Kart racing. An art largely perfected in 1992, yet still strangely alluring 20 years later. Try to name a terrible kart racer - it's actually pretty tough. A lot tougher than naming an execrable FPS or a risible RPG, anyway. Yet there's always a nagging malaise that accompanies the title cards of any new kart racer, but Codemasters' smiley-faced jaunt through a Willy Wonka version of the F1 world is immediately enjoyable, charming and approachable. And thoroughly good fun.
The real secret to kart racing's success is its purity. By stripping away the bells and whistles of grown-up racers, they can concentrate on the heart of competition - the photo finishes, the daring overtakes, the tragic crashes. Yes, they add layers of power-ups and pageantry, but ultimately kart racers are fun because racing is fun. As a result, by stripping away the intensity and demand of big boy F1 racing, Race Stars captures the heart of its appeal; beating Alonso or Hamilton to the checkered flag by any means necessary.
The whole game feels lovingly put together, although some might argue that the bright, cheery visuals could have been packaged into a downloadable game rather than a full-priced release. Still, F1 fans can't fail to warm to this chunky, chiselled roster with its array of accented grunts and cheers and odd little idiosyncrasies. If there was ever any doubt that Codemasters loved F1 - and there wasn't, really, but pretend with me here - then this is proof of its undying affection.
On the track, famous F1 locations and tracks have been morphed into amusingly stereotypical cruises through German forests or Singaporian cityscapes, complete with insane loops, boost pads and even a trip on a rollercoaster, and the karting itself is a tidy mix of Mario Kart-themed power ups and precise slipstreaming. Oddly, however, there's no drifting - potentially a first for the genre - which threatens to rob the game of some of its intricacy but, as Codies have said, F1 cars don't drift. Instead, you'll need to hit apexes accurately and accelerate appropriately. It's not exactly Gran Turismo, but there's still depth and dexterity here. As long as you play on 2,000cc or 3,000cc, that is.
Solo players are catered for with a lengthy but samey career, but it's predictably in multiplayer that F1 Race Stars shines. Online offers multiple modes and game variants, including customisable playlists and connected team play, but it's the inclusion of four-player splitscreen that really harks back to the heyday of digital karting. It's rare to actually get four players on the same screen these days, and F1 Race Stars has the potential to emulate the carnage and chaos of classic Mario Kart.
And that is probably the real question - does Codemaster's vibrant creation have the chops to challenge the moustachioed one in a riot of rubber-banding? To me, it feels like the two games would rather be friends. Power-ups are borrowed liberally from Mario Kart, from the homing balloons to the safety car that holds up the front runner (the game's blue shell, effectively), and even without the drifting, the upbeat jingles and gaudy primary colours wouldn't seem out of place in the Mushroom Kingdom.
There's just enough F1 style though to make it stand on its own. Yes, it perhaps should have been an XBLA game, and yes it's not really the type of game that sets the world ablaze with innovative audacity, but like most of the lineage it nods to, F1 Race Stars is just good, clean fun. What else was it ever going to be?
Version Tested: Xbox 360
This review was written after spending 6 hours with the game. Codemasters provided a retail copy of the game for the review.