Several less-than-impressive racing titles have already pulled up to the starting line on the iPhone, but right from the get-go, SlotZ Racer is capitalizing on a unique angle (given away by its namesake). This isn’t the typified street or off-road racer with the mill-run lineup of macadam or dusty tracks. This is the slot car scene. These are the built-in-the-basement, 1:32 and HO scale track pieces and cars that informed many a budding hobbyist’s childhood, even though slot cars don’t make a lot of noise on the video game circuit by any stretch of the imagination.
That niche-pinioning fact didn’t deter Strange Flavour from investing the time and energy into making a comprehensive slot car racing experience. And by “comprehensive” I mean that there are enough parameter adjustments at your disposal to edge this into simulation territory. Simulation, that is, for miniature vehicles with protruding pins ripping around grooved tracks, manipulated by handheld speed controllers.
SlotZ Racer might have you fooled at first. Going by the default settings, you might have the false impression that real slot car racing involves a lot of tire smoke and under-the-hood rumblings. But the truth is, all the arcade-like accoutrements--from the bouncy techno music, sporty scenery, and typical (i.e., non-slot car) racing effects are simply conventions added to hook gamers raised on a steady diet of more heavy-handed racing experiences like GRID, Forza or Gran Turismo.
But that’s where Strange Flavour gets you. With increasing exposure to this curiously-miniaturized world of slot cars, the more curious and micro-intensive your pursuits become within the game. At first it will be frustrating even keeping the car on the track. Slot cars move too rapidly in their little world to equivocate to standard race car game speeds, while cornering successfully is nothing about braking and everything about lifting your thumb off the trigger during split-second approaches to a bend. And even as that rule begins to cement, having three other racers to contend with burdens the player with all the usual mistakes that can weigh in on a racer losing their clarity of thought. I’ll admit that, while the throttle requires nothing more than a light touch, the intensity of focus required for the races had my thumb inadvertently growing sore from being pressed too hard against the screen. No one’s fault but my own, but my sore thumb is certainly a testament to the white-knuckle concentration required of the rapidly-changing conditions during any given race.
And as I began to shed the old snakeskin requirements of regular GRID/Forza/Gran Turismo racers, my new self began to enjoy the slot car racing for its own sake, and less for how much it gently imitated said racers. I began to slowly peel away the arcade settings and started getting down to the nittier, grittier details of actual slot cars. I went into the extensive advanced parms (options) menu and turned off the tire smoke. I toggled the engine noise from grumbling “cars” to whizzing “slots.” I removed the scenery bits to give the tracks their more Spartan, purist presentation. And then I switched on analog control.
That last switch was a mistake.
It’s true that the handheld speed controllers of real slot cars have pressure-sensitive triggers. But there’s no satisfactory way to simulate this on the iPhone. SlotZ Racer puts forth a thoroughbred effort by providing a sliding control on the screen, but the clean-lined limitations of the iPhone make this a tricky pursuit. The default setting is an unconvincing on/off switch for the throttle, but it’s the only playable means of accelerating and decelerating your car, considering the inherent limitations of the platform.
Strange Flavour inserted a fair number of tracks to unlock through winning races, but eventually you’ll tinker with the track editor. It’s stunningly easy to use, contains variable widths, lengths, and radius-adjustable pieces of track to snap together--and the only limitation is the square footage you build upon. No, there aren’t any Hot Wheels looping pieces, but there are (fairly) limitless overpass bridges, bunny hops, and banked corners to keep things interesting. Custom-built tracks can be shared, but multiplayer racing (for now) is limited to top-down racing on a single iPhone. Here again is where the effort is appreciated from Strange Flavour in implementing the possibility of holding multiplayer races in the first place, but setting one iPhone on the table while (up to) four player’s fingers hog the throttle-button corners, and the only view is zoomed too far out and from directly overhead is no way to go.
With that in mind, it’s best to accept that this is a singleplayer experience, so that your detailed car model can get the larger share of the limelight, the momentum of the race can be amplified in the following camera, and the screen can be devoted to tracks and slots instead of thumbprints and dull points-of-view. Plus singleplayer lets you plug in your headphones and soak in the musical score and sound effects that are drastically undermined when forced to squeal out of the iPhone’s speaker.
Without turning this into a disparaging tear-down of other racers in the Apple App Store, SlotZ Racer has a determination and charm wrapped into it. While feigning limitations in track and car selection--due to the nature of slot car racing--SlotZ handily packs several fun, challenging tracks, reasonable unlockables, convincing graphical models, tasty synth tracks that won’t embarrass you (like Burning Tires), and a tightly-implemented control scheme that won’t make you accelerometer-sick (like Fastlane Street Racing) into a tiny package. The presentation is crispy--but not necessarily slick--and the bite-sized races, most lasting about a minute, are just the right size for the moment-to-moment play opportunities that arise.
Version 1.1 (the now-outdated version reviewed) weighs in at a meaty 12.5 MB (the App Store will require you to plug into a computer for the download) and fluctuates between a regular $2.99 price tag and $0.99 sale. And while I’m not here to tutor you through an Economics 101 course, SlotZ is a lot to play with even at the higher price point. Strange Flavour requires a bit of relearning on your part, turning your first run-throughs a baffling set of losses. It’s also left on the player’s shoulders to overcome any sense of adrenal or emotional distance between them and the cars, since the championship-to-championship shifts in make, model, and color make you relearn your vehicle’s appearance frequently.
SlotZ Racer is a ‘grower’ for those unfamiliar with the conventions of slot car racing, but that doesn’t overshadow the copious adjustable parameters, flexible track editor, and dedication to the hobbyist topic. There’s a dryness in its presentation that eventually enfolds into its appeal, and SlotZ certainly accomplishes more in its niche than many other racers do in the mainstream.
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