Scalextric Digital vs Anki Drive: clash of the toy racers

We compare Scalextric Digital with Anki Drive - how does the venerable slot racing platform perform against the smartphone-controlled newcomer?

2015 is set to be the year when Scalextric, the historic champion of model car racing, takes on the cocky, hi-tech newcomer – Anki Drive – in a white knuckle race for pole position in the Christmas sales.

But if you think it’s a battle of old versus new, or analogue versus digital, prepare to be surprised. Scalextric has taken some serious technological strides forward since the first race cars stormed off the shelves in 1957.

But can its essentially unchanged system of slot-based track racing really compete with the free range, all-digital smartphone controlled platform offered by Anki Drive? Racers, prepare to start your engines…

Scalextric Digital vs Anki Drive, Lap 1: The basics

The base level Scalextric Digital Supercars set is priced at £199 (although it’s currently on offer at several retailers for £129.99) and includes 2 1:32 scale Bugatti Veyron model cars, 2 controlers, 5 metres of track – including a lane-changing/overtaking section – and a power supply cpable of powering 4 cars in total.

The big difference between traditional and digital Scalextric is that you can individually control multiple cars on the same track – a chip in the car ‘pairs’ with the hand controller – and you can switch lanes at the press of a button when you approach the lane change section of track. Oh, there’s also the option to use the brakes – but no one will ever use that so there’s little point in talking about it.

Only Scalextric Digital cars can work on the set – although most cars made after 2007 can be easily upgraded to digital with a plug-in module that costs £12.

The track itself is essentially the same as traditional Scalextric with straights and curves that can be assembled into a wide variety of shapes. Older standard track can be used on digital sets – which is great news for people with an investment in analogue who want to upgrade to Scalextric Digital.

Meanwhile the £149.99 entry-level Anki Drive Starter Kit includes 2 cars – the colourfully named Boson and Kourai, 2 charging cases and a 2.6m by 1m race mat. There are no controllers because your iOS or Android smartphone takes charge of the car wirelessly.

The track – or rather, mat – is free of slots because the cars are much ‘smarter’ than those on Scalextric: they have sensors, steering motors and self-contained batteries that allow them to drive themselves around the track.
Indeed, Anki styles itself as an artificial intelligence company focusing on robotics rather than a toy maker.

Unlike Scalextric, you can’t construct a different track – the cars are capable of ‘learning’ new routes, and in the US other track mats are on sale, but in the UK the starter kit mat is your only option.

Scalextric Digital vs Anki Drive, Lap 2: The gameplay

Although both Scalextric Digital and Anki Drive are model car racing games, the type of gameplay involved couldn’t be more different. With Scalextric Digital the main emphasis is on keeping the car on the road while maintaining the fastest possible speed – so corners have to be approached with caution before hitting the accelerator as quickly as possible on the straights.

The ability to switch lanes gives you the opportunity to block or overtake – but because there is only one piece of lane changing track in the Supercars set, you only get one chance per lap to do this.

So despite the ‘Digital’ moniker, the overall gameplay is reminiscent of classic Scalextric – which is a mix of the delightful and the frustrating. Dads will love it because the nostalgia value adds an extra layer of enjoyment, while younger players are more likely to look enviously at their PS4s and Xbox Ones while in the process of slotting the car back onto the track for the 47th time.

Of course, much of the long-term fun with Scalextric comes from building bigger and more complex tracks, but in terms of out-of-the-box gameplay Scalextric is a marmite affair with the likelihood of loving it increasing with age.

Anki Drive’s gameplay has been described as ‘playing a video game in the real world’. Your smartphone acts as the throttle and a steering wheel so that tilting left or right will change lanes in that direction. The steering around the corners of the circuit is handled automatically, so you can’t turn off the track and drive into the sunset.

But the unique element of Anki’s gameplay comes with its weaponry, which turns a straightforward racing game into something more like Mario Kart. The actual weapons depend on the car, but staples include cannons – which can temporarily shut down a rival car – and tractor beams – which can pull other cars into your line of fire.

