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The Increasing Casualization of Raw Thrills Racing Games

Full-disclosure: Raw Thrills is one of my favorite developers of all time. I'm pretty much convinced they can do no wrong. However, sometimes I feel it's necessary to politely critique things for the betterment of arcade gaming. This is one of those times.

At IAPPA 2017, Raw Thrills revealed a slew of new games: Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles, Injustice Arcade, Mario Party Challenge World, and Winter X-Games Snow Boarder. These were all interesting in their own right (with TMNT truly stealing the show), but today, I’d like to dwell on Winter X-Games Snow Boarder in particular.

For those of you who may not already know (because, from what I can tell, it wasn’t Raw Thrills’s biggest game of 2017) Winter X-Games Snowboarder is exactly what it says on the tin. Players take to the slopes at breakneck speeds in the Winter X-Games snowboarding event. A simple concept, yes, but one that is made much more exciting by its unique control scheme. Players don’t just use a joystick—no, they’ve got a full-sized, rotating snowboard at their feet. (Plus, there are air blasts shot from the control panel, if you’re into that sorta thing.) While player input is somewhat limited, as you don’t directly control acceleration or deceleration, the simulator-style controls are so visceral that they make up for the simplicity of everything else.

I’ve written before about my particular fondness for games that provide true arcade experiences. Not flashy LEDs, huge monitors, or 4D gimmicks, but features that genuinely make any given arcade game superior to anything you could get at home. When I first saw Winter X-Games Snowboarder on Arcade Heroes, I was convinced that, like Dance Dance Revolution, Snowboarder had crafted an experience so unlike anything home gaming technology that it really did belong in arcades. And after playing it at Arcadia in Gatlinburg, Tennessee, I can confirm that the unique snowboard controller feels so, so good. This is why it hurts me so much to say that the software itself doesn’t reach the highs of the hardware.

Winter X-Games Snowboarder is not a bad game by any means. Like I said, it’s kind of simplistic, but it’s still a total blast to play. Where Snowboarder fails is in its depth of content—by which I mean there is none. With only three courses and three playable characters, this is a barren game. Sure, the snowboard controller is spectacular—oh, I love it to death! But when you’ve only got, like, 10 minutes of actual “game” to use it on, the appeal of Winter X-Games Snowboarder soon wears thin. (Especially when there are no free races for first place—the biggest sin any arcade racing game can commit.) I hate to say it, because Snowboarder presents such a unique concept. Unfortunately, the lack of meaningful content is all too glaring.

You all already know I dread saying this stuff; my love for Raw Thrills is borderline bias. But much to my dismay, Winter X-Games Snowboarder is indicative of a larger trend in modern Raw Thrills racing games: solid, nearly-perfect gameplay without the proper content depth needed to back it up. By now, you might be shaking your head, saying, “Dustin, Winter X-Games Snowboarder was a one-off, gimmick-based concept. Just like Super Alpine Racer before it, Snowboarder was never designed for longevity.” But that, my friends, is where I’m gonna stop you. Compared to its pseudo-spiritual predecessor, Winter X-Games SnoCross, Snowboarder does not deliver. SnoCross had 6 racers, 6 sleds, 7 tracks, and plenty of vehicle upgrades. This was a “gimmicky” title and still managed to be a proper racing game experience.

And besides, Winter X-Games Snowboarder is not the only recent Raw Thrills racing game afflicted by this content vacuum. Enter: Cruis’n Blast. Released in December 2016, Cruis’n Blast is one of Raw Thrills’s most colossally gargantuan hits in recent memory. And when I say it was a big hit, I mean it was a BIG hit. Cruis’n Blast is everywhere, and it still dominates earnings charts to this day. Considering that Cruis’n Blast is both a modern continuation of a fondly-remembered classic series and an expansion of the popular Fast and the Furious gameplay, this success was pretty much inevitable.

