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Review: Arcade Racing Legends

As the third decade of the 21st century dawns, it's becoming quite clear that we're entering a renaissance of sorts for our beloved little box of dreams. While the masses wax lyrical about their shiny new Xbox 5's and PlayStation Series X's (that's right, yeah?), or relentlessly bore on about ray tracing and load times of 3 nanoseconds, we here at the Junkyard are rightfully far more excited about the impending tsunami of new titles about to wash away all our troubles and restore that blue swirl (red, I suppose, if you prefer) to it's rightful place at the pinnacle of gaming excellence.

Sort of, anyway. 

It's true though that we are spoiled for new content right now. We've got an upcoming Dreamcast games calendar chock full of titles, the likes of such not seen since the time nu-metal was vaguely popular with teenagers with terrible hairstyles and ludicrous length jeans, we can barely go a week without some new-fangled piece of technology to enhance/cannibalise/set it on the path to sentient life, for our Dreamcast getting announced, and we've even got geniuses coming out with ports of post-DC titles from the arcade that we can play on the console too. It feels less like a rose tinted, nostalgia driven website written by Sega fanboys around here now; and more like we're covering some sort of current-gen machine.

The main menu screen you're first presented with.

But I'm blabbering again. We're not here to moan about being too old to keep up to date with latest news today, we'll save that for the podcast. Instead, we're here to take a slightly belated look at the newest addition to the Dreamcast's now substantial indie library - the much anticipated, made for the Dreamcast latest release from JoshProd - Arcade Racing Legends.

Successfully Kickstarted back in 2019, we've been keeping a watchful eye over the development of the title, and had access to some early builds as well. There's a fair few keen racing fans here at the 'Yard, so the prospect of a new, fully 3D racing title for the console, and one promising to bring back some of the blue sky arcade racing pedigree of Sega games of yore, was one that had us positively salivating with hope. 

Scud life. Cough.

JoshProd have been a relentless supporter of the Dreamcast independent scene in recent years, but have so far focused on bringing us ports from other platforms rather than self-developed titles. Indeed, despite what some have said, this isn't the first 3D indie title on the system - JoshProd's own delivery of the Dreamcast port of 4x4 Jam takes that honour. They've got a very interesting lineup of titles on their way to us, and their past output has had some serious hits - Flashback, Another World, The Escapee - as well as a couple of misfires - the disappointing Ganryu for one. But when any developer has the ambition to bring us something completely new - well, we sit up and take note.

Some of the campaign artwork really whetted our appetite for the game

So just what is this new game all about? Well, Arcade Racing Legends wears its inspiration clear for all to see - not least in its title. An old school homage to the golden age of arcade racing games, it gives you a super fast car, exotic track locations and plenty of wink-wink, nudge-nudge references to past Sega titles. In fact, that's probably not quite true - there's little subtle about the inspiration for some of the vehicles here, and that's no bad thing at all. But I'm getting ahead of myself.

There are various game modes to dive into straight from the main menu screen - which is presented as a garage featuring your selected car. The 'Career' mode features a series of races across the game's circuits, in a day-by-day format. It's not quite the fully featured career mode you may have expected, but it mixes things up by having different goals to meet for each track - such as not crashing into the side of the track. 

'Arcade' mode does what it says - it features each of the game's circuits, and you must win a race on each to unlock the next. This also unlocks the tracks for use in the next mode - 'Time Trial', which, if you've ever played a racing game before, needs no explanation from me at all. The two player 'Duel' mode is next, allowing for some head-to-head racing in split screen. Aside from the obligatory 'Options' selection, there's also the games 'Garage,' in which you can select one of the various cars selectable - 24 by my count.

The life aquatic.

Visually, the game does some things right, but comes up short in others. It nails the bright, arcade feelings that no doubt all backers expected, and whilst the generic settings would be an issue for many titles, here they feel exactly right for the project. At their best, the graphics are on par with some early Dreamcast racing releases - think Suzuki Alstare racing, or at least the Japanese version of the game, Redline Racer. It's all pretty rough and ready, but this is understandable when considering this is an indie release. 

