These days, it feels like the phrase "iPhone racing games are a dime a dozen" is an understatement—heck, more than a dozen of these games are free. So when I'm playing a new one, it had better grab me in the first thirty or forty seconds, else I'll just go back to playing Time Surfer.
Rally Games' Top Bot almost fell short of this—the game and I didn't get off on a good foot. For starters, I downloaded it with the intention of playing it on the train, but since my cell phone signal gets cut off when I'm underground, my attempts to start Top Bot were met with this screen:
D'oh. But okay, okay, once I'd started the game once and set up my Top Bot account, I was good to go (and could play it offline). That said, Rally Games very much intended Top Bot to be played online.
That actually ties in with the second reason I almost gave up on the game before it won me over. (It did win me over, by the way. Just to take that suspense out of things.) I started playing and in the early goings, I couldn't quite distinguish it from other "endless runner"-type games, except that it wasn't exactly endless—I was going in laps around a track. But all the other hallmarks of games like Tiny Wings and Jetpack Joyride and Whale Trail and, yes, my beloved Time Surfer were there. Tap one side of the screen to make your little robot move up, tap the other to use a power-up. Dodge spiked balls, and jump over obstacles. Collect coins and hit boost-arrows.
But the game doesn't have the oomph of Jetpack Joyride or the soaring momentum of Time Surfer, so at first I didn't quite get into Top Bot. But after a little bit, the game's whole appeal came through: this is a multiplayer game.
When you start, you'll have to download other races from the internet or make your own and share it. "Races" here are more like "performances"—you'll be sharing how you did in the race, where you steered, and which power-ups you grabbed. That's where you'll take on other players, even though they don't have to be playing at the same time as you—you just download their race and see if you can do better. In contrast to most other runner/racing-type games, you won't just be competing on a leaderboard; you'll actually see the other players' characters racing alongside you. This is surprisingly cool. It's been cool to see new types of games experimenting with the asynchronous multiplayer first popularized by Words with Friends and Draw Something, and it works surprisingly well here. (The soundtrack is also a lot of fun, as you can hear in this video.)
Obviously, you can't block or run into or in any way affect your opponent; you're basically racing a ghost. So it's not really the same kind of rambunctious free-for-all that you'd see in, say, Mario Kart. (Is there a way that this would be possible? Like, a turn-based asynchronous racing game where you take turns hitting and reacting to one another? Hmm. I don't think that would work. Anyway.)
It's all pretty fun, and it's free, too—this is yet another game that relies on in-game microstransactions based around a currency system to make you want to pay to customize your bot, or unlock power-ups that help you in the game. I haven't played enough to see if those power-ups give you an edge in the actual race, but I'd imagine it's all something of a wash.
Top Bot's "ghost racing" idea is good, and slickly implemented, though its success will depend on getting people you actually know to play against you. While the game lacks the punch and pizazz of a Time Surfer, it's still a lot got a lot more going for it than it seemed at first blush.