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Cruis’n USA

I remember when Cruis’n USA and Killer Instinct were shown off and allegedly were using Nintendo 64 technology. It was 64-bits! Fuck your 32-bits, they were leap frogging that shit! Both games seemed far ahead of their time and the prospect of arcade perfect ports of these two games on Nintendo’s future console made many salivate at what the future held. Little did we know it would be a shitty racing game. In the arcade Cruis’n USA when it’s all said and done was average; its graphics were what propped it up. 2 years is a long time when it comes to technology and much more advanced titles made it look old in comparison. When the home port eventually showed up it was ugly and a poor showing all around. Even if the port were better this would still be an average title.

The central conceit of the game is simple: this is a cross country race across the US with stops at a number of major cities such as San Francisco, Death Valley, Chicago, and Washington DC. A grand tour of the US should be exciting but it isn’t due to the incredibly boring track design. There are very few wide turns, no loops, or even split paths. Nearly all of the tracks are a mostly straight road to the finish which is incredibly boring. The only challenge come from the expert level courses, which introduce elements such as heavier traffic and narrower paths that actually make the game interesting. If this were applied to the other 70% of the game it might have been fun. Let’s not even mention multiplayer as the frame rate is just dire; god why did they even try?

I know this is an arcade racer and so realism shouldn’t be expected but the handling is completely unrealistic. There is no resistance or feedback when turning which makes it easier to navigate turns and such but presents little challenge as well. I know for some that will be a bonus but it doesn’t “feel” right. That isn’t the only issue I have with the controls. Collision is all over the place as though it wasn’t coded correctly. I have crashed into walls and other obstacles at full speed and aside from an occasional spin out or a little loss of speed was unaffected. Meanwhile I frequently ran into times where AI cars would simply bump me and it was a disaster. There’s no consistency. Speaking of speed maybe it’s because of the frame rate but I found the game lacking in that regard. At full speed

I will give Cruis’n credit, it has a lot more content than the vast majority of racing games of the time. 14 main tracks with a couple extra thrown in alongside an assortment of hidden vehicles is a lot to digest. It’s a far cry from the 3 tracks/5 cars bullshit publishers peddled for years. The good comes with the bad however as there has been some censorship applied to the game that was unnecessary. The bikini models that appear at the end of each race have been better dressed. Personally I don’t care but they weren’t gratuitous or anything so why even bother? Animals no longer stroll onto the road and present an obstacle which adds to the blandness. I remember mowing down cows and goats by the dozen in Super Offroad: the Baja and no one batted an eye. Ah well it’s not like it matters as I would still rather play Ridge Racer than this when it’s all said and done.

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When Cruis’n USA was first shown off in 1994 the game was a technical marvel and enjoyed wide spread popularity. The wait for the N64 version was high but a funny thing happened. By 1996 far better racing games had come along leaving the game outdated in comparison. The blurry, low-res sprites and roadside detail looked ugly in comparison to Daytona USA on the Saturn to say nothing of Nintendo’s own Wave Race 64. The frame rate is all over the place and there is some nasty pop-up going on in the background. Honestly this was the weakest N64 game that Christmas and it was embarrassing that it sat next to Mario 64 and Pilotwings on store shelves. As if the terrible graphics weren’t enough the generic butt metal soundtrack will have you reaching for the mute button in short order.

This is simply a bad version of an outdated game. In the 2 years following the arcade game’s release Midway should have done something to improve the game but instead opted for a sloppy port. The N64 was inundated with plenty of racing games with this sitting near the bottom.

4-out-of-101

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Outrun

I love Outrun and it’s funny to track my history with the series as I came to it in a backwards fashion. The pretty good Master System conversion was my first exposure to it and while good my mind was blown upon seeing the arcade game. The ridiculous number of scaling sprites was practically a revelation. Upon learning about the Genesis version years later my expectations were tempered; games like Afterburner 2 and Hang-on (which used the same tech) turned out pretty bad. My trepidation was unwarranted however as Sega did a bang up job with this port. Obvious technical shortcomings aside you would be hard pressed to see a better job on this hardware.

Creator Yu Suzuki billed outrun as a driving game rather than a straight racer. The exotic locations and especially the Ferrari Testarossa help sell the idea that you are on a leisurely drive at nearly 200 mph with your lady in the passenger seat. It’s a lot like Rad Racer (well I guess it’s the other way around) except far cooler. The deluxe sit down cabinet replicated the interior of the vehicle complete with gear shift and force feedback and is a machine I count myself lucky to have experienced once or twice. The game was a significant leap forward in the genre thanks to its technology that helped sell the idea of hills and undulating tracks convincingly. There were many ports of Outrun for nearly every platform but the Genesis version for the longest time was the best money could buy. Although stripped down this is still a pretty damn good game and one that is still incredibly fun today.

The goal of the game isn’t to come first against a set number of competitors but to simply reach one of the five end goals before time runs out. There is no set route but instead a massive number of branching paths with set checkpoints in between that you can choose from as you go along. These branches correspond to an easy or hard path with a suitable amount of traffic and lurching turns to match. All told there are 15 tracks with a single game comprising five stages. The nonlinear nature of each run gives the game far more replay value than your average racing title and is part of what makes the game so fun. While challenging there are six difficulty levels which makes this extremely accommodating.

The course design is generally excellent with a great amount of trackside detail and enough wild turns that will really test your driving skills.   Outrun more so than any other racing game taught me the value of switching from high to low gear in order to better navigate turns. I was the type of guy who preferred to barrel into corners at top speed and just barely avoid crashing by mildly tapping the accelerator to avoid losing too much speed. That approach can work here but isn’t optimal, especially as the game is pretty ruthless when it comes to time. There is very little margin for error and once time runs out it is immediately game over. While soul crushing any given run takes about 20-30 minutes on average so it doesn’t feel too punishing. The game is so fun that more than likely you’ll be itching to jump back in for one more game!

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Any home port of Outrun was going to suffer in translation however all things considered the Genesis version turned out better than expected. All of the crazy twists, turns, and hills from the arcade have been recreated in exacting detail. The numerous routes are all visually varied with some pretty unique settings that weren’t typical in games such as the Swiss Alps, rolling wheat fields, and even Stonehenge. While the look is faithful the scrolling is incredibly choppy in motion. The Super-Scaler tech Sega used at the time was pretty advanced so it is amazing that they were able to approximate the look at all. The choppiness is noticeable but not distracting; this conversion fared a lot better than Galaxy Force 2 and Super Thunder Blade in that regard.

You can’t talk about Outrun without mentioning its fantastic soundtrack. All 3 classic tunes (the dubiously named Magical Sound Shower, Splash Wave, and Passing Breeze) are here in their synthy glory with the genesis producing bass heavy renditions of each. There’s even an exclusive new track (Step on Beat) that is pretty good and fits in with the other three. The only negative in the sound department would be that the sound effects cut out at times which is distracting.

The Genesis version of Outrun is an amazing conversion of a legendary game, one of its better ports, and easily one of the best racing games for the system. While I would recommend Outrun Coast to Coast first to anyone interested in the series Sega did a spectacular job and the game is still worth owning today.

8-out-of-101

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Daytona USA: Championship Circuit Edition

The anticipation for the Saturn port of Daytona USA was only matched by the disappointment of its technical shortcomings. For those that stuck with it the gameplay was more or less accurate but it’s kind of hard to appreciate when the game is damn near building the track right in front of your face. The message reached Sega loud and clear and so Daytona USA: Championship Circuit Edition was created as an apology in the same way that Virtua Fighter Remix made an already good game better. However unlike that title CCE doesn’t complete address the original’s flaws. Whether you can overlook that comes down to personal preference.

Forget about all of the other additions for a second, the primary reason for this version of the game to exist was to fix the first game’s technical flaws. On that front there is some good and some bad. The frame rate has been raised to a more consistent 30 which is amazing all things considered. Daytona pits you up against 19-39 other competitors and for the fps to still be that high is a miracle. Considering the vast majority of racing games from that era only bothered to fill their tracks with 5-8 rivals it makes the work Sega did here even more impressive.

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It does come with a cost however. The ridiculous clipping and draw-in returns and is just as bad and in some cases even worse than before. I’m not exaggerating when I say large chunks of geometry will magically appear within seconds and the effect is jarring. Sega’s AM3 division did the majority of the grunt work on this and it’s disappointing they did not apply some of the technique’s they employed with Sega Rally (smart placement of background objects and such) to reduce or hide it.

The wealth of additional options and content make up for it in my opinion. The additional handling options really open the game up to novices as the arcade’s controls took a bit of an adjustment. Now you have the option of Slow, normal, and quick steering. The quick option lets you drift a little more, not to the extent of a Ridge Racer but less rigid. The braking is still a damn mystery to me but it could just be that I’m not very good at the game. Four new cars bring the roster up to a total 9 with some obviously performing better on certain tracks. Curiously the original Daytona car is not part of the starting lineup but once you unlock it you’ll why, its game breaking. The last piece that was missing from the original was multiplayer and that has been added in the form of two-player splitscreen Mario Kart style. The frame rate takes a hit which is to be expected but it is still playable although less than ideal.

The main attraction is of course the courses of which there are five. The previous three return but are slightly remixed enough that they seem familiar but also have new routes. The two new courses however are amazing. National Park Speedway takes place alongside an amusement park complete with Ferris wheels, a moving roller coaster and seaside buildings. Desert City is a narrow pass that features some of the most daunting turns in the game. It also has some nice scenery such as hot air balloons and a train running throughout the course.

As an extra kick in the nuts the Japanese version of the game was significantly improved over what we received the US and UK. The clipping was reduced significantly alongside new background textures. The option to race at different times of day is present which, while minor, does add to the atmosphere. Especially nighttime driving, it is awesome! For those that missed the fruity vocal tracks from B-UNIV they are present along with the remixes for a full audio package that gives you a choice no matter your preference. Not that many actually bought it but this version of the game also had Netlink support for online play. It should be noted that the Netlink edition of the game released in 1997 had all of these extras but it is also possibly the rarest Saturn game in the US.

While a slight misstep (at least in the US) to create the definitive home version of Daytona for its time the CCE version of the game is still a significant improvement over the original. With the better handling the game plays a lot better, enough that I imagine some will be able to overlook its technical flaws, especially if it’s the Japanese version.

7-out-of-10

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Astro Fang

While I have a great deal of nostalgia for 8-bit games of all stripes racing games are the hardest to go back to. The march of technology has left the vast majority of these games lacking and while I can still appreciate Excitebike I’d just as soon rather play something more modern. Square’s Rad Racer is one of the few games from that period I can revisit and there were a few other games in that style. Astro Fang is dangerously similar to Rad Racer but adds a few cool twists that at least makes it somewhat unique. It won’t win any points for originality but it remains a solid game that never left Japan.

If you can actually believe there is something of a plot. A series of natural disasters has left the planet RS-121 a devastated wasteland. However amidst the destruction lies a singular path, the Black Line. An unsolved legend lies at the end of the Black Line and Raiba has decided to put the legend to the test in his souped up Astro Fang. I never said it was a good plot.

Upon first glance you can’t help but note the eerie similarity to Rad Racer. Whether it was intentional or not the two games would look near identical were it not for Astro Fang’s intergalactic setting. While the two games share a graphical style gameplay wise there are some distinct differences. The controls aren’t as tight as this doesn’t have the same level of physics (I can’t believe I’m saying that about an 8-bit game) but at least they are serviceable. By pressing down you can compact your car ideally to squeeze between tight spaces but I can honestly say anytime I’ve successfully done so was a happy accident.

Racing is less of a focus as this more of a battle racer in the style of Chase HQ. There are numerous weapons available from the shops in each track to destroy drone cars and the end level bosses. Missiles, tire spikes, and even invincibility will send these hapless idiots up in a blaze of smoke. Aside from missiles these power-ups last until your first wreck of if you bump into a few too many enemies. Most of these weapons are so powerful they would be game breaking if the tracks weren’t so long which balances it out. Using weapons is not to beat any sort of strict time limit but mainly to avoid running out of gas.

Unlike most arcade style racing games there is no timer winding down as you drive however fuel is limited and more or less serves the same function. Occasionally you’ll find a quick refill along the track but for the most part you’ll need to duck into the shop at every opportunity to buy some more. Study the pre-level map since you don’t want to miss a shop by choosing the wrong branching path. As you progress deeper into the game shops are spaced out even further which forces you to make as few mistakes as possible or else its game over. At least there are unlimited continues.

Despite that slight change the game is no less punishing. Totaling your car as in Rad Racer will cost a unit of fuel and it quickly adds up. Just like that game towards the end there is very little room for error and it is soul crushing to have to start over right at the tail end of a course. The game follows along the same lines as Square’s classic as there frequently three rival cars occupying each lane and it is easy to get thrown into trackside objects. While you can (and should) blast them you do have to conserve missiles otherwise you can’t defeat the end level boss. The game can be incredibly difficult and unfair with its propensity to place objects at random points in the road with no prior warning. Although there are only 6 levels they are incredibly long and some will probably take a few tries to complete.

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With its alien worlds and abstract car design Astro Fang is a long ways from the coastal beaches and city lights of Rad Racer and is better for it. The various extraterrestrial planets allow the designers to go wild and create truly weird and abstract backdrops to race against. My only gripe visually is that some of the best vistas are only seen for a second or two as you transition along your chosen path. The music is not as good however. There are a few catchy tunes but anytime you buy a weapon of some sort they come with their own theme song that is just, meh.

All in all while Astro Fang is a bit derivative for its time there was very little else like it. All of its features do not come together properly but what is left is a solid yet repetitive game.

7-out-of-10

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Ridge Racer 64

Back in the 32-bit era the thought of Ridge Racer or any Namco property appearing on a rival platform was pretty much blasphemous. Their partnership with Sony was one of the most lucrative in history but in the waning years of the generation there was nothing to lose in experimenting with a new user base. Ridge Racer 64 was born out of a collaboration between Nintendo and Namco and while it was yet another racing game on a system drowning in the stuff, come on, it’s Ridge Racer. The game was awesome and one of the best pure racing titles for the console.

Ridge Racer 64 is not a straight port of the original arcade game nor is it a completely original title. Much of its features and content are cobbled together from numerous titles in the series, most notably Ridge Racer and Ridge Racer Revolution. The decision to pull from those two games in particular is odd as Ridge Racer 4 was the most recent game in the series. For a game released in early 2000 it comes across as a polished throwback more than something new. Regardless of its content choices the game is generally excellent and has the RR feel which is even more impressive considering NST (Nintendo Software Technology) and not Namco were the game’s main developer.

The game offers a wealth of options to cater to fans of all prior games in the series. The game’s handling can be changed to mimic the original, Ridge Racer Revolution, or you can give the new RR64 variation a spin. If you liked the slippery drifting method of classic Ridge it’s been replicated here perfectly, down to the same collision detection and everything. For my money NST did a bang up job with their own method of drift as it feels the same as Namco’s but is more forgiving. You can recover from spin outs pretty quickly and even ramming into other cars is not as punishing. Pulling off insane power slides and 360 spins to gain speed is simple but not so easy that anyone can do it on their first try. It’s so well done in fact that I found it hard to go back which is a high complement.

Beyond just drifting the controls in general are incredibly tight. Depending on the vehicle tire grip is incredibly taut or loose and the differences between cars are tangible. Unless you choose classic settings there are far less spin outs and such, allowing you to focus on just reaching first place. The game is fast, especially in the latter stages of the Grand Prix where some skill at advanced driving techniques is necessary to progress. Don’t let the Grand Prix fool you into thinking this has simulation elements, the game is an arcade racer through and through.

