We, like you, fondly remember the old days of gaming–two button controllers, devastatingly inaccurate D-pads, and games with more pixels than common sense. Pole Position is one such game from the halcyon days of our youth, and when we booted it up for the iPhone, we were excited. It played catchy tunes from the 8-bit era, with proto-stereo sound and no instruments we could identify. The graphics were upgraded, but reminiscent of the old school. The screen was uncluttered, and the controls simple. And then, suddenly, we remembered why we don’t play our Nintendo anymore. Pole Position Remix reminds of the original game, meaning that it is mostly an exercise in frustration.
There are 15 tracks to race on in Pole Position Remix, which actually means 5 actual tracks and three ways to play each–regular, reversed, and mirror imaged, once you unlock them. The car choices are also deceptively limited. You have quite a few themes to choose from, all based on old-school Namco games (like Pac-Man and Tekken), but the car itself remains the same, speed, handling and all. The controls can be customized to your specific style–tilt, touch, or fake steering wheel.
From there, the old Pole Position gameplay really starts to show its age. For example, there are a number of on-screen rivals racing against you, but they’re actually just obstacles; you are awarded the gold, silver on bronze based on your time, not on the other cars on the track. Green cars stay in their lane, and purple cars veer in front of you. The only difference we found between difficulty levels is that on the harder setting the course is narrower and there are more cars on the track. Also, the brake functions more along the lines of a brick wall. You can’t hold it for more than a second without stopping completely, and though you can switch to a touch based accelerator, it works just as badly. The tracks, for all of their curves, play more like a green screen in front of you than an actual course. The backgrounds are boring, and the scaling of the graphics at speed leave a little to be desired. We know the game is going for a retro look, but we wish the graphics had been upgraded a little further.
And then there’s the crashing. We bring this up last, because it’s really the game’s most significant attribute. When your car hits anything other than a small shrub–a billboard, another car, whatever–you crash. The car explodes in a pile of fire and your speed slows to zero. You have to wait for a new car to generate before speeding back up and rejoining the race. This huge time drain is almost impossible to avoid in certain circumstances, even with the game’s responsive steering. Purple cars will switch lanes mid curve, and since the game doesn’t use anything resembling real-world physics, often you’ve no option but to be reduced to a smoldering pile of wreckage. All the crashing will make you want to throw your device into a lake. To be fair, you will gradually get better at dodging crashes as you gain experience, and this is exactly how the first game played, but the constant disruptions are likely to ruin the game for many players.
The real problem with Pole Position Remix isn’t that it fails to recapture the original game’s feel–it actually does a pretty good job in this department–but more that the original game doesn’t hold up after 26 years, especially on the iPhone. The game is hurt across the board by its rudimentary design and lack of depth. The Grand Prix mode is fun, but qualifying every time is not. The car selection is cool, but ultimately worthless. The races have promise, but then the crashes come. The tracks look enjoyable and hearken back to the days when games were measured in bits, but they all play the same and don’t feel worthy of an iPhone game. We enjoyed a few moments of fleeting nostalgia, and you might too, especially if you liked the game the first time around. But there are definitely much better ways of spending $5.99 in the App Store if you’re just interested in a racing game.