The Secret History of Lego Racers 3
[mks_dropcap style=”square” size=”52″ bg_color=”#fff023″ txt_color=”#00000″]T[/mks_dropcap]he Lego Racers franchise was one of my favorites growing up. I mean, who can forget that iconic theme? As a kid who always had a handful of Legos on his floor, the Racers games were my bread and butter. I still credit Lego Racers 2 for instilling in me an obscene passion for racing games. I played Lego Racers before I ever had a chance to sit down and play Mario Kart 64 or Need for Speed. But after the second installment in 2001, the franchise fell off the map. This was likely in part due to the rocky financial situation Lego was in at that time, a slump which was corrected right around the same time due to the launch of Bionicle and the first ever licensed Star Wars sets. Lego launched a few ill-fated racing games within different IPs, but primarily moved into the licensed-properties market after the massive success of the Lego Star Wars games.
I never really noticed this shift from original games to licensed ones while it was happening, and I was more than content to keep playing Lego Racers 1 and 2 until my pre-adolescent fingers and wrists couldn’t handle it anymore. But now, almost twenty years later, it seems like we’re in a new golden age of Lego games. Gone is the era I knew of Lego Racers, Lego Rock Raiders, and Lego Island – come is the era of Lego Star Wars, Lego Marvel, and Lego Worlds.
The partnership between the Lego Group and Warner Bros. owned TT Games has been nothing if not wildly popular (and profitable), so why haven’t we seen any new racing games from Lego? A fresh wave of nostalgia seems to be washing over every conceivable intellectual property right now, but it hasn’t seemed to reach some of Lego’s more beloved franchises. So several weeks ago, being the inquisitive fan that I was, I decided to do some quick Google searches to see if there were any rumors of new racing games in development at TT. What I found left me with far more questions than answers.
As it turns out, there was a new entry to the Racers franchise in development in 2003, but in an even more stunning twist, a seemingly separate Racers game was in development elsewhere around that same time.
Let’s walk down this timeline: after the release of Lego Racers 2 in 2001, a spiritual successor to the Racers franchise was launched in 2002 in the form of Drome Racers. Developed by Attention to Detail and published by EA, Drome Racers garnered a tepid response from the gaming community (despite the protagonist being named Max Axel), though the GameCube port of the game briefly found itself on UK’s GameCube Top 10. Regardless, Drome Racers developer ATD went out of business in 2003, a little less than a year after the release. However, within that time they were reportedly working on another Racers game.
A quick scroll down former ATD developer Simon Goodwin’s website reveals that ATD was working on the tech to make a massively open world Racers game under the title Lego Racers 4 (Drome Racers was called Lego Racers 3 while in development). Drome Racers had apparently suffered from publisher interference, something Goodwin said carried over to the development of LR4. Goodwin remarked that the relationship between ATD and Lego was less than favorable, saying:
“The management [department] of Lego games seldom lasted as long as it took to complete a console title, and drew from a pool of people with little experience in the games industry, which meant frustrating changes in direction that did not improve the eventual product.”
Goodwin said the fourth Racers game was cancelled after “substantial development effort” and would have been “a more ambitious project” than Drome Racers. Lego Racers 4‘s prime selling point would have been a hugely open world setting. Goodwin claims that “the design called for streaming of the entire game world from DVD, allowing much larger and more intricate play area than earlier Lego games, or most console titles at the time.”
In 2004, a little less than a year after ATD’s collapse, an ad appeared in a European Lego catalog, seemingly marketing a game called Lego Racers CC alongside advertisements for other Lego Interactive titles, namely Bionicle: The Game and the inaugural Lego Star Wars game. But beyond this mysterious advertisement, no other information about the game ever surfaced. A handful of forum posts on the temporarily defunct Lego fan site Rock Raiders United have speculated that after ATD’s collapse the assets from LR4 were given to another company, and that those assets were the basis for unreleased LRCC. However, Goodwin and other former ATD developers have said to the best of their knowledge this is not so. But this is not the end of the Lego Racers story.
