Many people assumed that the advent of the true 3D polygonal racer spelled the death of the traditional, “vanishing point” racer.
After all, why would you ever want to play a technologically limited game where you simply slide from side to side on a track without actually turning when you can spin your car around, go the wrong way and attempt to cause as many head-on collisions as possible? Or race in “true 3D” too, I suppose.
Well… you know… because it’s fun. And thankfully a number of developers in recent years have remembered that. And so we’ve ended up with loving homages to the past such as the Kickstarter-funded Slipstream, and the subject of today’s article: Horizon Chase Turbo. Let’s take a look.
Horizon Chase Turbo is the work of a Brazilian studio named Aquiris, a company that got their start developing virtual reality and “advergames” in 2007. They’ve had a few success stories over the years, including the free-to-play Looney Tunes: World of Mayhem on mobile as well as a number of licensed Cartoon Network titles, but Horizon Chase has always been one of their most fondly regarded titles ever since it made its first appearance on mobile platforms.
The existence of Horizon Chase, like Slipstream, stems from the popularity of the SNES game Top Gear in Brazil. Writing on Kotaku’s reader-run community Talk Amongst Yourselves in 2019, contributor Nior attributed this popularity primarily to the concept of “locadoras”, establishments where you could show up, pay a fee and have the opportunity to play whatever video games you wanted for an amount of time that corresponded to how much you paid.
Attending a locadora was as much a social occasion as it was an opportunity to try out some of the latest and greatest (and not so greatest) games, and as such multiplayer games became quite the focus for young Brazilian gaming enthusiasts to enjoy. Since Top Gear was a relatively early release for the SNES that emphasised split-screen multiplayer, it became a very popular title for people to play at the locadoras. Couple this with the fact that in 1992, the year of Top Gear’s release, Brazilian Formula 1 driver Ayrton Senna was at the height of his popularity on home soil, you can perhaps understand why Brazil’s youth were keen to live out their own racing fantasies.
And now, many years later, we see Brazilian developers keen to pay tribute to this game that defined many a youth. Aquiris’ attempt with Horizon Chase Turbo is probably the most authentic modern homage to Top Gear there has ever been — right down to recruiting the original composer Barry Leitch to reimagine some of his classic tracks for the new game.
Horizon Chase Turbo keeps things deliberately simple in terms of gameplay. You can steer left and right, plus you have an accelerator and a brake (but only big wussy wusspants use that) and a button that allows you to use one of your three nitrous boosts. And that’s it. The challenge comes from the sheer speed of the experience, coupled with over a hundred delightfully devious tracks that will challenge you in a variety of ways.
There are several ways to play Horizon Chase Turbo, all of which can be enjoyed either solo or in split-screen multiplayer for up to four people. The first of these is the World Tour mode, which brings you through a variety of different locations, each of which contains several races and an opportunity to upgrade all your cars. The game has also been updated a couple of times with DLC packs for this mode, providing new tracks and challenges to take on.
World Tour races mostly operate in the same way: you start at the back of a pack of 20 cars and must make your way to the front within a limited number of laps — usually 3, but shorter tracks will bump this up to 4 or 5. You’re also challenged to collect a number of sparkling blue coins along the way; the exact number of these varies from track to track, but it’s only by nabbing all of them by the end of the race that you’ll attain the “Super Trophy” and the maximum number of progression points. Said points are used to unlock subsequent events.
The coins add a really interesting twist on the basic racing gameplay. For a lot of people, it’s natural to play a vanishing point racer in a very “reactive” sort of way; quickly responding to the corners as they appear on screen and not bothering to actually learn the tracks. But the existence of the coins forces you to actually familiarise yourself with and memorise the tracks in Horizon Chase Turbo, otherwise those Super Trophies will remain out of reach. And who doesn’t want a Super Trophy?
Of course, the coin challenges are completely optional — all you need to do is actually win the race — but taking on this additional objective allows you to make faster progress, plus it adds some fun depth to the basic gameplay. And after you’ve achieved one Super Trophy, it’s hard not to want to get all the others!
Outside of the World Tour, you can also play in Tournament mode. In this mode, you play through a predefined sequence of tracks, earning tournament points according to your position at the end of each race. Win the tournament and… well, you win.
