Someone who should know about these things once told me one of the secrets behind Nintendo’s success when it comes to the brilliance of its games; every idea is interrogated by each team member to the point of exhaustion, until all you’ve got left is something approaching perfection. Take Splatoon’s painting – what started off as blocks of tofu spreading ink evolved into rabbits then into squids, the ink going from first marking territory to then being able to speed up your progress and recharge your weapons and take down the opposition. A game of Splatoon is chaos, but it’s held together by an order informed by meticulous design.
You sense that same interrogation of thought isn’t quite there in Trailblazers, a racing game that transposes Splatoon’s painting mechanic onto an arcade racer with little by way of grace. It has verve, though, and Supergonk – a new Guildford studio formed from Bizarre Creations, Codemasters and Lionhead veterans – has injected Trailblazers with an infectious kind of energy. Its characters have that old Filmation look nailed down – the bold art suggests that this is every bit the BraveStarr racing game spin-off you always hoped for – and the soundtrack skips along with that same summertime smile as Sega’s Jet Set Radio.
When you’re on-track, some other influences shine through too. There’s a fair amount of F-Zero in its racing, and certainly in its track design; one particular circuit feels like a straight rip of GX’s Aeropolis, which is no bad thing of course, while others share the same predilection for sinewy, high speed thrills. A shame that Trailblazers can’t match the fidelity of control that F-Zero GX benefitted from, and that some of its tighter tracks demand. The drifting is clumsy and inelegant, which is a bit of a problem in a genre that’s often built around the art of driving sideways.
Still, at least Trailblazers has its own ideas to distinguish it, even if they are lightly lifted from elsewhere. Splatoon is an obvious reference point, given that you’re laying down trails of a certain colour in your wake while the opposing team lays down their own, though you’re never really fighting for territory. Instead, you’re laying down boost trails for your teammates – and for yourself next time you come through – while working to paint over trails laid down by the opposition. It’s a neat idea with a couple of thoughtful twists – boost gates lay down a lane of colour, and when your own reserves are fully charged you can unleash an attack.
Races run to their own rhythm, the first laps spent laying down tracks before an all-out push towards the end – and at its heart Trailblazers is a co-op game, its varied cast bringing different abilities to each team’s composition as you work to paint and boost each other towards victory. Stay on a trail for longer and you level up your boost – so that towards the end of a race the velocity can reach ludicrous proportions.
It’s cute, even if Trailblazers is simply messily reimagining the art of slipstreaming, adding in its own quirks along the way. An effective race is run like track cycling’s team pursuit, small mobs of three taking it in turns to pull out of each other’s slipstream while the lead does the hard work until its reserves are depleted and it retires to the tail-end. That’s the theory, anyway – throughout the fairly generous campaign mode which gives each of the eight characters a proper runthrough, the AI doesn’t seem particularly capable of giving you much assistance, which can render all that strategy a bit moot.
When played with friends, the technical shortcomings that plague the rest of Trailblazers become more pronounced, and the slightly smeared visuals – Trailblazers borrows the bright palette of Splatoon 2 but doesn’t have quite the same crispness, making it feel like one of those Saturday morning cartoons viewed through a ketamine hangover – go a fair way to undo the good work done elsewhere. That’s not the only issue, with frustratingly punitive collision physics and an inability to communicate several of the systems that underpin each event also getting in the way.
It’s a pity that the energy that Trailblazers displays – and its upbeat spirit can prove infectious – isn’t met with a little more meticulous thought and care placed elsewhere. The unfortunate thing when invoking such classics as F-Zero and Splatoon is you invoke their brilliance, and while Trailblazers has happily taken the grand ideas it’s skimped out on the detail – and so this colourful mash-up ends up feeling plain sloppy.