The kart racing genre has never been particularly short of options. While Nintendo may have created the most enduring franchise in the form of Mario Kart, others such as Sony and Sega have produced high-profile efforts, with Sonic & All-Stars Racing Transformed being a recent and excellent example. The fantasy of crazy tracks and outlandish power-ups usually works best with colourful game characters, so that makes F1 Race Stars: Powered Up Edition an interesting case — it's based on a real sport and its drivers yet is suitably bonkers. It's a marriage of ideas that works in parts, but not as a cohesive whole.
In terms of its core content, this title represents a decent offering for its eShop price, which sits are around half — or just under, depending on region — a full-priced game. There's no escaping the fact that its delay has been odd (the PS3 and 360 versions launched at the end of 2012); as a result, we have the original out-of-date roster, which in the world of retirements and team changes will leave F1 enthusiasts disappointed. Yet to quibble about the F1 license is perhaps missing the point, as it has so little in common with the sport beyond knowing nods and winks.
There are 15 tracks to tackle, which vary both in quality and their faithful recreation of the original locations. They typically capture the 'vibe' of each country — by which we mean stereotype them — and throw in the odd s-bend or turn vaguely reminiscent of the real thing. They are charming, however, helped by the cartoonish, bobble-head approach to the visuals. This game is cornea-burningly bright, and the exaggerated caricatures of the drivers — aligned with wacky tracks — adds a lot of fun to the experience. When combining F1 with kart racing it seems like a fitting choice, and the fact that it runs smoothly also helps matters — on the charm front, this is a winner.
There are real high points, too, in track design. The UK track is particularly well constructed in the sense it encourages pedal-to-the-floor speed with plenty of skill thrown in, while other tracks such as Canada and Australia feel similar. Some fall into mediocre but enjoyable territory, such as Singapore, compensating for some iffy sectors with spectacular jumps, tilting tracks and sheer spectacle. Codemasters has produced attractive visuals, yes, but has also exploited them for some eye-catching moments.
In some cases, however, tracks highlight the identity crisis and flawed concept that can, at times, grate on a player's patience. The Monaco course, for example, has tight turns and tricky manoeuvres galore, forcing a slowing of pace to crawling-level in the tighter bends. Yet the core kart-style mechanics don't suit these sort of turns — you have no speedometer, no gears, visual indicators of limited use and dumb AI rivals that will jostle you to death to pursue their tram-track lines. And to top it all off, you're being hit by power-ups. That's the confusion of the concept: sometimes F1 Race Stars: Powered Up Edition is happy to let you race a Formula 1-shaped kart and dab the breaks occasionally, but sometimes wants you to use the ill-fitting tools for more precise cornering. As a result it can fluctuate from fun to frustrating, depending on the course.
It can be an uneven experience, in that respect, but there are a number of modes and positives to draw racers in. The Play option allows some freedom in messing around with rules, adding and removing power-ups, levels of damage and other conditions; with friends around for multiplayer, this is full of potential. Career mode is bit of a hotchpotch construction, in truth, and you will loop around through the 15 tracks multiple times, but is a fairly structured way to try out the various in-race modes. As well as standard racing, there's 'pure' racing with no power-ups, slalom racing where you target gates, elimination racing, and more. Slalom is a stand-out in our view, while these tweaks can add some nice diversity — in the fuel race you have to balance between collecting canisters to top up your tank, or stretch it further for higher speeds.
These modes show the game in its best light, with playful iterations on the core idea. Other neat touches are that different F1 teams — you can pick drivers or, amusingly, race as your Mii — have alternative special power-ups; in our case we favoured the triple bubble of the Lotus team. They add an extra tactical dynamic, while the in-race weapons themselves are dull in design — many are bubbles — but enjoyable in practice. The bullet bill alternative is an uncorked bottle of bubbly, while homing missiles are joined by rain clouds, in which everyone else is slowed by the rain while you breeze along with normal speed and handling. The power-ups are, for the most part, a lot of fun and perfectly functional.
The KERS strips, on the other hand, bring back to mind that confusion of concept that we highlighted earlier. Over certain sections you dab the accelerator on and off to charge a battery to obtain a boost. While, like other aspects, it's a playful use of the F1 license, it's also far from optimal, as rivals are likewise boosting. We feel it's an attempt to make up for a lack of drifting, as this title forces you to break and tackle corners properly and, occasionally, execute a limited power slide. In twisting and turning courses this is fiddly due to the loose kart-like vehicles, and the argument of "Formula 1 cars don't drift" is irrelevant as you spend large parts of the game turbo-boosting and performing ludicrous jumps. In the better courses the mechanics and driving style work well, but in others the concept and execution aren't quite in sync.
That lack of balance can rear its head when pursuing glory in single player, meanwhile, with the speed classes (1000, 2000 and 3000cc) not always relating to grades of challenge — the former two are pretty slow, too; that can be down to some cups, of which there are plenty, including tracks that are simply hard to navigate smoothly. For racing game pros, however, these assorted modes and career cups will provide a good amount of content.
Rather like the concept, F1 Race Stars: Powered Up Edition veers from excellent to frustrating on a frequent basis. For one thing, the menus are clunky and confusing — this isn't hugely damaging but, nevertheless, worth mentioning. Of greater concern is the fact that support for Wii U Pro Controller is all over the place; while one member of the Nintendo Life team was able to take part in a multiplayer match using the pad on their Wii U console, we've had two other cases (on two different consoles) where the game simply failed to detect the controller at all. Likewise, while the Remote and Remote & Nunchuk controls are there, we couldn't force them into the player one option, so they seemed to be multiplayer only — some on Miiverse claim to have got around this, but we couldn't find the solution. On the controls front there are at least tilt options for the GamePad and Remote, though standard inputs are far more desirable.
There's also the obvious sticking point of absent online multiplayer. Even beyond the missing mode, we also had issues accessing online leaderboards. They are there, and we've apparently submitted times, but when viewing the results it either says that no times have been submitted yet, or merely shows our own laps. Again, the Miiverse community highlights the problem further — some aren't even sure online leaderboards are included (like us) while others have posted screens of these tables working correctly. It's a bit of a mess.
So there are serious issues with back-end polish and some frustrations in the concept, but there is undoubtedly fun to be had in a kart racer that is almost very good. While single player can be a way to go for some hours of fun, local multiplayer (up to four players) is what this should be all about; it works well, too. The GamePad player has the option — in single player too — of using the controller's screen, and in multiplayer that means two players have a screen each, three players have only one split on the TV and so on. Two player races are pretty smooth, especially with the Off-TV enabled for player one, and there are dips in performance with each added player. That framerate drop isn't surprising, but it remains playable with more players, and you can tackle races with custom rules or any of the unlocked cups from the Career. In the right circumstances, this game does flirt with pole position; it just can't hold it to the finish line.
F1 Race Stars: Powered Up Edition is full of bright ideas, but at times struggles to bring together its over-the-top karting side with its real-world influences. It can be a hit and miss affair in that respect, with enjoyment outweighing frustration, though it also suffers from a lack of polish in basic areas; there's also the absence of online races. This is a good game that has been ported sloppily, but is a tempting option for those that absolutely must have a new kart racing fix and can't wait for Mario Kart 8 to arrive on the grid.