If you aren’t familiar with the Touhou Project, it’s a series of ‘bullet hell’ shoot ‘em ups developed by Team Shanghai Alice, which actually consists of a single person who uses the nickname ZUN. Since his first release in 1997, ZUN has made a whopping 17 Touhou shooters, all of which enjoy a cult following for their hard-as-nails action. So obviously it’s the perfect franchise to spawn a karting game where you surf on girls. Hang on, what?
Gensou Skydrift is a fan-created racing game starring many of the young ladies who feature in the Touhou games. Rather than blasting their way through countless enemies against insurmountable odds as usual, though, this time they’re taking part in a series of races, albeit without a vehicle of any sort. Well, not a non-living one, at least.
You see, each race has you controlling two characters, rather than one. One character will be active at a time, and they’ll navigate the track by – putting this as bluntly as possible – riding on the back of the other one, who is able to fly because reasons. Think of it as a Sonic Riders game, if the hoverboards were replaced with girls stuck in a perpetually planking pose.
They don’t stay that way forever, to be fair. Both your character and their ‘steed’ have a power bar that slowly builds as you race, and can be increased quicker by flying through speed rings. When your power hits a certain level you can hit the L button to swap characters – meaning the rider becomes the... um, ridee – and get a little speed boost in the process.
The power bar is also the gateway to your other special moves. There are no item boxes to run over in Gensou Skydrift like there are in other karting games; instead, you have to let your power bar continue to build until it fills, at which point you can then hit the R button to trigger the usual slot machine-style item gimmick karting fans will be used to. Each character has their own item slot, so if you’re in the lead and you get a homing missile, it may be a good idea to swap to the other character and get another item, saving the missile in case you need it later.
It’s claimed in a press release that the game’s development staff includes “a former Mario Kart 8 and Mario Kart 8 Deluxe developer” (not Double Dash!!, as some have falsely guessed). It’s not quite clear whether we’re talking someone with major clout here or just the guy who got coffee for everyone else; we’re reminded of the claims that the distinctly average Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles: Smash-Up was developed by some of the Super Smash Bros. Brawl team. To be fair, though, of all the non-Mario karting games on the Switch, this is definitely one of the better efforts – at least when it comes to handling.
Steering is a breeze, and the drift system only takes a race or two to get used to; this is where the potential Mario Kart influence seems clearest, because drifting in karting games can be a hard thing to nail but it’s very much spot on here. Once it clicks, it can be extremely satisfying pulling off long drifts around lengthy bends, weaving left and right to pass through all the gates in the process and getting a nifty speed boost each time. When it all comes together, it does feel surprisingly like Mario Kart.
It doesn’t always reach that bar, however. Some of the tracks can be a tad on the frustrating side, with plenty of sharp turns and bottomless pits. They can all eventually be learned and overcome with practice, but there’s a level of trial and error here that features to a degree far greater than in the Mario Kart series. It’ll likely take you a number of playthroughs until you can simply get through some stages without falling, let alone win the race.
A more important downside to the game, however, is the severe lack of longevity for single players. There’s a Campaign mode, which is a very brief story that consists of 10 or so races, split up by a load of dialogue-based cutscenes (plus a secret episode once you beat that). If you aren’t familiar with the Touhou universe these scenes are fairly throwaway: there’s a clear sense of humour there but there’s no point trying to learn who’s who because you’ll have the last race beaten and be sitting watching the credits within an hour or two if you’re any good at Mario Kart.
Other than that, the only other options available to you are a single race or a time trial mode; there’s no Grand Prix mode, no difficulty or speed settings, and generally no real incentive to keep playing unless you’re the sort who’s happy to take on time trials over and over in an attempt to beat your previous best time. Karting games generally aren’t lengthy solo experiences at the best of times, but they at least tend to give you a few cups to try and clear you can at least spend some time with it. This one basically exhausts its single-player value in a single evening.
In terms of multiplayer, there’s local split-screen for up to four players – which works fine, with no major issues – as well as online multiplayer for up to seven players. Don’t get too excited about the latter, though; at the time of writing the game is only a week old and the online is already as dead as Manchester United’s league title hopes, so you may as well just assume there’s no online at all.
What we have, then, is a real shame. We’ve got something that at its core is that rarest of beasts: a karting game that isn’t Mario Kart but still plays solidly regardless. But that core isn’t fleshed out with anything like enough content, meaning we can only really recommend it to two subsets of players: those who are only interested in local split-screen multiplayer, and those happy to play time trials forever.
Gensou Skydrift is one of the few karting games on Switch to come even slightly close to Mario Kart in terms of its racing mechanics, and when it all comes together it's a fun time. Unfortunately, the lack of meaningful single-player content and the fact that the online is dead on arrival means this should be strictly considered a local multiplayer game if you want to get your money's worth.