Circuit Superstars

Circuit Superstars is one of the most adorable looking racing games I’ve ever played. The cars are small and cute, the tracks are bright and colorful, and the whole game just screams fun. By the time you’re halfway through your first lap you’ll realize that none of that matters. Underneath its thick layer of cuteness lies one of the most challenging, diabolical, and devilishly addicting racing games around.

Circuit Superstars looks like a kid-friendly arcade-style racer, and if you play it as such you’ll quickly find yourself in last place — that is, if you finish at all. Enter turns at full throttle and you’ll repeatedly introduce your car’s bumper to metal guardrails and rubber tires. Take corners too quickly or smash the gas pedal a little to hard and you can drift your way around the track… for a while, until your bald tires begin to handle as as if they were slathered with Vaseline. The more you race the more you’ll realize laps are won by sticking to the perfect line, something that’s increasingly hard to pull off with opponents closing in from behind. Swap too much paint with other cars and your engine will take the brunt of the damage, spewing out smoke and dropping your top speed to a crawl.

The game features plenty of online and offline modes. As tempting as jumping into online racing sounds, unless you enjoy pain and humiliation it’ll behoove you to get a feel for the controls. The delicacy of the game’s controls are literally where the rubber hits the road. When using the keyboard, cars are controlled with the four arrow keys (gas, brake, left and right). Winning races is all about feathering and tapping those keys. This ain’t Pole Position, where whipping the steering wheel and stomping the accelerator will get you through a hairpin turn. In Circuit Superstars, if you’re barreling down a straightaway and haven’t already begun to slow down, it’s probably too late for you anyway. Let your wheels drift off the roadway into the grass and you’ll find yourself spinning faster than a freshman at his first kegger. It’s not always about going fast; it’s about being perfect and taking advantage of the few times your opponents aren’t. On this scaled down racer, the fastest line through a corner can be measured in fractions of an inch. The key to staying on the track is moderation, and you may find yourself tapping the arrows five, six, maybe seven times to find a corner’s perfect line.

The offline Grand Prix mode features twelve unique classes that feature everything from zippy hatchbacks and 70s muscle cars to offroad trucks. Each series contains five tracks, and each track must be raced twice — once in a timed qualifier, and immediately again against eleven other opponents. Winning the qualifying round is much easier than winning races with other cars that hold the perfect line and don’t budge when rammed. Note that progress cannot be saved here. Once a series has begun, players must complete all ten races in order to save their progress, which unfortunately prevents Circuit Superstars from being a “pick up and play” game. Drivers must earn a spot on the podium to unlock the next series, and each series contains four difficultly levels.

Taking the lead and maintaining it are two different things in this game. Even when you’re out front, I found myself one or two mistakes away from losing the lead. A single spin-out on the grass or a hard slam into the outside wall will have your opponents back on your six in no time. Whatever small leads you are able to build are quickly negated by the other racers’ innate ability to take the perfect line at the perfect speed around every corner every time. I found myself gnashing my teeth as I pulled slightly ahead on the straightaways only to be passed on the inside of every hairpin turn. Winning races feels like a real achievement — and again, this applies to the amateur class. When the game references difficulty levels, it’s being quite literal.

About the time players get a handle on the game’s controls they’ll graduate to ten-lap races with enough gas in their tanks to make it through about seven. Like most everything in the game, perfect pit stops come down to a matter of tight controls and expert timing. Too much time in the pit gulping fuel you don’t actually need to finish a race is a waste of precious seconds. Your pit crew will handle changing tires and engine repairs without your assistance so the trick to a successful pitstop is when and how long to stop. You’ll also need to monitor the status of your car’s health, tires, and fuel while racing. Finding the time to do that in a game where fractions of a second count is a challenge in itself.

Along with the game’s built-in modes, additional add-on content is available that will let you pit your driving skills up against television’s The Stig. One allows you to race against the Stig’s times on a digital replica of the show’s famous track, and the other places you on tricky-tracks that more resemble the skateparks from Tony Hawk’s Pro Skater than any real track. Don’t bother until you’ve mastered the other modes, but the add-on is a good way to squeeze more entertainment out of the game’s engine.

At the time of this review I could not get the online option to work reliably. I spent large periods of time sitting in the solo only racing lobby waiting to be matched with other racers, something that rarely seems to happen. And when it did, the results were jerky (at best) and races frequently end when other players disconnect. The online mode is so bad that I assumed it must be a problem on my end (despite having gigabit fiber internet), but others have reported similar experiences. Currently the dream of racing others is a nightmare; whether or not this feature if fixed remains to be seen.

Circuit Superstars is one of those games that will have you quitting in frustration and returning with hopes of shaving extra seconds — maybe even a single second — off your lap times. The game doesn’t give out first place spots on the podium easily, and when you finally earn one there’s both joy and dread in the knowledge that more races (and difficulty levels) await you.