Background objects are fairly rudimentary, cars are a little simplistic, but technically things run pretty nicely, for the most part consistently churning out a solid frame rate. It's about what I expected from the title when backing it, so I have no major complaints. There are a couple of issues here and there - the lower, 'bonnet' viewpoint for some vehicles isn't correctly implemented, with some clear graphical glitching, such as seeing the wheels of your car through the bonnet itself, and the low resolution of the vehicles can make certain examples look pretty rough. Whilst these aren't on their own game breakers, it is slightly disappointing that they weren't fixed for release.

Nails the blue sky look...

The tracks themselves cover pretty much every 'arcade racing level' you can think of, from the obligatory ice level, a desert track probably set somewhere in Arizona, the neon lights of a city and an 'underwater' level bringing to mind at least one much respected past Sega arcade hit. Whilst there's nothing to get too excited about - the tracks are by and large simplistic and relatively lifeless - the game does manage to just about fulfill it's own ambitions in this regard. The presence of road side barriers at all times on each track does, however, give every track a quite cramped, claustrophobic feel. At times, I felt it was more akin to a mid 90's racing title like Mega Race, with a very 'on rails' track design.

What about the vehicles, I hear none of you saying? Well, aside from the lo-res nature of a few of them, they're a pretty cool selection of cars. There's no licenses of real cars here, obviously, but the approximation of cars such as the Lancia Delta (Sega Rally), a Taxi from Crazy Taxi and the famous Daytona Hornet are all well implemented, look really cool, and fulfill the brief of the game perfectly. The other cars on offer are a mix of various sporty affairs, slightly madcap vehicles and cars that take inspiration from various sections of pop culture. Various companies who helped finance the production of the game have their own custom designed cars emblazoned with company logos, which is actually a nice touch, and does give some variety and colourful liveries to the game's roster. That being said, the quality of these does vary quite significantly, with the low resolution designs of some of the cars looking pretty jarring when compared to the somewhat simpler designs. All in all, though, from a purely visual perspective, the developers have once more just about met the expectations that we had.

Two Sega-inspired classics. Both looking very good.

Visuals out of the way, it's about time we talked a little about the audio side of things. If there's one area of gaming where indie games can legitimately claim to be the equal of the rest of the Dreamcast library, it's in the audio department. We've been blessed with some truly memorable soundtracks, and whilst Arcade Racing Legends doesn't go right to the top of the selection, it's a decidedly eclectic, completely competent array of musical pieces and a set of unremarkable, but serviceable sound effects. 

Arcade Racing Legends (I'm just going to call it ARL from now on) is a bit of a mixed bag when it comes to the aesthetics then. Thing is - we can forgive any underwhelming elements in that department if the game nails the most important thing - the gameplay. Unfortunately, this is where the issues really become apparent, and borderline impossible to overlook.

On the positive side, the cars handle okay. It was one aspect of the game that we were perhaps most concerned about from early play tests, and whilst there's nothing overly innovative here, the smooth frame rate and responsive controls are implemented well. They're incredibly simple (accelerate, brake, turn - there's no handbrake-controlled power drifting here), but they suffice. One slight oversight is that the controls are, by default, set to 'A' for accelerate and 'B' for brake - rather than the more obvious use of the triggers. A minor issue when considering you can change these, but slightly baffling that it wasn't set to use the naturally better feeling triggers as a default.

A rare moment of racing drama.

So the driving itself is simple but decent enough. It's a shame, then, that the AI is so poor. Each of your opponents stick to their racing line without any deviation. This means any chance of paint scraping one-on-one battles with a wily opponent is nonexistent. Worse still, each of the opponents ends up spaced out quite significantly, breaking any real sense of actual racing, thus reducing each event down to a time trial against set times by the AI. The lower placed opponents are of an almost insultingly low skill, meaning you'd have to be even more terrible than me at games to place anywhere lower than 2nd in most races. Without this competitive, car against car dueling, each race descends very quickly into a rather dull affair. When you do get close enough to have a little one-on-one with an opponent, the physics aren't advanced enough to simulate a wheel-to-wheel battle, usually meaning you'll end up locked - at full speed - with your opponent until you get out of the way of it's racing line. There's also an annoying 'jumping' look to the AI cars, like small decelerations followed by accelerations - which just looks plain odd. 

