Innovation can salvage anything.
While I maintain a fondness for the racing genre, it's one that I can safely say does not receive a great deal of attention with regards to innovation. Arcade or deep simulation tend to be the flavours of choice: be it the inspired lunacy of Mario Kart, or the granular, statistics-driven depth of the Gran Turismo series, most racing games generally slot themselves comfortable between those two spectrums.
TrackMania's approach falls within arcade, but in a way that not only rewards lap-time purists, but those who enjoy puzzles. Its elegant, gravity defying tracks tend to require split-second reflection at times, particularly when the track blends from hard-surface, to dirt and then essentially disappears altogether. It is certainly not uncommon to wonder which direction to turn, with a wrong decision sending the intensely speedy car careening off the track in a stomach lurching display of flips through extended air-time.
In a way, TrackMania features the same exhilarating and rage-inducing appeal as Super Meat Boy. Finding the perfect path through a full-speed track (one that, if done right, does not require the player to slow down at all) is an exercise in patience and on-the-spot thinking. Upon success, the challenge comes in not only trumping your own time, but the times of the other players running the track at the same time. Seemingly insignificant, it's an important distinguishing characteristic compared to Super Meat Boy: seeing other players on the track run through the map, and witnessing their success and folly is wonderful. The insular nature of Super Meat Boy means that raging against failure becomes far more painful as it isn't attributed to anything other than the player's performance. In TrackMania, if 20 out of the 24 players racing on a track weren't able to finish, there is instantaneous feedback from a group of vexed players, alleviating the player's shortcomings on the track.
This combination of pure gameplay-based player skill mixed with social interactivity elevates TrackMania beyond that of other 'wacky' racers. It relies so much on realistic racing concepts (holding the correct line, the balance between acceleration and braking) but is applied to a game whose tracks defy logic for the most part. It's an unusual blend, but one that takes the best components of several sub-genres and applies it a main genre that doesn't generally invite ideas of grand innovation. It's a shame that genres that purport to be more open in scope (i.e. shooters) don't follow Trackmania's lead in stepping out of perceived genre shackles.
My colleague over on the right and I have been running through the current version of TrackMania, TrackMania 2 Stadium, for a couple of weeks now. I find his interest in the game to be rather, well, interesting. He is certainly not one to play a 'traditional' racing game, yet he has certainly become quite a fan of this one. He is, in fact, substantially better at the game than I am (an Oceania ranking of just over 100, compared to my ranking of 470, at the time of publishing). It's clear that the genre mash-up is proving to be a winning formula, helping to sell and enjoy the more traditional racing elements that he perhaps isn't wedded to. It stands to reason that virtually any 'disliked', pure genre can be salvaged with an interesting spin: let's keep them coming.
TrackMania falls into a category of games that I absolutely love.
While I am able to enjoy quite a large variety of games, like everyone else I find certain categories are much more enjoyable than others. Racing is typically not one of those categories: I find most racing games repetitive, boring, and overly reliant on multiplayer competition as a gameplay mechanic.
For me, TrackMania is none of these: it bucks the trend of pretty much every other racing game out there and makes something addictive, exciting, challenging, and engaging. It does this by doing exactly what games do best: by removing itself from reality.
Many racing games are firmly grounded in reality: Gran Turismo, Dirt, Forza, and similar games attempt to emulate real life racing as closely as possible. There's certainly a market for a realistic driving simulator, but for somebody like me, that's terribly boring. If you venture a bit further into game territory, you come across games like Grand Theft Auto and Need For Speed. These games are grounded in reality, but put the player in fantastical situation that wouldn't possibly happen in real life. These games are more enjoyable for people who aren't hardcore racing fans.
If you go even further down the path, you eventually come across the racing games that ignore much of reality. For me, these are the racing games that are consistently fun, easy to pick up, and hard to put down. Mario Kart is one example. TrackMania is another.
TrackMania falls into one of my favourite game categories. I can't think of a proper term for it (let me know in the comments if there is!), but the best way to describe it is that your enemy is yourself. In TrackMania, beating the other players is a secondary goal: the primary objective is to beat your own time. I absolutely love games that challenge me in this fashion, as the goal is to beat a time set by somebody with less skill than you - that is, yourself in the past. For me, this triggers an urge to constantly improve my times.
Many of my favourite games have similar mechanics: Theatrhythm Final Fantasy, Elite Beat Agents, Rhythm Heaven, and Trials 2: Second Edition are some examples of similar games. Some are time-based and some are score-based, but all have the same goal: beat your personal best.
TrackMania is a particularly good example of a game like this, because of the additional element it adds: multiplayer. While I said before that beating the other players is a secondary goal, it is still a very satisfying achievement to score a time that puts you above everyone else. Similarly, finishing down near the bottom of the scoreboard motivates you to improve.
The final thing that makes TrackMania stand out of the crowd is variety of the tracks in the game. It's just more fun to play a racing game with loops, jumps, spirals, wall rides, and many other concepts that would be ridiculous in real life. Once you couple these track sets with a powerful track editor and strong support for custom content, you have a game with a huge amount of content and replayability. TrackMania 2 hasn't been around for very long, and it already has thousands of custom maps. And that number isn't exactly decreasing. When you combine that with excellent mechanics and addictive, self-competitive gameplay, you get a game that will stay in my "recently played" list for a very long time.