The game’s single player content is extensive and gated; The Grand Prix groups its tracks in pairs of three and you must place first in each to progress. At the end of each grouping you are given the option to participate in a single race against a rival car that becomes available if you win in Car Attack. These races are definitely challenging at first since you are limited to the starting four lineup but with each new set of wheels you unlock further challenges become easier. In total there are 32 cars, with the last 8 requiring special conditions be met to unlock such as completing the Galaga minigames or even hitting the helicopter that is filming the race.

Although the game proudly displays how many courses it has in the Grand Prix mode in reality the track selection is the weakest element of the game. What appears to be twenty is actually simply three tracks; one from each Ridge Racer game and a completely original one for this game. Each comes with numerous different variations that somewhat approximates the feel of a new course but doesn’t always work. Changing the time of day is not anything new but reversing the tracks does genuinely give them a unique feel. The problem is you’ll get sick of what is available in short order not just in Grand Prix mode but because you’ll have to race on the same tracks in Car Attack to unlock new vehicles. The game does have a decent amount of stuff to unlock but the paltry number of tracks means you’ll be done with the game in short order which is a bummer as everything else about the entire package is well done. You could lobby the same complaint about most prior games in the series but by 2000 games like Gran Turismo 2 were practically overflowing with content putting efforts like this to shame.

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For its time this was a great looking game with an amazing high frame rate and clean presentation. The car models are incredibly detailed with numerous specular highlights giving them a nice reflective sheen. The frame rate isn’t quite 60 but it rarely dips which is a feat unto itself given the hardware. The tradeoff made to keep it so high are blocky environments and less impressive lighting effects. The game definitely lags behind Ridge Racer Type 4 but some of that has more to do with the ported over tracks. The soundtrack does its best to ape the thrashing techno the series was known for and while it is decent it is forgettable in my opinion.

As the first Ridge Racer game to grace a Nintendo console RR64 was a resounding success. Although it could have used a few more tracks what is there is generally good enough to entertain for a few hours and far better than most of the generic racing games that plagued the system’s library.

8-out-of-101

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Virtua Racing

As early as the beginning of the 90s it was obvious that 3d and polygons were the future of the industry and Sega were one of the main players pushing technology forward with their big budget arcade titles. Virtua Racing was not the first 3d racing game but it is probably the most important. The relative complexity of the game in terms of its visuals and handling compared to earlier efforts like Hard Driving was simply astounding and really drove home the idea that this was the future. All hope of a home port seemed to rest on the Saturn until Sega created the Sega Virtua Processor, which much like the Super FX chip allowed the Genesis to output polygons. The Genesis port of Virtua Racing is an admirable attempt at capturing what made the arcade game so special that is ultimately let down by its lack of content and exorbitant price.

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It is immediately apparent that the SVP is a technological wonder as the game is incredibly fast. While not at the level of its arcade big brother the game moves at a consistently high frame rate (for the time anyway) that makes Stunt Race FX look embarrassing. It should be noted that it did come with a high cost, literally. The SVP was incredibly expensive to manufacture and the cost was passed on to consumers as the game cost $100 at launch.

I like Virtua Racing and all but that was a damn rip off. Those of us that grew up during the 8 and 16-bit era probably paid $70 or $80 for fighting games and RPGs but those genres are giving you tens of hours of content. VR has 3 tracks and a free run mode. No matter how well the conversion turned out it wasn’t worth that price and consumers agreed as this was the lone title to use the SVP which in hindsight was probably wise as the 32X and Saturn would soon launch, killing the novelty of its innovation.

Once you hit the track there’s a lot to like about this version of the game. I’ve already mentioned the speed but the handling is also well done. The arcade’s four camera angles have been retained although I found the first person view and the high angle camera to be useless and more of a novelty. Despite its brevity this is an incredibly tough game with very little margin for error. Even slightly clipping a competitor at a decent speed will send your car flipping or into a 360 spin out. During the first lap it’s possible to mount a comeback but anything past lap 3 will relegate you 7th place or lower guaranteed. Its soul crushing to have a near perfect run demolished by one random screw up. Free run mode is there for a reason, use it.

No matter how well designed the courses are and tight the controls Virtua Racing still can’t get around the fact that there is very little content. Three tracks and a 2-player mode is not enough to justify that hefty price tag, especially when compared to other racing games of that era like Top Gear and Rock N’ Roll Racing. It will take some time to truly master the courses on offer but once that is done you’ll find very little reason to revisit the game. As an arcade game it works perfectly, as a home release it is a bad value proposition.

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Back in 1994 Virtua Racing was a technical achievement but even then the presentation still had issues. The system’s low color palette simply wasn’t up to the task of replicating the bright visuals of the arcade machine and gives the game a very grainy and dithered look. Objects tend to blend together when viewed from a distance due to the low color palette and jagged polygons. This is most notable with the drone cars which leads to many an unfortunate collision. The draw distance is low with major track elements popping up a few feet away depending on the course. I’ve ripped on the graphics pretty hard but these are all factors that need to be taken into account once the game begins. There is a certain amount of adjustment required to enjoy the game but once you do it is possible to appreciate the fact that they were even able to make an actual playable version of the game for such old hardware.

Curiously there is very little music in the game. At the start of each race and beginning of a new lap a brief 5 second jingle will play but aside from the attract mode and menu tunes that is all. It reminds me of older arcade games from the early 80s in that regard. You’re left to listen to the engine sounds, sound effects, and announcer which makes the game feel a bit empty.

When compared to the rest of the racing library on the Genesis Virtua Racing is far better than most. But this version of the game was made obsolete in short order by the 32X and especially Saturn editions with their vastly expanded content. This is still a good game and it can be found dirt cheap now but I would still say you’re better off finding one of the other versions of the game.

7-out-of-10

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Wave Race Blue Storm

I can safely say that I’ve sunk more hours into Wave Race 64 than any other racing game outside of Super Mario Kart. I went into it with no expectations and was completely blown away. Who would have thought a sequel to a little known Game Boy title would be one of the most stunning games of that generation? So of course when Wave Race Blue Storm was announced they had my immediate attention. Although it doesn’t stray far from what made its predecessor great (it is a racing game after all) Blue Storm is a more than worthy follow-up to its legendary predecessor.

Right off the bat it is obvious the game has been significantly expanded. The roster of competitors has doubled to eight which has a major impact on the game’s championship and stunt modes. Now each character is rated in five different categories so that you can see where there strengths lie. There’s a wide spectrum in terms of performance with the likes of Ryota and Akari being perfect for beginners while Serena and David Mariner have steep learning curves in order to bring out their best.  Every character leans towards a particular stat and it has a substantial impact on the game’s handling.

There are a number of subtle additions to the controls that can affect your performance and help shave seconds off the clock or boost you to number 1. Both L & R allow you to lean and make sharper turns while B will crouch and build speed, perfect for straightaways. The Turbo you get from passing the buoys correctly can be used for a quick burst of speed as well. While you can ignore some of these mechanics on the harder difficulties they are practically essential. You can still customize the tightness of the handling and whether your jet ski will prioritize acceleration or top speed but they don’t feel as tangible as in Wave Race 64. I’ll admit that adjusting to the tightness of the controls here was difficult at first; I’ve dumped hundreds of hours into the N64 game so I think my initial reaction was always going to be biased. But once I tooled around the tracks in Free Run I began to appreciate the added nuances and can see why they are such a great fit.

There are a wealth of modes to keep anyone entertained for many hours. Championship is the game’s heart and soul and has been overhauled. With double the competitors the number of qualifying points is stricter but it also allows for some room for error. The three difficulty settings take place over the course of 5, 6, and 7 days with each day comprising one race. Rather than following a set path you can select which is to your benefit as certain tracks are a nightmare depending on the weather. This allows you to save the tougher courses for clear days that are simpler. Overall the difficulty is pretty steep as the game throws you in the deep end after the initial exhibition round. It will definitely behoove you to tool around each track in the Free Run mode to learn their intricacies. The Stunt Mode returns with a slew of new tricks to perform but is also subject to the bump in difficulty. The tutorial mode will teach you how to perform each trick but actually performing them when it counts is a true test of skill. All of these modes can also be enjoyed with up to four players this time around as well.

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The water physics are already pretty astounding but what truly adds another dimension to the game is the weather system. The five weather conditions (Cloudy with slight rain, clear skies, partly cloudy, rainy, and thunderstorm) have drastic efforts on the water levels, visibility, and even the height of the waves. Ocean City Harbor is already challenging with its tightly packed buoy placement but a rainstorm will cause huge waves that can send you crashing into walls. Rain is completely bad as it can even be beneficial; Aspen Lake has huge boulders that need to navigated around but with a rise in water they are submerged. What’s even cooler is that the system is dynamic and will change from one lap to the next. Although there are only eight tracks the weather adds a huge amount of variation and even the difficulty you select will open up new routes and such.

As much as I do like the dynamics the differing weather bring to the table it is still true that the game can feel more like an expansion pack than a true sequel. Of the eight courses Dolphin Park and Southern Island are exactly the same as their Nintendo 64 counterparts. Aspen Lake and Ocean City Harbor draw strong parallels to Drake Lake and Twilight City. The graphical facelift certainly does help to make them feel new but it is still disappointing that almost half the content feels like a rehash.

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Naturally with the move to the GameCube the graphics are amazing. The chunky character models have been completely overhauled and actually resemble human beings rather than lego blocks stitched together. There is far more track side detail and even under the water there is a vast amount of sea life that truly brings the tracks to life. There’s a greater variety in the locations you’ll visit plus the varying weather completely changes the tone as well as look of each course. The lighting and actual fog effects are still astounding to this day and the frame rate is locked at 30 with almost zero drops, even in multiplayer. Truly impressive stuff.

The game’s water is both impressive and a bit disappointing. The transparent water and perfect reflections on its surface are just…exquisite. These reflections also warp and distort in sync with the wakes the jet skis kick up which goes to show the attention to detail the designers put in. However the cool specular lighting of Wave Race 64 is gone and its absence is definitely noticeable. The clear water looks nice but also seems a bit too perfect. If you look close you’ll spot a number of low resolution textures scattered about and the riders themselves feel flat and undefined. These sacrifices were probably made to keep the frame rate so steady and in that respect they’ve succeeded.

The synth music of Wave Race 64 has given way to a more contemporary rock soundtrack that isn’t to my liking. There’s a great deal of music here but a lot of the tracks are simple remixes of the core 10-15 songs. Each character has their own announcer, no doubt thanks to the added disc space and they are all just as exuberant as the first game.

Despite being a GameCube launch title Wave Race Blue Storm still held the title as the best water based racing game of the generation. While it doesn’t reach the same height as its predecessor it is an excellent sequel and a game that is definitely worth tracking down.

8-out-of-101

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Star Wars: Episode 1 Racer

When the Star Wars: Episode One video game adaptations were announced I’ll admit, I was disappointed that the N64 would be “saddled” with just a pod racing game, especially in light of the PlayStation receiving the action game I thought I was looking for. The Nintendo 64 sure as hell did not need another racing game and even one based on arguably the best segment in the Phantom Menace elicited no excitement on my part. But after seeing how the Phantom Menace on PS One turned out maybe a pod racing game wasn’t so bad after all. Episode One Racer is a solid racing game that manages to recapture some of the thrills of the movie but isn’t entirely successful in that regard. While flawed it is still far better than the majority of the racing games on the system.

The game’s tournament mode is less of a contest to see who is the best and more of an outlet for gambling. Obviously coming in first will reward the most cash but you can also take a gamble and bet double or nothing or winner takes all to earn even more cash. Your earnings will be spent upgrading the various aspects of your craft which all have a tangible impact on performance. There are even a few options to purchase new gear; if the shop is too expensive you can always visit the junkyard. Sure the parts aren’t the greatest but if you completely suck at the game you can still buy welfare upgrades. With 3 divisions and plenty of excellently designed tracks within each you’ll have plenty of chances to rack up the money needed to eventually unlock the game’s hidden pilots like Sebulba and access the last four truly great tracks.

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The dual turbine engines give the pod racers a unique feel separate from other racing games for the most part. The closest comparison would be Wipeout except the controls here are tighter for the most part and the game isn’t as punishing. The sense of speed is truly incredible and recaptures the visceral thrill of the film perfectly except you are behind the controls. The game is very user friendly so newcomers can pick it up and win a few races before it starts to get real. I like the feel of the controls for the most part but at the game’s highest levels it can’t keep up with the speed. Even with the best upgrades I still found myself basically being rag dolled around corners and such. All of the available pilots have their stats and specialties that can possibly give them an advantage on certain tracks provided you know how to adjust.

What kind of ruins the game is the relative ease with which you can plow through the majority of its content. Anakin is an above average pod racer whose beginning stats dwarf nearly every other competitors by a wide margin. With him in the cockpit you have room for errors as crashing and burning poses little drawback since you can easily catch up by the final lap. It isn’t until the game’s final circuits that the difficulty ramps up significantly and that comes more from confusing track design than anything else. For even the most casual of racing fans most of the game’s content can be unlocked within a few hours, killing its longevity.

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Visually the game is incredibly pretty and perfectly recaptures the speed and visceral sense of danger presented in the movie. Each of the game’s numerous planets has its own track with varying weather and terrain that really heightens the visual presentation. In the film the lone race took place on Tatooine yet the game manages to create tracks that wouldn’t have looked out of place in the movie through clever art design. These worlds feel alive as there are trams and other flying ships taking off and flying within the backgrounds; a cool touch. The draw distance is pretty far with pop-in hidden through constant tunnels, hills and turns. The game makes use of the Ram expansion for a high resolution mode and thankfully the frame rate does not take too big of a hit, with the game still playable even by today’s standards.

Sound is the one area that I found lacking. The music as you race is so muted it is almost non-existent with the focus squarely put on the engine sounds and various taunts and exclamations from rival racers. These sound effects and voice clips are sharp and do mimic the film but don’t make up for the sound track barely even being there. It is only during the final lap that music picks up in tempo to add some tension to the race. This is a huge blow and comes across as uncharacteristic; nearly every Star Wars game has had an incredible score so to see this aspect of the game seemingly half assed is weird.

The games accessibility may turn off racing veterans however there is still a wealth of content to explore and unlock in what is undoubtedly the best game based off the movie. It doesn’t hit all of its marks and is a better single player game than multiplayer but it is certainly worth your time.

7-out-of-10-1

 

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MRC: Multi Racing Championship

During the Nintendo 64’s first year on the market new releases were incredibly sparse and as such each and every game was scrutinized. It didn’t take a genius to figure out that War Gods was terrible while an unknown (at least in video games) quantity like Turok stood out more due to a lack of competition. Multi Racing Championship was notable as the first “serious” racing game for the system (the assy port of Cruisin USA deserves to be forgotten) outside of Wave Race and Mario Kart 64. Its influence from Ridge Racer and Sega Rally were immediately apparent and the game is similarly structured which means it has a solid foundation but is also painfully generic. Far better games would soon follow shortly after leaving MRC a relic of the past.

The three tracks correspond to easy, medium, and hard difficulty and are incredibly well designed. Seaside, Mountain, and Downtown are long courses full of shortcuts and hidden paths to discover. Don’t let the names fool you as each contains numerous different elements, from muddy dirt paths to even snow. Though there are a number of off-road elements in the game there are very few crashes, hills, and jumps. The game is pretty straightforward in that regard, not that it’s a bad thing.

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There are 10 vehicles total to choose from with some hidden. The cars are broken down into two categories: road cars and off-road vehicles such as trucks and buggies. The game’s handling is incredibly tight and with some practice you’ll be powersliding around corners in no time. If you aren’t satisfied with the default setting for each car you can tweak up to seven categories to get the right feel you are looking for, with the free run mode enabling you to test your adjustments out. I found the off-road vehicles had a clear advantage when compared to their more traditional counterparts as every track has numerous segments where four wheel drive is simply indispensable. The Downtown course is nearly impossible with the standard settings of any vehicle as there are far too many U-turns and such to navigate while still maintaining your position.

