AiRace Tunnel was a neat little arcade flight obstacle course on DSiWare that felt as if it was a bonus mode ripped out of a larger racing game. A few months later, QubicGames dropped AiRace onto the service, which was that larger game, filled with actual race courses against opponents other than time.
That same trajectory appears to be repeating on the 3DS eShop, starting with AiRace Speed. While it’s an obstacle course-based flyer that improves upon Tunnel’s blueprint in just about every way, Speed still can’t shake the feeling of being a side mode to a larger game — one that very well might be on the horizon.
The first thing that hits you is how much more polished Speed feels than its predecessors. Much of that is down to the prettier, smoother visuals that the 3DS can push and the more appealing, futuristic art style — while it is still clearly industrial in tone, the cleaner textures and improved lighting are a clear improvement over Tunnel’s drab vibe. Also gone is the weird “refresh flash” that would happen after clearing a lap in Tunnel — it was a minor quirk before but not having it around any more does a great service to creating a sense of world cohesion. As does the 3DS' signature stereoscopic 3D: zipping through tunnels with the depth effect cranked up adds to the exhilaration of almost crashing into everything. This type of experience — seemingly eternal visual depth — leans heavily into what this technology is best for, all the while with a whip-snap framerate to keep the flow smooth.
It also helps that Speed is a much larger game. Its 18 tracks, a significant bump over Tunnel’s six, are a blend of time trial lap-based tracks with multiple routes as well as endless tunnels that challenge your endurance. Bang into enough walls and obstacles will blow you right up and give out a penalty of some sort — in lap races you’re bounced back to the previous checkpoint with a three-second penalty on the clock, and in endless stages you lose a precious life.
The stages are divided up into chunks of three and continue to unlock as you earn stars, and each chunk comes with its own vehicle to pilot. With the exception of a small speed boost and different aesthetic, each craft pretty much handles the same. However, crafts are stubbornly locked to their respective three stages, so there’s no chance of taking a particular favourite from, say, the later courses back to chase scores on earlier tracks. This is a strange limitation, but so it goes.
AiRace Speed’s controls have been tweaked a tad yet it still handles similarly to its predecessors, so veteran pilots will feel right at home twisting and banking their way to gold star fame and glory. Swapping out the jittery-but-calculated D-Pad for the Circle Pad offers a smoother flight experience for whipping around tight spaces and it's easier to get a handle on than steering with the stylus and touchscreen. Using the latter is almost like playing a different game altogether — one that is more graceful and feels closer to gliding a plane through the air rather than forcing your craft through. Even more skilled players will make judicious use of the new Boost power to trim the clock and inevitably go much too fast straight into that wall.
While gameplay is a strictly solo affair, AiRace Speed’s online leaderboards add a competitive edge for those who might want the extra push to improve. If earning increasingly shiny stars only floats your reward boat for so long, the slew of achievements on offer are a good way to eek out more challenge.
AiRace Speed does one thing and it does it well: it drops you and your vehicle into an obstacle course and demands that you fly increasingly fast to get out alive. Time trial junkies and aviation enthusiasts will be happy to take this concept and run, while the rest might find the amount of content and repetition a bit on the flimsy side. While AiRace Speed is a bigger dish than its DSiWare equivalent, the limited scope still feels like that of a side course than a main meal.