Imagine firing up Mario Kart (pick one) for the first time and being dropped directly onto Rainbow Road, but a 25cc version with no items. And you’re driving a Morris Minor. Welcome to the opening of Space Ribbon. Released on PC in 2016 by Liverpool-based developer Onteca, this racer’s biggest problem is the first impression it gives.
PR blurb describes a dystopian future where humankind journeys into the cosmos to race old bangers – all sporting Hill Valley-style hover conversions – on procedurally generated ‘ribbons’ that spew from the mouth of a giant mechanical panda head. Yarp. The first competitor to catch up with the mouth ‘cuts’ the ribbon, creating the finish line for the followers.
Throttle and brakes are on ‘ZR’ and ‘ZL’ respectively. Clicking the left stick switches between three camera positions while clicking the right toggles tilt controls. Offensive and defensive items sit on ‘A’ and ‘B’, although they don’t appear in all races. Unfortunately, they’re not particularly satisfying to wield; the sole offensive weapon – a lock-on missile – takes an age to, well, lock-on.
Mario Kart is frequently and famously criticised for a specific form of rubber-banding that punishes skilful drivers and gifts powerful items to stragglers. Space Ribbon’s items are too limited to function similarly; instead, a slipstream mechanic prevents anybody getting too far ahead. Travelling behind other racers builds a boost meter that activates automatically. Leading the pack results in slowing to a crawl and your rivals soon overtaking. Drifting with ‘Y’ also fills your boost meter, but never feels like a consistently viable alternative to slipstreaming. In theory, this system keeps the contest tense, but in practice it’s all about hanging back and timing the ‘yo-yo’ so you’re ahead when the finish line appears.
And because the goalposts are (quite literally) always moving, it can be incredibly difficult to time your overtake. Fall really far behind and you’ll drop off the trailing ribbon, gradually gliding back to the track, which changes from green to red when the panda starts slowing. No, you’ll never suffer the indignity of a cheap blue shell stealing your victory after two-and-a-half impeccable laps, but the see-sawing of this slipstream system becomes tedious. Mario Kart’s rarely boring.
However, the game does slowly get into gear as you progress through the cups and begins feeling much closer to an F-Zero. Choosing from three difficulties, a progress bar tracks your podium positions and the collectables you’ve won including engine and wheel upgrades, plus paint jobs and Rocket League-style antenna doodads. Winning cups unlocks new cars and access to further championships – sixteen in total. Some have restrictions, so you’ll need to accessorise accordingly. Jetcars are a different class, and each vehicle’s level, wheeled or otherwise, goes up or down depending on equipped gear.
As mentioned, tracks are generated on-the-fly, so you’ll never race on the same one twice. That means no memorising circuits or gradually mastering tricky sections. It also means treating players fairly and not throwing in crazy 90° turns on a whim, so tracks are inherently gentler than your average authored circuit. Kinks and obstacles in later cups throw you into the air and force you to consider racing lines, and barriers also disappear. Landing after temporarily escaping a track’s gravity is a lottery and there are inevitable pile-ups, but it’s far more engaging than the dull opening races. Procedural generation also means near-instant load times beyond the initial menu. The game runs smoothly in docked and handheld modes, although track draw distance is disappointing.
Freeplay mode enables you to tweak parameters and race up to 31 opponents – things get far more interesting and frantic with more competitors. It also offers split-screen local multiplayer for up to four people. Most notably, one player can control the vomiting panda, creating the track the others race on. It’s a neat touch, but not as fun as it sounds. Speaking of which, a generic electro soundtrack fails to impart any personality, although it feels more appropriate as the game picks up the pace.
There are a handful of interesting ideas here, but it lacks any coherent identity beyond being a vague, trippy space race. Perhaps that was enough coupled with the VR of the PC version, but it’s simply too bland on Switch. Want madcap multiplayer mayhem? Mario’s the king of kart. A futuristic racer? In the absence of F-Zero, Fast RMX has you covered.
Space Ribbon is not without merit – and the closer it inches into F-Zero’s slipstream, the better it gets – but a terribly humdrum beginning, lacklustre implementation of items and a central mechanic which forces you to slow down to speed up makes it a tough proposition. There’s fun to be had if you persevere but considering how the alternatives provide pretty-much instant diversion, this makes you work too hard for it.