The heavy focus on the handling and controls does highlight one of the major problems with the game; the complete lack of any challenge from the AI opponents. They don’t aggressively jockey for position or try to ram you into a guard rail, they are simply…there. The real challenge is you against the terrain and the clock which doesn’t feel as satisfying but that is my own personal gripe.

Like most racing games of that era MRC suffers from a dearth of content. With just 3 tracks you will have seen 90% of what the game has to offer in a little over an hour. The only unlockables are new cars, a match mode and mirrored tracks which are no substitute for brand new courses no matter how well designed they might appear. The varying weather conditions don’t alleviate this either. The game simply doesn’t have the substance needed to keep anyone’s attention for more than an hour. This was true back in 1997 and is even more so now.

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MRC wasn’t the biggest stunner graphically when released but at the least it looked better than the average racing title on the market. The textures are above average for that year and full of variety though slightly blurry. There are plenty of details that add to the atmosphere such as working headlights when in tunnels and the subtle shift from day to night on the longer courses. The only oddity when it comes to the graphics is the ethereal haze that is always permanently in the distance, like someone is having a massive cookout on every track. I suppose it looks better than the typical gray fog that was usually used to hide pop-up but it really sticks out and is unnecessary as the smart track design manages to hide it really well.

The game’s techno soundtrack is surprisingly good for the system and indicative of the music that was popular with racing games at the time. While not up to the level of Namco’s offerings it is not ear bleeding bad like San Francisco Rush.

There’s nothing wrong with MRC so much as it is strictly average. It followed the racing template set up by the likes of Ridge Racer and Daytona to a tee and is incredibly generic as a result. There were far better racing games from that generation that were just all around superior in every category that you should spend your money on rather than this.

5-out-of-101

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Top Gear Overdrive

I will admit that of all the franchises to make the leap to the 32-bit generation I never expected Top Gear would be one of them. I enjoyed the 16-bit installments but never thought much of them however Kemco did an excellent job of expanding the brand on the N64 with Top Gear Rally, Top Gear Hyperbike, and my favorite of the bunch, Top Gear Overdrive. Next to World Driver Championship this is probably the best arcade style racing game for the system and one that still manages to impress with its great graphics and awesome track design.

Unlike the more sim based Top Gear Rally Overdrive is a return to the arcade style sensibility that the series started with. This is an arcade racing game in every sense of the word, with power slides and extremely high speeds at every turn. It doesn’t go all the way like RC Pro Am or Wipeout and offer weapons to smash your opposition though; nitro is the only one to make the cut. There were an onslaught of racing games in the early stages of the 3d revolution and TGO is one of the best but could have been better with less touchy controls. Even so it is incredible what Snowblind Studios accomplished with their first crack at the N64 hardware.

Players have access to only two cars at the start, with an eventual twelve more available to purchase or earn depending on your skills. While they aren’t licensed it is very obvious which real life vehicle the cars are based on. Each car comes with its own stats and can be upgraded using cash to boost handling, acceleration, and top speed. The differences in performance are only really noticeable between the starter vehicles and the high end models since every car is capable of catching serious air and pulling off the same hairpin turns. Once you’ve built up enough money to buy the more expensive vehicles the distinction in speed and handling is apparent but to the game’s detriment.

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The game’s Championship mode is broken down into six seasons beginning with three tracks. Each subsequent season becomes longer, adding a new track to the mix to offer something new. The game’s six tracks are doled out pretty well, with each season gradually becoming longer. Despite only having six tracks there’s a great deal of variety. Although you will retreading the same ground each season the differing weather conditions make a tremendous difference; frigid peak during season 2 is coated in a sheet of ice that makes the controls slippery. In later seasons mirrored tracks are thrown in and while I’m not usually a fan of them they really feel different.   The track design is excellent with numerous shortcuts that can be hard to reach but produce satisfying results for the effort needed to find them.

Despite the length of the Championship mode the game is a bit light on features. Aside from championship there is only a single multiplayer mode; I still can’t believe any sane individual would release a racing game without a time trial at the very least. And even that feels half assed; you can’t even select the track and weather conditions individually, you have to go through the season menu. On the flip side you can go through the entire championship mode with up to four players, a feature that nearly every other racing game lacked. The frame rate takes a hit but remains consistently high making it a worthwhile endeavor. There are a total of 15 cars, with some of the extra secret ones being…..a bit odd. That’s all I’ll say.

The one element keeping Top Gear Overdrive from true greatness are the controls. Sadly the game’s handling cannot keep up with the speed of the higher end cars, with any attempt at precision driving usually ending up in a flailing mess. It doesn’t matter whether you’ve maxed out all of the car’s stats, once you get to the high performance vehicles they simply move too fast. True, with some foresight and deft driving skills you can compensate but it shouldn’t be this way. That’s not to say that it’s impossible to win however the overly sensitive control once you approach max speed should have been tweaked and do hold the game back to an extent.

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Visually Top Gear Overdrive is spectacular. There are probably only a handful of racing games from that generation that look better which is fascinating as this was Snowblind Studios first N64 title. Their mastery over the hardware is apparent once you get a look at the trackside detail and winding paths. The cars are decked out in plenty of specular lighting that makes them really pop out and while the custom paint shop from Top Gear Rally is gone it’s not a big loss. The game also makes use of the RAM pak for a medium res mode that is only slightly smaller than the typical high resolution mode most games used it for. It’s a smart choice as it allows the game to still maintain a consistently high frame rate. As a bonus if you don’t have the RAM pak you can still run the game in this mode except letterboxed, how cool is that?

The game’s soundtrack consists of a number of rock music tracks by the band Grindstone that are good match for the proceedings. I’m not the biggest rock fan in the world however I will say that the full vocal tracks are very well done, especially considering the system’s shortcomings in this area. The compression used does leave the sound a bit muffled but to an extent there had to be a flaw somewhere for the N64 to pump out music this good.

With tighter controls and a few more modes such as a Time Trial (I can’t believe this was left out!) Top Gear Overdrive could have been an N64 classic. Instead it will have to settle for being just a great game which is nothing to sneeze at. Considering the inhuman amount of racing games plaguing the system’s small library being one of its absolute best is no small feat.

8-out-of-101

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Rock N’ Roll Racing

Of all the genres that are hard to go back to pre-3d racing games probably rank first.  It’s not to say every 2d racing game is bad but the move to 3d gave the most benefit to the genre.  Stand out titles like Super Mario Kart and F-Zero still hold up but for the vast majority the varying attempt at simulating 3d can be pretty laughable.  But when a game did something different it was really special.  Blizzard’s Rock n’ Roll Racing was one such game and infused its isometric racing action with a shot of heavy metal to create one of the more unique experiences of that era.

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The game certainly does take the Rock N Roll part of its title seriously.  Each of the six playable characters looks as though they could have been the frontman of a hair metal band from the 80s.  Aside from looking pretty groovy each comes with a bonus to two of their stats such as cornering, acceleration, and jumping.  It’s a tough choice to make since your decision means you’ll possibly have to shore up any weaknesses through car upgrades.

Aside from its front end rock & roll plays naturally shows up as the game’s soundtrack.  These aren’t generic guitar riffs however as the game makes use of five of the most popular rock songs of the time: Highway Star by Deep Purple, Born to be Wild by Steppenwolf, Bad to the Bone by George Thorogood, Paranoid by Black Sabbath, and the Peter Gunn theme by Henry Mancini.  The game does a pretty damn good job of recreating these masterpieces minus the vocals as they are instantly recognizable within the first few notes.  I do wish there was more as these five songs are repeated throughout the entire length of the game.  What does help to distract from the repetitive music is the color commentary provided by Larry Hoffman.  Though limited to certain key phrases there’s a decent variety and he also refers to individual racers by name.  The fact that they even went the extra mile and included this much speech is commendable and is only topped by later sports games.

The game has many similarities to R.C. Pro Am, from its viewpoint and controls to its emphasis on destroying your AI controlled opponents in addition to placing in each race.  Being blown up doesn’t end the race but does cost precious seconds as you respawn which can potentially cost you the match.  Weapons come in the form of mines, rockets, and turbo boost with each replenished after each lap or for landing a finishing blow on an opponent.  The weapons also change depending on your current ride although the functionality is more or less the same.

Placing in the top three awards different cash prizes that can be used to upgrade various parts of your current vehicle or buy a new one.  Buying a new car isn’t as cut and dried as you would expect; not all cars share the same parts with some missing the option to upgrade certain aspects such as jumping ability or tires.  In some cases it sticking with what you have and shoring up its weaknesses is a better prospect.  The Battle Trak has great handling and works extremely well on New Mojave but starts to slip once you reach the ice planet whereas the Havac completely ignores all terrain hazards but is also expensive.

Each planet is divided into two divisions with a set point total needed to progress.  You are only awarded points for placing in the top three and with each division only featuring a set number of tracks there’s little margin for mistakes.  There’s a ton of tracks in the game, over forty or so in total as each planet increases the number of races to correlate with the rising number of points needed to progress.  While you can earn the necessary points to move on early if you are good enough it’s advantageous to milk each division for extra cash while you can easily dominate them since you’ll need it.

The difficulty curve in the game is well tuned and near perfect.  Early on the AI controlled cars are less aggressive and more prone to mistakes that you can exploit for easy wins.  But by the second planet you’ll notice an increase in their aggression as they’ll start each race with nitro or even unleash a flurry of missiles in an effort to destroy each other.  Those mines and puddles that you’ve been driving over with reckless abandon now cause spill outs and loss of control and even instant destruction.  If you haven’t been upgrading it comes as a shock to see that you’ve been blown up seconds into a race.  It’s definitely a challenge but in a good way; there’s no rubberband AI to cheapen your victories either.  The game’s pacing does suffer in that Division B is simply the same courses but a little harder.  Having to complete the same set of levels twice, especially on later worlds where you’ll need to complete at least 10 to advance gets old fast no matter how good a game is.

With great graphics, an amazing soundtrack and more content than 3 racing games combined Rock N’ Roll Racing has definitely stood the test of time and is still fun even today.  The game is available on the SNES, Genesis and even Gameboy Advance and all three versions are worth your time.

8-out-of-101

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Mario Kart Double Dash

Mario Kart Double Dash is often looked on as the black sheep of the series as it introduced many new elements that were not fully embraced by the fans.  Let’s face it, innovating within the kart racing genre (or racing games in general) is damn near impossible as their mechanics are pretty well set.  Which is why it isn’t needed so long as the core mechanics are well done, which in the case of Double Dash fully applies.  Mario Kart Double Dash is an excellent racing game and one that is still fun even in light of superior games in the series.

The roster of characters has significantly expanded from 8 to 20 with plenty of new faces to the series.  Baby Mario and Luigi, Diddy Kong, Wario and Waluigi, Bowser Jr, Birdo, Daisy, and Toadette join the cast.  As big as the Mario universe is it seems kind of stupid that they would simply resort to chibi versions of the main cast to expand the playable roster.  Unfortunately many of these additions seem redundant although they do tie in with the game’s big new feature that of tag team kart racing.

The big new feature presented in DD are two man teams for every kart.  Players choose two characters, one for driving and one for using items that can be switched off at any time.  Depending on the pairing of characters you’ll have access to three different karts rated in three categories: speed, acceleration, and weight.  It’s isn’t as deep as you would expect as they generally fall into three groups; high top speed but low acceleration (heavy kart), fast acceleration but middling speed (light kart) and your typical average racer.  There’s no bonus from trying to match up Donkey Kong with Baby Mario for instance or other similar matchups which would have been cool.

The real interesting perk of character choice comes in item usage.  The list of items has nearly tripled since there character specific power-ups for everyone on the roster.  The Mario Brothers pick up a row of fireballs that bounce along the length of the track while Bowser has a gigantic turtle shell that is hard to avoid.  It’s fun to mix and match characters based on what items you’ll potentially have access to.  It also prompts you to take advantage of switching positions since both characters can hold one item but only the one riding Dutch can pick them up.

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The track design is both interesting and more of the same.  There’s a nice mix of longer and shorter tracks that experiment with the number of laps.  A track such as Baby Park is a simple circle that lasts all of 30 seconds but is 7 laps long with a heavy emphasis on weapon usage to earn your position.  Mushroom City is reminiscent of Toad’s Turnpike except fully realized, with more traffic and multiple pathways to the exit.  But for every one of these there is a Dry Dry Desert that feels far too plain and more like rehash than something new.  There’s nothing inherently wrong that of course, but it swings from some wild extremes. All of the Special Cup tracks are excellent and will require plenty of practice before you’ll earn that gold cup.

The intolerable rubberband AI from Mario Kart 64 has been toned down significantly, if not outright removed.  That was the one element that ruined the single player mode of that game and now it’s satisfying to gain the lead and actually keep it using skill.  You’ll still have to deal with the fact that items weigh in favor of the ones in the lowest positions but I’ll gladly take that over artificial bullshit.  The improved handling also helps make the campaign more enjoyable.  The power slide is more integral to winning on the higher classes and the game does a good job of easing you into its use.

Battle mode has been the series biggest draw suffers from the same highs and lows as the single player.  Here the wealth of new items truly begins to shine with a few creative game modes like Bob Bomb Blast but the game is slowed down considerably to accommodate the smaller arenas.  Which is also the other let down, the arenas are completely lacking in exciting design and are mostly relegated to generic square boxes.  They could have done more with the system’s power to create some elaborate battlegrounds that could have added a strategic element.

In light of the insane amount of unlockables Super Smash Bros. Melee was packed with this installment of Mario Kart feels lacking in comparison.  After you’ve earned gold in the first three cups you’ll unlock the Special Cup, which houses four of the most difficult courses in the game.  Beyond that there are a few karts, characters, and battle mode tracks to earn.  Beyond 150cc class is Mirror Mode, which reverses the course layouts.  I’ve never been too big on mirrored tracks in racing games but will admit that for certain games it really does feel like a new set of tracks.  The most extensive end game addition is the All-Cup Tour.  This puts you in one long grand prix featuring all 16 tracks in the game, with all but the first and last tracks randomized.

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The blurry textures and ugly rendered character sprites of Mario kart 64 have given way to a vibrant full 3d world that is absolutely beautiful to see in motion.  There’s a level of bustle and activity to each course that is pretty exciting to watch and at the time of its release there were no other games that could match its vivid color palette and sense of design.  It also ran at a perfect 60 frames per second in both single player and four player split screen mode, a technical feat to be sure.  There were some sacrifices made to achieve that level of performance; if you look closely you can see some average texture work and low poly count buildings and objects.  However when it all comes together those elements are easy to ignore.

The soundtrack is full of bright and cheery midi tunes that are adequate but not all that memorable.  It’s doubly disappointing considering Mario Kart 64 had numerous tracks that are all time favorites, and that was a cartridge game.  The one area of the game’s overall aural package that is annoying are the character voices, especially the baby characters.  It’s obvious they were going for cute but veered off into the irritating zone somewhere along the way.  At least there isn’t that much of it.

While most of its additions fall short of being worthwhile the fundamentals of Mario Kart Double Dash are still sound and make for a great kart racer.  There are some missed opportunities here and there, especially in regards to multiplayer as LAN support is no substitute for full online play but what can you do?

