Nostalgia in video games can be useful to connect with players. There’s an entire genre of platformers built to look like old school games and some of them are very good. It doesn’t always work though.
Gensou SkyDrift is an example of a game that evokes nostalgic feelings for mostly the wrong reasons. From the first time Gensou SkyDrift’s title screen hit I felt like I was back in my adolescent years playing my Sega Dreamcast. The high-tempo, loud theme music sounds straight out of a Japanese arcade game. The menu features five blocky buttons and has high-pitched sound effects from the same era.
That was the good side of the nostalgia. Unfortunately, Gensou SkyDrift doesn’t just sound like it was made in the Dreamcast era, it looks like it, too.
Gensou SkyDrift is a kart racing game based on the Touhou Project series of games. Technically, you fly on the backs of other characters (more on that later), but it plays like a kart racer. The first game in the Touhou Project series debuted in 1997, which explains the general vibe.
If you’ve played Mario Kart 64 in the last several years, that’s sort of what it feels like to play Gensou SkyDrift. Your memory of Mario Kart 64 may be positive, but after playing modern video games in high-def, you can see how the poor draw distance and blocky graphics actually hinder gameplay. Being able to clearly see where you’re going next is key in a racing game. Sure, you will memorize the tracks over time, but this shouldn’t be a problem with modern technology.
My next gripe with Gensou SkyDrift is its weird control scheme on PlayStation. You don’t use the triggers at all. Instead, you use square or circle to accelerate and X to brake and drift. There is no option to customize the controls. You’re stuck holding down a face button for a couple minutes at a time, which doesn’t feel good after stringing a few races together. I’m fine with a face button being used for drifting, but you have to hold down two at the same time for a drift, which is doable but awkward.
I understand the desire for kart games to want to feel like the old games that created the genre, but we have better controllers with nice triggers now. Let us use them to accelerate. Please.
With those two major complaints aside, Gensou SkyDrift feels smooth to drive and does some cool things with its gameplay. There are 18 characters, all girls from the Touhou Project series. They all have varying attributes like speed, drifting, boosting, and different spells they can use, etc.
Gensou SkyDrift pulls from a number of different racing games in its gameplay. There are no item pickups. Instead, you have to go through arches on the track that serve as speed boosts like the speed pads in WipeOut. In some cases that means you have to decide between the fastest line and going a bit wider on a turn to hit the speed boost. Additionally, arches build up your meter for acquiring an item. Once you go through enough arches, a meter fills up and gives you a random item.
The items themselves are relatively typical for a kart game. I was more frustrated when I got hit by an item than I was satisfied by successfully using one. This is probably true for most kart games for me, but I feel like the imbalance was far worse here. Fortunately, you can turn them off if you want to focus on the racing.
In Gensou Skydrift, you pick two characters à la Mario Kart: Double Dash. One character flies stomach down, hovering above the track while the other stands on her back. It looks about as weird as it sounds, but adds a lot of depth to the gameplay. You can pick a character with good straight line speed and match them with one that’s efficient on turns and swap them at the parts of the track they are better at.
There’s a campaign mode, which consists of eight races that gradually ramp up in terms of difficulty. It’s a good tutorial as you get used to how it handles. There’s actually a story delivered in text dialogue, which probably only makes sense for people who have played a Touhou Project game before.
Once I got used to how the racing handles, and lowered my expectations to expect some frustration, I started to enjoy that aspect of it. The lack of friction from the characters flying comes through in the way they handle.
The tracks are hit and miss. Some have smooth curves and are more approachable for beginners, but there are some with 90-degree turns and some where you can fall off an edge. Visually, some were colorful and kind of pretty and some had non-descript, blocky backgrounds that messed with depth perception. I had a few favorites and a few I never wanted to play again.
There’s an online mode, but I couldn’t find anyone to play with. I had similar problems recently with Nickelodeon Kart Racers 2: Grand Prix, but I would at least find a random person here or there to race with in that one.
Gensou SkyDrift is similar to the Nickelodeon kart racer in my head. Both are licensed kart games with solid driving. Gensou SkyDrift has more intuitive drifting. Nickelodeon has better track design and much better visuals. Neither is an all-around good kart racing game. Gensou SkyDrift is only worth playing if you love kart racers and have an affection for the source material. Even then, go in with tempered expectations.
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