Surf's up, senpai!
It’s natural to wonder what the developers of our favorite games are up to when they move on to a new company. The Xbox One title ReCore was advertised as being developed by “the makers of Metroid Prime,” and the indie platformer Yooka-Laylee turned heads for being the return of many key members of N64-era Rare. Gensou Skydrift caught our attention from its claim that it was being made by former developers of the Mario Kart series. Though we haven’t figured out exactly who those developers are, the fingerprints of Mario Kart are all over this game. The strange part is that this is not a typical mascot kart racer. Gensou Skydrift is a Touhou fangame.
The Touhou Project is a multimedia franchise that started as a bullet hell game for PC in the late ‘90s. The series is notable for its incredibly prolific expanded universe made up of fan works including manga, light novels, and even a few anime. Series creator Jun’ya Ota, better known by his pseudonym ZUN, is very open to fans’ interpretations of his characters and world, and Gensou Skydrift is one example of the many projects that Touhou fans have created over the years. The fact that it was made by former Mario Kart devs and is coming to Switch to boot is as fascinating as it is bizarre, but getting the chance to actually play the game at PAX East proved that the team has what it takes to make a worthy follow up to their past kart-racing achievements.
Skydrift takes some clear cues from the Mario Kart franchise (with the first track in the demo even being named Maricircuit), but the game it’s most specifically inspired by is Double Dash. You select two characters to race as simultaneously, each one being an anime girl from the Touhou Project. In races, one girl (who I’ll henceforth refer to as the driver) rides on the back of the other girl (henceforth called the surfboard), and you can swap between them with the press of a button. Each girl has their own racing stats, and though I couldn’t figure out whether the driver’s or surfboard’s stats were responsible for how the team handled there was a clear difference each time I swapped their positions.
The most interesting difference from Mario Kart is how Gensou Skydrift handles items, which appear as spells. Spells are made up of typical kart racing fare such as boosts, missiles, and shields. According to the PR rep managing the demo, each girl has her own unique spells that represent their appearance in the Touhou Project. Having never played a Touhou game in my life, I had to take her word for that. Spells are not picked up from boxes on the track, but instead are acquired from a meter that builds up as you drive through boost rings. The meter can be filled three times, with each consecutive bar increasing the power of the spell you’ll get when you decide to spend the energy you’ve gathered. Only the driver gains energy for their meter while playing, there is a bit of strategy involved in deciding when to store a spell with your surfboard until you’ll need it later.
We played five tracks in the demo: the aforementioned Maricircuit that looks right out of the Mushroom Kingdom, a dark mansion with branching alternate paths, a mountain pathway with dangerous cliffs, a flying battleship with tight, twisting turns, and a dense forest with thin roads. While the tracks aren’t as lusciously detailed as Nintendo’s AAA releases, they all do a great job of representing the aesthetic theme through gameplay. The maze-like corridors of Scarlet Mansion evoke the feeling of escaping a haunted house, and the perilous cliffs of Youkai Mountain feel like an epic mountain-climbing adventure.
Gensou Skydrift defies all expectations and manages to be an incredibly fun racer despite borrowing a lot of ideas for both its aesthetic and gameplay. I’ve put countless hours into Mario Kart in the past and can easily see myself putting the same kind of time into Gensou Skydrift when it comes to Switch this summer. I didn’t have time to figure out all the game’s nuances in the demo - I’m still not sure how each girl’s spells fit into the overall item pool for one - but what I’ve seen so far has impressed me enough to believe that there’s potential for a lot of depth in the mechanics of this strange anime surfing game.