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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