Slipstream: The Road to ’80s Arcade Racing Nirvana

OutRun is consistently cited as one of the best, most influential arcade games of all time, so it’s surprising Sega hasn’t done more with it over the years.

And speaking more broadly, I’ve seen enough people bemoaning the lack of arcade-style racing games in today’s landscape that it’s even more surprising more developers haven’t attempted to capitalise on this apparent hunger for old-school, no-frills racing.

It was with this in mind that, on January 16 2016, when my friend Chris (of MoeGamer Podcast fame) noted that “here’s a Kickstarter worth $5“, I didn’t hesitate to fling the aforementioned five bucks in the direction of Slipstream, a humble project from solo Brazilian developer Sandro Luiz de Paula, aka ansdor — someone who seemingly wanted nothing more than to make a new OutRun.

Now, over two years later, the finished product is finally here. It’s undergone a few changes from its original design brief: it’s rather later than intended due to a variety of technical and personal difficulties ansdor had along the way; there are still a few features left to add including split-screen local multiplayer and a track editor (the latter of which replaced the originally proposed story mode); but it’s here. And it’s rather lovely.

The first thing to stress before we go any further is that Slipstream is not just a simple OutRun clone, despite drawing a heavy degree of inspiration from Sega’s classic. This isn’t a criticism, however, as it leaves Slipstream in a position where it can define itself as something unique while still paying homage to the classics that are the reason it even exists at all.

In actuality, Slipstream exists as an interesting melting pot of ideas drawn from both Eastern and Western arcade racers of the late ’80s and early ’90s — with a few more modern touches here and there. At first glance, the most obvious frame of reference would definitely appear to be the aforementioned OutRun — and the Japanese influences even extend to the game’s title being displayed in katakana on the title screen — but along the way the game also takes ideas from a variety of other similar but subtly different games, including Gremlin Graphics’ classic Lotus Turbo Challenge series, their Kemco-published spiritual successors in the Top Gear series, Namco’s Ridge Racer and even a bit of the “official” OutRun sequels OutRun 2 and OutRun 2006: Coast 2 Coast.

Slipstream deliberately makes use of the old-school “vanishing point” style of racing: the race unfolds from an exterior third-person view in which your car moves from side to side on a twisting, undulating road rather than really “turning” as such. Much like its spiritual predecessors, it makes use of scaling sprites for both the trackside scenery and the cars on the road; its main nod to modernity in this regard is the fact that the road itself is a polygonal construction rather than a clever, low-tech effect using converging lines.

The practical effect of this more modern approach to the basic geometry of each track is that you can see things coming from a much greater distance away than you could in the original games of this type. It’s a pleasing effect, though on the default graphical settings on higher resolution displays, the pin-sharp polygonal road stands out immensely against the deliberately pixelated spritework for everything else. Thankfully, there are a variety of graphical filters available to apply to the game, ranging from a simple “pixel” filter that pixelates the road to the same degree as the roadside scenery and scrolling 2D backdrop, to a somewhat gimmicky but reasonably convincing CRT simulation and even an “NTSC” mode that washes out the colours and makes everything a tiny bit blurrier to simulate playing on an older 60Hz TV with a somewhat more limited colour range.

It looks great and moves along at a fair old clip, comfortably maintaining 60fps without any skips or judders. There is also an optional 30fps mode which, oddly enough, “feels” somewhat more authentic in terms of emulating retro hardware — particularly home consoles, which inevitably lacked the specialist capabilities of arcade machines. I would assume it’s primarily intended to help the game perform on lower-end hardware — the aim for the project was always to get it running even on laptops without dedicated graphics hardware — but it’s interesting that in some ways it provides another stylistic choice for the player to use as they see fit.

The basic driving mechanics are simplistic, as you would expect from a game attempting to replicate the experience of late ’80s/early ’90s arcade racers, but some variety is provided through a selection of different cars, each of which have their own top speed, acceleration and handling characteristics. The game also incorporates the drifting and slipstream mechanics from OutRun 2 and Coast 2 Coast, meaning you can get a significant speed boost from tailing an opponent for a brief period, and you can slide around tight corners by just tapping the brake before slamming the gas back down again.

