The Ferrari brand is arguably the most celebrated name in motor sport with the famous 'prancing horse' emblem representing all that is glamorous and desirable about racing fast cars at astonishingly high speeds. However, despite this level of adoration it's a sad fact that many of us will never get to drive a Ferrari, let alone own one. These vehicles are the sole preserve of the rich and famous; not for the likes of us mere mortals.
Thank goodness for those kindly chaps at System 3, then. Possibly sensing that many gamers harbour a fondness for the distinctive Italian styling that only the Maranello-based manufacturer's cars possess, this veteran developer has produced what is perhaps the most mature and accomplished racing title yet released on a portable device.
Right from the moment you switch the game on it's abundantly clear that Ferrari Challenge encapsulates all the effortless finesse of its source material. The visuals are jaw-droppingly excellent, showcasing highly detailed car models, intricate tracks and a rock-solid, silky-smooth frame rate. The DS is often derided for its lack of 3D clout but Ferrari Challenge proves once and for all that in the right hands the machine is perfectly capable of generating some truly awe-inspiring graphics.
When the initial impact of the presentation wears off you're faced with a fairly robust set of gaming options. The training portion of the game is obviously the ideal place to start, offering a gentle introduction to the crazy world of racing automobiles that are worth more than your house.
Given that most driving games regard training modes as an afterthought or even worse omit them altogether, the level of depth here is impressive. Not only does it allow you to tackle all eight of the featured tracks, but it also comes with a unique point-scoring system to gauge your driving skill and give you something to focus on when you look to improve on your previous lap.
For example, you are awarded points for skilful overtaking and adopting a clean racing line, but are penalised when you collide with a rival (these cars are expensive, remember) or drive off the track. You can also earn additional points by selecting manual transmission and switching off the on-screen racing line before you race, but in doing so you obviously make things a lot trickier.
During training you're given both visual and auditory hints to help familiarize yourself with each racecourse. On-screen prompts inform you of difficult corners and a friendly American voice announces when to slam on the breaks and when to accelerate.
To begin with it all seems a bit over the top – after all, we're proper gamers with years of experience who surely don't need to be led by the hand when it comes to this kind of caper, right?
Wrong. Such overconfidence will almost certainly result in you getting your rear end handed to you on a plate when you eventually step up to the Championship mode, where all of these driving aids are stripped away. You see, to really have any chance of getting on the podium in Ferrari Challenge you need to know each track inside-out and have every braking point and racing line committed to memory.
Therefore it's highly recommended that you spend a few hours in the training mode before you even consider tackling the other features of the game. Thankfully the developer has ensured that there's plenty of incentive to do so by structuring the mode in such a way that it encourages you to tackle each and every available task. Also, as you complete each event you're awarded with Challenge Cards, which can be used in a Top Trumps-style mini-game – but more on that later.
Although Ferrari Challenge is certainly more realistic than many of the other similar titles on the DS, it still possesses a jovial knockabout quality that prevents it from becoming too staid. For example, as you become more attuned to the capabilities of each car (several different Ferrari models are included in the game), you become comfortable with working within its limits and after a few moments of experimentation you're soon power-sliding your four-wheeled beast around tight bends with gay abandon. Because the game requires so much more skill and concentration than other examples of the genre, pulling off such a manoeuvre is an incredibly satisfying experience.
Given the stern challenge presented by the harder difficulty setting it's unlikely that you will conquer this game swiftly, but when that time eventually comes there are other aspects to tinker with. The aforementioned Challenge Cards mini-game is light-hearted fun and can be played against the computer or with a friend. Naturally the player that has finished more events will potentially have a better selection of cards to choose from (your deck can be edited and is limited to 30 cards) so this again provides a fair degree of incentive to complete as much of the main game as possible.
There are also multiplayer modes to participate in, with four player races being possible even when using just one cartridge (although the caveat is that you can only race on two tracks). Sadly, there's a complete absence of online features, which is a real shame given the nature of the game and the proliferation of online-enabled DS titles lately.
Unfortunately there are other niggles that bear mentioning. The default 'in-car' viewpoint is practically useless as it makes it impossible to see where most of the corners are. Thankfully there's a 'chase' camera view which is infinitely better – why this wasn't made the default setting is a puzzling mystery, the answer to which we may never know.
Also, although the graphics are wonderful, sacrifices have naturally been made to keep the game running a brisk pace. Rival cars only revert to full detail when they're up close, and although this is common practice for many 3D games across all formats, both portable and domestic, the transition here is particularly jarring and does much to sully the otherwise immaculate visual package.
Finally – and it should be noted that this is more a fault with the host hardware than the game itself – Ferrari Challenge suffers from a lack of analogue input. A game that relies so much on pinpoint control really shouldn't be played with a D-pad. After you've committed a few hours of play to the game this problem becomes less severe, but after years of enjoying analogue control when playing racers on home consoles, this often feels like a step back.
These issues aside, there's no denying that System 3 has crafted a fantastically playable racing title that almost feels out of place on the DS. At a time when Nintendo's handheld is being bombarded with lightweight 'casual' games that revolve around mundane tasks like cooking and looking after babies rather than racing shiny and ridiculously expensive cars at dangerous speeds, it's refreshing to see a developer produce a title that positively delights in taxing the player and forcing them to commit hours of their time to raise the level of their skill.
Although there's capacity for improvement should a sequel materialize, this is truly a rare and encouraging achievement and one that is unquestionably fit to bear the famous Ferrari moniker. For those of us who aren't millionaire playboys or lottery winners, this is as good a way as any to gain access to the stable of the legendary prancing horse.