Earlier this week I found a pre-alpha demo for Drift Stage in my inbox. It's a reminder of just how much life something different can breathe into a stale genre. Drift Stage is shaping up to be the coolest racing game to come around in ages, and it's no coincidence.
If you haven't heard of Drift Stage, I wouldn't blame you. It's an '80s-style racer made by a two-man team (I interviewed the pair this summer) that has gained some attention recently, due in no small part to the game's striking '80s-art-meets-PlayStation-One visuals. Retro gorgeousness aside, however, Drift Stage harkens back to simpler times in the racing genre, when arcade-style controls won out over lifelike precision. Oh, and it's about taking corners sideways, too. As simple as it sounds, that's the best part.
The build I played was fairly simple, consisting of one course, one car and some kick-ass '80s style guitar riffs courtesy of Myrone. If you follow Drift Stage, the scenery will immediately be familiar, as it's the same track we've seen in the game's teaser, Sunset City. It started out with one ghost, labeled the "beginner ghost", a car just a little bit ahead of me that would handle turns and drift, but not perfectly around corners. My first time around I was nipping at its heels, just ever so slightly behind it. When we crossed the finish line, there were now two ghosts, my personal best: the ghost of my previous lap, and the beginner ghost. I found myself easily overtaking both ghosts now, having gotten a feel for the track and a basic grasp on drifting around some long turns. As I confidently passed up both ghosts and crossed the finish line, I saw the intermediate ghost and my new personal best.
Shit was about to get real.
Once the intermediate ghost came onto the scene I found myself struggling to keep up. I took riskier turns, drifted closer to the inner edge of the track, and got more reckless in the hope of shaving seconds off my time. I failed miserably at first, crashing into barriers causing my car to be reset on the track with only a minor time penalty in true '80s-racer fashion. Somewhere around five laps later I was starting to get it, the intermediate ghost car was struggling to stay in front. My drifting was getting tighter, more precise. In the final, crazy-long drift of the course, as I leaned into my seat as though that would somehow help my chances, I swept past the ghosts and through to the finish line.
As I did, two more ghosts appeared and blew past me. The Expert Ghost and my new shadow, the version of me that just pulled off the race of my life. I tried desperately to catch up to this new ghost, but it was almost a full turn ahead of me throughout the whole race. I crossed the finish line multiple times, drawing ever closer to the expert, setting new personal bests along the way. Finally, in one fateful turn, I had passed the expert. My heart was racing as we came around the last corner. I was turning hard now to the side, tilting the controller like a kid in a '90s magazine ad.
Then, just like that, I turned too hard too soon and smacked the wall. The ghosts zoomed past me and across the finish line. I exhaled and looked up at the clock, deciding that lap had been my last. It was midnight. I had started playing around nine.
Despite its early stage of development— the developers told me they're still about 10 months out from release— the core racing feels surprisingly polished. My car had a good sense of speed to it and the course had some fun twists and turns to it.
I didn't expect much. The first screen reminds you you're playing a pre-alpha build, but what I saw, though limited, worked far better than some games much further along in development. Drift Stage doesn't feel like a game that's nearly a year from release.
If the rest of Drift Stage is as fun as chasing ghosts on a single course with a looped '80s riff playing in the background, I suspect it'll become my racer of choice. As far away as it is from launch, it's an impressive accomplishment that proves the two-man team known as Super Systems knows what they're making and who it's for.
In the same way I was chasing my own ghost, they're chasing that of the forgotten arcade racer. Here's hoping we both catch them.
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