There’s something about the single-screen racer that draws me in. Part of that is nostalgia, having played Super Off Road to death at the arcades and on the NES. But there’s something you don’t get in other games, too: the joy of repeatedly lapping your friends, of racing without screencheating, and the general carnage of it all. Eight tiny players on one screen, barely a pixel to share between you. It’s a special kind of chaos.
It put me at the head of the queue for Total Arcade Racing, but having spent several hours with it – too many of them solo, unfortunately (damn you Omicron) – the magic just isn’t there.
Calling yourself ‘Total’ Arcade Racing is a big call for an indie title, but there’s one way that it manages to feel comprehensive. When you boot up Total Arcade Racing, it’s clear that it’s absolutely overflowing with modes. It’s almost daunting: you have – deep breath – Time Trial, Championship, Custom Race, Survivor, Elimination, Endless, Demolition Derby, Car Hockey and Delivery. They’re not gentle riffs on the same tune, either. They are fundamentally different songs.
Time Trial is where most solo-players will start. This is the familiar template of a single race, with up to three stars available for your performance. So, you choose your car, start on the grid, and race against a ‘pace’ car which effectively represents the no-star run. Beat it, and you will notch a star at least.
We assumed our first impressions of Total Arcade Racing would be temporary, but they continued throughout the whole game. The controls are extremely slippery, and we never quite adapted to them. There’s an extreme sensitivity to the handling, which is relatively common to this genre, but it’s too much here. You have to anticipate corners well in advance, and delicately brush the analogue stick, otherwise you are going to plough into a wall. But these tiny, finessed touches don’t leave you with much control. You are working within extremely small windows.
There’s a boost mechanic which exacerbates things. Every five seconds or so, your boost recharges. This is frequent enough that you feel you should be using it, but it’s incredibly superpowered – it can take you from one end of the screen to the other. But there are very few straights that can take advantage of this boost – certainly not every five seconds. So, you have a rocket boost that can’t viably be used, unless you want to pinball yourself to the end of the course. Which you can: it’s theoretically faster, but it’s not satisfying.
Total Arcade Racing is also a bit too crisp and plain for our tastes. It’s like playing a game made out of clip art: it doesn’t have any depth or soul to it. It’s just primary colours and blocky constructions. The lack of depth carries over to the courses, too. We completed the first race and got a 1/42 stat, and assumed that meant there were 42 courses to play. That’s not bad. But we soon realised this was the star total and there were, in fact, 14 courses to play in total. For a modern single-screen racer, particularly with building blocks as simple as these, it just isn’t enough. We cycled through them for an hour before getting bored.
The courses themselves are fine, if a little flat. There’s none of the height and elevation of Super Off Road or Rock N Roll Racing, for example. You would hope that the courses would capitalise on their own boost mechanics, but they don’t. One level in particular is a sequence of turns around water, and using boost would be a death sentence.
On the positive side, Total Arcade Racing is fully featured. Once you complete a race, you are quickly slotted into a global leaderboard. That shouldn’t be taken for granted – very few games of this type manage it. And it adds another dimension to the racing. Could you perform well enough to land in the top ten of the world? At the moment, it’s perfectly possible. We sneaked a top twenty finish and were rather smug.
Racing on your own is all a bit hollow and uninspiring though, even with the leaderboard to motivate you. Luckily, games like Total Arcade Racing were made for multiplayer, and things do perk up a bit with at least three people playing.
For one, it means more modes are available. The pocket Rocket League of ‘Car Hockey’ and the Crazy Taxi-esque ‘Delivery’ are both played by a minimum of two players, and the other modes are all playable with up to eight players on one console. We’d recommend the bizarre Survivor, which turns the game into an endlessly scrolling upwards race, where you have to preserve your car’s health as you plough into oncoming traffic. The global leaderboards are represented on the track itself, so you can see yourself moving through the ranks. And while Demolition Derby is utter chaos with the slippy handling and boosts, it’s still fun.
The problem with the multiplayer modes is that the core racing just can’t support them. With the lack of control and the inability to use the boosts meaningfully, it’s just not pick-up-and-play, and friends will immediately feel an urge to drop the pad. Your mates are going to spend more time piling into each other on hairpin turns, and asking how to reverse out of corners (hint: they can’t), and that’s not the basis of a hilarious Xbox session.
With more control over the little tin car, Total Arcade Racing might have achieved its purpose: to be a party game of choice for up to eight players. But it’s an unwieldy, slippery beast. You can train yourself to enjoy it, anticipating the turns and conserving your boost, but when you want a game that eight rivals can pick up and enjoy in seconds, it doesn’t fit the bill.
With more emphasis on fun and immediacy, it would have got closer to that ‘total’ prefix. As it stands, we’re going back to Super Off Road.
You can buy Total Arcade Racing from the Xbox Store for Xbox One and Xbox Series X|S