Top-down racers are enjoying something of a renaissance lately, between last year’s indie darling Art Of Rally and Rush Rally Origins, which goes for a more realistic take on the isometric style. I’ll admit that the from-above perspective has never been my preferred way to play racing games, and so I tend to stay away from the subgenre. But Original Fire’s Circuit Superstars, which left early access this week, is working itself into my heart in a way none of its contemporaries have yet.
Circuit Superstars is available now on Xbox and Steam for A$29.95. Full disclosure: Square Enix, the game’s publisher, sent me a code over the weekend. It’s a very simple concept — a top-down racer with stylishly simple but not overly saccharine visuals, consisting of 12 vehicles/disciplines and 19 courses, spanning purpose-built circuits and rallycross venues. The bread-and-butter single-player mode, Grand Prix, is a Mario Kart-style affair made up of four-race championships. Online and offline multiplayer are here as well, and the game even includes real-time fuel consumption and tire wear if you desire a more serious endurance-type experience from your charming indie racer.
One of the things that I found especially jarring about Art Of Rally was the juxtaposition between its calming visuals and unbelievably steep learning curve. In that game, the momentum of weight transfer is critical to coasting on that edge of grip and managing oversteer. It feels good when you get it right, but it’s oh-so-easy to get it wrong. The fact the corners that lie ahead are never obvious given the isometric perspective doesn’t help make that balance easy to find. In all honesty, I’ve found Art Of Rally more difficult to wrangle than the most punishing sim racers.
Circuit Superstars is a much more accommodating affair, as the physics are responsive enough that you can make those snap changes in direction that are necessary when you begin playing and you’re flummoxed by the inability to see a turn approaching. Still, the game can test you in other ways. The AI is fast — I’ve only been able to win races at the second-easiest Pro-Am difficulty thus far — and the endurance racing elements add a bit of strategy into the mix. It’s also not afraid to penalise you for abusing track limits or gaining an advantage through a collision, like a proper sim.
There’s a Top Gear-themed time trial event running at the moment, featuring the famed test track and a leaderboard stocked with names from motorsport and the racing game community, including Lando Norris, Charlie Martin, and Jimmy Broadbent. And it might just be the hardest circuit in the game, due to the proximity of those tire walls at all times and the narrowness of some corners, like Hammerhead.
So Circuit Superstars exists in this weird space of being forgiving but not as much as you’d think for a cutesy racer, all the while looking absolutely lovely. The art style here isn’t revolutionary — it doesn’t stray all that far from the low-poly aesthetic of contemporaries like Horizon Chase, for example. But there are aspects I love, like the shimmering surface of lakes surrounding the track, the long shadows cast by scenery and the specks of asphalt that glint when the sun hits them just right. Oh, and the pit crew hurriedly changing out tires and might be the most adorable thing I’ve seen in any video game all year.
Circuit Superstars is like a cosy motorsport diorama, endearing enough for me to put aside my philosophical issues with isometric racers and find myself in wheel-banging battles with the AI. If you’re hankering for some easy-to-learn, hard-to-master old-school racing fun, it’s well worth a try.