Despite a long time affection for the top-down subgenre of racing games, the combination of reliance on now-outdated retro mechanics with the disappointment of recent experience means that it’s suddenly tough to get excited over a new entry in the genre. This is especially the case when the game in question is one linked to the character of Duke Nukem, who has himself turned into an outdated relic, whose most recent game reminded us that the affection that we had for his games in the ‘90s had less to do with the walking cliché of a character and more to do with the freedom that his game offered.
Death Rally is indeed a remake of a now 16-year-old top-down racer, though thankfully, the Duke has been told to stay home this time around. Like Bang Bang Racing, this reboot actually got its start on smartphones but has now made its way to PC. Its origins as both a remake of a PC game from the time when “SVGA” still meant something and an iOS game almost necessarily limits the feature set that the PC version is going to have. There’s not much to it.
There doesn’t need to be.
At first, playing Death Rally feels simplistic and frustrating. You start out in a slow car (though the game helpfully points out that “it handles well”), and even picking a race on “Beginner” mode means you’ll be placing second and third most of the time. You’ll rocket your way into walls, you’ll run into exploding barrels, and you’ll get blown up. And for what? After each race you’ll pick up a piddly amount of cash, with which you can essentially fix your car up just enough to do it all over again. Dare to try a “Deathmatch”, in which you and a “boss” square off trying to kill each other and a bunch of faceless drones, and you’ll find yourself outmatched and getting killed every five to ten seconds. Deathmatches are even more discouraging than the races.
Combating the frustration, however, is a combination of brevity and, curiously, randomness.
Races range from 45 seconds to a minute and a half. Oftentimes, they’re over long before even that brief run length. A race that short never really gets the chance to be infuriating. You start it, it ends, and you’re on to the next thing. You may lose—you will lose—but whatever, it was a minute of your time.
The funny thing is, every so often, you won’t lose. Item boxes are scattered all over the track, and you’ll end up picking up extra nitros, or weapons, or even money to upgrade your car. Win a couple of races and destroy a couple of cars and suddenly the payouts get much bigger, and you’re well on your way to stronger weapons and cars that don’t constantly feel like they’re pushing their way through three feet of water. All the while, each of those wins, even if they are only once every ten, 15, even 20 minutes, they feel like wins. They give you exactly the rush of exhilaration that a “win” should, they offer just enough positive energy to keep you in the game.
And even if you’re not winning, blowing up a particularly troublesome competitor can be awfully satisfying. You’ll grab some extra money for that, too.
Really, the races here are just quick enough, the difficulty level is just high enough, and the little endorphin rush of blowing things up and even occasionally winning is just fulfilling enough to convince a player to click on another and another and another race. Essentially, what the player is doing is JRPG-style grinding, playing race after race after race until that player is driving a sufficiently strong and powerful vehicle to compete at the highest levels. Once you’re there, things open up—playing “Extreme”-difficulty races is great fun and extremely competitive, and deathmatches become tense, attack-and-retreat affairs that can be won handily with the right item pickups and pick-off maneuvers. Online play even becomes an option, and while the servers aren’t exactly overflowing with competitors, the people playing there are smart and skillful players who will give whoever they compete against a run for their money.
Death Race is the type of game that you go into thinking you’ll get one, maybe two hours of fun out of the thing total, and then you suddenly notice that your Steam stats say you’ve been playing it for eight. It’s an extremely simple concept done right, a highly addictive experience that never purports or aspires to be “art”. This is quick-burst arcade mayhem that won’t change your life. It doesn’t want to. It is merely time-killing escapism, no more, and it is an example of how a smartphone-to-PC conversion can go very, very right.