It happens, occasionally. A game - usually a small one - sneaks up on me and without any prior warning provides me with an absolute ton of fun that I didn't know was coming. These games always seem to eschew hype, and instead land in my lap through that far more valuable and reliable source of information: word of mouth. Hotshot Racing landed in my lap following a comment made by a mate in a Discord chat. "This looks like fun," he said. The trailer he posted led me to reach the same conclusion. A quick google then revealed that it was landing on Gamepass on launch day. I duly marked the calendar, and waited.
Hotshot Racing is a love letter to the high speed, drifting, low polygon racing arcade games of the mid-late 90's. If you've ever stood in an arcade admiring a Ridge Racer or Virtua Racing machine, shoes stuck to the carpet and the cigarette smoke of the teenagers hanging around the battered Street Fighter 2 cabinet in the corner tickling the back of your throat, it's a game you need to check out. It's a boost-driven nostalgia trip that drifts around the corners of your rose tinted glasses with squealing tyres. And it's an absolute shitload of fun. It's the game that those 90's arcade cabinets would have wanted to grow up to be.
Visually, it's a lot prettier than it looks in the screenshots. True, it's low poly count - but that's more an artistic decision than a technical one. It moves along at a locked 60fps that feels absolutely blistering, and if you can divert your eyes from the track for a moment (often an extremely risky move...) you'll see that there's as much going on in the background as there is in the foreground. One track takes you through an aquarium, which features dolphins leaping over the track. Another has ferris wheels and rollercoasters in the background - and for those among us who are a combination of eagle-eyed and 80's nostalgic, trucks painted in the livery of Optimus Prime and the A-Team van. The loving nods to the 80's and 90's carry on through the music, and through the caricature characters you can choose from.
Those characters and their vehicles are where the game finds a lot of its racing variety. Each character allows you to choose from four distinct vehicles, each one skirting recognisability to the point of probably being mere inches away from a potential licencing issue. They all handle differently - some being quick off the mark, some having high top speeds, and some of them being built for drifting. Hotshot Racing takes drifting as seriously as Mario Kart does (it also features a fairly similar race starting boost mechanic) - you'll soon learn that drifting builds up boost power that you can unleash for a dizzying turn of straight line speed that will leave most opponents eating your dust. If you're not spending most of your time sideways with all four tyres screaming out in a futile search for grip, you're kind of doing it wrong.
It's not only the straight up arcade style checkpoint races that serve up the fun here, though - the game comes with two other modes. Cops & Robbers starts some racers as cops and some as robbers. As a cop, you need to ram the robbers until their health bar hits zero - at which point they turn into a cop, making it a kind of last-man-standing-battle-royale... on wheels. As a robber, your objective is simple - survive and cross the finish line. It's good fun with bots, but if you can drag seven of your mates online and into the race with you, it's hilarious fun. The last mode it offers is a homage to the movie "Speed" - the aptly named Don't Explode. In this mode, your car has a health bar again - and impacts with other cars or parts of the track diminish it. Fast. Add in to that a speed limiter that you must exceed on each lap that gets faster each time you pass the finish line, and you've a recipe for carnage. Hit too many things, and bang. Drive too slowly for too long, and bang. You have to work pretty hard not to explode - and it's seriously frantic entertainment.
In case you can't tell, I really enjoyed Hotshot Racing. It's one of those smaller games that knows exactly what it is, exactly how to deliver on what it wants, and then just gets on an executes. It drives nostalgia for the games it owes its existence too, while simultaneously dragging them up to date. It's brash and it's colourful, and it's gleeful fun - whether you're hopping in for a quick arcade race or settling in for an hours long session with buds. It's the kind of game that you can play simply for the sake of enjoying it - and I hope we'll see more of it.