In 2007, just after the announcement of the ill-fated 2010 brick-based MMO, Lego Universe, developer NetDevil announced the creation of a new web games division and the concurrent development of a brand new Racers game. Planned for release in the first quarter of 2008, this Racers game was a Flash-based browser game, and dovetailed off a previous Racers browser game called Drome Racers Challenge, a game I spent many an hour suffering through my family’s DSL connection to play (though I can’t say I ever played NetDevil’s Racers game).
Developer Hands-On Mobile and publisher Kiloo released a Lego Racers mobile game the same year – however, since the game was built to play on BlackBerry neither the mobile Racers game or Drome Racers Challenge ever received a formal PC or console release, and as such shouldn’t be considered part of the vast Lego Racers development cycle conspiracy I’m so painstakingly assembling for you (Lego pun), other than for one developer’s mild connection (also Lego pun) to the next mysterious Racers title.
In 2009, on the packaging of a number of physical Lego Racers sets, there was mention of an upcoming Lego Racers: The Video Game. Photos of the box ads found their way onto the internet via a post on Brickset.com, followed soon after by posts of one form or another on Kotaku and Giant Bomb anxiously awaiting details of this new Racers game. The primary theory was that if it didn’t end up being a console game, it may just be another of Lego’s plethora of browser games, especially in light of the previous browser games from NetDevil’s web division.
No answers to these speculations ever came to light, because like LR4 and LRCC, this Racers game never saw the light of day. However, it did seem to have come much further down the development pipeline than LRCC, since we actually have a pair of screenshots from the title. The timeline would’ve been correct for at least some of the assets from LR:TVG to have been appropriated into the racing component of NetDevil’s Lego Universe, though the rare screenshots we have seen would suggest this wasn’t so. Both the presentation of the box art advertisement and the graphical quality suggest it may have been intended to release on a handheld system, such as the Nintendo DS.
Since then, it’s been all quiet on the western front as far as new Racers games are concerned. Beyond the obscene amount of browser games Lego has hosted on their myriad sites, TT Games has a monopoly on Lego video game development, and beyond the release of Lego Worlds, all the TT Lego games follow the very strict gameplay formula first set by 2005’s Lego Star Wars.
[mks_highlight color=”#eeee22″]RETURN OF THE RACER[/mks_highlight]
This is the point where I take personal license to ask, “why doesn’t TT break their mold and develop a new Lego Racers game?” It’s not like racing games are a crazy financial risk, especially one with the Lego name behind it. Mario Kart Wii is the 6th best selling game of all time, presumably for a couple of reasons: first, like with Lego, there is a legacy to Nintendo and to the Kart franchise; second, Mario Kart‘s quirky style and enjoyable gameplay; and third, the inclusion of characters from a wide range of Nintendo’s intellectual properties.
For all these reasons, I think Lego should make another Racers game. Imagine Emmet from The Lego Movie racing against Luke Skywalker and Iron Man through the streets of Gotham. If that sounds like bad fan fiction, that’s because it is – but only until Lego comes out with a great new Racers game. Lego is on top of the modern toy market, and it is time for Lego Racers to return. The recent launch of Lego’s Speed Champions product line puts them in an even better place to do it, with licensing agreements already locked in with Mercedes, Bugatti, Ford, Ferrari, Porsche, Chevrolet, and Audi. With partnerships like these, Lego could make the mother of all arcade racing games, bridging that gap between Forza, Need for Speed, and Mario Kart.
With the advent of next-gen consoles, super powered PCs, and incredible engines like Unreal and Frostbite, Lego could really push the franchise into the modern era – I mean, look how good Battlefield 1 looks. Aesthetically, the perfect version of the game would look like Forza Horizon 3 if it were built entirely out of Legos, a la all the environments in Lego Worlds, or even something built on the Avalanche engine used on the recent Mad Max game – that game is gorgeous.
Now is the prime time for Lego to launch a new title into its Racers franchise. The market has proved time and again that it’s willing to buy Lego games (disastrous MMO Lego Universe aside), so what’s the hold up? If Lego were to follow the Mario Kart formula and develop it’s own cross-property, arcade-style racing game, I think they’d have a smash hit on their hands.