Version tested: iPhone
The last week has seen many of us frothing over PlayStation Vita's wonderful little top-down arcade racing game MotorStorm RC, created by a team of thoughtful developers at a traditional games studio and laden with cool features like cross-console leaderboard competition. It's the vision of a desirable future: less than a fiver for a classically designed game that works on your handheld and your console and uses the internet to coordinate progress across both.
I love MotorStorm RC for all sorts of reasons. But unfortunately for Sony, while I was waiting for it to download from the PlayStation Store I fired up my iPhone and had a crack on Retro Racing, a game by industry veteran Jamie Woodhouse, who is nowadays a one-man smartphone game studio called Mr Qwak. And, um, it's a top-down arcade racing game. Oh well, another 69p lost to the opposition, but from Sony's perspective I suppose at least I bought both.
Whereas a lot of smartphone and tablet racers opt for landscape view and tilt controls, Retro Racing is deliberately set up like classic arcade titles of the 80s with a portrait view, and on-screen digital controls: left, right and accelerate. There is no brake, although you slow precipitously when you move your finger away, and can use this in combination with well-timed steering to power-slide into corners. It's simple to pick up, then.
In fact, it doesn't look like there's much there to begin with. There isn't even a Career mode - you just start a race against some AI opponents and claw your way around the track. There's no issue with rubber-banding or anything like that, either - you start slowly, they start a bit more quickly, and you spend the duration of the race reining them in. If you win, you get some Game Center achievements, a few stats and the opportunity to try again or progress to the next race. The only potential for interruption comes on iPad where you can split the screen and engage in some elbow-to-elbow tablet-sharing multiplayer.
There certainly is depth, though. The first signs are the little power-up icons strewn across the track, down little side roads and nestled among trackside run-offs and bollards. There's a standard nitrous, but the others upgrade your little racer for the rest of the current contest, tweaking your grip, speed or acceleration. As races become more difficult, you have to think more carefully about whether to head off-road in search of a minor fillip or to concentrate on the car up the road instead.
That's a big deal because the margins are very small. With fast movement, limited visibility around the track and digital controls, you're usually fighting to stay on the track more than anything else, but it's more of a playful wrestle than a punch-up - vehicle physics are well thought out and track design, while occasionally deceptive, is usually set up so a couple of laps is all it takes before you're gliding smoothly around hairpins and chicanery.
The whole thing is done up to look like a classic 80s arcade game too, with a cheerily basic primary-colour scheme calling to mind games like early Micro Machines and looking super sharp on our slick little smart screens. It all works in service to the theme, but it's far from lazy nostalgia: Retro Racing is a very deliberate piece of programming, created with love and attention to detail. Give it a go and you may discover that it quickly graduates from the game you play in-between other things to the one you play so much that other things don't get done.
App of the Day highlights interesting games we're playing on the Android, iPad, iPhone and Windows Phone 7 mobile platforms, including post-release updates. If you want to see a particular app featured, drop us a line or suggest it in the comments.