If you’re drawn to Retro Highway, you’re probably of a certain age. Yeah, we’re there too. It was the similarities to Road Rash that grabbed us by the collar, but there are just as many likenesses to Super Hang-On or Outrun. None of these games are what you’d call ‘modern’ – the last Road Rash came out twenty-one years ago – so, if you’re reading this review, you probably have trouble picking up a Sega Mega Drive cartridge once you’ve dropped it.
Retro Highway isn’t just an old dog, though. It mixes a bit of the old with the new. If you’ve played endless runners, you will recognise some of their basic outline here, as you try to get as far as possible along a road that is increasingly treacherous. More and more cars appear, the speed ramps up, and actual ramps attempt to catapult you into hoardings. Once you crash, you’re starting all over again.
Retro Highway begins with the Emerald Hills course. You’re moving left and right, weaving in and out of traffic, with incoming cars on the left and outgoing on the right. Coins are scattered here and there, and the occasional power-up appears too. These come in three varieties, as you can have a shield (extra protection), magnet (a hoover for all those coins) and a coin multiplier.
To go with the weaving road and increasing traffic, you have ramp-lorries that might seem tempting. Most of the time they give you some welcome lift, taking you over the cars and lorries and snagging a few coins to boot. Other times, they plough you into advertising hoardings or tunnels. You pick your moments. You can boost out of the way with a turbo, which refills as you jump over or steer close to cars.
Beyond that, there are some track-specific obstacles. Things like oil slicks, which send you careening randomly to the left or right, and crossroads, which send cars directly across your path. There are six maps in total, taking you to desert, ice and moon levels, and – as you probably imagine – they ratchet up in terms of difficulty and speed.
Retro Highway might have been too simple for its own good if it left it there, but things get bulked out by three shops and a challenge system. The shops are simple enough, giving you the ability to upgrade your power-ups, buy a new bike and unlock levels. But the real winner is the challenges. There are three active at any one time, and they reward you with a motherlode of cash if you manage to complete them. They range from progression-based – get a certain distance down the track, or crash between certain milestones – to the more funky. You might need to get a number of ‘close calls’ (skirting close to cars), land on the roofs of cars, or turbo for a certain distance.
It’s the challenges which keep Retro Highway interesting. They are random, but they also escalate, so the next time you unlock the ‘distance travelled’ challenge, for example, you will have to go further than before. It pushes you to change up your play-style, and to keep getting better. As a system that runs parallel with the carnage, it works well.
If you get stuck with challenges you don’t like, you can reset them, which puts the rest on a real-time timer. The reset system feels like a hangover from a mobile version, rather than something that suits console, but we’ll run with it. The greater problem is that the majority of challenges are easier to complete on the early levels. If you have to travel a long distance, you may as well do it on the first course where things are a cinch. It’s a strange oversight, and pushes you away from the later courses.
But inching those challenges higher and higher still feels good. It’s a welcome nudge to play Retro HIghway when the rest of it gets old quickly.
It’s not that Retro Highway feels bad to play: far from it. The controls are intuitive and responsive, and they only get more so with the better bikes that you purchase. Making close calls with the cars and weaving in and out of traffic feels as good as you hoped. But the levels, outside of their backdrops, aren’t different enough, and you’re making the same decisions on each one: dodge the cars, avoid the ramps when they’re going to leather you into some concrete, and grab as many coins and power-ups as you can.
And if you came for some Road Rash, Out Run or Super Hang-On thrills, then that emptiness will hurt a little more. These decades old games all have far more depth than Retro Highway. There’s nothing like Road Rash’s combat, rivals or tournament systems, for example. It’s just an endless runner with a thin doily of challenges draped over the top.
So, there’s a shelf-life on your enjoyment with Retro Highway. Your time with it will be measured in minutes rather than hours, as its lack of variety between tracks means that motivation isn’t going to stick around for the long haul. But while you’re in the driving seat, it’s a short, bite-sized version of the classics it emulates, and that might be enough for a test drive.
You can buy Retro Highway from the Xbox Store for Xbox One and Xbox Series X|S