Futuristic racing titles have been a gaming mainstay for over 20 years, with F-Zero and Wipeout being expected releases from both Nintendo and Sony for each generation of console or handheld. Then the market changed. Sony shut down Wipeout developer Sony Liverpool in 2012, and Nintendo hasn’t released an F-Zero title since 2004. Since then we’ve seen several indie studios announce their intentions to create a new futuristic racing game, and Shin’en’s FAST Racing NEO is the first major release to make it to market.
While the aforementioned games have clearly been a source of inspiration for FAST Racing NEO, which is a sequel to a 2011 WiiWare title, it’s undoubtedly its own beast. This isn’t billed as a spiritual successor, nor is it a clone. Instead, Shin’en has done a fantastic job of creating their own identity in what is about to be a crowded market.
The biggest differentiator here is that each hovercraft has two different phases that change the color of the car’s trail from either blue or orange. These colors are important, as they correspond with the boost zones that are all all of the game’s 16 tracks. If the player has the matching colored phase turned on then they’ll receive a substantial boost from going over these areas. Conversely, if the colors are clashing, then the hovercraft will be slowed down. It’s a design choice that constantly keeps the player’s attention on the track, and one that makes the game feel more fun as a result. You actually feel like you earned a boost instead of simply driving over top of one.
The boost zones aren’t the only part of the tracks that players will want to keep an eye open for, there are also dozens of different orbs floating on the track. When a driver collects these, their boost meter is filled. These boosts can be triggered at any time, and they really pack a punch. There is a reason why fast is capitalized in the title; FAST Racing NEO manages to convey a spectacular amount of speed. In fact, at first it almost felt like too much. I was constantly hitting corners (which only slightly slows down your vehicle, you don’t have to worry about blowing up your ship), but after a few races I had become accustomed to just how quickly the game moves.
Similar to Mario Kart, the campaign is split into four different cups. Each cup then has four consecutive tracks that a player has to race, and the only way to progress through the different cups is to finish in the top 3 overall. There are three separate tiers of cups, but even the beginner tier is difficult. Don’t be surprised if you don’t manage to place in your first few attempts, as FAST Racing NEO doesn’t pull any punches. This is a game designed for diehard racing fans, which actually ends up hurting the overall accessibility.
Considering how one slight mistake can cost a player a good finish in a race, each cup requires a lot of skill from the player. You can’t restart a race, either, so once you have committed to racing a cup you are in it for the long run. It feels like the game should’ve had additional difficulty tiers, because it takes a big leap up in each one. There is no sense of gradual progression, and it’s hard to get better at the tracks when you’re constantly finishing in the lower half.
That said, those who persevere will be in for a treat. It feels tremendously satisfying to come out on top and finish a cup that had been giving you issues. Once you finish the third difficulty tier, you’ll unlock Hero Mode. This mode is only for the most dedicated players, as it finally adds a health mechanic for your vehicles. The boost gauge now doubles as your health bar, so a single mistake can turn your futuristic vehicle into a burning mess. While the mode will surely have its fans, very few players will ever unlock it let alone complete it.
Other than the sense of speed, the most impressive part of FAST Racing NEO is the graphics. Shin’en has a reputation for being technical wizards, and this is their best work to date. It’s strange to say that a $14.99 eShop title is a graphical showpiece for the Wii U, but that is absolutely the case here. It easily rivals games such as Xenoblade Chronicles X, and could easily be mistaken for a PlayStation 4 or Xbox One title.
The art design is also top-notch. Every single track has a different theme and a ton of unique assets. Most of the tracks also have stage hazards, which range from machinery to some truly absurd ones that I wouldn’t want to spoil. Most of these hazards will end up destroying your ship upon contact, and the game will slightly punish you by restarting you a few seconds behind.
FAST Racing NEO also offers up both online and local multiplayer. Local multiplayer supports up to 4-player splitscreen. While I was only able to test the game with two players, the framerate impressively held solid in splitscreen. Online play allows even more people to get together, but it’s sadly pretty limited. You can’t create your own rooms, but at least you can team up with friends and join public online matches. Overall, it gets the job done in terms of multiplayer, but a patch that adds in custom rooms would go a long way.
In many ways, FAST Racing NEO is its own worst enemy. The game vastly limits its potential audience by making all three difficulties a true challenge. Plenty of people won’t make it past the second set of tournaments let alone unlock Hero Mode. That said, Shin’en has created a gorgeous racing game that is extremely rewarding once you put the time in. There’s just so much to like about FAST Racing NEO, which makes it disappointing that it isn’t more accessible.
This review is based on the Nintendo Wii U exclusive, with which we were provided.
FAST Racing NEO is an impressive racing game that requires a lot out of its players, as a lack of customizable controls, and the steep learning curve really limits the title's accessibility. If you're down for a challenge, though, then step right up.