This feeling of blandness isn't aided by some other disappointing choices in the design. As previously mentioned, each track feels claustrophobic, almost on rails, as the tracks are bordered by barriers at all times, and without real crash physics, you end up just sort of...slouching against the barriers, dragging the car along. Your car hits its top speed pretty quickly, and it's quite difficult on some tracks to really ever dip below this speed, again reinforcing the on rails-like feel to how the game plays. The fact that each car drives identically doesn't help this. Yes, you can change the handling characteristics in the game's garage, but by default, each of the cars will drive like the others. This is a real misstep, as the variety on offer in the selection of cars is one of ARL's real positive aspects. When your Lancia Delta controls the exact same as the Batmobile-inspired creation in the game, there's less of a desire to try each of the cars. What could have been a toybox selection of cars to play with ends up being mere window dressing. 

The nights have clearly drawn in. Just like the background.

The feeling of ARL being a little underwhelming is hard to ignore. If the game was a proof of concept, a tech demo of sorts for a new racing game engine for the Dreamcast, with some early 'placeholder' design choices on show, then it would be far more forgivable - and indeed, when we tested early builds of the game, we were still positive about what would come. And whilst JoshProd still deserve massive respect for even trying to take on a project like this, it's impossible not to feel that the gameplay on offer is just a little too dull. The career mode tries to make things a little more interesting by changing up the goals for each track, rather than just having a standard race - but even that feels a little uninspired.

The issues don't end there. The game's Duel mode is a bit...well, broken really. It looks alright, speeding along at a fair old lick, but there are numerous bugs and issues. Player two has no sound effects, which is an oversight, but they also can't actually win a race. Player two cannot win a two player race. Let that sink in. Fair play to the developers for including a split screen mode, but it's hard to escape the feeling that the issues around the mode could, and should, have been dealt with during testing. 

So we have a game that looks and sounds decent if completely unspectacular, plays a little like a tech demo or 'proof of concept' and ends up being a bit dull because of it; and which has some pretty unfortunate bugs, overlooked issues and disappointing design choices. If you're someone who can overlook these issues, however - and some will - it's also a little disappointing that there's not really a massive amount of 'game' here to enjoy. A handful of tracks, a nice variety of vehicles aesthetically, but with no variation in mechanics, and really not a huge amount to keep coming back to. 

The packaging and overall presentation of the game, however, is no less impressive than all of JoshProd's titles. There's a feeling of professionalism about every game they deliver, and ARL lives up to that same standard. 

We see Dirt 5's aurora borealis, and raise you this...

Despite every complaint I've made about Arcade Racing Legends (and we'll say it again - we review what we see at the Junkyard, we're not here to give sweeping praise to any title, and neither will we savage a game without cause), despite my own moderately excited expectations being somewhat dashed, and despite a series of bugs and issues that should never have made it to release, ARL is still a game that deserves a modicum of praise. 

JoshProd's continued support of the indie scene is most welcome, and there's no denying the quality of some of the previous - and future - releases. The project was an ambitious one, perhaps a little too ambitious, and if ever there was a game that maybe should have been delayed a while, ARL is surely it. 

Will we see an improved and revamped edition of the game in future? I don't think it's out of the question - the basis of a good game is certainly here, and technically the game runs well for the most part. But as it is, it's hard to recommend Arcade Racing Legends to anyone other than the most completist of Dreamcast collectors - and chances are, they'll probably have their copies already.

8 comments:

Tom Charnock said...

A very honest and unbiased review - nice one Mike!

Martin said...

Really good review, @spaceturnip. There are some oversights that simply should not be there (2P not winning a race), some things which could have been there (default controls, better AI, overall better handling game), and some extra icing on the cake. It’s still a huge undertaking for an indy dev, probably (I don’t actually know how difficult it is to do this),and it’s nice to see 3D homebrew for a change.

Would you place it in the middle of the DC racing library? What is it better than, and slightly worse than, etc?

