When it comes to retro racers on Xbox One, there's something of a shortage. Sure, there are a few arcade racers kicking about, but nothing that could really be described as harking back to days of old. Spectra: 8-bit Racing promised to fill that gap, providing a chiptune-powered and neon-cloaked experience that would hook you in with its simplistic charms, pulsing through your brain like a digital drug.
While Spectra has the word "racing" baked right there into the title, it isn't a racer. Not in the traditional sense, anyway. Your ship travels along neon pathways for the amount of time it takes for one of the excellent chiptunes from the Chipzel-penned soundtrack to play out. You aren't trying to beat a clock or an opponent and barring the minor boost that hitting a booster pad gives you, you can't accelerate or brake. All you need to do is dodge purple obstacles and collect orange boxes in order to rack up your score. You only have two controls – left and right – which can be manipulated using the stick, d-pad, or triggers, and the only way to lose is to fall off the track.
Initially, Spectra is a fun little romp that begins to get its hooks into you. When the game finally starts to become tricky – around halfway through the paltry selection of ten tracks (plus "hardcore" versions of them that are identical aside from their difficulty level) – you'll find yourself instantly reaching for the "retry" button when you crash off course. The threat of addiction is always on the cards.
Spectra never really drives that threat home, sadly. A scoring system that requires players to avoid hitting anything for a few seconds until the points are banked means that you can rack up a nice combo, only to be frustrated as you clip an obstacle. That, combined with the way in which the obstacles are laid out, means that the game is a constant battle between risk and reward. It would be enough to keep you coming back time and again if there was any real variation on hand.
Not only that, but the way that music is used in the game is lacking. The soundtrack is absolutely top drawer stuff and given the focus on it, you'd expect it to somehow tie in to the gameplay. But the only way it does is that you play for as long as that particular music track lasts. There's no finish line to cross, either. When the song ends, the level abruptly does too. Obstacles aren't generated based on beats, high-impact moments don't occur when the tune reaches the peak of a crescendo, and there's no opportunity to pull your own music into the game to somehow extend the title's life.
All of this makes for a missed opportunity. Spectra's visual style is generally memorable and everything moves along very smoothly but even if you beat the 10 levels on offer and unlock the hardcore versions, the feeling of repetition never goes away. When we first tried the game out way back on the showfloor at EGX in September of 2014, it certainly had a lot of potential, but we weren't aware that we'd seen everything that game had to offer in that quick 10-minute play session. Every level – procedurally generated or not – looks identical barring the number of obstacles that are laid out. There isn't something as simple as a colour change going on as you play through. The lay person would be hard pressed to tell the difference between the first level and the last, which means that the thrill of beating that track that was causing you problems is never followed by the anticipation of what's to come. Instead, you know full well what the next level is going to look like and how it's going to play.
It isn't a massive leap for that feeling to convert into either thoughts of abject boredom or thoughts of replaying levels to top out your scores. The former is more likely, unfortunately.
Spectra is a missed opportunity that doesn't offer nearly enough variation to keep players enticed for very long. The same level with a different backing track and slightly more complex layouts of the single obstacle type just isn't enough to be going on with, especially when the ten levels on offer can be beaten in just an hour or two. There's potential for some high-score shenanigans here for those who get hooked, but it's far more likely that they'll beat the game and then forget it.