Five years ago, I got an iPhone, and immediately started loading it up with nonsense. I found a couple of fun games for it, and I sort of became known at my high school as the guy who had the iPhone. People would ask me to see it, and with all the awesome things it could do and the crazy and fun games, the thing that seemed intrigue people the most was a small game called Cube Runner, in which you were a small ship that raced forward and dodged obstacles along the way until you hit one and exploded.
It was a simple and uncomplicated game, but the appeal was immediately understandable: it was a perfectly boiled-down competitive experience. Everyone wanted to be the best at the game, and passing it around among friends was great. It was probably one of the earliest endless runner games, and it really showed a lot of the simple thrills of what this genre could do.
Cut to 2013 and, while things have changed in the genre, Race the Sun is basically an upgraded version of Cube Runner.
The upgrades come in a couple of ways- ship upgrades, random levels, and pick-ups that grant abilities. It’s all pretty basic, with upgrades being things like a magnet that pulls in the pick ups, pick ups being for points, jumps, boosts, a couple of things like that.
The boost is pretty important because you’re running a solar powered ship and, as you go along, the sun is sinking. Boosts speed you up so fast that you catch up with the sun a little bit, so while they make you go faster and it’s difficult to dodge obstacles, you’re able to go on and continue, you know, having power. As the sun goes down, shadows lengthen, and if you stay in them too long, your solar gauge goes down. It forces you to have to think about your routes and plan to get pickups a little bit more, but eventually you hit a pretty good groove and can sort of coast until you hit a bad spot or run out of power.
This gives you another layer of things to worry about that other runners don’t give you: the idea of running out of power. It forces a sort of aggressive play style you don’t have in similar games. Things like the ability to jump also let you get out of tight spots, and you can chain them together to get even more height and distance. Where it’s possible in other games of this ilk to find the safest path and stick to it, the extra wrinkle introduced by needing to keep up your power and keep up with the sun gives you more to do, and can cause a lot of panicked and desperate runs to catch a boost and get out before you hit something.
Levels randomize by day, so there’s always something new to play and excel at. On top of that, there are also challenges that change every day, things such as “jump 15 times!” and “do 20 barrel rolls in a run!” This all feeds into the way that you level up, which unlocks new pick-ups and abilities that allow you to survive longer and get more interesting mechanics. The game starts out pretty plain, but as you go along, it gives you emergency escape portals and magnets that let you suck in a bunch of powerups from further away.
Levelling is a little unique, where instead of experience points, it sort of works on a check system. Each challenge, depending on how difficult it is, is worth a certain number of checks, and four checks is a new level. The aforementioned barrel roll one is worth three, but something like jumping a certain amount of times is only worth one. The Kickstarter page says there are 25 levels, so you’ve got quite a bit to do before you can reach max level.
Because of how all of this works, I’d say that the best way to experience this game is maybe for an hour a day. That’s when you can get a feel for how good you can do at a level, get through all of the challenges you can (they reset by day, though they also use the same challenges daily), level, and maybe try a few of the user levels out.
The level editor claims to be simple and easy to use, but even though their website has a how-to on making levels, it was a little convoluted to me and I wasn’t able to do much with it except screw up a 3D model. Still, some of the created levels were cool, but they tended to be too easy, ending with me just running out of time when the sun sank instead of really being threatened by an obstacle.
There are a couple of really cool things about the game that I’ve never seen anywhere else, such as the way it actually has 4-player co-op. Which is pretty ridiculous for the genre, but and essentially has each person take up where the last person died. Your scores are then tallied and displayed on a separate leaderboard, and it’s a really cool idea.
A portal system also exists that basically jumps you out of your level and into a pre-selected user level, and even though it’s locked behind the level wall, it’s a great system. While I like the look of the game in general, the stark grays and shiny steel look can be a little boring after a while, and these levels you pop into can have some really awesome visual differences, such as the ‘Void’ level, which has no floor, is in space, and has asteroids everywhere, or another full of giant rabbits.
If I really had a problem with the game, it’s in the leaderboards. There are two- solo and team leaderboards. It would be much preferable for the game to have some kind of friends leaderboard, or allow me to see things in different ways, such as by distance travelled instead of just points. It also doesn’t surface them enough. I know this is an independent game that was crowdfunded and I might be expecting a lot out of it, but some sort of surfacing for “here’s your rank and here’s how far you have to go to be through” popping up in game, or even just on the results screen, would have given the game a much more immediate replayability hook.
The other problem is that the game just starts off as a little boring. You don’t start getting cool powers until you level up, so at first all you can do is dodge and collect points. The game eventually starts to fill in later and that’s when it gets more fun. It’s the same problem a lot of games with this sort of level-up unlock system have, and it’s a shame they couldn’t dodge it here.
Once you get the unlocks, the game is pretty fun for a few hours a day, at most, but doesn’t really hold up to longer sessions. The leaderboards could use some work, and I hope that they continue to peck away at them, but Race the Sun is a fine runner with some decent hooks and unique modes that can give you some good fun if you stick with it.