It's easy to get overwhelmed by the slew of games coming up in the next months and years, and never more so when battling through the chaos of Gamescom, the most densely populated games show on the calendar. It's easy, too, to see the feature bloat in so many AAA titles and get a little exhausted. Sometimes, just to take a break from the madness, you try out something familiar looking, simple and pure. If you're lucky it turns out to be a subtly inventive take on a well-trodden genre, one that immediately has you hooked and excited for its release. This year, one such game deserves to be recognised as our surprise favourite game of Gamescom 2019: Circuit Superstars.
If you check out the trailer above you might get a little sense of why this game felt so fresh yet so familiar. I was a huge fan of Micro Machines growing up and over the years many developers have tried and failed to emulate a similar style. It would be easy to write off Circuit Superstars as one such attempt to reinvent those tiny wheels, but that would be unfair to every aspect of this small but perfectly formed arcade racer.
Even the name “arcade racer” is unfair; while the experience is undeniably far from a simulation racer, Circuit Superstars requires far more precision driving and strategic planning than its adorable top-down aesthetic would imply. Carolina, Carlos and Alberto Mastretta — the three siblings at the centre of the development team — grew up in Mexico with a great love of motorsport, and capturing the purity of the racing experience without the feature bloat of simulation, or the unbalanced anarchy of arcade racing, was critical to the game's design.
So how do you make a fun looking arcade mini-racer feel like real motorsport? For the Mastrettas, the most exciting and strategic parts of real-world racing come down to planning and executing a strategy — and adapting when it fails. The three key elements the team decided to whittle the experience down to were tire degredation, fuel loss and vehicle damage. Sensible in theory, and it works in practice — By making a racer with a strong foundation of physics, just these three elements of real-world racing are enough to transform the way that the driver approaches every corner and every takeover. You won't find any boosts or powerups here; as Carolina put it, it's "all about the driving and improving yourself as a driver". The siblings pulled a lot of features out during early development, such as car tuning, because it was just getting in the way of that "purity" which Circuit Superstars is built on. It also, crucially, maintains accessibility for players of all types — not just in terms of gaming skill level but in terms of automotive knowledge. As long as players are wiling to invest in learning the precise physics of the game, there is no other obstacle to getting involved and having fun.
Even in the game's single player time trial mode that addictive desire to keep beating your own time is intoxicating in Circuit Superstars. And there's something oddly calming in the quiet precision of a time trial. Unlike most modern racers the player's screen isn't stuffed with speedometers, compasses and technicolor racing line overlays; everything is deliberately kept natural. The track will load with tactile smudges of old tyre tracks before the lap begins, and as the driver laps and laps again, their own subtle grey racing line will start to appear. It's a much more engaging and immediate approach to helping players find their best route. Alberto described it as the track "telling its own story".
Of course, it's not all about the sedate time trials — Circuit Superstars will have multiplayer, whether that's 4-player couch co-op or up to 12 cars online. Those carefully planned strategies can be thrown out immediately by the presence of other players on the track, and the game's well-crafted physics really play into that sense of panic if a driver starts reacting more to the car creeping up behind, and less to their racing line. A couple of smacks or cut corners can really make an impact on the car's performance, which means a trip to the pits perhaps earlier than planned.
Although there's no fine-tuning, players can still pick which of the 12 car classes they want to drive in — and each really does make a difference. A solid modern GT has a decent all-round balance, but a 60s inspired Italian racer zips along at speed at the cost of its handling at corners. There's no detailed stats break down for each car, the player will just get a "feel" for how each vehicle handles.
Again it all comes down to that purity, and that's even true for the game's art style — cartoon-like but not silly, infused with beautiful colours and a subtle soundscape. This is how the best top-down racers of the 90s wished they could look and sound. Although the demo only had a small sample of the final soundtrack, even what we could hear was sedate and airy in all the right ways.
Ultimately we've come away from Circuit Superstars feeling energised and refreshed, and sometimes all it takes is a game pure and simple in its concept, and passionate in its execution. The Mastretta family are clearly building something they love, and they want to continue to make it as perfect as possible through simple, meticulous design. Because of that last point, don't expect to see anything like a custom track creator; with this concept it simply wouldn't fit. That said, the team are planning to keep updating the game after launch with new cosmetic customisation options for a player's cars and team colours, and add more tailor-made tracks down the line.
Circuit Superstars is currently aiming for a 2020 release on Xbox One, and we can't wait.
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