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Unless you’re a real sim grognard like my father, mentions of racing games are inevitably going to lead back to Mario Kart. Just as Super Mario became ubiquitous for platformers, so too did his high-speed outings become for racing. It’s for good reason, of course, because that unique mix of technical driving and cartoonish chaos has made it perfect for gatherings of friends and family to shriek and shout over. Plenty of other games have aped the formula and that’s where you’ll find SkyDrift, an aerial racer very much inspired by Mario Kart and some less ubiquitous titles. And perhaps if it had been a more robust package, it could have found similar success online.
SkyDrift places you in the cockpit of sleek, colorful racing planes designed to swoop and streak through precarious canyons and structures. The courses are jam-packed with tight turns and narrow gaps to show off your ace flying skills, along with powerups that let you harass your competitors. Flying dangerously builds your boost which can give you a brief edge on the pack, and can also help you find shortcuts through the course. All this is packaged up in a campaign of seven circuits where you need to finish in the top three in most races to progress and unlock new planes.
It’s pretty standard fare for a racing game of any kind, so what sets SkyDrift apart is the aerial aspect. Racing planes adds an entire dimension to racing, where you can swoop over or slip under hazards, cut off racers on steep ascents, and maneuver out of the way of incoming attacks. It requires a bit more of the old attention and reflexes to keep from smashing into walls, but the daredevil stunts you can pull off are all the more satisfying. In addition to standard controls your plane even has a fine control stick that puts you up on knife edge, allowing you to slip through the narrowest cracks and perform barrel rolls with ease. Here the game very clearly takes a page from Crimson Skies, giving just the right balance of speed and danger to make you feel like a true ace.
That’s just half of the chaos you can gin up, too. The Mario Kart influence comes out most clearly in the powerups, and how much mayhem they cause with eight angry pilots firing them off all at once. Pickups include homing missiles, machine guns, shockwaves, and mines, all extremely deadly if applied with the most basic sensibilities. You can carry two at a time and picking up a second of the same type grants you an enhanced version, like quad missiles instead of double. Add to this how respawns are incredibly quick, and you have a formula for a great gaggle of planes gunning and exploding all the way through the race.
SkyDrift seems balanced towards giving everyone an equal chance to stay in the race, without resorting to potential irritations like blue shells. There’s no rubber-banding whatsoever in the game, so if you straight-up outfly your opponents (or they outfly you) then there’s little recourse. Instant respawns keep pilots from being blasted entirely out of the running, while still allowing aggressors to take advantage of their handiwork. The AI pilots will still give you a run for your money, though, and at least once I’ve been blasted back to second place right at the finish line.
All in all it’s a bright, frantic, and plain-old fun racing game for a few runs here or there. The issues that hold it back are twofold, and build rather unpleasantly on each other. For one thing, there’s no multiplayer community left. That’s understandable for a little-known 6-year-old title, and can be overcome by mobilizing some of your own friends. But the other problem is that there’s a distinct lack of content or depth to the game, so without the multiplayer you’re not left with much. You get plenty of planes and skins for them, granted, but only five maps and three game modes (two additional are multiplayer-only) to race them around in. This is all the campaign consists of, which will only last you two to three hours if you’re determined to snag gold in all those AI races.
I really wish there was more to recommend here, because the fundamentals are rock-solid. The planes handle great, have intuitive controls, and look like proper souped-up racing planes. The whole game looks great for that matter, with plenty of detail and bright color to the tracks. Even the sound design keeps up with the buzzing turboprops and cannon fire that permeates every race. There’s just not enough to do with any of it, either in content or competition. SkyDrift stands as a monument to a great idea, a great evolution of arcade racing, that’s simply been left behind and forgotten.