From the moment the day-glo logo flies across the screen, accompanied by the criminally catchy synth pop-rock soundtrack, it’s clear that we’re back in the ’90s – and I am sold.
Formula Retro Racing makes no attempt to hide its inspiration – which, for the benefit of those with a remnant of youth, is Virtua Racing. I had to go back to the 2019 Switch version for comparison, but there are more concessions to the modern world here than might be immediately obvious – more modes, more tracks, better-looking UI, more realistic handling. It’s certainly not a lazy copy.
The main arcade mode is straight out of the ’90s though: start at the back, battle through the pack, while hitting each checkpoint before the time runs out. It’s fast and frantic stuff: the AI is pretty aggressive, and with slipstreaming only effective at very close quarters, the over-the-top crash physics get plenty of use. The time penalty for crashing is fairly mild, but enough that on the harder difficulty levels, with tighter checkpoints, making it around unscathed is more important than nailing every overtake.
That’s reinforced in the structure around the arcade mode, where the points awarded for the best result on each track at each difficulty level, are such that there’s little to gain from improving, say, a 3rd to a 1st – it’s better to just finish more races. Points unlock the full eight tracks, and earn licenses, but the thresholds are on the generous side – it feels like the game wants you to see everything. Which is a good thing!
Not that there isn’t difficulty if you want to find it. The aggressive AI makes the tight and twisty tracks – like the game’s take on Monaco – significantly harder than the (to my mind far more enjoyable) wider flowing tracks. The oval track is probably too easy, but it’s a joy to pound out laps on the forest track in particular.
And the eliminator mode is my favourite way to pound out those laps. It’s an unusual set up: rather than last place being eliminated at the end of each lap, you just have to remain in the top ten for as long as you can, while your competitors get faster and faster. That makes it a sort of time trial with consequences: after some initial overtaking while the pack is slower, it’s all about consistency, which on a good run gets close to flow state. Mistakes creep in though, for which you’re quickly punished, and pushed into defensive driving. Without checkpoints to worry about that’s surprisingly satisfying – breaking the tow, closing the door on corner entry, and generally making your car as wide as it can be.
In the interests of balance: the crash physics can feel a touch unfair, and there’s not a staggering amount of content.
But balance be damned: I kind of love it – and even more so because it was essentially made by one man, and it’s less than a fiver.
Formula Retro Racing is out now for PlayStation 4 (played on PlayStation 5), and was first released for Xbox and PC in 2020