Snails. Amongst the various qualities that they possess, speed is not one of their strongest points. It was with one eyebrow raised that I downloaded Snail Racers, in which a group of the slimy creatures don their shellsuits and take to the track. It seems a determined snail can actually set quite a pace. And if the competition do slip ahead, there's a range of special items like rockets, mines and boosters to turn the tables.
Aside from the change in, er, vehicles, racing game fans will be instantly at home here. Select your snail from a range of suitable racers - each has their own strengths and weaknesses with regard to speed, acceleration and specials - and play either a single track, a championship race or a time trial. Do well and you can unlock additional snails, tracks and game modes. So get ready, set... slow! (No, I didn't invent that one - that's really how a race starts!)
Snail Racers boasts several smiling snails in a riot of colours, a number of colourful cartoon courses and a plethora of randomly selected power-ups. Mines and rockets stun the competition, sticky patches slow them down, boosters speed you up and shields protect you from attack by other players (these last trigger straight away, while all other power-ups are held and triggered on player request). The strangest power-up is an alien spacecraft that hovers over the snail in first place and freezes it in a block of ice for several seconds. Snails can only hold one power-up each, so picking up another will replace the first.
Controls are either keyboard or (if you have one fitted) joystick, and can be customised. I have no idea what the default keyboard controls are as they were not listed anywhere. Controls are accelerate, brake, left, right and use power-up - a complicated list, I'm sure you'll agree! Note that the brake option is virtually useless as you'll come to a stop very quickly under normal circumstances anyway, and there is no reverse. A snail stuck against the scenery must turn on the spot and go forwards. There's also no checking for keyboard clashes - if you're playing in two player mode, you can choose the same keys (this was fun to experiment with)! I also recommend avoiding the arrow keys - there seems to be a limit on the number of key presses that Snail Racers recognises at once, and I was unable to turn, accelerate and fire at the same time.
Aside from winning races, which is easier said than done (snails seem to corner rather poorly, unless that's just me) there are two other challenges to entertain players. One is to unlock new racers, done by finding them hidden within the tracks as spinning faces. There's a big advantage to doing this - new snails can be better racers. The other challenge is to unlock the time trial for each track, and this is done by collecting all the coins on a track (in one go - you can't collect a few one round and the others on the next). Both of these are easily done - just abandon all hope of winning the race and go exploring off-track. The race doesn't end until you finish the course, even if this means you spend a few hours hunting coins, exploring nooks and crannies and possibly enjoying a light picnic.
Snail Racers is designed with fun in mind, and the graphics reflect this. Thick black lines surround the cartoon scenery, the snails have the resemblance of plasticine rather than their slimy counterparts in reality (and smiling faces too!) and the interface is big and clear. This is clearly aimed at younger players. Some aspects are weaker than others - the spinning faces that denote new snails look almost like space invaders and seem incongruous with the cartoon world around them. Sound is also fun and bouncy, with a range of rocking tracks to accompany your racing. Snails make "wheee!" noises when leaping over booster ramps and shout "present!" when shooting their fellow molluscs in the back with a missile.
Very easy to play, Snail Racers takes racing back to basics. The emphasis is on fun, not realism, and action, not precision. I am notoriously bad at "proper" racing games and actually managed to come first in a race here! The courses are fairly short (you can usually complete one in a few minutes) and the championship doesn't throw you out for a single bad race - the total score is what counts. Racing fans will find this too simple for their tastes, but it's not pitched at them - casual players and those with children will benefit most. There are some wonderful little touches too - the volcano track shakes when it erupts, and watch out for falling lava! You can also choose to play without the pickups if you want a normal, sensible race. With multicoloured plasticine snails.
That said, there are some areas for improvement. A simple reverse would make getting stuck in the scenery much easier to get out of. The unlockable time trials are merely a treasure hunt with no real challenge (made silly by letting you play forever) and, when unlocked, are less interesting than the single races - especially for small children. A range of race-related minigames might be better here - collect as many coins as you can in a minute, for instance, or snail tag ("you're it!"), or a demolition derby with lots of pickups and points scored for blasting your opponents. If you're aiming at children, why stop with just racing? I hope this is something that Icon Games take into account for Snail Racers 2: Slugging It Out...
I'm not sure there's a vast amount of longevity to Snail Racers. Once you've unlocked all the racers and the tracks and beaten the championship, what else is there? Beating your lap times, perhaps. It'll take a little while for younger players to get there, at least. Snail Racers has an intriguing premise and a great style but it lacks the substance and variety to keep you coming back. But at least for a little while, it's a fun and friendly game that's suitable for all levels of playing ability - even mine!
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