8-out-of-101

 

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Hydro Thunder

When Sega reentered the home console market with the Dreamcast no one knew what to expect.  After all the Saturn had a pretty miserable exit and its handling in the US left a bad taste in gamer’s mouths.  However the Dreamcast launch would go down in history as one of the most successful of all time due to a wide range of killer software.  One third party who offered up the strongest support was Midway, who had Mortal Kombat Gold, Ready to Rumble and the excellent Hydro Thunder available on launch day.  Hydro Thunder was not only one of the best launch games but an excellent game in general.

Remember the early prototypes of Wave Race 64?  That is basically what you are getting with Hydro Thunder.  Originally released in the arcade in 1998 Hydro Thunder was ported to the PlayStation and Nintendo 64 however this Dreamcast port would actually turn out the best.  Though missing some of the features of those versions (the career mode exclusive to the PS and the four player split screen of the N64) the stable frame rate and beautiful graphics more than make up for it.

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The best way to sum up HT is Midway’s own San Francisco Rush except with speedboats.  Much like that game you’ll fight the other racers just as much as the “tracks” themselves as you jockey for position.  With few exceptions most races are only one lap meaning you only have a limited window to hustle up to first place.  Each individual track has loads of shortcuts and out of the way boost items to pick up and are massive in scope.  It’s entirely possible to go through each three or four times and still discover something new each go round which is an accomplishment in itself.

The gameplay is heavily focused around managing your boost and mastering this skill is absolutely crucial to success.  Boost is measured in seconds with blue granting 4 and red granting an incredible 9 seconds.  More than just for going faster the boost can be used for a variety of purposes.  You can catch some serious air (literally 5-6 seconds) if you hit a ramp at the right speed but more importantly at full speed your depending on how heavy your boat is you can send rival racers flying.  Hell you don’t even need to limit yourself to that, innocent passersby can also get it to and it’s hilarious to see a fully loaded cruise ship sent careening into the sky.  You do have to be careful as you can unwittingly knock your opponents ahead of you at the worst possible moments.

There is no career mode with the game instead broken down into tiers with steeper requirements needed for progression.  The easy courses offer 3 tracks and 3 simplified boats to choose from with your successful placement in the top three opening up the Medium difficulty.  Here the boats on offer are faster but have their own handling quirks and second place is needed to advance to Hard mode.  The boats available have some of the highest top speeds but are a bitch to control, presenting the toughest challenge yet.  If you can come in first (a tall order) the beyond awesome bonus tracks are yours to peruse.

The boats themselves come in a variety of shapes and sizes and all have their individual quirks.  The easy class are the easiest to handle but lack the top speed to compete at higher levels.  The medium boats offer a nice balance and with some expert driving can be used in any situation to eke out a win.  The Hard boats are the fastest but the most difficult to control; these courses almost require them and with the first place requirement to unlock the bonus tracks makes it a tough sell.

With thirteen tracks and almost as many boats to choose from there’s a ton of content waiting to be mined.  You won’t see all the game has to offer in a single weekend as the difficulty curve is pretty steep.  While you can get away with sloppy mistakes in the easy circuit having to place second and first on the higher settings is pretty rough.  I imagine most will have trouble finishing Arctic Circle in third place, and that’s one of the easy tracks.  There’s some light rubberbanding at play and while I’ve made my hatred of this gameplay “mechanic” in the past it isn’t so bad here.

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Even today Hydro Thunder is an exceptionally pretty game with some of the best water physics and animation of the time.  There’s a diverse set of environments such as a San Diego Amusement Park, a trip through the submerged ruins of Atlantis and even an imaginary look at what New York would be if a disaster were to strike.  This inspired track will take you through the city streets, through subway tunnels and culminates near the collapsed ruins of the Statue of Liberty.  The frame rate is consistently higher than in the arcade and there are some added effects here and there even in split screen multiplayer which is also a treat.  The only hitch would be the plain interface and long load times you have to endure, sometimes as long as 10 seconds.

There’s a wealth of content to explore and more importantly the game is simply fun overall.  There have been many water based racing games in the years since Hydro Thunder’s release (even a sequel on X-Box Live Arcade) however the game still remains fun in the face of stiff competition.

8-out-of-101

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Wipeout XL

Wipeout was one of the early superstars of the PlayStation launch, earning Sony legitimacy as a platform holder and being one of the better titles available in spite of its difficulty.  The futuristic racing genre had not been firmly established yet and so alongside F-Zero Wipeout would come to define its mechanics.  While solid there was room for improvement, especially in the control and pacing department.  A year later Psygnosis would unleash Wipeout XL (Wipeout 2097 for you Brits), improving every single aspect established in the first game and creating what is still one of the best PlayStation racing titles to this day.

The same slick presentation that defined the original is even more polished as Designer’s Republic were once again brought on to handle the game’s front end menus, team logos, and weapons.  Nearly everything has been overhauled and given a sleeker appearance which is in line with the changes in gameplay in response to critic’s complaints.  Most of the weapons return but prove more satisfying to use as you can now permanently eliminate a racer from the competition.  May of the weapons now synonymous with the series such as the Quake Disruptor made their debut here.  One dubious addition is a sponsorship from Red Bull years before the drink would gain fame in the US.  Thankfully it is kept to the loading screens and the occasional billboard.

Set decades after the first game’s tournament the new AG racing league uses faster hovercars and a new antigravity propulsion system to better handle the increased speed.  What that means for gamers is a game that is much easier to control; the largest complaint lobbied against Wipeout was its unforgiving handling and steep learning curve.  The first issue is dealt with by using a turning system more in line with simulation racing games though not as strict.  By applying the air brake prior to sliding into a turn you’ll gradually ease into it and come out at full speed.  It’s tricky to get the hang of at first but once you do its highly rewarding.

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The brutal difficulty has been lessened by improving the controls and also allowing you to tackle the game at your own pace.  There is no season mode, at least not at first.  Instead you can choose any of the first six tracks at your leisure and compete against 12 opponents for a gold medal.  The tracks are broken down into three classes: Vector, Venom, and Rapier which more or less correspond to easy, normal, and hard.  With no pressure to earn ranking in order to move on even novices can eventually stumble into first place if they try hard enough.

The pacing of each class is near perfect in my opinion with the top speed and number of laps rising in each.  There’s a simple track and a slightly more nuanced course to test your skill in each class.  I do think Psygnosis erred on the side of caution a bit too heavily as I was able to earn Gold medals after a little over an hour of screwing up.  The game is much more generous at providing the auto pilot item on every track eliminating the need to learn how to approach the toughest turns.  The Rapier class does prove the most difficult (at least initially) but even that boiled down to selecting the right craft.

Which isn’t to say there is no challenge; far from it.  After you’ve mastered all three classes Challenge Mode I is unlocked which pits you against Rapier class opponents in a full season with only three continues.  Only the very best will manage to ultimately triumph when your opponents are aggressive right from the start.  The truly skilled will have access to Challenge Mode II which grants access to the Phantom class tracks and the Piranha team, who have the fastest car in the game.  The game’s speed when played at the highest level is actually pretty frightening to see in motion.  If you manage to come out on top overall in Challenge II you are truly a god among men.

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It’s hard to believe but in the space of a year Psygnosis were able to create a sequel so visually arresting that its predecessor seems date in comparison.  There’s a much greater sense of visual variety in each course with changing weather and uniquely themed sets.  This is a world that feels more alive than ever with passing trains, venting steam, and even wildlife flying by.  The lighting effects were beyond ridiculous for the time with each weapon lighting up the track as it passes by.  Even something as simple as the light trail behind each hovercar lends an ear to the idea that this is set in the distant future.  The slight draw-in is the only slight pox on an otherwise phenomenal visual package.

The award winning techno soundtrack returns with an all new selection of Euro hits to tap your feet to.  It isn’t all loud electronica with some ambient tracks thrown in the mix.  It matches the pace of the game perfectly and I say that as someone who isn’t a fan of the genre.

Wipeout XL was one of the highest rated games in the PlayStation library and it’s easy to see why. It remains the most accessible of the three released for the system and the one everyone looks back on fondly.  If it had two-player split screen rather than system link it would be perfect.  Guess you can’t have everything, heh.

9-out-of-10

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Ridge Racer

When Sony announced their entry into the home console market many were skeptical due to their less than stellar track record as a third party publisher.  With no notable intellectual properties under their belt the question became who would supply them with the killer app they needed to be taken seriously by consumers.  Battle Arena Toshinden for all of its faults was one but Ridge Racer more so than any game proved that Sony meant business.  For its time the port was near flawless and showed off the PlayStation’s polygon crunching prowess.  As a game its light on content but is still fun even to this day.

Comparing Virtua Fighter and Daytona to Tekken and Ridge Racer shows a distinct split in philosophy that might also partly explain why each respective series was more popular in certain regions.  Where Virtua Fighter and Daytona were more technical in their recreation of the sport Namco took a more arcade approach, lending their games a more relaxed pick up and play atmosphere.

It’s no wonder then that they saw more success in America than Sega, plus it doesn’t hurt that their conversions were handled far better than Sega’s rushed efforts.  The differences in quality between Daytona and Ridge Racer sort of highlighted the gap in technical capability between the Saturn and PlayStation.  You’ll find no massive pop-up or dips in frame rate here, just an excellent conversion of a popular arcade title that gave Sony the ammunition they needed to entice gamers into buying their now legendary hardware.

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Hands down the graphics in Ridge Racer were simply phenomenal.  The resolution of the textures is lower than in the arcade resulting in a slightly pixelated look but still manages to nail the look of the coin op.  There is some minor loss of detail and pop in around particular turns that only the most ardent fans will notice. That’s because the rest of us will enjoy the game’s smooth handling thanks to the rock solid 30 fps.  For its time this was the best racing game money could buy for a home console and spit in the face of Daytona and its massive clipping.

This Ridge Racer occupies a strange middle ground between simulation and total arcade racing hijinks.  The choice between automatic and manual transmission enables the game to cater to fans of either type; I’m an automatic guy myself.  The differences in performance in each of the initial four selectable cars isn’t as pronounced as their stats would suggest with the Yellow Solvalou being the extreme outlier with its terrible tire traction.  As this was one of the first PlayStation releases it doesn’t support the dual shock controller.  I’ll freely admit going back to d-pad control in a racing game is definitely a regression but not the game’s fault.

The main criticism that Ridge Racer has always had to deal with is its dearth of content and it’s a valid point.  There is no Grand Prix or other organize single player mode.  You have your choice of beginner, mid-level and high-level “tracks” from the menu but in actuality the game only has one track.  The only addition to the mid-level course is a higher top speed, an additional lap and more aggressive opponents. The high-level track adds a new section to the last 30% but is otherwise the same.  I’ve made mention in the past of how racing games during the sixth generation usually only featured three tracks and four or five cars but this is even less than that and cost $50 at the time.

There are some unlockables and a few cool bonus features but they don’t make up for the game’s lacking proposition value.  While the game is loading you can play a brief game of Galaga (a feature so cool Namco trademarked it!) and if you can shoot down all the aliens you are given eight more cars to play with.  Placing first in all three courses as well as time trial mode and you get the option of mirror mode which reverses each track.  I’ve never been a big fan of this and find the novelty quickly wears off.  It’s never been a good substitute for completely new courses with new art and dynamics to learn.

Namco is to be commended for producing a sterling conversion of one of the highest end arcade games of the time for only a fraction of the cost.  In doing so however it does highlight the fact that most arcade games are designed for quick pick-up sessions and not lasting appeal, something that Ridge Racer definitely suffers from.  Eventually Namco would load their future arcade ports with tons of additional content but Ridge Racer was released too early to receive such star treatment.  It’s still a solid title even after almost 20 years but has been eclipsed by more feature rich efforts.

7-out-of-10

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R.C. Pro Am II

There were many late NES titles that went overlooked as the SNES took the spotlight, some of them classics, some technically brilliant but sorely lacking in gameplay.  The racing genre was not one of the most crowded in the NES library and so R.C. Pro Am stood out for its unique viewpoint and tight gameplay.  But a lot of its charm was also ruined by the rubber band AI.  R.C. Pro-Am II sought to correct its predecessor’s flaws and does so in many ways while at the same time leaves the most glaring one intact.  This is still an excellent title in spite of that but the game would truly have been incredible if the computer AI had been toned down.

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Utilizing the same isometric perspective you compete in 24 races that now span more varied terrain for added visual variety.  The first eight are the standard stadium tracks and are followed by eight tracks in the city and concludes its final stretch in desert.  Rather than being awarded trophies you are given points and cash depending on position.  You still have to come in at least third place to move on which kind of sucks.  I’d have preferred the system used in Wave Race in which you need to meet the minimum number of points to qualify but it’s a small issue.

The money earned from placing in the top three and collected around each track is used to buy upgrades prior to each race.  New motors will boost your top speed while better tires increase the fidelity of your handling.  Unlike the first game the impact is definitely tangible especially in the case of gripping; the best tires will allow you to take corners with a level of finesse that borders on poetry in motion.

Missiles and oil slicks return and function the same however a number of new additions have been added to the list of weapons that have situational uses.  The new buckshot isn’t really an offensive weapons but will instead knock cash out of your opponents.  The freeze beam is handy to stop opponents in their tracks at the finish line and secure first place.  The laser is the lamest as it is simply a more powerful missile.  Probably the most crucial is Nitro which gives you a few second boost in speed which when combined with speed bumps can turn the outcome of a race in seconds.

There are tons of items littering each track that provide different benefits.  Stars will allow you to use your weapons more frequently, money bags provide extra cash, and there are random engine parts such as tires and motors that provide permanent boosts to your attributes.  Collecting the letters that spell Pro Am II (rather than Nintendo) will provide a new car that is sleeker and has better handling.  One change that I’m sure most won’t see coming is that your rivals can also collect these items too.  It’s possible that they can get a better car sooner than you at which point you’re screwed.  It’s a much better system (although frightening) than in the first game where your competition received the same upgraded vehicles you did, which made it pointless to upgrade.

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The track design is far more adventurous this time out; whether that’s due to the years of experience working with the hardware or simply a willing to take risks doesn’t matter.  The previously flat and boring layouts of the first game are joined by massive hills, jumps, and other murky terrain.  The changes in elevation alone produce much more exciting moments on each track but the addition of new hazards like slippery ice and planes that perform strafing runs really bring it over the top so long as you aren’t on the receiving end.

As fun as the game can be, especially in multiplayer, the difficulty becomes borderline insane in the later stages of the game.  Even with a fully tricked out car and nitro it’s possible for the computer to leave you in the dust.  The rubber banding has been toned down somewhat but is still present.  It’s disheartening to see a rival car you just shot with a missile and left behind appear behind you within seconds.  It renders your upgrades a bit moot considering the AI can still keep up and surpass you with a lesser vehicle.  The most important moments during any race seem to come down to the final seconds and I can’t say that I found that engaging after a while.

The rubber banding doesn’t become an issue until the back half of the game but can be overcome with careful planning although in my opinion it shouldn’t have to come to that.  R.C. Pro AM II was sadly overlooked as it hit in December 1992 and as such is hard to find and expensive.  Unlike the first game it was never ported to any other console so you might have to eat the cost to experience one of the NES’s finer racers.

7-out-of-10-1

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Wipeout 64

Well this was certainly unexpected.  Psygnosis were the jewel in Sony’s development cap and the key to gaining them respectability as a console manufacturer.  Let’s be honest, Sony Imagesoft sure as hell were not the ones you looked to for quality gaming.  Sometime around 1996 for a brief period Psygnosis regained some of their autonomy and began to develop for the Saturn and N64.  Their version of Wipeout for Sega was pretty astounding considering the gap in both machine’s technical performance.  But it was Wipeout 64 that brought a number of features to the series that would later be iterated on in further installments and managed to stand out as an excellent racer among a sea of mediocre titles.

