I really love minimalism; not just in gaming, but in a lot of things. Unfortunately, there’s been a lot of misuse of the word in games, swapping it in as a justification for a lack of creativity or content rather than denoting a design element or choice. Race the Sun, though, does the minimalist thing very well, embracing a simplistic design structure without stripping away anything that detracts from gameplay, and – more importantly – without restricting itself from including things that add to it. This is minimalism in the best way, used as a mechanism for expression rather than a hard limit on creativity.
The gameplay is simple; you, in control of a solar-powered ship, hurtle yourself at breakneck speed through a landscape full of geometric obstacles, screaming across the plane towards an ever-lowering sun in the distance. Powerups and score-increasing pickups dot the landscape as you weave through the treacherous waste; starlike boosts that increase your effective remaining daylight by speeding you toward the horizon, jump-action pickups that let you take to the skies on a whim, and more, most of which unlock as you progress by completing challenges. The challenges range from simple tasks like collecting enough multiplier-increasing “Tris” over any number of rounds, to more difficult tasks like completing a zone moving only to the right, or without clipping any obstacles.
One of the game’s great contradictions is how tranquil it can be. I wouldn’t expect a race against time across a deviously lethal space to be any sort of relaxing, but as you find a groove in Race the Sun, the simplicity of its graphical design and soothing electronic backbeat can lull you into a very peaceful experience, even as your heart jumps while you narrowly avoid smashing to pieces against some imposing tower. I’d find myself often forgetting that the sun’s descent would spell certain doom until it hung low enough in the sky that the long shadows of all the spires and pillars stretching over me became a hindrance; after all, it’s not just the setting of the sun, but any shadow that will drain your ship’s power over time, slowing you to a dangerous crawl and leaving you helpless in the dust. The game reminds you – often, in fact – of the futility of trying to fight the inevitable decline of the life-giving star, delivering new power-ups with encouraging messages such as, “We think this may help you do whatever it is you’re trying to do,” or “we’re tired of seeing you smash yourself so often.”
Despite these messages, Race the Sun has an overall positive vibe; the message greeting every new run is simple: “Be excellent to each other”. The depreciation in the other text is, I think, more an examination of the game from within itself; a self-awareness that a lot of games have tried to capture recently, and some have succeeded at capturing. Ultimately, no matter how well you’re doing or how far you go, each run offers only two endings: your ship smashes into an object, shattering to pieces, or the sun slips down below the horizon and you’re left to sit motionless in the dark. However it comes, the game asserts, you have no chance of actual, meaningful “success” – because there’s simply no metric for it beyond whatever challenges you’re presented with at the moment.
One of the greatest things about Race the Sun, though, is that in the midst of this, there’s variance and additional power-ups and other things that simply make the experience one worth repeating. Nothing captures this quite as much, though, as one fantastic vicissitude: every 24 hours, the game world is completely rearranged. While the real impact is minimal, the functional impact is phenomenal; any progress you’d made on memorizing where to go, which paths to take? It lasts less than a day. If you’re struggling too much with the paths laid before you? Just wait; they’ll be new before long. This alone, along with user-created content and the game’s punishing Apocalypse mode, create enough value to almost justify the $9.99 price tag ($7.49 on sale at the time of this writing); if you’re on the fence, though, that may be asking a bit too much, but for those of us who enjoy minimal design (or futile race-the-clock insanity), I think it’s worth giving a shot.
[+Great minimalist design] [+Soothing but not dull soundtrack] [+Vast offering of variety] [+Challenging but approachable] [-Some weird collision-physics hiccups] [-Price is a bit high]