Tournament races also feature coins, but here they don’t provide points. Instead, collecting all the coins on a particular track gives you an immediate free nitrous boost; given the awkward placement of some of the coins, this is not always as convenient as you might think, but again it provides some interesting depth to the gameplay besides simply trying to get to the front of the pack.
Completing either the World Tour or Tournament modes unlocks Endurance mode, in which you must take on 12, 36 or 109 randomly selected races in succession and place in 5th or better in each. This also operates as a tournament, and in order to “win”, you’ll need to place first overall. Not for the faint-hearted!
Finally, the Playground mode operates in online “seasons”, and presents all players with five races to take on, each with particular conditions. These might involve using a specific car or set of upgrades, or might provide twists on existing tracks by presenting mirrored versions or alternative weather conditions. This is a good way to keep the game fresh even after completing all of its base content — though to be honest, all the modes are highly replayable thanks to online leaderboards, downloadable ghosts and the wide variety of cars in which you can race.
Oh yes, the cars; they’re a real highlight in this. Much like Top Gear’s four vehicles were all clearly modelled on real-life cars without actually infringing any copyrights, so too are Horizon Chase Turbo’s. And there’s a really delightful mix, featuring, among other things, homages to a battered old Volkswagen Beetle and the open-top Ferrari F40 from Turbo OutRun — with the girl driving, just to provide a fun twist.
Each of the cars handles markedly differently from one another, but they also have their own “personality” about them. In the original Top Gear, you’d occasionally see speech bubbles pop out of your car when you crashed or used a nitro; the same is true in Horizon Chase Turbo, but they’re unique to each vehicle, providing implications as to who is driving and injecting some welcome humour into a genre of game that can often feel a bit “dry”.
The Beetle-esque Ladybug, for example, is clearly driven by an elderly person hoping to recapture their glory days, while the Mercedes-like is driven by someone who thinks they are a lot cooler than they actually are — they flip-flop back and forth between quoting Daft Punk and wondering why they’re so alone. Probably because you drive like a bellend, good sir.
The whole experience is wrapped in some absolutely beautiful presentation that eschews the pixel-art look in favour of some slick, low-poly visuals that move along at a fair old clip. And there are some really interesting stylistic choices that really bring to mind the classic vanishing point racers of yore, too; perhaps the most interesting of these is the fact that the scaling of the objects out of the background is made to look deliberately “wrong”.
Essentially, what happens is that rather than objects scaling towards you at a realistic rate, they actually “grow” and stretch out of the far horizon before coming towards you. When you first notice this, it’ll look slightly wrong, but also very authentic to the 16-bit racers Horizon Chase Turbo pays homage to. In particular, it’s strongly reminiscent of how the scaling sprites in OutRun never quite looked “right”; it’s a really nice, subtle touch that further adds to the game’s authenticity.
And, of course, there’s Barry Leitch’s soundtrack, which is absolutely masterful. Leitch has remixed a number of his classic Top Gear tracks for Horizon Chase Turbo — including one in particular that is barely changed from its SNES original, which will provoke squeals of delight when you first hear it if you’re anything like me — and composed a number of original pieces.
While obviously recorded using modern technology and techniques, the tracks are kept deliberately “retro” in terms of style; they sound like tracks from a game from the early ’90s would have done if the technology was up to that many instruments playing at that high a quality. Lots of blaring synths, lots of twiddly arpeggios, lots of howling synthesised guitars. Their relentless, dramatic energy complements the speedy on-screen action perfectly, and they’re just one of many reasons that once you start playing Horizon Chase Turbo, it’s hard to let go and stop.
Horizon Chase Turbo is proof that the vanishing point racer still has a place in the modern world. It’s not a replacement for the 3D racer by any means — but it also proves that the 3D racer isn’t a replacement for the vanishing point racer, either. The two can happily coexist and provide their own unique twist on high-speed driving, each having their own distinct appeal elements and audiences.
It’s a thrilling, rollercoaster ride around the world — and a game I keep coming back to time and time again. You’ve done Top Gear proud, Aquiris; I doff my cap to you.
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