Though set a year after Wipeout XL this is not a wholly original title.  In truth you could almost even call it Wipeout Remix.  Of the seven tracks available only one is truly original.  The rest are reversed and altered versions of tracks from the first game and its sequel.  For those that truly put hours into both games there might be a sense of familiarity at times but for the most part I can safely say that they largely feel brand new.

Wipeout differentiated itself from F-Zero through its weapons and insane course design, two elements that really stand out in contrast to F-Zero X, its competition at the time.  Making it to the end of each track is about much more than smooth driving skills, you also have to survive to the end against stiff competition and their vicious weapons.  All of the weapons from prior games return with a few changes.  The mines, triple rockets, electro shock (which causes a ship to stall) and the awesome quake disruptor which undulates the track in its path all look spectacular and are highly effective.   Now however each team has an upgraded version of one particular weapon uniquely their own.

The biggest innovation Wipeout 64 brings to the table is analog control.  The dual shock was introduced after the release of Wipeout XL so it couldn’t benefit from the increased finesse the analog stick brought to the table.  Next to the jump to 3d adapting analog controls was the biggest improvement racing games made and Wipeout 64 demonstrates that beautifully.  Leaning into corners and making sharp turns is more precise than grinding your thumb on the horrible PlayStation D-pad.  It’s actually possible to manage without using the air brakes although mastering a combination of the two yields the best results.  The game is exceedingly fast, more so than most other games in the genre but always remains playable; take that Extreme G2.

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The game’s single player campaign eschews the traditional Grand Prix in favor of multiple different Challenge modes.  Each series of challenges comes with specific conditions necessary to win. Race is the closest the game comes to a normal grand prix with the condition that you at least place in the top three before moving on.  Time Trial is self-explanatory while the weapon challenges are the most interesting.  These will give you certain tasks such as eliminating a certain number of competitors or destroying the race leader before the final lap.

In spite of the better control setup Wipeout still has a bit of a steep learning curve.  It’s not as brutal as the first game but definitely harder than the far easier XL.  The checkpoints are pretty tight and even though you can graze walls and the sides of the tracks without coming to a complete stop it still takes a toll by draining your energy bar.  The AI cars are not shy about using weapons so don’t be surprised if you die before completing the first lap a few times.  It really puts the challenge in Challenge mode.

Completing the challenges is the only way to earn access to the different teams and their cars, the final track and the super weapons.  It’s in this area that Wipeout 64 comes up short when compared to F-Zero X.  The 4 teams each have their own unique cars with individual strengths and weaknesses for a lot of variety.  However F-Zero has 30 to choose from.  There are only seven tracks total which is miniscule considering F-Zero X has close to 30 and a random track generator.  Of course the tracks in that game have nothing on the complex layouts Psygnosis has created here.  There’s something to be said about quality over quantity.

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Wipeout 64 compare favorably to the amazing Wipeout XL and betters it in a few categories.  Thanks to the N64s strengths it produces a cleaner image free of pixelization and the texture warping prevalent in so many PlayStation games.  The lighting effects aren’t as pronounced as a tradeoff and are sorely missed.  There’s still some pop-up but the tracks are designed so that it hides it a good portion of the time.  The framerate holds up pretty well except for four player races where it takes a hit.  The awesome techno soundtrack that the series pioneered has been brought over successfully; obviously it doesn’t sound as good as CD audio but the tunes are better than they have any right to be considering the hardware’s deficiencies in that area.

Wipeout 64 turned out better than even the staunchest critics could have imagined and remains one of the better racing games available for the N64; no small feat considering there are close to 50 of the bastards in its library.  Fans of the series get another strong entry in a fantastic franchise while racing game fans are treated to an excellent game.

8-out-of-101

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Cyber Speedway

Sega’s racing game history in arcades probably stretches back farther than anyone with the likes of Outrun and Hang-On putting them on the map.  They were even one of the pioneers in pushing 3d with Virtua Racing and Virtua Fighter.  Their original home efforts usually didn’t receive as much fanfare. While everyone remembers Daytona and Sega Rally next to no one ever mentions Cyber Speedway (known as Gran Chaser in Japan), an early Saturn effort from the creators of Ranger-X that could be viewed as the Sega equivalent of Wipeout (before they got a version of Wipeout themselves) minus that game’s quality although it is a semi-competent game in itself.

In the future alien planets across the galaxy have decided to end all hostilities, instead airing out their grievances in the intergalactic Cyber Race tournament.  With planet Earth at “war” with Kaladasia it falls on your shoulders to represent Earth in the CR tournament and win for the sake of peace.

I’ll say right now that the story is the highest grade of cheese.  Told through cutscenes in between each race your character is the unlikely hope of humanity as he competes against rivals from each planet the Cyber Race stops.  These cutscenes, if you can call them that, are just a series of pixelly still images with hilariously bad voice acting.  Even worse than the extreme grain in the backdrops are the cut and paste character portraits layered on top of them; it’s as if someone who had just received photoshop created them with their jagged edges.

Outside of the story what about the rest of the game?  Story mode consists of five races across numerous planets.  In Standard Mode you only have to place in the top three to move on while those seeking a challenge can try Advanced where it’s come in first or go home.  With 5 continues per each leg of the tourney only the most terrible drivers won’t be able to complete the game.

Rather than cars you control sleds and all that entails.  Each planet has a unique sled with all possessing unique properties in terms of handling, speed, acceleration, cornering and such.  Aside from each crafts’s characteristics you have a number of factors you can alter prior to each race like Wave Race 64. The engine can be tuned for power or speed, steering can be adjusted to light or heavy and the pressure of the brakes can be tuned.  For those that are unsure you can leave it at neutral which at the bare minimum is workable.  The terrain of each planet poses its own challenges so tailoring your craft appropriately can yield fantastic results when done properly.

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Once you hit the track the controls aren’t perfect but manageable.  Regardless of how you’ve tricked out your sled relying on the normal brakes to power through corners is useless and the Ridge Racer school of power drifting does not exist in this game.  The air brakes will be your life line as they enable sharp, almost 90 degree turns.  Most of the tracks don’t have much in the way of really out there corkscrews and curves but considering the number of drone cars littering the track who absolutely love to ram you the air brakes are needed.  The focus is largely placed on avoiding the many obstacles that populate each track such as the large icicles of Glacies or the random fireballs of Evoflammas.  There are rockets you can use to destroy some of these as well as temporarily stop other sleds but actually hitting anything with these is a pain in the ass due to the erratic frame rate.

The functional controls are almost ruined by the game’s inconsistent frame rate however.  When you are alone or only facing one competitor it seems fine but once 3 or more cars are on screen the game starts to stutter and screw up your timing.  The “jumpiness” is noticeable and can lead to slamming into walls at the worst moments.  Each race is 5 laps long and can feel excruciatingly long and its nerve wracking to feel as though your hard earned first place run can be lost at a moment’s notice because the game can’t keep up.

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From a graphics standpoint Cyber Speedway has its moments but lacks the graphical polish and flair of Wipeout.  Famed artist Syd Mead as the visual lead and his artistic touch is evident in the design of each world.  The sleds themselves are sleek and futuristic and designed in such a way that a minimum number of polygons were used in their creation and they still look great.  The worlds themselves are full of pretty artsy elements such as the dragons and centipedes of the sky planet or the icy stalactites of Glacius.  However the game lacks the lighting effects and especially the awesome transparencies in Wipeout and it shows.  The ugly morai pattern used in Saturn games in place of true transparency is ugly and sticks out many tracks.  There’s some nasty pop-up on many of the tracks although it isn’t Daytona USA bad.  I found the game’s soundtrack to be pretty bad; it tests your patience for butt rock and is really inappropriate.

The unreliable framerate hampers the games controls but even then I’m sure most will have completed the story mode in one sitting.  Outside of Time Trials and multiplayer Cyber Speedway has no unlockable content, meaning you’ll have seen everything it has to offer in about two hours.  With better racing games on the market (and same platform) I can’t really recommend it no matter how much I wanted to like it.

6-out-of-10-1

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Rad Racer 2

These days we live in a world where every game has a dedicated release date and Gamestop employees relentlessly hound you to preorder every game you’re even slightly interested in.  But back in the 80s that wasn’t the case.  Games more or less showed up in stores with little fanfare; even when video game magazines began to cover releases they only gave vague seasons or months.  So it isn’t so surprising that I wasn’t aware of Rad Racer 2 until I saw a preview of it on Video Power (remember that?).  As one of my favorite 8-bit racers I looked forward to getting my hands on RR2 and when I did I wasn’t left disappointed.

terms of the UI and general gameplay there have only been a few slight changes.  There is now a turn indicator on the dashboard in lieu of adding a minimap.  There is no choice of cars this time as I imagine most people settled on the Lamborghini anyway.  The biggest change is the removal of the over the top crashes that seemed to occur far too frequently in the original Rad Racer.  Now colliding with track side objects or other cars at high speeds will cause you to spin out and lose all speed.  With the tighter checkpoints instituted in the game even one spin out can cause you to lose a race but the developers have you covered in that regard.

The lone major addition to the game is the power blast.  By holding down and brake you’ll build up the power meter and once full by accelerating you’ll instantly go from 0 to max speed.  The method of activation sounds counterproductive since you’re effectively coming to a stop but the boost in speed and the ground it covers in seconds outweighs that fact.  That’s why it is best used at the start of a race or if you’ve been forced to a complete stop.

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You’ll notice the feel of the car on the tarmac is noticeably different.  The car tends to cruise along on the track more briskly this time as there is less resistance in the turns at high speeds due to the looser controls; while it may have been frustrating to deal with in the original the way you were literally thrown to the opposite end of the road or drifted to the side depending on your speed was more realistic.  It does however make weaving through traffic and around corners easier which is a worthwhile tradeoff in the end.

Mastering how to activate the power blast becomes a crucial skill by the midpoint of the game as Rad Racer 2 has a steep difficulty curve.  All races are split into 3 laps separated by checkpoints that are much tighter than the first game as early as the first race.  You’ll frequently just barely reach each checkpoint unless you’re a perfect driver, which is next to impossible in this game.  Once you’ve reached Monument Valley the AI controlled cars become more aggressive in colliding with you and will actively try to ram you.  With the need to constantly cruise at top speed to reach the next checkpoint every square inch of ground you cover becomes a nerve wracking experience.

Even when you take into account the changes in handling and computer AI Rad Racer 2 can’t help but feel more like an expansion pack than a true sequel.  The track side detail and rival cars are all nearly identical and many of the courses bear more than a few close resemblances to prior tracks; Las Vegas and the Big Apple could pass for palette swaps of Los Angeles.  Hell even the first level in both games look near identical.  I suppose they were limited by the NES’s aging tech but they could easily have chosen more exotic locations for some visual variety.

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While I’ve lambasted the game for appearing too similar to its predecessor at times it does at least look nice.  There’s a definite increase in the cars and background detail with the addition of parallax scrolling.  The tracks dip and peak more frequently which is a nice effect although it does sometimes impede visibility.  The nighttime tracks still look fantastic with their two tone color scheme.  For every step forward there have been a few steps taken back however.  The changing time of day is gone and the scaling of the cars has been changed for the worse as they flicker when closer to the screen.  The music is excellent but there are only 2 songs; they had the audacity to name the third “Sing Yourself” which basically means no music.

Rad Racer 2 is still one of the better racing games for the NES but its closeness to its predecessor can’t be ignored.  You’ll be hard pressed to find a better racer on the platform but those familiar with the series will experience a mean case of déjà vu.

8-out-of-101

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Wipeout

I’m pretty sure no one thought Psygnosis would be Sony’s ace in the hole when they made the leap to console manufacturer.  Not to downplay the many great games they’ve made over the years but around 94-95 I imagine most people still thought of them as the company that made the Lemmings games.  However the move to 3-d allowed many developers to reinvent themselves and in the early days of polygonal graphics Psygnosis were responsible for some of the most creative titles in the PlayStation library.  One title in particular exuded a level of style and visual polish virtually unheard of to that point and would be the example that all games in the futuristic racing genre would be compared against, Wipeout.

Prior to Wipeout there really weren’t too many entrants in this particular racing niche.  F-Zero, Top Gear 3000, Crash and Burn, and Rock & Roll Racing were pretty much it outside of a few obscure outliers.  While F-Zero would firmly establish the genre Wipeout would come to define it.  This was one of the brightest stars of the PlayStation lineup during Christmas of 1995 and between its thumping techno soundtrack and excellent graphic design would go a long way toward establishing the nascent PlayStation as a credible contender in the hardware race.

Psygnosis teamed up with graphic design studio the Designer’s Republic to not only design the packaging and promotional art but its numerous logos as well.  The game’s front end menus and various team logos are some of the slickest in the industry and lend its far flung future scenario an air of authenticity.

The anti-gravity racing league of the game is divided into four teams, each with two different ships to choose from.  All ships are rated in terms of acceleration, top speed, mass, and turning with each team’s ships kind of falling into a beginner/advanced motif.  The game’s six tracks follow the Mario Kart model of awarding points based on position, from first down to fifth place out of eight contestants.  However if you don’t place within the top three you’ll have to use a continue to try again or quit and start over.  Another similar feature are the touch panels scattered on the ground of each track which will award one of five weapons as they cycle through the icons.  They’re a nice gesture and feature some spiffy special effects but don’t feel as well integrated as the sequels due to the uneven nature of the tracks.

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The hovercraft you pilot never touch the ground and as such handle differently than you are expecting.  They bob and weave on a cushion of air and as such are prone to the laws of gravity.  Flying uphill without pointing your nose upward will result in a loss of speed while leaning into a hill will build momentum.  For tight turns you’ll have to rely on the air brakes, which will take a lot longer than most gamers are accustomed to.  This was released long before anyone conceived of the idea of a dual shock controller and as a result the control suffers from the PlayStation’s lame digital pad.

It can’t be stressed enough how important mastering the air brakes is to progressing in the game.  The courses cover a range of terrain, from forests and industrialized zones to coastal seas and deep canyons.  There are sharp corners at every turn and the standard racing game technique of lightly tapping the accelerator simply does not apply here; you can look forward to slamming into every wall if you try.  Leaning into the turn in advance will net the best results but it will take a while to attain any sort of familiarity with the system.

Between the game’s digital controls and its unforgiving air breaking the original Wipeout is one of the toughest racing games you’ll likely come across.  There is next to no margin for error as you’ll likely never even see the first place driver’s trail if you crash into two or three walls.  Crashing will force you into a complete stop and it takes a few seconds to build back up to speed, seconds you can’t afford to lose.  You’ll have to memorize every corner and speed bump to ever hope to advance.  Replaying tracks until you’ve learned their layout is standard procedure for any game but for some reason it feels like a fruitless endeavor due to how finicky the air brakes can be.  The steep learning curve means you’ll definitely get your money’s worth but the game could have been more forgiving to ease you into its mechanics.

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Wipeout was one of the brightest graphical highlights of 1995 but some of its visual luster has been lost over the ensuing years.  The draw distance is very short with the latter half of each track practically assembling before your eyes.  Through the use of some smart texture work the game has a clean look devoid of the heavy pixelation of pre-N64 games.  The game’s soundtrack features a range of the UK’s most popular techno artists and enhances the game’s undulating courses with bass heavy beats that perfectly accentuate the on screen action.  The sound effects on the other hand are heavily subdued and are nearly inaudible outside of the voice work announcing each weapon.

For its time Wipeout was the most advanced racing game available outside of the arcade.  But like most early 3d efforts it has been eclipsed by its far superior sequels.  The lack of a dedicated multiplayer mode (you need a link cable, two copies of the game and two TVs. Yeah) and its punishing difficulty means you’re better off picking up Wipeout XL or 3 instead.

