I’m always happy to recount the time I spent in arcades, way back when. I was never obsessed with driving games — I found them too hard, their huge cabinets too intimidating — but their bright promise of reckless competition at high speed still spoke to child-me.
80s Overdrive takes the trappings of these classics, the likes of Out Run, Chase HQ and even some home experiences like Lotus Turbo Challenge, and tries to gestalt them into a larger, more complex experience. There are upgrades, objectives and dozens & dozens of courses to zoom through; practically a continent-sized parkway next to one of SEGA’s stadium-sized raceways.
As i’ve always been told, though, size isn’t everything. So is this latest nostalgia-fest a fabulous Ferrari, or more a flatulent Fiat?
The in-game presentation prickles all the right memory glands into releasing their endorphins. The selection of tunes is a bit more Synthwave than Splash Wave but, of the eighteen available, more than enough are crowd-pleasers. Dropping onto the starting line, the backdrops are styled exactly like those in AM2’s archetypal Testarossa title, and the car sprites are the Porsches, Lambos and (of course) Enzo’s babies, just as you’d expect… changed enough to avoid lawsuits, of course.
Pedal to the proverbial, the drive characteristic leans more towards the Lotus Challenge handling model than the other arcade progenitors. It’s pretty tight, but there’s enough slop to make you want to tighten it up immediately which you can do by spending your hard-earned winnings on better steering. Engines can also be upgraded, or you can try to streamline your driving style enough to win without penalty, in order to hoard the moolah and afford ever more lavish supercars.
Hampering you in this hot pursuit is the damage system. Every collision increases a damage bar; if it rises too high your auto conks-out. Damage is also cumulative so, after every race, you have to make sure repairs are seen to. Additionally, fuel is a commodity that can’t be ignored; top up your tank or you’ll come to a sputtering stop. Oh, and there’s an entry fee to most races. After the rush of victory, the come-down is real. It’s where you find your $2000 winnings whittled down to mere hundreds once the accounting’s done and dusted. Capitalism, man.
Injury to your beloved motor is the most egregious coin-gobbler, so the third pillar of progression is the ‘bumper’ system; a simple stat that, the higher it gets, the less damage you take. And, eeeeegads, here’s where the trouble starts…
This trouble comes in the form of collision detection. The rivals you race can literally drive through you, as if you have no mass. This slows them down (so hampers their chance at victory) but scrubs your speed whilst also causing damage. This isn’t necessarily a game-changer by itself, but there are loads of non-competitive sedans, hatchbacks and trucks littering the route, each one capable of wrecking your car, your chances and your bank balance.
Most routes have police patrols, too. Their MO is to overtake then slam on the brakes, causing you to clip through them and see your beloved ride incur even more damage. You can easily find yourself in a loop, racing tough courses to make small gains in the hope that you’ll avoid enough damage so that you can save a bit of cash up. The grind is, most definitely, real.
There’s more trouble to come further down the freeway: roads are generally wide, but when they tighten up you’re often forced along a single lane. The AI is capricious enough to swerve directly into your car on a random basis, scuppering your run. This hit-and-run is a big deal on turns and sharp bends, as there’s no analogue control. You have to do that tap-tap-tap steering method of course correction we put up with in the pre-Dualshock era. On a digital pad, holding in the direction of the corner is too much, letting go is not enough. You’re continually hoping you get lucky enough to avoid your bonnet smashing into your opponent each time you’re forced to let the wheel straighten.
The courses themselves are pleasing; a nice combination of sprite work backgrounds and polygonal tracks imitates the look of mid-Eighties sprite-scaling, for that full rose-tinted wallop. YMMV when it comes to tolerance, but the classic Eighties style is employed with enough zest that criticism feels churlish – you may as well just relax and enjoy the Tequila Sunrise.
Racing’s all about the sensation of speed, and It’s all a bit treacly in the early game. The feeling of inertia lifts a bit later, once your vehicle has gone through several iterations of upgrades, but I’m of a mind that a great racing title begins with a thrill and only escalates from there. The 80s Overdrive experience is very much one of grafting, grinding and earning the higher octane stimulation.
I also was baffled by the fact you can’t change the control mapping. You’re not allowed to boot accelerate and brake onto the triggers, which seems bananas to me. Not that you’d have analogue control anyway: developers Insane Code seem to have forgotten or ignored that the greats had full analogue input in their marvellous cabinets, making this Switch version feel like a bare-bones port of the original 3DS release, rather than a substantial upgrade.
80s Overdrive confounded me, I have to say. It whipped back and forth between exciting and tedious, with a good handling model and sense of progression, enclosed in an attractive sunlit world which was undercut by a punishing economic structure, grinding to improve your car by small increments, and a — quite frankly — rubbish collision system that, in the absence of nuanced analogue steering, can turn a first place triumph into a cash-sucking defeat faster than you can say ‘Blue Shell’.
Admittedly there’s fun to be had in-amongst the frustration, but there are acres of quality 80s titles to hit first. They’ll satisfy that retro itch long before you’d need to burn rubber on this particular toll road.