Are Arcade Racers Headed to the Scrap Heap?

The death of a genre

There was a time when arcade racing games were a dime a dozen. You couldn’t leaf through your favourite gaming magazine or browse your local store, without seeing the likes of F-Zero, Wipeout, Project Gotham Racing, and Micro Machines adorning pages and shelves.

But lately, arcade racers are battling for their continued existence. The rise in popularity of the first-person shooter and battle royale genres have lured players away from the racing genre, and it has struggled to recover ever since. Nintendo’s dominance of the racer market has had an impact too. The Mario Kart franchise has fended off all challengers for its crown, and developers seem rightfully apprehensive to go head-to-head with the king.

With gamers turning their attentions elsewhere, is the arcade racer doomed? Or can it reignite its engine and become top dog once more?

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Getting Off The Grid

Racing games have been around since the dawn of the industry. Top-down arcade racers like Gran Trak 10 and Destruction Derby are a far cry from today’s titles, but their simplistic mechanics and graphics helped to pave the way for the groundbreaking games that would soon arrive.

A barrage of other racing titles emerged in the years that followed. Indy 500, Turbo, Konami GT, and many others took up residence in arcades across the globe. It wasn’t until the 1986 release of Out Run, Sega’s legendary arcade racer, that a new bar was set for racing games though. Out Run’s pioneering 3D graphics, nonlinear gameplay, and sit-down arcade cabinet offered a glimpse into the future of arcade racers, and provided an even bigger platform for them to thrive.

Boosted by rapid technological developments, arcade racers enjoyed a period of gaming dominance throughout the mid to late 1990s. Iconic series such as Ridge Racer, Gran Turismo, and Need for Speed earned a legion of fans for their simple but enjoyable gameplay. Other critically acclaimed titles, such as Crazy Taxi and Burnout, tweaked the racing genre formula slightly but still enjoyed huge success due to their innovative features.

Trouble lay ahead, though. Nintendo had thrown its hat into the ring during this golden era, and wasn’t about to settle for second place. Mario Kart was to become a banana skin that would spin other racers out and cause the genre some major headaches heading into the 21st Century.

The Mario Kart Problem

Mario Kart’s debut on the circuit — 1992’s Super Mario Kart — was a commercial hit for Nintendo, emerging during a period where competition for dominance of the genre was fierce.

The series’ evolution in the past 27 years, however, has installed the kart racer as the king of the entire racing genre. Mario Kart’s constant reinvention and ability to stay ahead of the curve has led to unparalleled success. The introduction of 4-player racing, unlockable characters and maps, co-op LAN play, and motion control support in various Mario Kart titles have all helped it to become the best selling racing series of all-time, with 135.6m copies sold worldwide, according to VGChartz.com. The Gran Turismo series — with 80.4m units shipped worldwide — is the only racing title that comes even close to matching those figures.

In a bid to survive and compete with Mario Kart, other racing franchises have resorted to replicating its winning formula, hence the glut of kart racers that appeared in the mid-90s and early 2000s. But copying someone else’s blueprint isn’t necessarily a recipe for success. There are a number of factors  responsible for Mario Kart‘s success, not least of which are Nintendo’s iconic characters, tracks, and items.

Without these, other series simply can’t compete. Contenders for Mario Kart’s crown have failed to usurp it, and they’ve left the arcade racing genre teetering with two wheels over the side of a cliff.

Reinventing The Wheel

If duplicating Mario Kart’s blueprint hasn’t worked, developers need to employ other tactics to make their mark. For some, taking inspiration from another element of the racing giant’s ethos — reinvention — is the most likely route that might set them apart from the competition.

With its co-operative gameplay mechanic, Sega’s Team Sonic Racing attempts to build upon Mario Kart Double Dash’s teamwork aspect with an added twist. Its focus on three-car teams, whereby players help each other to finish higher in the standings to earn their team more points, is an interesting approach — albeit one that works better with human players rather than AI racers.

Ironically, it was another Nintendo-published title in Diddy Kong Racing that employed this innovation originally. The N64 title introduced an story-driven mode way back in November 1997, and it even paved the way for the vehicle transformation mechanic that was central to the gameplay of Sonic & All-Stars Racing Transformed, Team Sonic Racing’s predecessor.

Team Sonic Racing’s team aspect isn’t even a new approach for the Sonic franchise either. Sonic Heroes, a 3D action-adventure platformer released in 2003, utilized this same gameplay mechanic. Even in this non-racing game, players could alternate between each team’s three characters to solve puzzles and navigate obstacles throughout each level — something that Team Sonic Racing doesn’t allow you to do during races.

Have Team Sonic Racing’s attempts to differentiate it from the pack paid off? Not exactly. With a current rating of 72 on Metacritic, it may point to a reception and sales ceiling for non-Mario Kart titles in the arcade racing genre.

Back to the Past

The upcoming Crash Team Racing: Nitro-Fueled also is a remaster of the 1999 PlayStation title, which was chiefly inspired by Mario Kart. It does, however, attempt to play down like-for-like comparisons with some notable changes.

Those differences don’t come in the form of new content though, as Crash Team Racing: Nitro-Fueled lifts most of its key selling points directly from the original. Boss battle races, the series’ signature Turbo Boost meter, and range of single-player racing modes aren’t brand new additions. Content from other other games in the franchise — Crash Nitro Kart and Crash Tag Team Racing — is carried over into Nitro-Fueled but, unless you haven’t played those sequels in the past, these extras won’t be novel either. Only kart customization and an online multiplayer mode offer anything new to potential buyers, which may make the full retail price a hard sell to anyone who isn’t coming to the game for nostalgic reasons.

Once again though, most of Crash Team Racing’features were attempted by earlier titles like Diddy Kong Racing, which itself failed to displace the reigning champ of kart racers. Diddy Kong Racing’s own “Adventure Mode” contained boss battles and the world hub that Crash Team Racing Nitro-Fueled employs. As an N64 game, it didn’t have the same polish and impressive graphics that Sonic and Crash’s latest offerings do. Where innovation and originality is concerned, however, it was light years ahead of this duo.

Running Out of Fuel?

The arcade racing genre faces something of a grim future. Mario Kart’s dominance is one thing to contend with, but the sheer amount of games released these days also means that the gaming market is as saturated as it has ever been. Racing game developers need to find a way to pique the interest of players — simply rehashing gameplay mechanics from other titles isn’t enough.

Like any other genre, racing games need a constant influx of creative and original ideas to stay fresh. Mario Kart is eternal, but as it swallows up more and more of the market share, arcade racers may become a niche genre. Let’s hope it can steer into the skid and roar back into the spotlight.

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