I have to say, I’m not entirely sure where this came from. The idea of creating a Mario Kart clone is one thing, but using the official F1 license and drafting super-deformed, big head versions of real F1 racers into a cartoony world is quite another. It’s an odd mash-up, and its very existence is puzzling. But, can this bizarre creation tackle the likes of Mario Kart and Sega’s Sonic & All Stars Racing?
It’s a very familiar formula (one), and F1 Race Stars, at least initially, appears to follow the Mario Kart rule book almost word for word, with the majority of the game’s features matching Nintendo’s racer stride for stride. There’s a range of wacky courses, a slew of power-ups (many of which are cloned the Italian Plumber’s racer almost exactly) and several game modes. But, and as you’ll soon discover, this isn’t an exact carbon copy of Mario Kart, for good, and bad.
The general setup of races is as you’d expect. Pick a track, a racer and you’re off on a 12 car romp around a wild and wacky track littered with neon stars that grant various random power ups. To win you’ll need to master the courses, including hidden shortcuts, wield the many weapons tactically, and become astute at the karting controls.
Now, the former of these skills is fine, and learning the courses and how to best use the weapons on offer is no problem, but the latter, mastering the racing controls, isn’t. In fact, it’s the major thing, in my opinion, that drags the title down somewhat.
Unlike almost every other kart racer out there, F1 Race Stars features no power slide or drift, and it’s a real killer. Lacking such a traditional and essential feature for any kart racer is simply unforgivable. Yes, real F1 cars can hardly pull off such power slides, but then, neither can they loop de loop, launch homing bubble missiles or self-repair at speed, all of which they handle here. It’s a sorely missing feature, and one that instantly jars if you’ve even a passing familiarity to kart racers, especially Mario Kart.
Instead, F1 Race Stars encourages you to drive more like an F1 racer, as in braking for tight turns, and accelerating out of them. This is further suggested thanks to the blue chevron boost zones adorning many of the tougher corners. By releasing and holding accelerate up to three times whilst in such a zone, you can build up a powerful speed boost, throwing you out of tight corners, and giving you the drop on less skilled opponents.
It’s actually quite interesting, and adds some novelty, but it takes some time to get out of the almost inescapable urge to hit the handbrake and drift your way into the straight. Eventually, you do become accustomed to the handling, but you never really lose the hankering for the power slide. I’d much prefer a traditional drift system, thank you very much.
Forever blowing bubbles
With the use of the official F1 license, F1 Race Stars has the chance to really set itself apart from the pack. In some ways, it does, and in others, it’s simply re-skins karting tropes.
Notable decent uses of the F1 theme includes a couple of the power ups, with some imaginative twists, such as the ability to call in a safety car to slow down front runners allowing you to catch up. Others cleverly ape Mario Kart with an F1 makeover, such as the blatant Bullet Bill-style auto drive replaced by a shaken up Champaign bottle, and screen-covering squid ink replaced with exploding balloons that cover the display in confetti.
Other power ups are simple rip-offs, such as homing red bubbles, speed boosts, and blue trap bubbles that replace banana skins.
Some other power ups are a little odd, though. The bad weather item, for example, which makes the track wet, slows down karts and reduces traction, affects all racers, even team mates and the player who uses it, which is a little strange, as it doesn’t really give the deploying player an advantage in most cases. Others are simply cheap, like the teleport that instantly jumps a racer ahead a few spaces.
In the end, it’s just not as finely balanced as Mario Kart or some other, similar titles, and this makes for some frustration, especially given the one thing that very clearly comes direct from Mario Kart, the overly aggressive AI. Computer controlled opponents will relentlessly slam you with power ups, often at the most inopportune times, and there are races where you’ll be hounded to the brink of insanity thanks to its proficiency with power ups, and the bullish rubber-banding.
As always, the better power ups are granted to those at the back of the pack, and rear-focused traps are for those in the lead, so get in front and you can expect the AI to demolish you with homing bubbles, shockwaves and safety cars galore.
One feature that does work well is the damage system. Imitating the real sport’s need to visit the pits, the game has a simple damage system. Get hit by a power up, and your kart is damaged, with each successive hit, your kart slows down. To get back to full strength you need to head into one of the pit lanes spread around the various tracks. This will repair your car, allowing you to hit full speed again.
However, these pit lanes do miss a trick. In real F1, pit visit s often result in the loss of position, due to the need to leave the track and have work done. Here, these pit ‘stops’ rarely punish you, and you’ll not likely lose your position as you glide through the lane, getting repairs without stopping. Due to the amount of damage you’ll sustain thanks to the AI’s barrages, this may be a good thing, but it would make for a great risk/reward system if you had a greater chance of losing position.
Perhaps one of the best elements of the game is the track design. Although limited to 11 (with an extra pre-order track), the various country-themed circuits often possess some stand out moments and offer plenty of variety. Brazil features tilting jungle walkways, the USA is rich with moving hazards and Japan boasts giant robot sumo wrestlers and a jaunt along the top of moving trains.
Some tracks include elements from their real-life counterparts, but on the whole, this is a totally fantastical take on the sport’s famous locales. It’s all fun, but despite some impressive use of camera tilting and design, they never match the sheer quality of Nintendo’s creations.
As is to be expected, F1 Race Stars is far more enjoyable when you play with others, and whether in local split-screen or via PSN, adding friend to the mix will make the game far more enjoyable. Solo play is still fun for a while, but the content here is severely lacking, and you’ll soon tire without others to challenge.
Various additional modes, such as slalom, time attack and a fuel grabbing affair help keep things interesting to some degree, but with only a handful of tracks and a very repetitive career mode that recycles said meagre selection of tracks far too much, there’s little longevity to be found here. And the drivers, as great as they may be at their chosen profession in real life, hardly stack up compared to Mario and Co.
In the end F1 Race Stars is a pretty mixed bag. I did find the game surprisingly enjoyable, more so that I first expected. After prolonged play, however, the problems soon manifest. The lack of tracks and interesting content, and, more importantly, the lack of expected kart-style controls hold the game back. There’s just not enough content or originality here to challenge the dominance of Mario Kart, and unless you don’t have a Nintendo console, there’s no real reason to pick this over the competition.