7-out-of-10

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Rad Racer

Christmas 1987 stands out for a number of reasons for me personally because I distinctly remember receiving numerous games as presents that year.  Kid Niki and Rad Racer were the two lucky recipients in my household that fateful day and while Kid Niki was decent for its time this is what kept us occupied all day long.  Racing games along with first person shooters and platformers have benefitted the most from technology but even in spite of the march of progress Rad Racer still has a level of intensity unmatched by many of its peers.

Rad Racer holds the distinction as one of the first true racing games for the NES.  I suppose Slalom could be viewed as part of the genre but the less said about that game the better.  1987 was the year many developers began to attempt more ambitious adventures such as Castlevania, Metroid, Zelda and the Goonies II so it only seems fitting that the racing genre would see a little bit of love.  And from an unlikely source to boot!  In Japan Final Fantasy was still months away and Square were still experimenting with different genres but unlike those other failures (3d World Runner, King’s Knight) Rad Racer is class all the way.

There is no overarching story about some uncouth youth wanting to be the best driver in the world, just a car and the objective of reaching the goal before time runs out.  In practice its similar to Sega’s Outrun; although there are other cars on the track you aren’t fighting for position but rather to hit each checkpoint with as much extra time possible.  The race against the clock proves to be more intense than many racing games that litter the track with over 30 AI opponents to compete against.

The choice of a Ferrari or F1 racing machine is purely cosmetic no matter what anyone will try to prove.  They both have the same maximum speed limit of 255 mph and offer unlimited turbo.  The sparse UI  offers just enough information without being distracting; speed, time, and how much longer to the finish line.  You only get one look at the actual map of each course once before the race begins (and now that I think about it I probably should have made a hand drawn map for future reference)

In many ways Rad Racer is the game that taught me about how to manage speed and breaking.  The sensation of speed is very tangible, probably more so than any other racing game for the NES.  Once you’ve reached max speed it’s almost scary just how fast everything whips by.  Obviously you can’t take corners effectively at that level and the familiar strategy of tapping the accelerator doesn’t work here.  If you’re going too fast you’ll start to drift off track rapidly or will get thrown into the trackside scenery.  Knowing how and when to break becomes the most important skill in the game since you can’t afford to lose precious seconds getting back up to speed.

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This is hilariously over the top but chances are if you’re seeing this you’ve lost.

A large part of the game’s intensity aside from the speed comes from its tight checkpoints.  The first few courses are a bit lenient in terms of giving you extra time in case you screw up.  By the time you reach Athens you literally can’t afford to make any mistakes.  At that point a collision with a drone car that would normally cause a slight bump or throw you to the side will cause your car to flip over and while I freely admit that it’s awesome to see the train wreck in action it’s literally game over when it happens.  I can vividly remember the tears flowing as my brother lost by seconds on the final track with the goal flags in plain view.  You ever see a grown man cry?  I have, and Rad Racer was the cause, it’s that soul crushing.

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Presentation wise the game was decent for its time but does come across a bit Spartan now.  Years before I would ever learn what Athens or the Grand Canyon were Rad Racer painted my perception of these real life locations with its distant backgrounds.  There’s very little trackside detail other than the rocks and signs that will potentially end your racing career.  The true visual highpoint is the night time tracks like San Francisco and Los Angeles.  The city lights against the neon track highlights are truly awe inspiring for an NES game.  The game also has a 3d mode and came with the cheesy red/blue glasses that were popular in the 80s.  Honestly it was a novelty then and is awfully headache inducing now.  The music selection is limited to only three tracks but they’re all memorable; Nobuo Uematsu kicks ass whether it’s an RPG or not.  The only frustrating aspect is that you change the songs by pressing down, which tends to happen during the best parts!

I’m glad Rad Racer has stood the test of time and is a perfectly worthwhile way to kill an hour or two (or three) for those who love classic gaming.  Most 2d racing games used a variety of tricks to accurately portray the sport; Rad Racer does so by sheer grit and is a better game for it.

8-out-of-101

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Final Lap Twin

Have you ever played a Carpg?  I just made up that term but it adequately describes Final Lap Twin.  Long before Square Enix shit the bed with Racing Lagoon, a game we were mercifully spared, Namco graced the Turbo Grafx-16 with Final Lap Twin and its exclusive quest mode in a rare third party release for the system.  Originally an arcade game FLT was a solid game that became even better with this oddly well designed addition, making it a pretty hefty package overall.

The Grand Prix mode is a single or multiplayer rally in courses around the world.  The Twin in the game’s title refers to the split screen view; the game is always displayed this way showing either the second player or your computer rival.  You have a choice between 2 classes of cars: F3000 and F1 with 4 cars in each.  The only differences between the two are that they consist of 8 and 16 courses respectively.  The options in this mode are limited to manual and automatic transmission; keeping the focus squarely on your ability to handle the vehicle you’re given rather than your capacity to tweak a car.

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The tracks in GP mode are noticeably more advanced in their design and combined with the plethora of AI driven opponents make each race a more drawn out affair.  The computer can be surprisingly aggressive in pushing you off track and since you are awarded points based on position at the end of the race it doesn’t hurt to push back.

In most cases who will come in first or second place will be a battle between you and your rival, not because he’s that good but due to heavy rubber banding.  I’ve made my disdain for rubber band AI well known so I won’t go off on a tangent; I’ll just say that it’s at least tolerable here.  By the end of each GP mistakes become far more detrimental, forcing you to run perfect laps to hope to come in first.  Overall the GP mode is as solid as they come for the period.

It’s the game’s quest mode however that gained it some measure of popularity.  As a young boy the time has come set out on your racing journey and live up to your father’s lofty world championship reputation.  I don’t know who came up with the idea of a car RPG but it works very well and will occupy a good 6-7 hours of your time to complete.

The easiest way to boil down Quest mode would be a 1980s version of Pokemon.  Think of your starting car as Pikachu and everyone else in the world as rival Pokemon trainers.  The objective of the game is to build up your car enough to challenge each of the 6 champions (gym leaders) from each region to collect the secret parts necessary to put you on equal footing with the world champion and have a chance in hell of actually winning.

A lot of thought went into the individual parts of the game.  Backed by your overly generous dad (seriously this guy is daddy war bucks) you’ll spend all of your earnings tweaking the parameters of your car for better performance.  You can modify 5 aspects of your vehicle, the tires for grip, motor for speed, wings for more air off ramps, fuel for longer nitro, and lastly the body.  The body serves a different function here, allowing you to refuse challenges from “weaker” opponents and travel in peace.  Changing parts has a tangible and almost immediate impact on your car’s performance, one that you’ll have to keep in mind as you travel to the different regions of the world.

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Random “battles” are handled as short one lap races around varying tracks, always against a single opponent.  The early stages of the game keep the courses very simple in order to learn the layout, see the effects of any part upgrade, and learn the opponent’s driving style.  While it might seem like it would become tedious to compete in 30-45 second races every minute or so the fact that you actually have to drive keeps you engaged in every one.  You can never assume just because your car is relatively tricked out that you’ll always win; throwing off the balance between speed and grip (hint your grip should always be higher) will leave you slamming into billboards left and right.  That type of driving might not hurt you too bad in the generic common battles but won’t cut it in the championship races.

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I’m wondering why they call her Sloppy Sue.

There’s a steady progression in terms of the challenge proposed by each region’s cannon fodder.  In the early parts of the game you’re competing against guys with worse cars than yours.  The few who do outperform you usually screw up in some area, such as Uncle Dave and his shitty tires.  By the latter regions guys like Lucky Luke are just as well equipped as you and drive even better.  Granted the only penalty if you can call it that is that you get sent home but that isn’t a factor once you have the Warp Box.  The 6 world champions present a real test of skill since these races also have drone cars that get in the way.  You can somewhat cheese your way through each one by buying parts from the next town over but you’ll have to actually reach them first.

I honestly didn’t expect to like the Quest Mode as much as I did back in 1990.  This simple but well-designed addition to the game could easily have been half-assed in order to pad out the game’s length but its quality serves to make this an all-around solid product.

7-out-of-10-1

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Automobilli Lamborghini


I suppose everyone had to find their niche somehow.  By the end of the N64’s first year on the market there were entirely too many racing games in my opinion.  Any developer trying to make a splash in that crowded space would have to do something different; the standard Ridge Racer style power slide extravaganza had long since been covered.  Developer Titus took a slightly different tact with Automobilli Lamborghini, choosing to focus on one style of car.  Sega would later do the same with Ferrari F355 but would have much better results than this slightly bland effort.

The initial selection of cars is limited to different colored Lamborghinis in the beginning, meaning you’ll have to earn the right to hop in a new beast first.  Eventually the garage opens up to include to Ferraris, Porsches, and other Lamborghinis.  The handling of each vehicle is pretty straightforward with little variation between each beyond maximum speed and acceleration.  Overall the controls are extremely touchy; there’s a heavy amount of over steer you’ll have to adjust to, something that should have been fixed but wasn’t.  It’s a little disappointing at first but you’ll become accustomed to it soon enough.

Unlike most racing games of the time Automobilli Lamborghini is as straight laced as it gets.  Don’t expect any radical hills or peaks, jumps, or wild forks in the road here.   The lack of anything interesting in terms of track design really does kill some of the excitement of a race, further ruined by the game’s lacking sense of speed.   At its fastest the game does a semi decent job of making you feel as though you’re whipping through the tracks at a decent clip but it takes a while to get to that point.

The 6 courses are a bit deceptive in number.  While the layout is different the last 3 tracks share the same “theme” as the initial batch, with the same trackside elements and all.  While you’ll get a slight sense of déjà vu it’ll quickly evaporate as each race presses on.  There are a decent selection of modes available, from arcade, time trial, and single race to better acclimate to the controls and a decent amount of unlockable content.  You’ll definitely have to work for it though as the AI puts up a fight.

The computer AI does make up for that though.  The AI racers do a well enough job of fighting you for position and aren’t afraid to push you off the road or even crash into you to prevent you from passing.  The rubber band AI that plagued so many racing games of that era is an option in this game thankfully, although I think you have a hole in your head if you turn it on.  With only 5 other drone cars to compete with it does get boring once you’ve managed to pull ahead; this is one instance where rubber banding might preserve the intensity of a well fought race but I look at it as this; if you’ve managed to get in first place it’s due to skill, not the game handicapping itself to help you out.

In many ways the design decisions were probably made to keep the frame rate high.  Automobilli Lamborghini was an extremely pretty game in 1997, one of the best looking racing games on the market.  The tracks were kept simple to afford a higher level of detail that is apparent from the get go.  There’s very little fog since it isn’t necessary as the game has a long draw distance.  The repetition of track side detail is a sign of cartridge limitations but doesn’t harm the overall visual package.  The soundtrack is merely serviceable in comparison, a fact that we were becoming familiar with in N64 games.

All in all, solid but not spectacular.  With as many racing games crowding the N64 library that simply isn’t enough unfortunately.  There were many amazing racing games vying for attention on the system and a bland game simply deosn’t stand out.

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Tube Slider

NEC came back to the US gaming scene initially with the weird Dreamcast game Industrial Spy: Operation Espionage in 2000, ending a 7-year publishing hiatus.  While they had disappeared after the failure of the Turbo Grafx-16 in Japan they were a prolific publisher, supporting nearly every console overseas.  With their resurgence it was thought that maybe some of their more popular franchises would come to the US, such as Black Matrix but instead we were gifted with Tube Slider, an interesting futuristic racer with interesting ideas that suffers in execution.

The similarities to F-Zero and Wipeout are there and can’t be denied.  Like both games Tube Slider takes place at an indeterminate point in the future.  All 3 games put behind the wheel of a hovercraft in a mad bid to finish first.  But Tube Slider differs in that all races take place in tube shaped courses that allow you to drive on all sides any time you want.  While F-Zero X flirted with this mechanic Tube Slider is completed based around it, for better or worse.

The tubular design is not the only unique aspect of Tube Slider however.  Prior to every race you have the option to choose between Turbo and Boost, different speed increases that have their benefits.  Turbo is a continuous boost that offers less speed but lasts as long as the meter lasts.  The other benefit is that it can be activated after a short charge time.  Boost is an instant shot of nitro that is faster but has its limitations.  You can only hold 3 charges at once and each needs to be filled before activation.

While it’s obvious that everyone will have their favorites it does pay to learn the ins and outs of each course and pick accordingly.  Longer straight tracks will favor boosting while the curvier tracks turbo clearer takes the lead.  The shorter bursts of speed are more favorable since you won’t get the full benefit of boost.  The most important mechanic of the game that is crucial to success is the ability to tailgate opponents and steal their boost, significantly increasing your own at their expense.  Mastering this mechanic can quickly change your fortunes if applied correctly, but the same can also apply to you.

That mastery will take far longer than necessary however as Tube Slider has one of the steepest learning curves of any racing games I’ve experienced.  The initial circuit is exceedingly easy, to the point you won’t need to bother with almost any of the game’s features.  Once the second class of tracks opens up the game becomes so hard you’ll wonder if you were ever playing the game “right” to begin with.  Computer racers are viciously aggressive and it seems they are always faster than you no matter what.  No matter how perfectly you manage to steal boost from the computer and manage it they will always be on your tail.  The rubber band AI is bad; not Mario Kart 64 level but still noticeable.

While the Tube tracks make for some interesting track design they do present problems of their own.  It’s exhilarating to cruise the walls to blow past the AI opponents the sudden turns and changes in elevation have a habit of completely turning you around or worse causing a near dead stop, at which point a last place finish is assured.  There are a number of track elements that don’t make sense such as rows of arrows on the walls and ceilings that give the impression of a speed boost a la most racing games.  Rather these indicate the best routes but in most cases the tracks will suddenly change and make you spin out and lose speed.

Speaking of speed, there is very little sense of it.  In F-Zero it’s immediately palpable when you’re approaching max speed.  Outside of boosting the regular pace of the game feels agonizingly slow.  It picks up slightly as you unlock more cars but it never approaches anything resembling fast.  Racing games live or die by their speed; it is a race after all and unfortunately Tube Slider has a tendency to feel like an evening stroll.

Graphically Tube Slider is uneven.  The game runs at a smooth 60 fps which is immediately noticeable.  The tracks are very interesting and well designed with a large number of themes they are based around.  Even the familiar themes such as forests and industrial zones are unique.  While the tracks are mainly confined to tubes the walls are frequently transparent or wide open to give you a view of the backgrounds which are routinely beautiful.

It is obvious where shortcuts were taken to achieve the visual splendor.  There’s a distinct lack of any advanced lighting effects and shadowing which does produce a slightly flat look.  The hovercraft, while well designed, are comprised of a minimal amount of polygons.  It’s a sacrifice that was well worth it in my opinion because at the end of the day the feel of the game is right.

At the end of the day Tube Slider is an above average game that could have used a month of tweaking to make all of its elements gel together.  Once you’ve taken your licks and gotten used to the brutal computer opponents it is a satisfying experience to win.  It’s just a matter of whether or not you have the fortitude to stick around that long.

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Extreme G2

Although Extreme G was not an exceptional game it at least had the foundation for a competent futuristic racing game.  It simply lacked polish in terms of its play mechanics.  Extreme G-2 manages to fix the majority of the flaws of the first game but introduces new ones all its own that unfortunately bring down the experience.  While there is still some fun to be found in its content it ultimately does not live up to the game it could have been.