However, I probably don’t need to remind you that, for me, Cruis’n Blast was…kind of disappointment, honestly. I was hyped out of my flipping mind for a real Cruis’n sequel from Eugene Jarvis himsel, only to end up playing something much more hollow. Cruis’n Blast only has five tracks. While this may sound fairly normal, especially given the sheer volume of detail packed into each track, it pales in comparison to the 14 tracks in Cruis’n USA and Cruis’n World (or even the 12 in Exotica). And if you compare Cruis’n Blast to its Raw Thrills predecessor, the numbers are abysmal. The Fast and the Furious: Super Cars has over 27 tracks—more than five times what Blast brings to the table. The content reduction seeps into other aspects of the game, too. There’s no “story” mode like in the original trilogy (meaning no Bill Clinton ending sequence, either), fewer vehicle upgrades than in the F&F games, and—you guessed it—no free races for first place, at least in single-player. I will concede once again that Cruis’n Blast is incredibly rich in detail, but the quantifiable volume of content is practically nonexistent compared to these other, much older arcade racing games that also held their own in the details department. But the question remains: Why? Why is this happening?

Obviously, if I just wasted all that space complaining about Cruis’n Blast for the millionth time, I’m bound to have a good reason for it. And maybe it’s just me, but I’ve noticed a common theme in these recent Raw Thrills racing games. Things have become much more streamlined, much less complex. Maybe—just maybe—Raw Thrills racing games are now being designed exclusively for the casual gaming market. A phenomenon I’m apparently calling “casualization”.

At first, you may not agree with my observation. Perhaps not all Raw Thrills racing games have always been the most complex things in the world. But I do genuinely believe that, years ago, the depth one could get from their racing titles was so much more tangible. Games like the Fast and the Furious series, Winter X-Games Sno-Cross, H2Overdrive, and Dirty Drivin’ were packed to the figurative brim with content and extra features to toy around with. Solid track counts, unlockable vehicles, obscene numbers of vehicle upgrades, achievements, and more. The Fast and the Furious games were perhaps the pinnacle of complexity in this regard. By the time the Super Cars released in 2010, the sheer volume of content was staggering. Super Cars was a game with very real depth and complexity. The casual gamer could absolutely just put in a credit, play a race, and leave; but the avid gamer had hours and hours of fun ahead of them. With newer Raw Thrills racing games, I’m afraid gamers will no longer have as much content to sink their teeth into. Although Cruis’n Blast and Winter X-Games Snowboarder are just two examples, they are very egregious examples. I don’t want this to be the future of racing games from my favorite developer.

I guess the reason I’m so concerned about this is because, for a while now, there have been rumors floating around about a new Super Bikes game. I love the F&F arcade series (even when it is devoid of its movie license), and it would absolutely destroy me internally to see such a legendarily deep series be stripped of the content that made it such a rich experience. Obviously, there are no guarantees that this would happen. But seeing as how Raw Thrills stripped the Cruis’n series of all it content and left it as a much different product than its predecessors, I wouldn’t be surprised if the same thing happened to F&F. I would be devastated, yes, but not really surprised.

Although I’ve never really asked anyone at Raw Thrills about this supposed phenomenon, I did sort of offhandedly mention it to Mr. Andrew Eloff in an e-mail thread about IAAPA 2017 promotional flyers. I asked why certain changes were made between the original Cruis’n games, the F&F games, and Cruis’n Blast. He didn’t want to dig in too much into the game design, but he essentially said that games have changed as consumers have changed. So yeah, maybe casual racing games are the future of Raw Thrills. Maybe the kid who plays for five minutes at Dave and Buster’s is the real customer, and I’m an outlier for spending hours of my life mastering Super Bikes at the Wal-Mart. I just do not know.

To end this article, I want to hear from you, guys and gals. Have you all noticed the increasing casualization of Raw Thrills racing games? Am I going crazy, or have we really lost a lot of the depth I used to associate with their titles? Because I miss it. Boy-oh-boy, do I miss it.

The arcade industry is not one where consumers typically interact with companies. Most players don’t critique arcades games in this manner. However, I think it’s time for our voices to be heard. Raw Thrills is the most kick-butt, consumer-friendly developer out there, and I think they’ll listen to the players if we all politely band together behind our causes. I totally dig Raw Thrills, and I don’t want to have to give up their racing games because they become a little content dry.

So, I guess that’s it. Thank you for reading. If you agree, share this article or comment with your own views below. Or heck, write your own article about this phenomenon!

See ya ‘round, nerds. I’m out.


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