Tuesday, September 11, 2012

PixelJunk Racers and Wish Fulfillment

Image from PixelJunk.jp
I'm a big fan of Q-Games, so I was glad to finally get a chance to check out PixelJunk Racers. Aside from the obvious clue in its title, I wasn't sure what kind of game it was before playing it. Imagine my surprise when I realized it was a slot car game; talk about a niche within a niche!

While not as high-concept as Eden or retro-chic as Shooter, Racers has the same sleek, high definition charm and precise controls as the other games in the PixelJunk family. Like many other games, it allowed me to live out a kind of power fantasy. No, not the kind of daydream fulfilled by blasting aliens with Master Chief or saving the world with Link; something much more humble, though nearly as elusive.

When I was a kid, my parents gave me a small slot car track. In my head, I imagined playing with it would look like this:

In reality, it was a lot more like this:

On a side note, I'm pretty sure that, except for the Cars theme, that playset is the exact one I had. It seems the only thing that has changed about kids' slot car toys is the branding.

Anyway, the point point is that PixelJunk Racers captures the essence of what I imagined an awesome slot car track would feel like. The fixed perspective, trigger-style acceleration (using the L2 and R2 buttons) and orderly race lanes are all there, but the faulty batteries, warped plastic, and bent wires are not. Since it's a video game and therefore unencumbered by the laws of physics or parental admonishment, Racers allows you to jump between tracks, smash opponents' cars, and build up speed boosts when darting in and out of traffic. It's as close I can get to living out all the wacky scenarios I imagined while playing with my janky set.

Of course, the digital medium also has its drawbacks. Irritating as unexpected malfunctions with real slot cars were, the kinds of crashes they caused were often hilarious. The chaos in PixelJunk Racers is far more controlled: taking a turn too fast won't make you careen off the track. There are a variety of courses, but you can't rearrange them or add your own obstacles to them. I also find myself missing that weird slot car scent: nostalgia has the metallic scent of hot electronics and cheap plastic.

It may be a compromise, but I think it's a good one. As a video game, PixelJunk Racers stacks up well against other score-chase titles like Trials or Dyad. It has the power to stir up the "just one more race" impulse that can easily make the hours fly by. At the same time, it does a great job of giving me the slot car racing experience I always imagined as a kid without forcing me to drain my bank account and cede my living room floor. Not all video game power fantasies revolve around blasting dudes and saving the universe; sometimes you just want to chance to win a little race against dozen other tiny cars. Winning a small trophy never hurts, either.

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