You can count the number of racing games on the Switch that use real licensed cars on just two hands, even three years into its life. And where Sony has Gran Turismo and Microsoft has Forza, Nintendo has Mario Kart.
Nintendo’s seminal arcade racer is a great game of course, but it doesn’t offer the same sort of thrills as driving real vehicles around, and Nintendo hasn’t yet bothered to make a truly- new entry in their long series for the Switch. Instead, they just ported over the Wii U version.
This seems like the perfect environment for Asphalt 9: Legends, a free-to-play arcade racer from Gameloft, first launched on phones and the Windows 10 Store and now available on the Switch. The game has an expansive list of licensed cars, a driving model that combines the best bits of Ridge Racer and Burnout into a fun new package, and a huge selection of tracks and events you can play solo or with other people online.
Unfortunately, it’s also a nightmare web of unlocks, progression bars, energy timers, random card packs, and daily tasks designed to keep giving you little hits of dopamine till you’re addicted enough to spend real money. It’s one of the most brazenly- monetized free games I’ve ever played. Initially, it’s quite liberal with its handouts of premium Tokens. But once you’ve played the game for a few days, the free earning potential slows to a literal crawl, and time limits on play start to kick in. Only those who invest real dollars regularly will do well enough in the game’s many unique challenges and competitions to keep up.
Not even the game’s clan system is free of weird addiction-encouraging progression mechanics. After you’ve played for a while, you can create your own racing team complete with a customized name and logo, and invite your friends. However, if you don’t personally play the game enough each and every day, control of your team will be transferred to the friend of yours who plays the most.
When combined with clan rewards that stack the more of your friends you can addict to the game, this spirals into madness quickly. And it’s but one example of about a dozen mechanics like this in the game. It’s a far cry from today’s more popular Fortnite-style approach of “unlimited” free play with a premium monthly subscription and store stacked on top.
Even if you do put money into the game, unlocking the best cars is a challenge because most of them come from random card packs. It’s often not enough to earn one rare card, either. Many cars require stacks of 20, 40, 60, or more cards to unlock and upgrade.
All of this really sucks because the game is a blast to play. The drifting feels straight out of Ridge Racer. Skilled players could easily drift a whole course. Drifting, hitting physics objects, and jumping off of ramps builds up your boost meter, which has three different types of boost you can activate with the right timing. You get to decide how fast you want your boost to be and how long you want it to last, essentially.
While boosting, you can also more easily take down cars, just like in the classic Burnout games. The controls work well on the Switch, and the touchscreen modes from the mobile version are even here if you prefer that style of play while on-the-go. The online multiplayer is also surprisingly robust, with a quick matchmaking system and a private chat room for your team to use.
Graphically the game is also great, using the same assets as the Windows 10 version and encompassing a whole pile of visual rendering effects. The screen is bathed in particles, motion blur, dust, and weather elements the entire time you play, and the colorful lighting gives the game’s aesthetic a wonderful blend of realism and heightened arcade fun. The framerate is fully unlocked and tries to hit sixty all the time, and overall it’s just a great example of what the Switch can do when pushed.
If Asphalt 9 weren’t so aggressively designed to addict players into spending too much money, it’d be one of my favorite Switch games released in the last year. When the 3DS and Vita launched years ago, each one got a special non-free port of Asphalt with all of the nightmare mechanics removed. Similarly, the Switch versions of the mobile Gear.Club racing games carry a standard price but play more like “normal” console games do.
You should absolutely pay some money for Grid Autosport, Gear.Club, Mario Kart, or one of the other few racers on Switch before you download Asphalt 9. It’s great-looking and great to play, but mired in monetization muck.