One notable difference between Slipstream and OutRun — and one way it is quite similar to Western takes on the genre such as the aforementioned Lotus Turbo Challenge and its ilk — is how crashes are handled. In the original OutRun, clipping a piece of trackside scenery would usually send you into a spectacular crash, wasting a lot of time in the process. Here, you can still flip and spin your car, but doing so doesn’t bring you to a standstill for a few seconds. In fact, if you just clip the roadside scenery gently, you sort of “bounce” off it, losing a bit of speed in the process, but without fully crashing and grinding to a halt. It can be a bit fiddly to extricate yourself from said scenery — particularly if you’re going around a corner at the time — as it is a lot more densely packed than in the original takes on the genre, but generally speaking a well-timed “drift” of sorts will get you back on track without too much difficulty.

Structurally, you have a few ways to play. Most people will likely initially gravitate towards the arcade mode, which works the same way as classic OutRun: you start on one stage, and at the end of each you reach a fork in the road to choose between two subsequent stages with different scenery. There are five different finish lines and a variety of different routes to take along the way, with different stages providing different degrees of difficulty through track layout, traffic density and even environmental conditions in some cases.

Arcade mode is primarily a race against the clock, though each stage does have a designated “rival” character drawn from a pool of possibilities; these all make a pithy comment of some description when they first appear, and beating them to the fork in the road generally means you’re on track to complete the course in time. The more rivals you beat along the way, the higher your score will be at the game’s conclusion, too.

The rivals themselves have had an attempt to inject them with a bit of personality through custom portraits and dialogue, though the latter has a tendency to fall a bit flat, particularly when it is attempting to be humorous or make use of popular cultural references. It does provide a bit of variety to repeated playthroughs, however — and if it does bother you it can be turned off.

Outside of the arcade mode, you also have the option for a quick race or one of three grand prix tournaments. In both these cases, the countdown timer is absent and you are instead tasked with racing a pack of other cars to get as far ahead as possible by the time you complete a set number of laps. Random traffic is also absent in these modes, so you can concentrate on driving as fast as possible rather than having to weave your way around inconveniently placed Sunday drivers.

An interesting nod to the conventions of old-school arcade racers in these modes is the fact that it is seemingly impossible to get a good start. Even if you begin a race in pole position, the entire pack will, in most cases, immediately scream past you and conveniently, almost immediately, spread themselves out at roughly equal intervals over the course of the subsequent five laps. This is an approach straight out of Ridge Racer and, while very artificial-seeming, both keeps things challenging and is true to the roots of the genre.

The main difference between the quick race and grand prix modes is the fact that in the latter you take on a series of five races rather than just one — and between races, you can use prize money to upgrade the three vital statistics of your car. In this way, you can customise any of the cars to handle the way you want them to rather than simply using their default characteristics as in arcade mode and quick race. This is a nice way of allowing players to try out a car they like the look of but perhaps don’t get along with driving in the other modes.

One area that fans of the old arcade racers may have somewhat mixed feelings about is Stefan Moser’s soundtrack. Adopting a neon synthpop/jazz fusion feel — think the soundtrack to cult ’80s homage movie Turbo Kid with a touch of Hotline Miami — there’s an oddly melancholy, nostalgic feel to it that is certainly a far cry from the highly melodic, energetic Latin-inspired beats of OutRun. Again, this isn’t necessarily a bad thing and helps Slipstream carve out its own niche rather than being a simple copycat clone, but it is a bit of an acquired taste, particularly if you were expecting a new take on Magical Sound Shower or similar.

There is an immensely satisfying “cassette clunking” sound effect between music tracks, however, and you can also switch music from the pause menu (which also features a wonderful “paused VHS cassette” graphical effect). It might have perhaps been nice to have the option for custom music (or at least make it a bit easier to mod — all the game assets are compressed into a single file as it stands), but there’s a decently varied selection provided with the game, at least, so you’ll probably find at least one track you get along with.

On the whole, there’s not a lot bad I can say about Slipstream. It’s a Kickstarter project that, while a little later than intended to come to fruition — and with more content still to come — very much fulfils its original campaign promises. Sure, I could nitpick and say things like the lack of customisable controls is a bit of a pain — particularly if you’re using a non-Xbox controller, since all the on-screen button prompts assume you have an Xbox One pad — but this is hardly a game-breaker, particularly as Steam’s built-in button remapper makes fixing this issue a breeze.

What we have here is an honest-to-goodness homage to the classic racers of the late ’80s and early ’90s that successfully evokes feelings of nostalgia while ensuring it maintains its own sense of identity. It’s a Kickstarter project I’m proud to have backed, and delighted to see finally reach the finish line, no pun intended.

In other words, if you have a hankerin’ for some old-school racing action, you could do far worse than take Slipstream out for a spin.

More about Slipstream

If I had not made this abundantly clear already, I backed Slipstream on Kickstarter to the tune of $5.

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