Family Slot Car Racing Review
Posted by Sean Aaron
Slot car racing fun for the whole family...or is it?
Arc System Works is clearly enjoying some success with the "Family" series of games because they just keep on putting them out. Considering what real life slot-car racing is all about a video game version could offer some improvements, so is it possible that this game is worthwhile?
Americans who were children enticed by Tyco adverts in the 70s will likely be familiar with slot car racing as an activity most commonly enjoyed on a tabletop or kitchen/lounge floor. Assembled tracks featured lanes with a central groove and two embedded wires; the titular slot cars possessed pegs that fit the grooves and springy contact plates which rested on the wires, with the controllers connected to a terminal plugged into a household electrical point. Squeezing a spring-actuated trigger controlled the flow of electrons to the car motors via the track, with the promise of high speed thrills. There was excitement to be had watching the little cars race around the track; of course if you gave the cars too much juice their little electric motors caused them to fly right off it! Sadly despite a wide range of travel, the controller often provided a range of movement from creep to rocket with little in-between. Even with updates adding track features like jumps and half-twists, the slot-car racing set could be an annual gift due to inevitable breakage resulting from cars flying off the track or being destroyed by children getting frustrated at having to put them back on it every five seconds.
Family Slot Car Racing emulates the more modern hobbyist version of the classic pastime, featuring a larger scale (the tracks can fill virtual table tennis courts) than what many will remember playing with as children. The controls in the video game version are as simple as the real thing: press A to make your car go; release it to slow down. There's also an alternative control method using the Nunchuk control stick, though disappointingly there is no analogue input which results in less control over the speed of the cars than an actual plastic slot car set! Add this to the fact that the Nunchuk cannot be used by a second player and it's not clear why this is even included as an alternate control scheme.
Despite the limited speed control, the game actually plays rather well since the cars take a decent amount of time to slow down. Driving around the tracks consists of holding the button or pressing the stick until hitting bends marked out with red and white curb striping, which indicates when you should release the button for a second or risk flying off the track - also influenced by the grip rating and speed of your car. If you do go off the track your character (as with other games in the series Mommy, Daddy, Billy and Sarah are on offer) will make an exclamation in Japanese and the car appears back on the track ready to get going again. The red and white curves are the only places where your car can go off the track and some of the more basic courses lack these completely, which is perfect for learners. You have an initial choice of four cars with a further eight to unlock, and each car comes in three fashionable colours. Like modern slot cars they are rather detailed race cars and have fanciful names like Shark, Raptor and Gale. Each car has a rating for acceleration, speed and grip with various combinations of ratings indicated by a number between 1-5.
Tracks are all pretty ordinary roundabouts and overpasses with no unusual features like jumps or loop-de-loops to be found. You can choose to race 3, 5, 7 or 10 laps at any given track against the CPU or a person. You can unlock up to nine tracks and then the ability to race them in the opposite direction (cheekily these are numbered as separate tracks though the only thing that's different is the direction the cars are facing). There are also six bonus tracks which play like slot car roulette: the small tracks consist of a single loop divided into numbered sections. Accelerate your car to top speed and then release the button: where your car stops determines the number of points you get, and you get three tries to accumulate a score that matches or exceeds the goal for the track. Beating the goal score the first time unlocks a new car; further plays are just to better your score.
There is a bit of strategy where a second button comes into play if you fall behind during a race. Being overtaken for an extended period of time causes your Turbo meter to build up; if you really fall behind it fills quite rapidly. Holding A and pressing B will cause you to turbo boost until the metre runs out without any possibility of flying off the tracks. It helps keep the game a bit exciting even if you're chronically off the rails; going off the track can be a strategic decision when cars with different top speeds are competing. Given that you could buy real sets featuring more than two cars in the 70s and modern tracks have more than four, it's a bit disappointing (and decidedly un-family-like) that single and multi-player races only feature two cars.
The single player game against the CPU can offer some challenge in the final and reverse tracks since the computer uses the fastest car which doesn't get unlocked until the 8th or 9th reverse track. Once you unlock this car you have to make an effort to lose the game, though even this can be a challenge since falling behind will result in the CPU car stopping (accompanied by audio of the CPU character suggesting some unknown foul-up on their part); giving you a chance to catch up or overtake. You can also play the single player Challenge Mode where you're trying to beat the high score; given racing against a CPU car results in your time being recorded there doesn't seem to be much point in this mode. Score attacking isn't terribly rewarding anyway because the only thing recorded along with your time is the car used; there's no way to tell who got what time on a track in a multi-player household.
In addition to overcoming the possible indifference of other players to the slot car racing concept, multi-player fan will have to contend with a few in-game issues. A vertical split-screen is used for some reason which gets pretty distracting and, unless you're being lapped, is completely unnecessary. This brings us to the camera. There are two choices: "Fixed" is the default camera mode. Despite thinking a "fixed" position implies being stationary, you'll find in Family Slot Car racing the camera maintains a 3/4 view, but tracks the cars. The "Dynamic" option places the camera overhead and follows the car so it stays in the centre of the screen. Since we're racing slot cars, how about a view of the whole track? It works in Driift Mania where you're actually steering the cars; in this game you're playing with one button! Given the lack of track detail (without the visual clues provided by the track surroundings you wouldn't even know you were racing slot cars) it's not clear why the camera moves about to track the cars at all except in some vain attempt to inject some excitement into the game.
Against a human opponent the game can offer a bit of fun - providing you both like slot car racing. The prospect of a racing game consisting of holding a button down isn't likely to appeal to a broad audience, which is why real slot car racing is only a hobbyist pursuit in America today. Despite the possibilities of the video game format, Family Slot Car Racing's adherence to the limitations of real slot car racing ensures that the audience for this game will be no different; the lack of customisability of cars and tracks means even the hobbyist won't find too much enticing here.
Family Slot Car Racing is certainly an accessible racing game, but the game is so faithful to the real slot car racing experience that it's unlikely anyone who doesn't already like slot car racing will find it interesting for more than a few plays. Besides the bare-bones presentation, having a "Family" game without the ability to play with four players just seems wrong. The end result feels like a quickly produced game that fails to realise the full potential of its underlying concept.