When Zordix announced that it was bringing a smartphone jet-ski title to the 3DS eShop with Aqua Moto Racing 3D, we suspect that quite a few people immediately let their minds drift to certain iconic Nintendo 64 and GameCube games, and applied those expectations to this download title. That would be unfair, but this release still tries to deliver a fun water racing experience, which it flirts with doing before sinking under technical problems.
In terms of the content and concept on offer, Zordix delivers on the promise of the game's name. You give your generic rider a name and nationality and set about on a quest to reach higher profile tournaments, earn money and upgrade your jet-ski into the equivalent of a water-based Ferrari. It's a nicely balanced difficulty and achievement curve if you're a fairly experienced gamer, especially as you can unlock the next cup in the Championship mode with a top three finish, useful as you move up and face stiffer opposition. There can be some brief grinding as the next cup sees you struggling for third place, but you're constantly accumulating money to upgrade vehicles, which themselves unlock for purchase as you progress through various grades.
The Championship makes up the meat of the game, with unlocked tracks available in a Quick Race option for those with limited time. However, most cups are just three races and can be blasted around in roughly ten minutes, so they're a fun diversion. Each new cup is set within a fairly large area — some little touches attempt to portray different countries — with a few tracks that alternate buoy placings; like those famous old Nintendo jet-ski racers, you have to go around specific sides of each buoy, left for yellow and right for red. Some tracks have a speedy flow to them, as you whizz along with subtle changes of direction, while others insist on tight, difficult turns.
There are some aspects of the course and game design that work rather well in this respect. For one thing, going around a buoy with precision fills up more of a circular boost gauge, which once complete gives a nifty blast of acceleration with a tap of X. This can also be filled by completing gnarly stunts off ramps, which come in easy, medium and hard varieties; though these can be triggered with D-pad directions and a shoulder button, it's pleasing that shortcut buttons are available on the touch screen, and we had the habit of just shifting our thumb across. Also, if you miss three buoys you're disqualified, so balancing stunts, boosts and accurate riding provides some nice challenge.
During its best moments, this is undoubtedly a fun jet-ski racer that may have retro gamers going a bit teary-eyed, but unfortunately there are irksome technical issues that hold the experience back. In some respects this game is a victim of its own ambition, as some reasonably nice visuals — notably the decent wave physics — don't seem particularly well optimised for the 3DS hardware. Playing in 3D immediately strips away some smoothness in movement, which on some courses is still a passable frame rate, yet in others with more environmental detail and choppier waves it can be tough to play properly.
So for various courses playing in 2D is recommended, and even then performance gets less consistent the further that you progress. Often the sound breaks up and stutters between races, just about sorting itself out before the race proper, and when all six racers are hustling and bustling on a processor-intensive course the framerate takes a further dip. This is a title that really makes the system feel like its chugging, gasping for resources to continue; considering some of the graphical quality we've seen on the 3DS, it's a case of poor optimisation. What this title needed was a more refined approach, or greater changes to the graphics engine, as what's been used doesn't quite fit the hardware's capabilities or architecture.
Inconsistent performance can cause some glitchy moments, too, an issue we spotted fairly often in local multiplayer. The option for Download Play is a thoughtful inclusion, and in those better moments — which are undeniably there — there is a lot of fun to be had with friends in the same room.
And that's what this feels like; a game that has a good foundation, moments of pure enjoyment, but then creaks and crumbles and serves up an unintuitive course with a juddering framerate. Some course designs can be hard to follow with wave splashes and slowdown making life difficult, compounding disappointment. It's an odd experience in that sense, as you'll have great pleasure in some moments, before feeling a little let-down minutes later.
Aqua Moto Racing 3D has good intentions, and in its better moments will bring waves of nostalgia and earn some affection in its own right, with fun racing and a kicking soundtrack to match. And then it judders and creaks, course designs confuse, and the fluidity that so benefits a game like this is lost in a sea of poor optimisation. A 3DS is very different from a smartphone, and it feels like those differences proved too difficult for the developer to deliver an experience that's refined and enjoyable from top to bottom. As a result this feels like a glass half empty, which is a pity.