Review: Driift Mania (WiiWare)

Super Sprint and Super Off-Road had a baby and it's soooo cute!

If you were a gamer in the mid-late 80s you'll probably remember a couple of arcade games called Super Sprint and Ivan "Ironman" Stewart's Super Off-Road, both of which gave 1-3 players the chance to compete in a series of races against human or computer-controlled opponents seen from a 3rd-person view, resembling a sophisticated slot car racing game. Konami's latest WiiWare release, Driift Mania, is in many ways a marriage of these two games, but goes beyond the classics by providing a large variety of vehicles, tracks and play modes to deliver a fun multiplayer arcade experience on Wii.

Driift Mania uses a zoomed-out 3D view of the track in the same style as Super Sprint and many tracks feature challenging surface conditions like sand, mud, snow and ice, which you would have found in Super Off-Road. The single player Championship mode is focused on trying to come in first place in each of five cup competitions covering all the available tracks: City, Hills, Oasis, Snow and World. You get to choose the type of car and the cup, then race through all the tracks associated with that cup against five other cars, with points being totalled after the completion of each round. You can get silver and bronze medals for coming in second and third place, respectively, but only the gold will unlock cars, tracks or bonus game modes. The game is pretty unforgiving and feels much like an arcade game with challenging AI players that are hard to overtake once they're in the lead. The difficulty of the game is down to the type of car you pick: there's Small cars that are light and have better handling, Medium cars which have better speed, Heavy cars that grip the road better and then Special cars that, well - we'll get to them in a bit.

Championship may not sound that great, but the fact is that this is a multi-player game. The Operations Guide states that up-front and the biggest option in the main menu is Multiplayer. But hang on a minute singletons, because it so happens that you can play three of the multi-player modes with computer AI to take over the other slots in the race! This is quite fortunate because Multiplayer mode is where all the fun is. You can select which classes of cars are available for other players to choose from, which tracks are on offer and create your own multi-round tournament. Given you can unlock the same items simply by completing individual races in Multiplayer mode as you can in Championship mode, it's likely that all your play time will be in Multiplayer mode whether you're actually playing with friends or not.

The game plays like an old 8- or 16-bit game, but with better visual fidelity and special effects. Player 1 uses the Remote on its side NES-style with left and right on the D-pad steering, 1 button as brake/reverse and 2 button as accelerator. That's it: no motions or other controls. The game itself is also quite basic: you versus 7 other cars and road conditions. The power-ups from Super Sprint are nowhere to be seen and there are no upgrades, and the Options consist of music and sfx sound levels. Driift Mania makes up for the basic game with some great attention to detail, good controls and fun game modes.

The visuals have an attractive cel-shaded look which makes the game feel like you're playing with the cars from a wooden toy train set. Many tracks offer bits of set dressing like colourful San Francisco-style victorian flats in a City course or a tent with carpets laid outside in at an Oasis one. Cars driving through dirt and sand cause dust clouds to pop-up when they turn or drift around corners and get larger and smaller in relation to the fixed camera as they go up and down hills. All the vehicles have a decent amount of detail, and there's a huge variety on offer from sub compacts to muscle cars, Formula One racers and more exotic vehicles. There's also a cop car, but that's not what you want to race 8 laps around a dirt track, is it? Nah, try a turbo-prop-driven hovercraft, steam locomotive or a golf cart. Not to your taste? Then surely a double-decker bus, fire engine, farm tractor (nothing can drift like a tractor - NOTHING!) or a tank? There are dozens of vehicles to choose from and fifteen tracks to race them on.

Of course it's not much good if the game plays rubbish, but thankfully that's not the case. Drifting is the name of the game, so the controls are tuned up to let you drift to your heart's content. The farm tractor nicely slides around corners just by pressing to the right or left and holding it through the turn - brilliant! With the bizarre mix of vehicles on offer anything can happen. Depending on the vehicle mix the race leaders can change quite rapidly, especially following a pile-up caused by a dragster slamming into a bus at a track intersection. There are usually jumps and shortcuts, but you do need to ensure you cross the checkpoints marked by dashed lines in order to have your lap counted. You'll get a total displayed over your car every time you cross the chequered finish line to remind you of how many laps there are left for you to do and a number showing your position in the ranking if you overtake the car(s) in front of you (this is also spelled out with a line at the top and a coloured dot for each player that moves from start to finish). Points for individual races are scored based on each driver's final position and the race doesn't end until the 7th car has crossed the finish line, providing incentive for everyone who didn't come in first to complete the race. The leaders pick up big points, and the car positions in subsequent races are the reverse of the placing in the previous race so come-from-behind victories are always possible over the course of a tournament - don't give up! At the end of the tournament totals are scored for each round and overall rankings displayed. There are humourous labels applied to different players for tournament "achievements," though it's not clear if being called a "Wall Eater" because you hit more walls than anyone else is something to be proud of!

