It’s common parlance for a racing game to be labelled as either a simulation or an arcade title.
There’s also the ‘sim-cade’ term, which is used quite generically but usually describes any racing game that is realistic in presentation but has car physics that are heavily simplified to make the game easier to play for a more casual audience – usually players who use a regular controller rather than a wheel and pedals set-up.
Often it’s easy to place a game or series somewhere on the arcade to simulation spectrum, but recently there have been a couple of titles made by independent developers which have blended an art style evocative of past arcade games, yet with realism in the gameplay.
Example number one is Circuit Superstars, a top-down racing game currently only available through early access on Steam but that will soon be fully released on PC, PS4 and Xbox One.
On the surface, it’s from the same mould as the Micro Machines series but the actual truth is that Circuit Superstars caters much more to both new and long-time motorsport fans.
The vehicle list includes everything from Le Mans Prototypes to rallycross cars to trucks, all of which are generic and unlicensed, but there’s a massive difference in the acceleration, the top speeds and the nimbleness of each of the different cars.
There are even two different F1-inspired cars, with one being a 1960s, pre-aerodynamic era machine while the other is more reminiscent of the cars from the late 1980s. Both are open-wheelers but the difference in how they drive is surprisingly large given this game’s aesthetic. The 1960s car is much more chuckable and has a tighter turning circle whereas the 1980s car is heavier and has better straight-line speed.
A bigger shock, and one that likely has to be experienced to be fully believed, is just how much of a serious racing mindset you have to apply when you run longer races on the higher difficulty levels.
There’s the option of single-lap qualifying with a bonus championship point for setting the fastest laptime, but if you mess up and have to start at the back of the grid then you’ll find that carving your way through isn’t academic.
That’s not to say the starts of races are incredibly realistic though since it’s perfectly possible that you could have cars going into the barriers while others run four-wide around some corners.
However, you can’t just shove your way through like you can in Micro Machines since contact with a wall or even another car will slow you down significantly and give your car damage.
Your car has a health meter and once it gets low then your car will start smoking and lose power.
If it hits zero then you’ll still keep running, just with your car emitting thick black smoke while travelling at a snail’s pace.
So you have to plan your overtaking moves carefully since you can’t just brake late into a corner and push the person in front of you out of the way – well, you can but it’s not a reliable method unlike in other top-down racing games.
Along with car damage, there is also fuel usage and tyre wear, which means races can require drivers to pit. Quite genuinely you’ll be working out on the fly when the best lap to pit would be and whether or not to try and overcut or undercut the pack of drivers ahead of you.
There have also been races where the AI decided to do a two-stop strategy when clearly a one-stop was doable, but the fact that pitstop strategies are even a factor in Circuit Superstars speaks to just how focused it is on targeting serious motorsport fans.
Pitstop speed limiters are turned on and off automatically but the decision on when to pit and how much fuel you want to take on is up to you. More than that, spotting the correct pit box, slowing down, turning into and stopping inside of it is entirely manually controlled – something which can’t be said about plenty of other racing games that are more realistic in their presentation.
This desire to make a casual racing game that also appeals to real motorsport fans can be seen from some of the attempts to publicise the game as Square Enix is uploading a series of videos of racing drivers and content creators all playing the game and trying to set the fastest race laptime.
Participants include Lando Norris, Conor Daly and Romain Grosjean, driving around a recreation of the Top Gear test track in the game.
Grosjean’s attempt is already up on YouTube and his practice attempts show off that the game hands out time penalties for exceeding track limits and that if you go fully on the throttle when on the grass then you can spin your car. Those are yet more realistic touches that take Circuit Superstars out of the arcade category and make it a sim-cade game despite its appearance.
There are also lots of little touches that motorsport fans will appreciate like a visible rubbered-in racing line gradually appearing on the track. Another is that the brands written on the sidewalls of the tyres contain fictionalised versions of real tyre manufacturers, such as Michigan instead of Michelin and Gooddays as opposed to Goodyear.
They’re minor details but they prove that the developers possessed attention to detail and knowledge of motorsport past and present, and cared enough about it to try and do it justice.
Another recent game that’s taken a very similar approach is art of rally, which originally came to PC last year but has recently been released for Xbox consoles and Nintendo Switch and will also be playable on PS4 and PS5 later this year.
Despite being developed by one person, art of rally has everything you would expect from a typical rally game including a variety of cars and locations, all manner of possible time of day and weather conditions you have to deal with as well as car damage and a service area with limited time to make repairs.
All it’s missing is a co-driver, an integral part of real-world rallying, but that’s not a huge loss given that you drive your car from a bird’s eye view and so you have all the visibility you need to be able to drive quickly and with knowledge of what’s coming up.
It’s also a wonderful tribute to the history of rallying, which might not be obvious on first impression.
The car list starts in the 1960s, with unlicensed versions of the Ford Escort and Mini Cooper before going to just before the turn of the century with fictionalised versions of the Subaru Impreza and Mitsubishi Evo that were made famous by Colin McRae and Tommi Makinen respectively.
Fictionalised is the operative word since the game starts in the 1960s and chronicles through to the Group B era, but then imagines a rallying world where the cars carried on their trajectory of getting more powerful.
As such, after the Group B category in art of rally is Group S. The inclusion of those cars in any form is novel since they were the proposed, lower-power replacements to the Group B monsters. Many Group S cars were designed and built but none were used competitively as the Group S regulations were scrapped in favour of Group A.
In the world of art of rally that never happened and so the Group S cars are included with about double the horsepower they would’ve raced with in real-life.
Finally, the 1990s Group A cars in the game all have around 800 horsepower.
Also, like with Circuit Superstars, the handling model is surprisingly deep and is more authentic than even some more realistic-looking rally games have been in the past. The differences between front-wheel and rear-wheel drive cars are massive and for all the right reasons.
Even cars in the same category can have totally different handling characteristics as the lightweight and short wheelbase Lancia Stratos rip-off is much more lairy and hard to control than the bigger and heavier cars in the same class.
Assists include ABS, stability assist and automatic transmission, which can be changed to manual. You could also play art of rally with a wheel and pedals which goes some way to proving how realistically minded the driving model is.
You’ll know what to expect from the stages if you’re familiar with the traits certain real-life rallies have. So art of rally’s Germany stages are high speed, tarmac affairs with the infamous Hinkelsteines often lining the side of the road.
Crowds of spectators gather at certain corners and move out of the way when you get near, which is another call back to rallying’s history.
It’s a combination of style and substance while paying respect to a few decades of rallying. Even if you’re not a huge fan of the WRC, art of rally delivers on a surface level by being an easy to learn, hard to master racing game that absolutely fits the definition of sim-cade. Even if its looks could easily have it mistaken for a completely unrealistic interpretation of rallying.
As racing games have gotten more and more realistic they’ve also inherently become less accessible for newcomers to the genre. That’s why the likes of DiRT and Forza have split off into having two different sub-series, with one catering to a much more casual crowd.
Even the F1 games have made a deliberate effort to make their games more approachable in recent years although they’ve never quite managed it without being slightly patronising. The best example of that is the ability to turn off collisions so that cars phase through one another.
Circuit Superstars and art of rally both prove that it’s possible to dial down the level of simulation whilst still being authentic and not just giving cars near-infinite grip. Their distinctly different art and gameplay styles could easily attract people who otherwise wouldn’t consider playing a racing game.
More impressively though both games have been able to combine those qualities while also being faithful to real motorsport, to the point where you could consider art of rally as a love letter to rallying.
It’s those details that would appeal to motorsport fans, whether they play video games a little or a lot, that make both titles stand out in the crowded racing game market.