as the difficulty increases, cars go faster, you’re given less time between checkpoints, and there’s more of an emphasis on maintaining speed. When playing on Normal difficulty, cars are approximately 25% slower than when playing on Expert difficulty. This creates an environment where the stat differences between cars aren’t tangible; every car feels marginally the same.
On higher difficulties, the game changes. Speed class cars have more of an emphasis on getting to high speeds and maintaining them, struggling to drift effectively, while Drift class cars are much slower and have more of an emphasis on building up boost power by drifting. Ultimately, though, the end result is the same. The game becomes all about avoiding hitting walls and other racers’ cars so that you can keep your speed as high as possible for as long as possible. This isn’t an uncommon gameplay paradigm for racing games, but, with a game as simple as this one, it’s not the most interesting experience.
The experience is made even less interesting by the fact that Expert difficulty is the only one that is actually challenging. Both the Normal and Hard difficulties are incredibly easy and I never felt strapped for time. Expert difficulty ups the ante by a significant amount, giving you extremely slim margins between checkpoints and necessitating keeping up your momentum. The difficulty jump is actually absurd, to the point that I did not enjoy my attempts at Expert difficulty.
There are also a lot of smaller features that are implemented in less than ideal ways. Whereas other games have more nebulous requirements for successfully boosting out of the gate, with some even having different requirements for different cars or racers, Hotshot Racing makes the requirements explicit. When you are revving up your engine, you simply have to keep the meter in the yellow section and you will boost out of the gate. While it’s reliable, it’s not interesting and removes quite a bit of potential depth.
The game’s characters are also not great. Their visual designs are genuinely creepy, undoubtedly some of the worst low-poly renditions of humans that I’ve ever seen. It’s their catchphrases that are particularly bad, though. They try to give the characters some personality, but they end up feeling hollow and, worse still, are incredibly repetitive. Some of them don’t even make sense in context, such as one character shouting “you call this a casino?!” as he is very clearly not driving through or past a casino.
What’s particularly frustrating, however, is the existence of a manual transmission mode. The game is all about keeping up your momentum and, due to the existence of drifting and a lack of hard turns, you don’t ever really need to slow down to make turns. As a result, if you’re playing well, you won’t notice the difference between using an automatic transmission and using a manual transmission because the manual transmission simply won’t ever be utilized after the start of the race. However, if you’re playing poorly, manual transmission simply serves as a barrier to recovery. It doesn’t add anything to the experience and seems to have been included solely for the sake of nostalgia.
The additional modes also feel half-hearted at best. There’s a mode called Drive or Explode that stands out as a particularly egregious example of a half-hearted mode. In it, you have a health bar. If you drive below an increasing speed benchmark, you will consistently lose health. If you hit walls or other racers, you’ll lose health. If you don’t make it to checkpoints on time, you’ll explode. If you do make it to checkpoints on time, you’ll recover a small amount of health. However, inexplicably, this mode is also a race mode with a set number of laps, placing a hard cap on the amount of time that is spent in the mode. Because of this one design choice, during my time playing, even on Hard, only a single AI racer was eliminated, making the entire premise of the mode feel less than tense or threatening.
The Cops and Robbers mode is a bit better. A few players are assigned to be cops who have to defeat the robbers, which “deputizes” them, turning them into cops. The cops’ goal is to deputize all of the robbers, taking a portion of their money as their own when they do. Robbers have health bars and take damage by hitting walls or being hit by cops. Their goal is to bank the most cash they can before they’re caught by driving through checkpoints; the exact amount of cash they obtain at each checkpoint is based on the time it takes for them to reach that checkpoint. In addition to cops, there are a few obstacles that you can drive through, slowing you down. Unfortunately, the obstacles don’t respawn, meaning that, once they’ve been knocked out, they’re just gone—not that they slow you down that much to begin with.
The biggest problem, however, is the AI. The AI fairly obviously cheats. Whereas AI racers can easily crash into you and wipe you out, especially while you’re drifting, AI racers crash into each other constantly and never wipe out—they don’t even come off of the ground. However, it’s the fact that they consistently attempt to crash into you that is most damning. It’s one thing to have to avoid running into the AI to pass them. It’s another thing entirely to have to avoid AI trying to crash into you as you try to pass them.
The AI also doesn’t do well in the Cops and Robbers mode. They all go for whoever is at the head of the pack, meaning that it’s easy to avoid them by just falling behind a bit. You’ll take a cash hit at first, but later checkpoints won’t be affected if you keep pace with them, just behind where they’re at. If they’re ahead of the nearest robber, they will slow down in an attempt to let them pass, but this attempt is easily avoided. This continues even after several robbers have been deputized, which feels incredibly odd.
Hotshot Racing is a decent attempt at offering the kind of arcade racing experience that we don’t really get anymore and, if you’re pining for that sort of game, you may well find enjoyment in it. It’s not as nuanced as many other racing games since that era have been, but it’s still fast-paced and frenetic. There are a number of issues that cause it to fall flat, among them the boring track design, poor difficulty mode design, and poor AI, but the most damning of issues is the lack of content. However, even if you can look past all of the other issues, it’s likely that the game won’t entertain for more than a few hours, which makes it hard to recommend.