FAST Racing Neo: correct, two words from three, at least. German studio Shin'en Multimedia's Wii U exclusive is racing alright, featuring ten Wipeout-style floating craft rocketing around 16 different tracks, each visually unique and soundtracked by pulsating electro. And flipping heck, is it ever fast, Shin'en downplaying their game's breakneck speed with that title – and it just gets faster, the better you get. But "neo", to me at least, means new – and that's something FAST Racing Neo never really feels.
Sure, it's brand new to the Nintendo eShop, but Neo is a throwback to console racers of generations past. It's most evocative of the GameCube's F-Zero GX, the so-far-final entry in Nintendo's futuristic racing series (and a game, get this, actually developed by a SEGA-owned studio, Amusement Vision), but there's also plenty of Wipeout parallels to draw, from the craft design and their made-up manufacturer names – where Psygnosis' original PlayStation classic had AG Systems and FEISAR, Neo has the likes of Fulcon Capital, Spaarc Unlimited and (my favourite) Rochdale Trust – to the propulsive beats that thump away as you race. It's nowhere near as deep as GX was, with just a third of the simultaneous racers and no characters to become attached to. The game features four cups containing four circuits each, repeated across three difficulty/speed levels – only "novice" is unlocked to begin with, the Subsonic League, and you're going to need to work to get "advanced" (Supersonic) active. There is also a time trial option, and multiplayer modes for both online and split-screen competition.
But if all this sounds like the makings of a middling indie game that's only worth a punt when it reaches the sales, I've inadvertently sold you wrong. F-Zero GX and the first Wipeout are racing genre classics, untouchable in many respects, though nostalgia can cloud the reality of replaying them today. FAST Racing Neo, actually the sequel to the 2011 WiiWare game FAST Racing League (explaining the "neo", maybe?), is a very good game of its kind, albeit one that can only come recommended with caveats that prevent it from quite being an essential on a system that's hardly burdened with A-grade third-party productions.
Firstly, it's hard. Seriously, hammer this game for an hour or so and you might unlock the middle difficulty level, if you get lucky. But you're never going to win a race, not even in the beginner-level Cobalt Cup, simply by hooning it around with your thumb never lifting from A for accelerate. Neo's tracks, even the comparatively simple ones, require quick reactions and a great degree of memorising – the former because of the other drivers around you, who can send you into a spin if they get the chance, losing you time and (definitely) a few places; the latter because of the game's colour-coded boost strips, which alternate between blue and orange and require you to shift your ship's "phase" to match (what colour your back-end thrusters are, basically). Hit orange while you're blue, and your ship slows to a crawl. And every split second lost in Neo can be as brutal as a place or three dropped. It's a little like the dual-polarity play of Treasure's 2001 shooter Ikaruga, only less bullet hell and more blistering speed.
Crashing, then, is a no-no – do so and you'll be replaced on the track, but with next to no chance of catching up to first, let alone scoring a top three finish, which is what you're aiming for to progress through this game's difficulties. The time trial mode comes in handy, then, for committing each course to the grey matter, getting friendly with every bend and turn, every leap and twist, and all the additional obstacles that clutter the tracks, surely incurring the wrath of any safety marshals.
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The Alpine Trust course has icicles that spear their way down from overhanging rocks to the ground below; they're breakable if you boost through them, but strike one at regular speed and it'll send your craft into a spin. So too will the boulders of Willard Mine, while crashing into a leg of the gigantic robot spider that crawls across Kamagori City's concrete overpasses will wipe you out completely. But while Neo's circuits are exacting, occasionally painfully (temper, temper), they're consistently beautiful. Shin'en has stripped back all other aspects of this game's presentation – menus are simple, trophies pointless, and vehicles can't be modified in any way – to focus on the most vibrant set of racetracks this side of Mario Kart 8.
And Neo impresses in this respect from the off. The first course, Scorpio Circuit, stars gargantuan sandworms that erupt from the landscape and arc over the racing line. The zero-G of the space-set Daitoshi Station sends your chosen vessel on a collision course with slow-moving asteroids, and while it's amongst the toughest tracks to score a top-three on, Sunahara Desert is a stunner in motion, colossal spacecraft hovering low overhead, the whole thing looking like it's set half a mile outside Mos Eisley. I also love the first track in the Titanium Cup, Storm Coast, which might well be set around a near-future Firth of Forth, endless rain pissing down from a blackened sky. Certain tracks offer different routes, splitting the pack down two paths, but there aren't really any short cuts (that I've noticed, anyway).
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While Neo's selectable craft aren't modifiable, each has its own values for weight, top speed and acceleration, making some better for circuits with plenty of corners, and others for raw power down the straights. And it's important to pay attention to this, and find a ship that best suits your style of play. The Fulcon Capital vehicle is a beast when it comes to sheer speed, but weighs so much that the air brakes might as well be made of tissue paper. The Spaarc is slower by comparison but easier to handle, and its lighter weight means it's easier to correct any slightly mistimed bends without winding up a fireball. A final point on the game's handling isn't anything to do with the software whatsoever. I might have been imagining it, but I found playing with a Pro Controller a lot more responsive than with the GamePad (which only offers off-TV play). I certainly won more races. Maybe I was just getting better, though.
And you will get better. Well, you should, assuming you didn't smash your pad inside 20 minutes. That first hour will be frustrating, but the second one will probably see things going smoother. Come the third, you'll be winning the Cobalt Cup with a clean sweep of first-place finishes, silencing the cheesy announcer's jibes at your previous failures. Keep at it, and you can unlock Hero Mode, which reverses all track directions and shifts the gameplay so your boost meter also represents a shield, meaning that a single collision can be fatal. Game over. Wiped out. No pun intended.
There are things that'd make Neo a better experience – some way of knowing how close chasing rivals were would be nice, maybe even a mini, Daytona USA-style radar (I can't be sure, but it feels like there's some nasty rubberbanding at play). Being able to tune up each craft would be a sweet addition, too. But as it stands, as Shin'en has presented it to the world, FAST Racing Neo is a fine addition to the Wii U's small but worthy clutch of indie exclusives, deserving of a place beside Affordable Space Adventures and, um, Runbow? I said it was small.
FAST Racing Neo is out now, exclusive to the Wii U
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