When I took off for the first time in Fast Racing Neo, the new game by indie developer Shin’en for the Wii U, the world sped passed and I was blown away by the sheer speed of the game. This feeling only grew as I hit my first color-specific speed strip and blasted passed an AI racer using boost. It’s truly difficult to put into words how utterly insane it feels to be racing that fast. This speed, the unquestionable core feature of the game, is both its most addicting asset and an aggressive obstacle to being a truly excellent racing game.
It may be difficult to tell from video clips and audio samples, but Fast Racing Neo is not an F-Zero game. F-Zero, the racing series lauded by many as the spark which reignited the dying racing genre, debuted on the SNES in 1990. The last console F-Zero game, F-Zero GX, appeared on the Nintendo Gamecube in 2003 and was developed by Sega Amusement Vision. That game was celebrated for its strong graphics and story mode. Every game in the series has been criticized for high levels of difficulty.
Fast Racing Neo takes a lot of the good (and some of the bad) from the F-Zero series and brings it into modern gaming. Graphically, the Wii U utilizes its HD graphics to great effect as racing ships glimmer and shine in nice detail, and the worlds around the tracks (when they aren’t just blurs whipping past) are colorful, vibrant, and fully realized. Audio is a treat as many sound effects offer nice callbacks to an era of arcade racing (Fun Fact: Jack Merluzzi, voice actor of F-Zero GX fame, voices the announcer in Fast Racing Neo). Even the game modes offered hearken to a time of retro arcades and gaming cabinets with a single player “championship” mode, a multiplayer offering, and an extremely difficult Hero Mode.
However, for all of the nostaliga-laden positives that Fast Racing Neo brings to the table, the fundamental gameplay can be a mixed bag. Its primary single-player mode, championship, has the player race against nine other AI racers in a four-track race. Completing the cup in the top 3 unlocks the next cup and, subsequently, the next four race tracks. After completing four cups (sixteen tracks), the game unlocks the next of three difficulty levels. All of this is standard arcade racing practice.
What makes Fast Racing Neo unique is its approach to color-based speed strips, called “phasing.” A click of the L1 button on the Wii U Gamepad changes the energy around the player’s racer from blue to orange and back again. Matching the color of the racer to the color of strips on the track as you drive over them gives a major boost. Combining this “color boosting” with the racer’s natural boost, which is built up by collecting bubbles along the track, can allow the player to boost very fast for long stretches of the race. This “color boosting” is fun for a time, particularly in the first few hours of the game, but the novelty wears off.
Racing at extreme speeds is, admittedly, quite addicting, but it poses many problems and gets frustrating a bit too often. This leads to Fast Racing Neo‘s main single-player problem: the game can be brutally difficult, not unlike the F-Zero series it seeks to emulate. Even in the novice cups, the game demands regular repetition from the player in order to pass the track, let alone master it. For all of the times speed is fun and empowering, it can also be a game-ender. Going too fast into a wall can cause an explosion, and many times one or two crashes can mean a devastating defeat against the game’s difficult AI opponents.
While this difficulty might be a selling point for those select few who wish to overcome the game’s demanding challenges, it will turn away most casual players after the first two cups. The rewards of more race ships and even higher levels of difficulty simply aren’t enough to hold the attention of casual players through the rigorous “novice” levels. This difficulty isn’t a flaw in design, however; it’s obviously intentional.
Here’s why this may be a problem: Nintendo has developed a loyal audience on their fun, accessible characters and their appeal to casual gamers. Beyond the first two cups, this is not a game for casual gamers. A game with this level of difficulty might be more at home on the Playstation or the Xbox. Or, if Shin’en, a developer known for their Nintendo Console games, wished to stay with Nintendo, they might benefit from an easier novice level and a better tutorial, at the very least.
That being said, the difficulty of the single-player mode is at least an active choice. However, the four-player multiplayer mode is difficult in an almost unplayable way. That which made the single-player campaign endearing, namely, the incredible speed, is the local multiplayer’s demise. Even on a 55″ HDTV, going that fast on four-way split-screen makes it ridiculously difficult to see, leaving this mode borderline broken.
In the same argument that Nintendo is the home for casual gamers, it can also be said that Nintendo is the home for casual local multiplayer. Games such as Mario Party and, perhaps of more consideration here, Mario Kart make Nintendo the place to go for a fun split-screen experience. It’s admirable that Shin’en added in a local multiplayer mode in a time when online gaming is so prominent, but the mode just isn’t fun when you’re battling for 7th-10th place because of problems outside of your control.
Other modes are also available in Fast Racing Neo, though none really add much to the experience. Hero Mode is the most difficult mode, as the boost meter becomes a shield meter as well, and one false move can mean destruction and a complete loss of the race. An online multiplayer mode allows for you to race against others and gain online points and levels.
Fast Racing Neo poses a unique challenge for a video game critic, as many of the potential problems with this game are intentional. Many things work well in Fast Racing Neo, particularly in homage to the racing games of old. The graphics are nice, the sound is detailed, and the gameplay is built on a solid concept. Unfortunately, an almost unplayable local multiplayer mode and a series of excess modes add little to the game overall. Finally, the game’s aggressive difficulty will keep the best Fast Racing Neo has to offer from Nintendo’s mostly casual fan base, although gamers searching for a true F-Zero successor will be happy to find that the sense of challenge has not been lost here.
A Wii U code for Fast Racing Neo was provided by Shin’en Multimedia for the purpose of this review