There’s a massive amount of content within the confines of that little N64 cartridge, that’s for sure.  The twelve tracks each have 3 variations that are different enough that they feel all new.  As I’ve mentioned before most racing games of that period barely managed to come up with 3 decent tracks so the fact that you essentially have 36 here is commendable.  The standard Contest Mode is complemented by an arcade mode that tasks you with shooting moving targets while trying to beat your lap times.  Its fluff if you ask me, Time Trial serves the same purpose without the hassle of enemies fighting back.

Multiplayer has seen a few new additions like the Multiplayer Cup, which has a maximum of 16-players competing.  The forgettable battle mode of the first game has been spruced up with the addition of tanks.  These slow moving behemoths take some getting used to but once you’ve settled in the slower pace forces more confrontations.  It’s an acquired taste in the long run but at least they tried.

There are over 20 weapons, a decent step up from the first game. Mortar, multiple missiles, homing missiles, rear missiles, leader missiles, static pulses, rail guns, ion side cannons, rear maxi- bolts, flame exhausts, smoke exhausts, 4-5 different mines, power shields, invulnerability, even headlights, it’s a considerable list.  More importantly the game will actually announce the name of each weapon as it’s grafted to your vehicle.  It’s much better than the first game in which you never knew what the hell the contraption that just attached itself to the top of your light cycle would do.

The biggest improvement however comes in the controls and track design.  Those of you that played the original Extreme G will remember loose controls that were unable to keep up with the twisting and turning track design.  Most races saw you smashing into walls left and right because the sense of speed was at war with the level design.  All of that has been fixed for this installment, creating a much better playing game (for the most part).  The controls are tight; they don’t offer the level of precision of F-Zero X but don’t need to within this game’s confines.

More importantly the tracks are more wide open and better designed.  You still have the same roller coaster like spirals and loop de loops but now you can actually navigate them with relative ease.  The excellent track design goes hand in hand with the game’s increased speed.  The insane speed of the first game has been taken to new heights, enabling you to break the sound barrier, complete with sonic boom.  It’s an impressive feat that is awesome to experience in the game for the few times you can manage to pull it off.

Unfortunately all of the game’s features are marred by technical shortcomings, namely the frame rate.  There’s no polite way of saying it; it’s horrendous.  During the Contest Mode with more than 3 cars on screen at the same time the frame rate will hit single digits if even one minor explosion goes off.  The excessive lighting effects employed by the weapons are also another cause for concern.  Most weapons cause massive explosions that blanket the screen, leaving you clueless as to what the hell is going on.  It’s not uncommon to hit a mine, see white for a few seconds and end up driving in reverse and in last place.  As a result Time Trial is the only time the game runs smoothly which defeats the purpose of all of the new weapons and intricate level design if there’s no reason to use/appreciate any of it.

This sucks because outside of the frame rate Extreme G2 is a phenomenal technical achievement.  The excessively blurry textures of the first game are cleaner and the fog distance has been pushed back.  With these improvements you can appreciate the increased trackside details a lot more and especially the new lighting effects when they aren’t screwing you over.  The front end menus have also received an overhaul, with many more Wipeout style circular menus giving off a more futuristic feel.

In the end there’s still plenty of fun to be had with the tons of content in the game but the noticeable play issues bring the game down.  Had Acclaim and Probe tempered their technical ambition a bit Extreme G2 might have been the best futuristic racing game that generation but instead will have to settle for above average.

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Daytona USA

There’s no polite way to say it: the Saturn version of Daytona USA is one of the most disappointing home console ports of all time.  As the 16-bit era waned and magazines were flooded with all kinds of technical details of the upcoming consoles the dream of owning arcade perfect ports of the most famous quarter crunchers was starting to become a reality.  Even considering Sega’s long history in the arcade Daytona USA caused quite a stir as the first game to use Sega’s new Model 2 arcade board.  It would be a tall order for any system to faithfully replicate the game’s graphics but even when taking that into consideration the Saturn version is a massive disappointment.

Released in arcades worldwide in 1994 Daytona USA was a graphical powerhouse, with a full 60 fps and fully texture mapped graphics for a level of detail unheard of for the time.  When compared to Virtua Racing which was released the year prior it might as well have come from another planet.  Beyond the graphics the tight controls and intricate course design made the game a sublime experience for anyone lucky enough to have sampled it.

With the impending launch of the Saturn in Japan Daytona and Virtua Fighter were viewed as the system’s killer apps.  While both games were rushed to meet the system’s release date Virtua Fighter managed to be a more than worthy port outside of a few niggling issues.  Unfortunately Daytona suffered heavily missing most of the arcade game’s graphical flourishes which also affected the gameplay.

The botched graphics were also a sticking point when compared to the PlayStation version of Ridge Racer which by all accounts was near perfect.  Although it didn’t affect Japan as much in the US Daytona and Virtua Fighter’s graphics seemed less than adequate in the face of Battle Arena Toshinden and Ridge Racer, a fact that I’m sure played a role in the PlayStation’s dominance in the US.

Daytona USA was indicative of racing games of the time in terms of content.   You have the choice of 2 cars that offer manual and automatic transmission with some differences in terms of handling and top speed.  The Saturn mode offers 2 more cars and another 6 unlockables based on your performance.  These new cars all feature some mechanic that will benefit you such as higher speed but low grip, better performance on grass or averting slowdown when crashing into walls.  Some would say it’s kind of cheating but considering you’ll have to master the courses available to receive them you more than deserve a little compensation for your trouble.

In terms of handling Daytona sits in the middle between the drifting of most popular arcade games and more complex simulation racers.  You won’t be power sliding around corners but the more punishing aspects of sim games are mostly absent.  Smashing into walls, which will happen frequently at first, will lead to car damage and require a pit stop lest you risk falling too far behind.  All 3 tracks have a varying number of laps and competing cars based on difficulty.  Once you’ve grown accustomed to the nuances of manual or automatic transmission tackling the 3 courses slightly easier.  The track design is marvelous and along with the controls is one of the few aspects this port did right.

All similarities to the arcade stop there however.  The graphics have suffered a massive hit; more than necessary even considering the quirks of the Saturn’s architecture.  The smooth 60fps was downgraded to around 20, with further dips when the screen is crowded.  The overall look is extremely pixelated which is to be expected but makes the claims of pixel perfect conversion on the back of the box laughable.

These downgrades would have been forgivable if not for the atrocious pop-up.  It was common practice in most console games of the time to use fog or clever level design to hide background details fading or “popping” into view due to the low RAM of the consoles.  Daytona doesn’t bother to hide this, with nearly 25% of the track magically appearing before your eyes at times.  This affects the gameplay considerably since you won’t be able to plan ahead at times, and the city track especially becomes near unplayable at points.  This was already a hard game at points but the terrible graphics aren’t doing it any favors.

At this point there’s no reason to revisit Daytona USA, let alone this version.  For its time it was ground breaking but the lack of options and content simply don’t hold up today.  Appreciate it as a necessary step in the evolution of racing games and nothing more.

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Extreme-G

 

One thing you can say about the N64, it has more than its fair share of racing games.  Of the 290 or so North American releases for the system almost 50 are some form of racing game.  With that many nearly every incarnationof the genre were covered from car combat to the more esoteric like F1 racing.  One subset that was just gaining popularity was the futuristic racing genre, of which Wipeout was the clear title holder.  With F-Zero nowhere in sight Acclaim filled the void with Extreme G.

In the future Earth has become a ravaged wasteland leading humanity to find a new home.  Once settled attention turns to entertainment, and the XG federation is established with races taking place across numerous worlds.  With its techno soundtrack featuring many of Europe’s biggest underground electronic acts and its sleek Designer’s Republic front end Wipeout left an indelible mark on the genre that all future racing games would have to live up to.  Although Extreme G does not reach the same heights it still possesses thrills of its own and has enough features and modes to occupy a decent amount of your time.

The game does a pretty good job of mimicking the features of the game’s that inspired its creation.  There are over 8 plasma bikes to choose from, each graded in handling, speed, acceleration, shields and weapons.  These distinctions have to be considered because of the track layouts.  The Extreme Contest mode is broken down into 3 championships, with each increasing the number of tracks by 4.  Once unlocked the tracks can be explored in the game’s variety of single and multiplayer modes and in addition, completing each championship doles out “cheat” codes that unlock more cars, tracks, etc.  It’s a nice feature Acclaim started with Turok and provides incentive to actually play the game.

The two biggest stand outs of Extreme G are its track design and speed.  The track designs redefine the term rollercoaster ride as they feature an insane amount of sudden turns, corkscrews, loops and sudden drops that keep every track fresh.  With over 12 tracks taking place a number of worlds and environments the game does an admirable job of putting on a visual spectacle.  Some of the track elements would show up later in F-Zero X, such as driving on the walls and ceiling, and while it’s much more pronounced in that game Extreme G did it first.

Extreme G is fast.  Really fast.  You can reach some insane speeds as you rocket around each track and the competition is never too far behind.  But not because of rubber band AI.  The numerous weapons all play their part in making sure that you can never rest on your laurels, but when you hit nitro on a straightaway the sense of speed really kicks in.  As great as the sensation of speed is however it is to the game’s detriment.

Because you’re able to move so fast in most cases you won’t have enough time to react to a change in track layout or if a weapon hits you from behind.   The controls themselves are not as tight as they should be and when combined with the overbearing speed means you’ll fly into walls a few more times than you would like.  It also doesn’t help that a portion of the track layouts are not conducive to the velocities you can reach.  The qualifiers for each circuit become pretty steep quickly, meaning you’ll either spend a sizable amount of time practicing each unlocked track or simply giving up.

Extreme G was a relatively pretty game in 1997 but the years make its flaws more pronounced.  The trademark N64 fog rears its ugly head, masking the limited draw distance and causing massive amounts of trackside geometry to pop in suddenly.  The art direction holds up but is let down somewhat by blurry textures.  But despite all of this when the tracks split into double loops or manage to avoid the technical limitations of the system you’ll forget all of this.  There are some cool lighting effects from the weapons and another cool touch are the weapons attaching themselves to each car.  The music unfortunately wasn’t good then and isn’t now.  The generic techno sounds even worse when run through the N64 speaker; the sound effects really prop up the audio end of the game.

So there you have it.  There’s a wealth of game modes and content to sift through but the game’s controls bring it down a notch.  Extreme G isn’t the game it could have been but it laid down the foundation for its much improved sequels.

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F-Zero X

I remember the racing games of the 32-bit era pretty well.  Most were a stuttering mess that could barely keep a decent framerate and even when they did it was in the low 20s at best.  Sure we had our Gran Turismos and Ridge Racers but those were the exception, not the rule.  The N64 saw far too many racing games and admittedly a nice chunk of them were decent.  But one game stands apart from the rest for its technical achievement and content, and that is F-Zero X.

Released in 1998 worldwide many of the series staples were introduced in this game.  The F-Zero Grand Prix is brought back after a hiatus (clever) with new rules and regulations but the name of the game is the same; place first to win.  Noted for its rock steady 60 fps performance and abundance of content F-Zero X was an anomaly for racing games of the time.  Most racing games back then only had 3 tracks and maybe 5 or 6 cars which when is pretty fucking pathetic considering these were CD games.  But leave it to Nintendo and cartridges to pack the game with relevant content that helps the game stand out as one of the best of that generation.

The majority of the characters fans would come to know and love in the series were introduced here.  The number of competitors is increased to 30, including the 4 from the original game.  The differing characteristics between each vehicle are greatly enhanced and have a notable impact on gameplay.  You still have the option of adjusting the balance between top speed and acceleration to offset your chosen racers weaknesses.  New to the series is the ability to hit other vehicles with a spin attack and side attack, which when timed right can create awesome pileups and the opportunity to steal first place.  While the basic race mechanics were given an overhaul the track design saw the biggest changes.

With the move to 3d came the opportunity to create wicked courses that twist and bend in ways not possible in 2d.  The addition of hills, loops and tunnels really changes how you approach the finish line.  Most courses have corkscrews and pipes that allow you to drive on all sides, completely bypassing head on confrontations with fellow drivers or creating opportunities to ambush them and completely knock them off the track.  The same applies to you as well so you need to stay on your toes.  The two attacks at your disposal definitely do a good job of livening up the staid race to the finish without changing the feel of the game into Wipeout or Mario Kart.

Aiding in this are the perfect controls and physics.  Maneuvering around each track is a breeze and almost becomes “zen” when you’re in the zone and completely focused. The learning curve is a bit steep and I can guarantee you’ll be making the most of the adjustable difficulty settings.  But its worth it put in the time and learn the games quirks because there is a wealth of content to keep you occupied.

Broken down into Jack, Queen, and King Cups, each with 6 tracks you won’t see everything in an afternoon.  But on top of that are two hidden cups you have to earn.  The first, Joker cup is considered Expert level difficulty and the tracks bear that out.  The computer AI is vicious but if you persevere you gain access to X-Cup, which is, get this, a random track generator.  Yes, you read that correctly.  Although they are a bit simple the game will pump out an infinite number to keep you entertained for as long as you like.  The standard Vs and Practice modes are joined by Death Race, with the object being to eliminate the other 29 competitors in a set time limit.  You see all that?  That’s how you make a racing game.  None of those bullshit 3 tracks and 3 more flipped and mirrored.

While the graphics occasionally has its moments its nothing to write home about.  But that sense of speed man!

Once you start the game the sense of speed is immediate.  F-Zero X was like nothing else on the market with its blistering pace.  Even with all 30 cars on screen and bombs going off the framerate never dips below 60 and this applies to split screen multiplayer as well.  To achieve this though Nintendo sacrificed detail and effects but it works in this case.  There are some subtle lighting effects here and there but nothing spectacular.  But when you’re twisting around a pipe at 1500 mph and smacking AI cars around with butt rock in your ear it won’t matter.  Speaking of the soundtrack, I’m not the biggest fan of the music but it does seem appropriate for the tone of the game.  There are some remixes of the SNES music but overall I prefer the orchestral sound of its predecessor.

Nintendo had a specific goal in mind for F-Zero X and they delivered.  With blazing fast graphics, a smooth frame rate and tons of content there’s no reason to skip this installment in the series.  It will definitely whet your appetite for the masterpiece that is F-Zero GX.

 

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Super Off Road – the Baja

Racing games during the 16-bit era were an interesting animal.    3-D had yet to take the market by storm, being relegated to expensive arcade cabinets.  The advent of Mode 7 and various other scaling methods to simulate a 3-d plane were fascinating to say the least.  One of the most striking attempts was Super Off Road: the Baja.

Super Off Road: the Baja was released for the SNES in 1993.  Ivan “Iron Man” Stewart was no stranger to video games, with many bearing his name over the years and this was the most ambitious of the lot.  Super Off Road covers the Baja 1000, a grueling series of 8 races over wildly tumultuous terrain.  The use of Mode 7 to simulate the various track conditions is the game’s greatest strength and biggest hindrance.

Competing against 7 other opponents your goal is to stay alive and finish in first for the biggest cash prize.  Through all the peaks and valleys you jockey for position while dodging the numerous hazards and collect the occasional prize such as nitro and cash.  Driving like a maniac and mowing down everything in your path carries steep cash penalties from your total at the end of each race; oddly enough running over animals is pricier than slaughtering humans.  And you’ll need that money to repair your vehicle and upgrade it at the same time.

The engine powering the game is simply amazing.  Games like F-Zero and Super Mario Kart used the same 3rd person viewpoint but neither were able to recreate hills, valleys, and peaks the way the Baja does it.  Every track is a cavalcade of terrain, all of which have somewhat of an effect on handling.  Whether it’s a drive through the desert or sea side very few of the courses share the same look.  Tradewest pulled out all the stops, with many jumps and course side attractions to spice up the visuals.  Needless to say very few racing games in that period looked like this.  The landscapes are a bit pixilated but you’ll have no trouble identifying the environments.

