Despite the unending popularity of Nintendo’s franchises it would seem that fewer publishers are attempting to mimic their formulas. In contrary to the state of ‘me-too’ mobile gaming, the nigh-on eight years that the Xbox 360 generation ruled the roost brought only one Super Smash Bros. clone and three Mario Kart inspired franchises to the console. The PlayStation 3 only went one better with the underwhelming PlayStation All-Stars: Battle Royale. Some would suggest this is due to a lack of demand on HD consoles. Others would say that few developers can match Nintendo’s weight pound-for-pound. F1 Race Stars is a picture of then-independent studio Codemasters when they were still brave enough to attempt new things.
Of course, no big budget kart racer wants to live in Mario Kart’s shadow. Yet all are aware that they will be compared to Nintendo’s racing opus throughout development and release. With this in mind, it seems that Codemasters did the right thing; take a bite of humble pie and accepted that there are some things Mario Kart championed that F1 Race Stars simply couldn’t live without. The fantasy setting, selection of weapons, boosts (including boost starts) and driver variety have all been brought to F1 Race Stars from that well established setting. But that’s not to say Codemasters hasn’t tweaked each one to make it fit with the Formula One subject matter.
Mario F1 Kart Stars
The included tracks are fantasy versions of real Formula One venues. These offer a number of famous landmarks and some plays on national stereotypes. Including a crashed UFO and what appears to be a cameo from The Simpsons’ Truckosaurus. Each track has a number of hidden shortcuts that can shave seconds off your best time. What’s more, each has a special locked route which can only be accessed by bringing a key to it. The keys are found elsewhere in the level, typically on one of the aforementioned shortcuts. However, players can not use weapons with the key equipped. Should they be hit with a weapon while carrying the key, they will drop it.
The weaponry available is collected from power-up placements on the track that offer a random item. As is the case with Mario Kart, the further from pole position you are the more likely it is that you will receive a powerful weapon. Green and red shells have been incorporated as standard, though replaced with bubbles. So too comes the banana skin and a number of others that bear resemblance to those featured in Mario Kart. The champagne bottle is clearly a revision of the bullet bill, while the storm is in place of lightning; slowing down the whole pack. The safety car weapon is perhaps the most original. Designed to close the gap between racers, coupled with the accumulated damage and pit stops, this is a welcome addition to the formula.
So What’s New?
Mario Kart’s hop-turn boost is a technique that players either love or hate. Those familiar with the franchise welcome the opportunity to discover its nuances with each new edition. However, less experienced players argue that it offers an unfair advantage. F1 Race Stars strips it right back so every player can make the most of what it calls KERS boosting. Instead of being available on every corner, the KERS is marked by blue arrows across the track in a similar fashion to F-Zero’s health recharge. Each player has a tank that can hold up to three KERS boosts, changing them by releasing and repressing the accelerator when one fills. Upon exiting the section of blue arrows all charged KERS will be executed at once. This can give you a sudden short burst or potentially launch you forward at great speed.
Each of the 28 drivers has their own special ability dependant on which driving team they are part of. These include super boost or the backwards seeker bubble. However, these are still only available when such power-ups have been collected. The Xbox 360 version also allows players to jump into the driving seat as their Xbox Live Avatar.
F1 Race Stars’ Core Experience – Accessible Fun
F1 Race Stars features a number of different gameplay modes based around the premise of driving pint-sized Formula One heroes around fantasy-land tracks. These include the usual race, time trial and elimination modes. There’s single events and championships to be played – either by a single player or split-screen – and the online gameplay allows for more than one person per system to battle it out against distant foes; an all too often overlooked asset. More interesting however, are the refuel, exhibition and sector snatch modes. These task the player with hitting fuel pumps along the path, hitting foes and driving fast or setting the best time on specific sections of the track, respectively. None of these modes outshine the standard racing, but each has its own merit to provide an enjoyable side attraction.
The visual quality of F1 Race Stars mirrors that of Microsoft Studios’ Joy Ride Turbo; far from pushing the hardware to its limits but clean and comfortable nonetheless. It’s symbolic of the production values of the game as a whole: F1 Race Stars checks all the right boxes simply by doing exactly what would be expected of it. It’s clean fun for Formula One fans of all ages, or just those looking to bring the Mario Kart experience to formats on which there is no Mario Kart. So Codemasters proved that, before their newfound singular direction, they could stand toe-to-toe with the best the racing genre has to offer. Not just in sims and arcade racers, but across a wealth of styles and audiences.