The Asphalt series actually started off on Nintendo, many moons ago. It launched on the DS in 2004 as Asphalt: Urban GT, got a sequel and then headed off to (what was then) the new and exciting world of mobile gaming, leaving Nintendo behind. Other than a brief return for the launch of the 3DS with Asphalt 3D, the series has mainly been associated with mobile gaming for well more than a decade now. And now it’s back.

Asphalt 9: Legends is a Switch port of the latest game in the series, which was released on mobile platforms back in July. Given that there’s still no sign of a new Ridge Racer game from Bandai Namco, Asphalt 9 could be the best alternative available for fans of arcade-style racing, but given that its entire structure is still based around mobile gaming – and all the nonsense that comes with that – it sometimes feels like it’s trying its best to annoy you.

Asphalt 9: Legends is free-to-start, gifting you a single car and starting you off on the extremely lengthy Career mode. As you progress through this mode, taking on the 71 separate themed events – each of which can sometimes have up to 10 individual races – the aim is to slowly build a collection of cars by collecting the blueprints that are awarded to you after each race. Or, of course, you could just pay real money to speed the process up.

As you progress there’s a constant urge to upgrade: your car will only be powerful enough for the first couple of events, but can be upgraded to increase its ‘rank’ (which is a score defining how powerful it is). Before each race you’ll be given a recommended rank, which essentially tells you how powerful the rest of the cars in the race are going to be, so it’s generally in your best interests to make sure you have at least one car in your garage that can meet that recommendation. Otherwise, it’s upgrade time.

Naturally, this costs in-game currency. Upgrades are bought through credits, which are earned through normal racing, but of course, if you run out of credits you can always top them up with tokens, which can be bought with real money. Much like other mobile games with a premium currency, it’s the usual routine here: £1.99 for a negligible 40 tokens (which you can’t really do much with) to a buttock-clenching £99.99 for 3000 of the sods: these are the “best value”, as the game takes pleasure in informing you.

Each car in your garage has a set amount of ‘fuel’. Each time you start a race, the fuel count goes down by one, and once it runs out, you can’t use that car for a while until a timer runs down. It’s basically an energy system like the sort of thing you’d get in Candy Crush (or Dr. Mario, if you want a more Nintendo-themed reference). The better your car, the longer the timer, so you can’t just pick your strongest car every time and plough through every low-ranking event.

If you want new cars outside of the ones you get in Career, the ‘best’ way to do this is buy card packs (again, using tokens). They’re loot boxes, essentially, and you don’t get full cars from them: you only get a few ‘blueprints’ for a specific car. You need a certain number of blueprints before the car is unlocked, which means you’ll need to get numerous packs containing the same car. If you want the Lamborghini Centenario, for example, you need 40 blueprints to unlock it at a 1-star class. It can go up to five stars but you’ll need to get more blueprints each time. In other words, it’ll take you an obscene amount of time (and probably money) to end up with a fully-upgraded one.

There’s a reason we’ve started this review by covering off all the free-to-play nonsense right off the bat: it’s a filter to make sure you’re still on board. The reality is that there’s actually a very entertaining racing game here, but you have to be the sort of player who’s willing to accept that this is still a mobile game at its core and so brings with it all the guff you’d expect from a typical free-to-play game on iOS or Android.

Once you actually get onto the road, what you get is a fun arcade-style racer with impressive levels of carnage. There are plenty of occasions where debris flies across the road, bits of scenery fall apart and the like, and when you crash your car there’s a fun damage system where large chunks of the bodywork crunch, smash or fall off accordingly. Pulling off tricks will increase a boost meter, and while boosting you can bump into enemies to trigger a slow-motion takedown that forces a crash. At times it feels – dare we say it – like a more flexible but less stable version of a Burnout game.

We say more flexible because pretty much every circuit in the game has a bunch of alternative routes that you can take, rather than a straightforward track. Keep an eye on the map to look out for upcoming diversions and you’ll find yourself going offroad, slipping through underground car parks, leaping off ramps onto bridges overhead and the like. It’s hugely entertaining and also allows Asphalt 9: Legends to feature an interesting new control scheme called ‘touchdrive’. This applies automatic acceleration and handles the steering too, and the player is simply asked which route to take (while also controlling braking and nitro). It’s far too simple for regular gamers, but brilliant for young kids and non-gamers.

As for 'less stable', well, the frame rate is all over the shop here. Asphalt 9: Legends targets 60 frames per second but it really only consistently hits that during Time Trial races when there isn’t a lot going on. Add some other cars and all the crashes, particle effects and debris that come with that and the result is a frame rate that’s hugely inconsistent. We fully appreciate that arcade-style racers are always best when they run at 60fps, but considering this comes nowhere near it, we wonder if locking things at 30fps would have been a better move rather than something this wildly erratic.

It’s frustrating, because the more we write this review the more we can predict the comments saying it “doesn’t read like” the score we’ve given Asphalt 9: Legends. We could go on with the criticisms: some of the races are far too short, the limited-time daily events are too difficult for newcomers, the menu system is a complete UI nightmare if you aren’t using a touchscreen (the cursor rarely goes where you expect it to when you move it with buttons or the stick). In almost every area, Asphalt 9: Legends underwhelms.

And yet, the one area in which it very much overachieves is by far the most important one: on the road. Once you’re past all the nonsense and are actually power-sliding into speed boosts, ploughing opponents into barriers, hitting angled jumps and barrel-rolling over fences into alternate paths, it’s ridiculously good fun. Take into account how long the Career mode is – you’re easily talking well over 100 hours, and that’s if you’re really good and don’t have to replay any races – and there’s a lot of fun to be had here.

Our advice is this: download the base game, which is free and gives you one car. If you decide you agree with us and feel the racing makes it worth putting up with all the mobile rubbish, there’s a single purchase we recommend and nothing else. The Starting Racer Pack DLC costs £19.99 and gives you 200,000 credits, 300 tokens and – most importantly – five more cars right away.

The ability to switch between a bunch of different cars from the start pretty much eliminates the chance of refuel timers stopping you from playing, and 200,000 credits will be more than enough to upgrade all six of your cars fairly heavily to ensure they’re suitable for a large chunk of the Career mode. Given that £19.99 is still cheaper than most full-price racing games, the fact it essentially kills off a lot of the free-to-play stuff that would otherwise hinder your enjoyment of the game makes it a worthwhile price to pay (unlike the standalone tokens, which you should never buy).

Conclusion

Asphalt 9: Legends is a free and surprisingly fun arcade racing game with mobile microtransaction free-to-play gubbins that could potentially ruin the experience for you, unless you’ve played enough mobile games to know how to ignore it. The reasonably priced Starting Racer Pack significantly lessens their impact, making it feel more like a ‘normal’ premium product, so if you try the free version and enjoy it, this – and this alone – is the sole purchase you should consider.