Of course even if you do fall behind you can take some pleasure in simply ramming the other cars (preferably the lead cars lapping you). Hit them hard enough and an oil slick gets dropped which lasts for fifteen seconds and will cause cars hitting it to spin out should they have to make a turn. Cars going through the oil leave increasingly faint tyre tracks, which is yet another nice detail. In addition to the car-produced obstacles there are frequently objects like traffic cones and signs which will slow your car down and can be pushed in order to obstruct other players. It's a game that makes for a great multi-player experience with cars frequently jostling for position and pushing each other off cliffs (this is where the heavy vehicles get their own back). If you like cutthroat competition, this game offers a bit of fun in that regard.

If Custom Championship was all Multiplayer mode consisted of, the game would be a good bit of fun, but even better are the other game modes. There's also a team variant of Championship where the goal is to help your team get the most points. Teams are divided into black and white with coloured circles underneath the cars to indicate which is which. The remaining modes will likely be the most popular given their unconventional structure; all of the following must be unlocked.

In Meteor the goal is not to cross the finish line first, but to simply survive! This is because you need to dodge glowing orange spheres smashing down on the track from above. Meteor strikes start out slowly, but increase in speed and frequency as the race goes on. Impacts are telegraphed by a shadow on the track which gets larger until the space rock itself is visible. Nearby cars will be smashed into black, smoking wreckages that stay on the track and act as obstacles. Every lap cleared scores points; any survivors will get two bonus points on top of that.

The remaining three modes have no AI functionality and therefore are probably only going to be fun for larger groups since a one-on-one race doesn't work too well even without the special conditions present in these games. In Radiation one random car is "infected" and the goal is to spread the infection to other cars until all are infected. Whoever holds out the longest without this happening will score the most points, with points also being scored for laps and a bonus for anyone who manages to complete the race untouched. Cold Potato sees a large potato appear on the track. The goal is to touch it and keep it for the longest time possible. Other players can take it from you by touching your car. The car with the potato is indicated by dancing stars and what look like Pringles orbiting their car. The final game mode is called V.I.P. In this game the cars are divided into teams with one random member of each team having a halo of stars indicating their special status. Other team members have the goal of ensuring this car finishes the race first whilst stopping the special car on the other team from doing the same making for a great combination of demolition derby and normal racing.

With up to 8 players you might well wonder how this is supposed to work. The Gamecube controller is not supported; instead extra players can use the Nunchuk or Classic Controller. There's quite a bit of flexibility afforded control for extra players which isn't normally seen in Wii games. After selecting which car classes will be available in Multiplayer mode each player chooses their car with a press of the accelerator. Player one is always the Remote, but player 2 has choices: another Remote, Classic Controller or Nunchuk may be used. This is also true for others, so you could have a four player game with two players using Remotes, one Nunchuk and one CC - it's a brilliant idea to allow people who might not have four Remotes to still get a good multiplayer game going with a mix of peripherals (though leaving out the Gamecube controllers seems a bit strange given the other choices). Oddly enough the Nunchuk and Classic Controller offer a better experience than the Remote if only because the profile and size of the D-pad on the Remote lends itself more to "Nintendo Thumb" after a long play session. The plug coming out of the side of the Remote with a player using an attachment isn't a problem since the curved cord actually provides a cushion against the palm of the hand resting against it.

All the nice detail and options in the game leaves a bunch of questions though. Why is the single-player mode so bare bones? Given the lack of features, why include it at all when you can have a custom tournament playing a greater number of tracks with more cars? Adding a "career" aspect with upgrades or customisability would have added to the appeal; as it stands it's likely to be skipped by everyone except people that like virtual trophies.

As fun as the Multiplayer mode is, why are only three of the games playable by one or two players? Could the AI not have been tweaked to make the other three modes workable with computer-controlled cars? The game is at its best with a full track and all the potential madness that follows. With anything less than four cars none of these are likely to be as much fun; V.I.P. is unlikely to be entertaining with less than six (let's not bother mentioning WiFi - to be fair Nintendo's infrastructure might not have made it possible in an arcade-style game). And with all the control choices for additional players, why not any choice for player one? Would it have been so difficult to allow player one to use a peripheral? And why hard-code the car colours? The only way a player can control the purple car is if you want to hook up four Remotes and then select the peripheral attached to the fourth Remote! Finally, how about button remapping? If you're using Remotes it's fine to have that limitation (though I'm sure left-handed players might have liked the ability to hold the Remote with the D-pad on the right), but the Nunchuk uses C for accelerate rather than the larger (and more comfortable to grip) Z button which makes little sense; users of the Classic Controller are stuck with A and B on a controller festooned with buttons! A little more choice would have been nice in all of these cases and made the game even better. Considering how simple some of these things would have been to include they're glaring in their omission.

Conclusion

At its core Driift Mania is a nice slice of nostalgia and a racing game that's all about fun. A higher level of customisability and a more relevant single-player mode would have been nice, but as it stands solo players still have a great offering in three multiplayer modes they can enjoy on their own. Where the game shines is as a party game where a large group can mix it up in a way that was never really possible in the arcade (though in 1977 Atari did have an 8-player version of Sprint) using a variety of controller combinations. For 800 points it's a multiplayer experience that's hard to beat!