I’ve been with the DC since ‘99 (or ‘98, I can’t remember), and have a decent library, but with very little fluff. I bought games I would play, and never aimed for anything remotely completionist, nor simply buy the latest release due to a nostalgia kick.

So, I appreciate the honest review, because Twitter is full of people posting a photo of their latest arrival, and who knows if they ever play the damn thing or if it goes straight onto their shelf? Anyway, I’ve segued from the game to collectors.

Perhaps if this were on the Saturn it would “hold up” a bit better, as the barriers, AI etc sound mid-90s. By 2000 things had moved on a little, and here in 2020, the lack of any kind of crash physics and AI stand out more than ever. A commendable effort, but I don’t think I’ll part with my hard earned.

Now waiting to see if they fix Wolflame!

Bob said...

I can agree with this.

I was a backer, we didn't receive bits of the product we backed and then received a game that felt like they rushed the last part.

I completed arcade mode 1st go. Career mode pretty all of it 1st go - only the beach levels and don't crash on the sides stages made me play more than once to complete.

I had a game save let me complete career mode but couldn't play arcade mode bar the Inca track I'd unlocked. The vibration packs don't work but you can adjust in the options menu!!! You have to exit out of a level you can't restart when you press pause. The 2 player issues. All cars have a max speed of 196 so are cosmetic only. I'm also not a great fan of the bin cans being kicked if you catch the side of the track.

It showed promise but fell flat on it's face at the final hurdle for me.

Dull is probably the best word to describe it.

DCGX said...

Comprehensive! What we've come to expect with the Junkyard.

I don't have the game, and while initially tempted by it (I kind of like the low-res approach and look), the fact there there isn't much here and the AI is nearly non-existent makes this a pass for me.

SegaSen said...

I was disappointed by it. I like the cars and graphics for the most part. The music is nice. But the track design is pretty bad and too narrow. The handling is good, but the AI just follows a route. The cars should have been different as well. It is nice to have such a game now, but it could have used more polish for sure. To be honest, it is probably one of the worst racers on DC. Better than Taxi deux at least, maybe Roadsters and Spirit of Speed.

way2easy said...

Jut thought that I'd share my experience. I like the graphics (except for yellow line on the road that comes into focus a foot in front of the car) but I was massively disappointed to learn that there is no skill required for this game.
The game teaches you this on the second event. After driving the car properly (i.e. braking at the corners) and failing the time trial just before the finish line four times I learned that just constantly holding down the accelerator (never brake!) and bouncing off the walls got me to the finish line 7 SECONDS quicker!

After that I stopped playing. There wasn't much point.

Plus all the cars go the same speed!

A little more work on the handling and collisions and this could have been cool.

Swos said...

I contacted JoshProd after purchasing the game to raise the issue of player 2 not being able to win. He replied and asked if I wanted an updated version as either a CD image or pressed cd. I asked for the CD rom and received it this week.

I have played it today and the 2 player game is now fixed in that it allows player 2 to win which does add a bit more replay value to the game.

I also noticed a couple of other changes from the released version. Firstly, the non functioning vibrate option has been removed from the option screen and secondly the game seems to run slightly slower, which does seem to remove that effect of the cars looking like they are jumping forward.

Overall, I did enjoy the game. I know most reviewers have complained it is too easy to finish. But then again they all seem to have amended the control of the car to make it easier to drive. If you don't exaggerate the controls you can have quite close races.

Swos said...

I contacted JoshProd after purchasing the game to raise the issue of player 2 not being able to win. He replied and asked if I wanted an updated version as either a CD image or pressed cd. I asked for the CD rom and received it this week.

I have played it today and the 2 player game is now fixed in that it allows player 2 to win which does add a bit more replay value to the game.

I also noticed a couple of other changes from the released version. Firstly, the non functioning vibrate option has been removed from the option screen and secondly the game seems to run slightly slower, which does seem to remove that effect of the cars looking like they are jumping forward.

Overall, I did enjoy the game. I know most reviewers have complained it is too easy to finish. But then again they all seem to have amended the control of the car to make it easier to drive. If you don't exaggerate the controls you can have quite close races.