Franchises like Gran Turismo and Forza may rule the roost these day but whisper the name Out Run or Top Gear into the ear of a seasoned player and they'll gladly forget all of those hyper-real visuals and authentic physics engines and reminisce instead about the good old days when blue skies and sprite-scaled cars were the pinnacle of the racing genre.

Those nostalgic individuals are the target audience for 80's Overdrive, a 2D love-letter to the arcade driving simulations of yesteryear. The objective is simple – finish each race ahead of 9 other opponents – but there are some welcome wrinkles in the template which allow this seemingly straightforward speed-fest to draw you in for much longer than you might expect.

80's Overdrive will certainly strike a chord with fans of coin-op racers from the 16-bit era; the pixel-rich visuals look amazing and the autostereoscopic 3D effect works brilliantly, giving real depth to the fast-moving cars, gloriously undulating hills and plethora of trackside objects. Sprite scaling is smooth and convincing, while the cars which populate each circuit are packed with detail. The controls are precise and responsive – even if it's not true analogue control we're talking about here (you're just as well off using the D-pad) – and even novice drivers will be expertly dodging and weaving in and out of traffic after a few races.

The game's Career Mode is where you will undoubtedly be spending the majority of your time. You purchase a car and then take it out to compete in a range of ranked road races. Each one carries an entry fee, but the cash prize for winning is more than worth the initial outlay, and from time you time you'll get the chance to earn bonus money by collecting items, causing a certain amount of damage to a rival or – most usually of all – finishing dead last. These variables add a little spice to the racing action.

Finishing in the points boosts your global ranking which not only pushes you up the leaderboard but also unlocks other races around the world. The cash you earn can be used to enhance your current vehicle, giving it a faster top speed, better steering and more stability – the last one being especially important as it reduces your recovery time should you get into a bump. It's also possible to equip nitro boost which can be deployed a limited number of times per each race, provided you're hitting your top speed.

A range of cars are available which are based on real-world vehicles. With names like the Testosterando and De Loan you're left in no doubt exactly which famous four-wheeled steeds these are supposed to be imitating, and even those with more ambiguous names are clearly modelled on famous rides from the likes of Ferrari, Porsche and Lamborghini. Buying every car in the game costs a lot of cash and upgrading them all to the maximum is similarly expensive; for a long time we stuck with the cheapest car and simply boosted its performance in every possible area, but the allure of owning a Countach-lookalike proved to be too much and we eventually caved. In-between races you'll also have to replenish your fuel and repair any damage you may have sustained during your previous races.

Progression through the early stages of the Career Mode is relatively easy; should you find yourself in a position where you don't have enough cash to enter a race then you'll endure the ignominy of having to clean your rival's cars using the touch screen, but this doesn't happen often. The easier tracks can be conquered without too much trouble, but later circuits introduce tighter bends and faster opponents, as well as police cars which attempt to ram you off the road when you overtake them. It's here that 80's Overdrive begins to reveal its rather cheap side; rather than give the other racers (some of which are hilariously based on famous '80s icons, it should be noted) smarter AI, the developer simply turns the tables against you. 

Police cars ignore the other drivers and dart in front of you in an attempt to slow you down, which of course means you fall way behind the rest of the group – which is almost always tightly packed together, so you can find yourself going from first to dead last in the blink of an eye, with no chance of regaining the lead. Colliding with trackside scenery often means the contest is effectively over (thankfully you can restart the entire race without any penalty so you don't lose money) and it's not uncommon to see other racers drive clean through traffic – however, for the most part, it should be said that your rivals do slow down and react to oncoming cars, giving you the opportunity to dart ahead. However, to counter this, it's also abundantly clear that they're capable of taking even extreme corners at full speed while you have to either take your foot off the gas or tap the brakes.

Unfair AI is hardly new in this genre – Mario Kart has been pulling this trick for decades – but here it feels especially unfair, particularly on the later races. Upgrading your car is essential for success in the latter stages of the Career Mode, and there are strategies you can employ to ensure you keep ahead of the pack and out of trouble. But even then, all it takes is one chance encounter with the police to send you to the back of the grid and totally ruin what was an otherwise fine driving performance, and while this doesn't break the game as such, it does become moderately annoying over time.

In addition to the Career Mode there's also a Time Attack feature which takes inspiration from the branching pathways seen in Out Run, as well as a Level Editor. You're able to select the "theme" of the circuit, its length, the number of straights, bends and hills included, as well other aspects. You can share these tracks with other racers using a code, all of which adds a welcome degree of longevity to the game once you've finished all of its other modes.

It would be remiss of us to conclude this review without also mentioning the excellent soundtrack, which contains suitably atmospheric tracks from the likes of Angst78, Aceman, Karolis, Vectorwolf and Vocoderion. Some of the songs featured here even come dangerously close to matching Sega's MIDI-based masterpieces from its coin-op days, which is high praise indeed. Elsewhere, sound effects are workmanlike rather than striking, but the engine sounds are decent, conveying a good sense of the power contained within these fictional beasts.

Conclusion

80's Overdrive really nails the presentation side of things with its eye-catching 2D visuals, superb 3D effect and pumping soundtrack. It also controls well and the Career Mode is challenging enough to keep you glued to your 3DS for quite some time. The Out Run-style Time Attack mode and the Level Editor extend the lifespan of this title further, but the occasionally cheap difficulty level has an annoying habit of ruining your race as well as your mood. This is a relatively minor complaint in the grand scheme of things however, and fans of old-school arcade racers will almost certainly forgive this issue in order to play a true tribute to the classics of old.