Slipstream isn’t the first retro-style racing game on Switch, but absolutely nails that ‘80s pseudo-3D arcade racer aesthetic. Back before 3D graphics were the norm, games like Hang-On and Out Run managed to simulate three-dimensional effects with sprite scaling; aside from being an impressive technological accomplishment for the time, it gave those games a look that remains unique and distinctive to this day.
It’s more than just innovative tech, though. The Out Run style is all about the vibe: the setting and location choices that evoke a slightly surreal visions Californian beachfronts, city nightlife, and exotic natural locales; the colourscape that ranges from bright and poppy to neon-drenched cityscapes and the murky undercurrent inherent in that; the choice of cars that bring an effortlessly cool, street-racing feel; the synthwave soundtrack that wraps the whole game in a mood that’s both exciting and kind of dreamy.
Slipstream manages to hit all those notes flawlessly, resulting in a game that feels authentic—perhaps to a fault, because it struggles to really step out of the shadow of its inspirations.
But sometimes authenticity gives way to just blindly clinging to the past. Even on its easiest difficulty setting (described as being for a more “relaxed” style of play), Slipstream leaves little room for error. Course design relishes in those tricky, hidden turns that you can’t properly anticipate and react to—the kind of turns where you need to set up a good line and start drifting before the turn actually becomes visible, and often right as you’re coming out of another. Any racing game takes practice to master its courses, but Slipstream goes beyond that into the realm of pure trial and error.
That’s somewhat offset by the ability to briefly rewind time. At almost any moment, you can rewind up to five seconds, with a cooldown to prevent it from being abused. It’s an interesting idea, but at best it feels like a bandaid fix for the game’s underlying imbalance, and at worst, it just exacerbates those issues. Rewind slightly too much or not enough, and it’s very easy to accidentally set yourself up for another unavoidable crash—one that, with the rewind now on cooldown, you can’t undo.
In Grand Tour, an Out Run-inspired branching arcade mode, even just a couple of crashes is enough to make completing all five stages within the time-limit near impossible. That’s true to Slipstream’s inspirations and a time when trying to entice more quarters out of people’s pockets, and while I won’t suggest there’s no appeal in that—especially among people who grew up playing such games—to have even the “relaxing” mode be so unforgiving feels a step too far.
Slipstream does pack a decent assortment of other game modes: a grand prix mode with a couple of different cups and the option of playing with either preset vehicles or ones with customisable upgrades; a Cannonball mode that lets you create a custom arcade-style run through up to thirty stages; single races; a “battle royale” where the player in last place gets eliminated at each checkpoint; and local multiplayer. In all these modes, five different rides to choose from with wildly different stats cater to a decent variety of playstyles.
But even with such an assortment of modes, the frustrating design underpinning the game as a whole frequently gets in the way. Cannonball suffers the same problems as Grand Tour mode, while trying to get anywhere near the podium in Grand Prix or a single race, let alone earn first place, is a nightmare. Even when you race well, avoid crashes, and use rewind well when you need to, the cars in the lead seem to just have sheer mechanical advantage: they’re faster, they accelerate quicker, they handle corners better, and they’re driven by AI that rarely makes mistakes. There’s none of the rubberbanding It doesn’t feel challenging so much as just deliberately, unapologetically unfair. At least in multiplayer, you can race against the fallibility of other humans.
There are moments when Slipstream finds a groove, everything clicks into place, and it just feels good. Disregard the actual objectives of the game and just enjoy the ride, let the Out Run vibe wash over you and get lost in the moment, and it can be enjoyable, as a sensory experience. As a game, though, it’s infuriating: not a tough but worthwhile challenge, but the sort of difficulty that feels specifically designed to be unfair, even on its easiest settings. There’ll be some who relish that sort of archaic design, but for the most part, it just holds back what is otherwise a beautiful game and an impressive feat for a solo developer.