Top down racers are a dime a dozen. Whether you've played Supercars on Amiga or Super Off-Road on the Commodore 64, the genre is hardly new, and for the most part is full of mediocrity, especially in the iOS world. There are the odd gems like Reckless Racing 2 [$1.99] but for every shiny jewel there is an equally unpolished turd. Enter GP Retro [Free / $0.99], a pixelated top-down racing game from Small Thing.
Upon first look at GP Retro, you would be forgiven for experiencing a bit of Déjà vu, as it's eerily similar to another retro-inspired top-down racer called Retro Racing [$1.99]. Graphically the two titles are colorful and well designed, though GP Retro has the edge when it comes to eye candy, for me. Those glorious SNES-like visuals are just gorgeous. I'm a bit of a lover of chunky pixels and this game has more chunks than the first episode of Biggest Loser. Both games control in a similar manner, too, though Retro Racing does feel a bit more slick. Right, enough about Retro Racing, this is turning into a comparison, something I was trying to avoid but in this case it was almost compulsory.
GP Retro doesn't stand out as a title that does anything new or different. It's a straightforward arcade racer with cutesy cartoon graphics and power-ups. As with Retro Racing (oops, sorry), the power-ups are collected by simply driving over them and they are activated automatically. This is all well and good for items such as tires but when you hurl into a boost power-up at full whack on a tight bend, nothing can result but a world of hurt and a heap of the wrong kind of overtaking. It's things like this that irk me about GP Retro. As well as the placement of some of the power ups, the many hazards, consisting of puddles and oil spills, seem to be strategically placed to make you want to throw your iOS device at the nearest valuable object, and the AI is extremely aggressive.
Bumping into a CPU controlled car will knock you about, but the AI geezer just keeps on going. This is a throwback to the games of old and can be forgiven but it's just that the AI cars all seem to follow the same line, the fastest line, which in many cases makes it impossible to pass. You see, in GP Retro, you REALLY need to learn the tracks. Don't expect to pick up and start earning podiums, like the multitude of other modern racers. No, this game is designed for the hardcore retro racing fan, someone who prides themselves on mastering a title and not giving up after thirty seconds, blaming "crappy controls." You need to drive like, ironically, a real life race car driver, learn the tracks, take the best lines, or you will fail and people will point and laugh at you.
I put a load of time into this game before I could even get a gold trophy but I was soon flying around the tracks like a seasoned vet. Each race will take a few attempts (in my case, anyway) to imprint the corners into your brain and work out exactly where to start your turn ins and when to hit the picks.
On top of the AI being aggressive, it can be severely inconsistent. For example, the first head to head race I encountered, against a caricature of Sebastian Vettel, I must have played over twenty times. Most of those times his car would rocket away from the starting line like any woman on a first date with yours truly, never to be seen again. But then from time to time he was a fair bit slower, though still not slow enough for me slide by. By the time I'd beaten him, I had been churning out perfect laps for the previous several games, to no avail… but this final time, it was like racing against a walnut rolling uphill through molasses… it was embarrassingly easy to put him in the rear view mirror.
So apart from the fickle-minded CPU, gameplay wise GP Retro is a challenging, yet fun affair. There is only one championship to play through, though it's here that you find a mix of varied race types from head to head, to four car races, ten car races, endurance races, time trials and even special events in which you perform tasks such as trying to squish as many chickens as you can before crossing the line. Gotta love the odd bit of animal cruelty… ahem.
If you take the gold podium position in an event, you're awarded with a bonus game, in which you have to make the driver jump into the air and pull off an air punch at the right time. On the right of the screen is a red gauge with a small green "sweet spot." An arrow moves quickly up and down the gauge - simply tap the screen to stop the arrow within the green zone and win goodies… though it's easier said than done. I managed to successfully win the bonus stage ONCE. The arrow just doesn't move smoothly enough to be able to predict its final position well enough to win. I'm afraid it's more of a hit-and-hope affair than a true game of skill.
As touched on previously, the graphics are a 16-bit affair and very nicely done. From the side-scrolling intro to the TV scanlines (that can be turned off in the options) you can't help but take a little trip down nostalgia lane. Many games try to look like ye games of old but GP Retro really pulls it off. The cartoony Micro Machines style driver representations (complete with slightly offensive portrayal of an Asian character) and chunky, low pixel, high color cars with their oversized wheels, do a fantastic job of setting the retro scene. Sound wise, it's a mixed bag. Effects are decent but the music sounds like an odd compilation of low budget, indie movie scores and game show themes.
It should also be noted that GP Retro is designed to run in portrait mode only, and controls are limited to three major options. There's digital arrows with auto or manual acceleration, a virtual joystick with auto or manual acceleration, and a tilt-steering option. Looking at the forums, the controls have been causing some issues with accuracy, though on my iPad 4, I haven't managed to hit the wrong button by mistake yet.
GP Retro is a solid title with twenty five vehicles (including drivers) to unlock (each offering up different driving characteristics), fifty races across a large variety of tracks and cute, quirky characters - many playing on real-world racing heroes. There are some glaringly obvious issues, such as the hilarious English translation (I have come in 2th place several times) and the schizophrenic AI, but these hiccups don't do enough to ruin the overall experience. If you're a gamer prepared to put in the hours and have already checked out Retro Racing, GP Retro could well be your next pit stop. If you're simply after something you can pick up and play without having to engage in lengthy practicing of your fine motor skills , best steer clear, or at least pick up the free version to test the waters.