Sadly the music isn’t up to par with the visuals.  A generic butt rock soundtrack tries its best to intensify the action but is largely forgettable.  The sound effects are awesome, however.  This might sound a bit……twisted but the sounds of people and animals as they are turned into road kill is addicting.  They make such a lovely death squeal that I can’t help but run over pedestrians just to hear the sound.

The track designs however are where the issues lie.  I think the developers were a bit too anxious to exploit the tech they created since every course is a nonstop series of hills that throw you in the air or around the track constantly.  This wouldn’t be a problem if it didn’t damage your truck so much; any collision with track side elements such as trees or farm animals will cause a massive damage spike and the game is all too eager to let it happen.

I wasn’t joking when I said the goal is to stay alive to reach the end; it can be very easy to break down even a quarter of the way in each race.  The tracks twist and turn so much that in most cases you can’t see the road, once again leading to your truck careening into whatever is out of your view.  It’s impressive what they were able to accomplish on the system but it should have been tempered with good level design.  As it is the game is brutally hard and not in a good way.

Does it render the game unplayable? No, but it does bring it down a few notches.  This could have been one of the strongest racing games of that console generation but instead is only slightly above average because of its problems.

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F-Zero

The early months of the SNES’s launch saw a slew of developers shoehorn Mode 7 effects into their games for no discernable reason.  Seriously, how many games in the first year did the “zoom into the map” effect?  Not that I blame them, it was an easy effect used to dazzle tween minds across the world, and I was one of them.  But in this sea of gratuity there were two games that made legitimate use of it; one was Pilotwings, the other was F-Zero.

F-Zero was released at the SNES’s launch in every territory and with good reason. In terms of sheer wow factor it oozed it in spades.  You have your choice of 4 pilots, each with their own unique craft as you participate in the F-Zero Tournament.  This was one of the first futuristic racing games and is largely credited with creating the subgenre.

Each pilot has their own stats with the most obvious being max speed and acceleration curve.  One less obvious facet is the weight of each hovercar; lighter cars replenish life slower while heavy cars are the opposite.  The 3 racing leagues, Knight, Queen, and King correspond to the game’s difficulty levels, each with their own unique courses.  There are no powerups or items to collect, the action is clearly focused on the racing itself.  Every course has at least one pit area that can be used to recover life because trust me, you’ll need it.  The tracks are littered with hazards, such as mines and magnets to drive you into the sides of the road and lose life.  After every lap you receive one boost and determining the best time to use it can change the outcome of a race significantly.

The main aspect of F-Zero that still stands out today is its intensity.  Every course is 5 laps and maintaining your composure as the final lap gets closer is harrowing.  The computer can be brutal at times, willing to bump into you and knock you around the track and exploit any screw ups on your part immediately.  The difficulty curve is pretty steep, even in the Knight League, and I’ll wager most will use  their continues by the end of the Queen league.  The track design is incredibly clever with many tight hairpin turns and long stretches of hazards that are extremely rewarding to master.  Thankfully there is a practice mode to hone your skills without any outside interference.  The only thing F-Zero is missing is multiplayer, likely a victim of a launch crunch.

The SNES Mode 7 was able to for the first time bring the same level of scaling and rotation seen in many arcade games to home consoles.  The pseudo 3d courses twist and turn in unbelievable ways thanks to Mode 7, and even today the effect is impressive.  The courses span a wide range of settings and even the multiple iterations of the same theme, such as Mute City are all unique and sometimes take place at different times of day.  The soundtrack is also phenomenal; every track has its own theme and there are as many as 2-3 remixes that are unique.

Still fun and just as groundbreaking as it was in 1991 F-Zero is a fun and challenging trip down memory lane.  It’s a shame the US and Europe never received the updates released through the Satellaview but that’s understandable.  If they would have included a multiplayer option this would have been the complete package.  That’s a minor issue though, as the sequels more than made up for that.

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Mario Kart 64

The early days of the N64 can be summed up in 1 word: waiting.  As third parties ran screaming from cartridges and Nintendo’s hefty license fees not only were releases few and far between but constantly delayed as well.  As someone who lived through that period it was infuriating, let me tell you.  The games more often than not were worth the wait, many of them achieving classic status but its not an exaggeration to say you could add 4-6 months to any release date and it would be accurate.  With nothing else new to keep us occupied we had no choice but to turn to multiplayer, which the N64 excelled at.  Mario Kart 64 was one of the earliest 4 player games on the system and would be a main stay in N64 consoles years after release.

Mario Kart 64 was released in February 1997 for the US with Europe getting hosed as usual and forced to wait until June.  The first major release after the system’s record breaking holiday season, it benefited from having no competition while also largely meeting gamers’ expectations.  A direct sequel to the SNES game, Mario Kart 64 benefited from the move to 3d in terms of track design, with large hills, pits, and walls now possible instead of using sprite trickery to fake it.

The advances in track design would also extend to the riotous multiplayer mode, with more complex battle arenas that offered unique opportunities to ambush fellow players and quickly escape.  Despite all of these advances not every element of the game was met with favoritism by players.

Four gameplay modes are available: Mario GP, Time Trial, Vs. and Battle.  Time Trial and Vs. are both self explanatory Grand Prix is divided into 4 Cups with 4 tracks each.  The different CC classes (50, 100, & 150) correspond to difficulty, as you and you’re opponents increase in speed and aggressiveness.  Unlike most racing games, all of the tracks are available right from the start.  16 Tracks was a massive amount considering the majority of racing games during that period only had 3-5 at most if you were lucky.  The 8 characters available are rated in 3 categories although the game never explicitly states it.

A host of new items were added, many of which would go on to become staples of the series.   Turtle shells now have a blue variant which seeks out the rider in first place.  In addition you can gain 3 red or green shells that rotate like a shield and can be launched at your discretion.  The ghost will steal a power-up from the nearest opponent, the lightning bolt will shrink everyone but you for easy squashing, and a new multi use boost mushroom round out the list.  As useful as these are in single player it’s obvious from the beginning they were designed with multiplayer in mind and this is where Mario Kart 64 shines.

Plug in 4 controllers and the game takes on a whole new life.   2 players can go through GP mode together but that’s not where the meat of the game lies.  The battle mode is what made late night college parties a daily occurrence.  The 4 battle arenas truly take advantage of the jump into 3d with a ridiculous number of holes and side rooms to duck and cover in the heat of the moment.

The new items added to the game truly shine here and create legendary moments, such as using the ghost to steal a red turtle shell at the last moment before losing and turning the tables.  Vs. is available for up to 4 players but there are no computer controlled cars disappointingly.  Bottom line, you play multiplayer for the battle mode.  It’s fortunate that it turned out so well as the single player is truly lacking.

Be prepared to have someone on your ass at all times.  It really is not fun to drive perfectly and

yet the computer is 2 paces behind without missing a step.

The problems with the single player mode largely stem from Nintendo’s efforts to make it more engaging.  The game is largely focused on weapons with far more item boxes littering the tracks.   The issues stem from the way it’s balanced.  Lower ranked players receive the better items while those in first or second are shafted with the pathetic banana more often than not.  But this takes a backseat to the biggest offender, the rubberband AI.  Not since R.C. Pro AM have I experienced AI so cheap.  The AI aggressively speeds up as soon as you are in first, to the point where you will never have a comfortable lead at any point.  Crank it up to 100 or 150cc and it borders on retarded.

Even after you’ve mastered advanced techniques such as sliding and mini turbo boosting every race is a literal photo finish.  Just to give you an example:  In Wario Stadium there is a shortcut at the beginning that will dump you in the last 3rd of the track.  I can guarantee by the time you begin the second lap the AI will be right behind you like a rabid dog.  Some might say it makes every race visceral but I would say they have a hole in their heads.  If I’m running a perfect line, sliding into every turn with machine like precision I should reap the rewards, not have the computer receive a miracle bullshit speed boost to keep up.  It ultimately makes the single player mode feel hollow as you’ll never feel as though your skills make any difference.

The multiplayer still holds up but the single player is just as disappointing now as it was then.  My recommendation still stands: play this for the multiplayer thrills and Diddy Kong Racing for single player.  It would have been awesome to have both in one retro package but sometimes you can’t have everything.

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Wave Race 64

Hype is an inescapable part of the video game industry.  Whether it is a developer extolling the virtues of their latest creation to game journalists struggling to put into words how awesome a new product they’ve just seen is, we are all guilty of falling for it.  New console launches are when these events are at their peak.  We can all remember the PS2 hype and how it played a part in killing the Dreamcast.  But arguably the N64 played host to even bigger launch promises, such as being a Silicon Graphics Workstation in console form.  It fell far short of those expectations but still we wanted to believe.  Why?  Because of games like Wave Race 64.

Wave Race 64 was released as a near launch title for the N64 in the US.  Previously demoed at Nintendo’s annual Shoshinkai show in 1995 it would emerge some months later in a completely new form, ditching the Speedboats from the original gameboy game (bet you didn’t know about that) for riders on Jet skis.  The change made little difference as the game was and is absolutely phenomenal, with a wealth of game modes and tracks to plow through.

You have a choice between 4 riders with their own stats in 3 categories.  These can be manually edited to create the feel you want to an extent.  Championship pits you in a race against 3 opponents as you accrue points needed to qualify for the next race.  3 opponents does not sound like much but it will make you shit a brick when you are in 4th and in danger of disqualifying.

Depending on the difficulty the amount of points needed to progress increases as well as adding new tracks to the race, giving you further incentive to move ahead.  Stunt mode lets you show off your tricks for points, and I freely admit to losing any skill I once had in it.  The tracks unlocked can be taken for a test drive in Warm up mode and Time Trial.  Memorizing the layouts will only get you so far as the accurate water physics represent the other side of the picture for each race.

The water does a lot more than simply look pretty.  Depending on the track, difficulty, and racer chosen your handling will be affected, giving you something else to consider besides the other racers.  The way the jet skis bob and weave along the surface of the water, cut into the waves as you turn or even skid on ice is simply unparalleled, even to this day.  As you build up speed itwill also play a factor in how the water will affect your handling.  The tracks change dynamically as time passes, with once blocked off track elements opening up to reveal shortcuts that come with equal parts risk and reward.

Kicking up the difficulty  enriches the tracks with more buoys to pass, spikes to knock you off your jet ski and a bump in the CPU rider’s driving prowess.  There are no cheap gimmicks used, they’ll simply bump you more aggressively and actively use shortcuts as they open up.  In addition water conditions become more erratic with far more big waves to ride and currents that will throw you around.  They almost become new tracks and enhance the fun factor as you familiarize yourself with buoy layouts.

Back in 1996 no home console game looked like this.

A lot of promises were made about the N64’s graphical prowess and while the system did not live up to the lofty expectations placed on it games like Wave Race made everyone forget.  Wave Race was a virtual revelation, with ridiculous transparencies and previously impossible water.  The weather conditions change as time passes setting the mood for the courses, such as the setting sun of Sunset Bay or the night lights of Twilight City.  Watching the fog part and seeing the perfect reflections on the surface of the water of Drake Lake is still magical nearly 20 years later.  The only sub par element would be the blocky character models but you aren’t even paying attention to those lamers anyway.  It took many years for the water in this game to be surpassed, a testament to the creator’s craftsmanship.

This is still one of the best racing games ever made.  When you think about it it seems really stupid that very few racing games on water had been made.  Nintendo kind of ruined it for everyone else by setting the bar so high but we as gamers ultimately benefited.  Its funny to think that concerns were raised that because of cartridge space there wouldn’t be enough content to satiate gamers when this game had more to offer than 3 or 4 of the racing games of the time combined.  A masterpiece however you slice it.

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Diddy Kong Racing

During the 32-bit era no exclusive developer was more important to their partner than Rare was to Nintendo.  You could argue Squaresoft filled that role for Sony but the truth is even without them there were a ton of other third parties that would have picked up the slack.  Whenever Nintendo would delay a game or had a hole in their lineup Rare was there to cover their ass.  In 1997 when both Banjo Kazooie and Conker’s Quest were delayed it could have been a disastrous holiday for Nintendo if Rare were not prepared with Diddy Kong Racing.

Diddy Kong Racing was released in the fall of 1997 completely out of nowhere.  No one was even aware of its existence until 2 months prior to release.  Released to fill the hole left by Banjo and Conker’s delay that the game was so good despite no prior coverage was a shock to many.  Although Mario Kart 64 had already seen release earlier in the year Diddy Kong Racing was different enough that the two games could co-exist.  Despite genre similarities, both games excelled in separate categories.

You have your choice of 8 characters to go through the game, each with their own stats in terms of speed, acceleration, and cornering.  Unfortunately you are not privy to this information anywhere in the game.  The stat differences actually do have a tangible impact and give you a reason to use the characters that are fast but have terrible handling and acceleration.  Nearly all courses allow you to race in the stock car, hovercraft or plane.  Bananas scattered around the tracks increase your top speed and all weapons can be upgraded 3 times.  It wears its Mario Kart roots on its sleeve but what it copies it then improves upon.  And best of all none of that rubberband AI bullshit from Mario Kart 64.  Thank the lord.

The game is split into two parts, adventure and multiplayer.  In the adventure mode you are assisted by Taj the Genie as you visit 4 separate hubs to find the pieces of the Wizpig amulet.  Once assembled you will then have the right to challenge Wizpig to a race.  The adventure in the title is no misnomer as there is a wealth of content.  20 courses total, 10  boss battles, 4 multiplayer challenges, Time Trial races, and the silver coin challenge is a lot of content to work through, something very uncommon for games in this genre.

By completing all 4 races in a world you are allowed to challenge that world’s boss, who in turn will give you the silver coin challenge.  The silver coin challenge is a grueling race to collect 8 silver coins on each level and still place first.  Beating the boss a second time nets you a piece of the Wizpig Amulet.  Rare had started to develop a reputation for collectathon bullshit and this game could be seen as the start of that.  To the game’s credit the majority of this stuff is completely optional.

You wouldn’t expect it as Kart racers are usually aimed at younger audiences but there is a decent amount of challenge in the game.  The bosses are cheating bastards that require you to run a near perfect race in order to win.  Your choice of character for these will largely determine whether these battles are near impossible or a piece of cake.  The silver coin challenge will force you to become intimately familiar with the tracks as many of the coins are placed in such a way that you’ll have to go out of your way to reach them.  I love that they don’t hold your hand through these as it is impossible to scrub your way through them, a bit rough considering the target audience but a necessary step in building their skills.

Multiplayer surprisingly is a bit weak.  The standard 4 player races are available for all of the tracks unlocked.  The battle mode is where it comes up short.  On 1 level of each world there is a key that will unlock a multiplayer challenge, completion of which unlocks it for the multiplayer mode.  2 of these are battle royales and the others are objective based, an attempt to inject a bit more life into multiplayer.  Regardless the level designs just don’t hold up and are boring, an area Mario Kart got right. These stages are far too spacious, leaving you alone with no sight of your opponents for long stretches at a time.  It’s a bit of a shame but the Adventure more than compensates.

Rare were one of the few developers able to overcome the N64’s patented blurry look and this game is a showcase for the hardware.  The overall look of the game is very vibrant with some sweet specular highlighting and transparencies.  The overall look of the game is super clean due to smart art direction and technical know how.  The only hitch would be the at times sub par frame rate and saccharine character design.   The music is also wonderful, able to change dynamically on the fly with a diverse array of themes that are also a bit cutesy at times.

After the slight disappointment of Mario Kart 64 this was a breath of fresh air.  Play this for the single player mode and Mario kart for the multiplayer.  This is one of the few times where a clone is able to legitimately one up its inspiration in many facets and turn out to be a better game overall.

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