by Jed Pressgrove
The racing game comes in multiple forms that can carry very different types of significance. Zolani Stewart draws the helpful distinction of racing games that focus on “stylizing and depicting the experience of driving” vs. racing games that emphasize “competitive systems.” Chris Johnson’s Replay Racer manages to do both of these things while evoking the simple times of childhood.
In depicting the experience of racing, Replay Racer doesn’t attempt to dazzle us with visuals. Stewart’s analysis of racing games discusses visual beauty in Wave Race 64, both in terms of camera pans and art design. In another recent article, Brandon Keogh describes how the latest Mario Kart has an unparalleled sense of place (within the franchise) with innumerable “little [visual] details.” Replay Racer clearly can’t compete with such visuals, but more importantly, Replay Racer has a different focus than presentation and place. Its clean, tiny look is reminiscent of a race car toy set that complements the game’s sensual, nostalgic anchor: the music.
With only a single music track, Replay Racer urges you to keep going. Composed by John Oestmann, the tune almost immediately makes Replay Racer into part of a fond memory, subliminally conveying the bliss of childhood. A sense of wonder and adventure allows the music to transcend what’s going on in the game, much like a child’s imagination that transcends the limitations of toys and environments. The neverending quality of Oestmann’s composition encourages you to continue what Stewart affectionately calls a “revolving cycle.”
Of course, the top-down perspective of Replay Racer makes for a different kind of revolving cycle than what you’ll find in Hang-On, Wave Race 64, and the Mario Kart series. Those latter games create more compelling settings, but the old-school perspective in Replay Racer is the best fit for Chris Johnson’s gameplay innovation. The competitive system of Replay Racer revolves around the idea of the time trial mode in Mario Kart: beating your best time on a given track, which can then be compared to other people’s best times. But unlike Mario Kart’s time trial, you’re not racing against the “ghost” of your best time on a track. Every lap you complete represents the pathway of a new physical threat for the next lap(s). By the sixth and final lap of a track, you are making your way around five cars that are taking the exact paths that you took in the previous five laps. The top-down perspective gives you better vision for the resulting bumper car dynamics, though “bumper car” isn’t quite accurate — you can’t alter the paths of the cars in your way. Essentially, you create a juggernaut with each lap.
You’re not just racing around these physical manifestations of your former laps, though. There’s also a timer involved, and the only way you can increase the seconds is by finishing a lap. Thus, getting the best time on a track in Replay Racer requires far more strategic thought than a run-of-the-mill time trial exercise. You have to complete each lap with the knowledge that your position during any part of a lap can slow you down on a subsequent lap and put you in danger of running out of time and having to start back at the first lap.
Of course, you could try to improvise every lap, but when your reflexes and intuition fail, you become at risk of running out of time. The game is challenging enough when you think ahead. Not only do you have to try to remember how you raced each lap, but you have to deal with the fact that the track width can barely contain five cars, much less the six cars during the final and most crucial lap. The lack of space might lead you to little shortcuts in the grass that can work in your favor. There are fewer things more satisfying in a race than being rewarded for going off the main track (I very fondly remember discovering shortcuts in the first Mario Kart). Although having a plan is important in Replay Racer, the improvisational moments within your plan exemplify what Stewart calls the “intense and intimate precision” that characterizes the joy of racing.
It’s important to recognize Replay Racer isn’t a gimmick. Chris Johnson has devised a fresh single-player race where every car is generated by you. This level of player control allows Replay Racer to be closer to the experience of playing with toy race cars. Sure, trying to beat all the top times on Game Jolt’s leaderboard is fun, but Replay Racer does more than scratch a competitive itch. It uplifts in a way that Nintendo’s well-milked Mario Kart franchise no longer can.