chris johnson

Replay Racer: The Joy of Child’s Play

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.

Advertisements

A Pointless Review: The Plan

by Jed Pressgrove

The Plan is a very short free game from Krillbite Studio, but you don’t even have to play it. Just read the first sentence on its Steam page: “A fly ascends to the skies, pondering the pointlessness of its brief existence.”

Rarely do you see such truth in marketing. The Plan is a giant set-up from the first time you lay eyes on its description and the praise from Giant Bomb, Eurogamer, and others. “Oh, it’s free,” someone will say. Yeah, have you ever played a good free game like Will You Ever Return? 2 or Hydorah? Pretty graphics, rousing classical music, and the lack of a price don’t make a good game — good ideas and good design do.

The Plan has two ideas, and neither idea is as profound as the marketing says. The first idea is something the game mistakes for existentialism: a fly flying higher and higher to certain death. The first thing you might consider is that a fly’s life doesn’t have to be as boring as it is portrayed in The Plan. A fight with a spider web is the only stirring moment in the entire game; how about a fly swatter or newspaper coming at you as you continuously try to meddle on human skin? Instead, it seems the fly’s pointless flight should inspire you to examine your own, presumably pointless, existence. (Hell, reading the “Fly” wikipedia page is more enlightening than this game’s sorry ascent.) Moreover, moving up and up begs comparisons to last year’s Castles in the Sky, a flawed game but far more fascinating than the nonsense of The Plan.

The game’s other idea seems novel at first, but it’s even more pointless than the ascent: at the end of the game, you’re prompted to type something. Anything. So I typed “What’s the point?” The game then showed me a screen of stars. As I hovered over the stars with my mouse, I got to read the messages other players had typed upon finishing The Plan. The majority of the responses amounted to quotes like the following:

“the plan”

“lol”

“[insert player’s first name]”

“wow”

“fuck”

“Thanks”

Why would anyone want to read this? And why limit me to only a few dozen stars? (And yes, I did look for the words that I typed — I suppose that points to the “Read our own garbage” routine that social media have helped foster.)

I don’t care what a well-meaning nihilist might claim: existence can have meaning, often through interaction with others. As such, I recommend playing Chris Johnson’s Moirai over The Plan. Like The Plan, Moirai prompts the player to type at the end, but Moirai’s usage of this idea reveals the consequences of language and violence. That is far more profound than anything you’ll experience or read in The Plan.