ANKI-CONTROLLER

Another concept borrowed from the world of video games is that of ‘achievements’ where points accumulated can unlock rewards, such as new weapons or upgraded performance.

All this helps to keep Anki Drive engrossing for the younger generation of players – and to be fair, is just as much fun for older racers.

Like Scalextric Digital, Anki offers the option to have additional non-player controlled cars. Unlike Scalextric’s blocker cars, these cars have real AI and can shoot, dodge and race their way through a circuit in real time at a high standard. This makes single player gameplay an enjoyable and rewarding reality.

Anki Drive has the edge over Scalextric Digital in just about every aspect of gameplay – with one glaring exception: battery life. The Anki Drive’s USB-powered cars can last for only 20 minutes before they need recharging. So unless you’re rich enough to own a garage of spare cars (and at £50 a pop that’s an expensive set of spares) then gameplay is going to be frustratingly stop-start.

Meanwhile, mains-powered Scalextric Digital users can spend all afternoon racing each other and running up their electricity bill.

Scalextric Digital vs Anki Drive, Lap 3: Upgrades, expansion packs and collectability

These days it’s common to talk about eco-systems when discussing consumer products and that certainly makes sense here. The Scalextric ecosystem is over 60 years old and is very mature – there are websites, forums and eBay postings galore dedicated to buying, selling and discussing Scalextric-related products.

So if you really want to race that weird and wonderful 6-wheeled Elf Tyrrel F1 car against James Bond’s Aston Martin DB5, you can with Scalextric. Even the oldest cars will run on Digital track, even if you won’t get the full functionality of a chipped car.

 

Scalextric also has a range of brand new, highly detailed slot cars on sale, modelled on classic motors from past to present; from a racing liveried Ford Escort MK1 to Lewis Hamilton’s Mercedes F1 car from the current season ( a limited edition of 3000 that costs £45 a pop). It’s clear that the appeal is very much to collectors, probably men of a certain age who would otherwise be occupied with their Hornby train sets.

At the same time, Scalextric is trying to recruit younger fans with its app-based ARC One upgrade. This is piece of track with built-in power supply, lapcounter and Bluetooth. This then uses an iOS or Android app to layer extra options onto the standard Scalextric racing. Among these are limited fuel, pit stops, tyre wear and a raft of over-the-top engine roars and corner skids. You can also keep track of key stats such as lap times, top speed and tournament progress.

It’s all grounded in reality, unlike the weaponised, sci-fi world of Anki Drive, but bringing some of the digital bells and whistles of the smartphone to the analogue traditions of Scalextric does bridge some of the technology gap with the rival newcomer. Best of all, the ARC ONE upgrade is compatible with all existing standard and digital Scalextric products and is reasonably priced at £49.99.

However Anki Drive is not parked quietly in a layby, resting on its laurels. It’s launching its own upgraded platform – branded, inevitably, Anki Overdrive – this September and the key change will be modular tracks you can build yourself, just like Scalextric. Well, not quite. The Anki track pieces don’t have any slots and attach together quickly and easily using magnets (think of an iPad smartcover).

The trailer for Anki Overdrive will make no sense to anyone over 14 years old

But the straights and curved shapes allow you to create an wide array of different courses – just like Scalextric – and the track is flexible enough to create additional levels on the Y axis to over over and under racing.

Being Anki, there are some unique types of track available – including a ramp section where cars accelerate automatically to catch some serious air secure in the knowledge that the built-in AI can rescue them from any hard landings. It’s not going to be cheap – the expectation is £150 for the starter set with 2 cars and 10 track pieces – but that is the same as the current single-course only pack. And by bringing in the imagination-powered, course-building functionality it’s stolen one of the key advantages of traditional slot racers like Scalextric.

The race isn’t over yet but at his stage Anki has managed to manouever itself into a comfortable lead. But Scalextric has been around for 58 years and has a lot of nostalgic goodwill cheering it on. This one’s going to go right to the wire…

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