I haven’t given you anything to read for a while, so here is a trio of mini reviews to look at while I work on some other things for the future. All three games are readily available through emulation, the second hand market or are just plain free. No steering wheels required either.
Racing Hero – Sega, 1990 (Arcade)
Racing Hero is one of Sega’s less well-known arcade games, it combines elements of Outrun and Hang-On.
You race your motorcycle between checkpoints against the clock through a series of internationally themed levels that are split into two halves. The first half of each level takes place on an open road amongst traffic and the second is a closed road with only your motorbike-riding rivals for company. At the end of each stage you then pick from one of two new stages to progress to. This is similar to Outrun‘s branching route structure but with a menu between stages instead of a road junction.
Splitting the levels into two distinct halves feels quite odd to me. It doesn’t really impact how the game plays as such, you’re essentially doing the same thing in both halves, but it’s a little thematically jarring. This combined with not selecting your next stage while on the road means the game doesn’t flow quite as well as some of Sega’s other games, especially the Outrun series.
Racing Hero was developed for the X-board arcade hardware, the same platform as Super Monaco GP. It’s a good looking game but perhaps not as good as its more famous stablemate or some of Sega’s other work from the late 1980s and early 1990s. I think the lack of a tight thematic focus contributes to that. There are a lot of nice individual elements in the game but they don’t really fit together as much as you would normally expect from Sega. The music however, is up to Sega’s usual high standards. It’s very melodic and catchy, in fact I’ve got it stuck in my head while I’m writing this.
Despite my grumbling about this game’s thematic issues, Racing Hero is actually okay. It isn’t terribly original but the actual mechanics of the game are fine. If you’re looking for an old racer that you’ve never played before then you’ll probably still enjoy it for a while. You can play it in MAME and the controls are easy to set up with an analogue joypad.
Pico Racer – kometbomb, 2016 (PICO-8/browser)
Pico Racer is, in my opinion, the best racing game to date for the PICO-8 “fantasy console”. It’s a checkpoint racing game very much like the sprite scaling racers of the 1980s and cites inspiration from games such as Pole Position and Buggy Boy.
I’m often a little bit sceptical of modern “retro” games but I really like this. The creator has really made the most of PICO-8’s limitations and given us something that not only looks and feels authentic but is genuinely fun to play. I especially like the night stages, I think they’re really effective and have a bit of a Rad Racer feel to them too.
You can play this in your browser using the keyboard for a cheeky bit of skiving at work (during your scheduled breaks of course) or download it to use with the PICO-8 fantasy console. You can find it here.
Championship Pro-Am – Rare/Tradewest, 1992 (Megadrive)
This is Rare’s classic and hugely influential RC Pro-Am remade for the Sega Megadrive.
For anyone who hasn’t played the original, RC Pro-Am is an isometric game where you race little remote-controlled trucks around a total of 24 tracks. You progress to the next race by finishing in the top 3 and along the way you can collect weapon pickups to destroy your rivals and vehicle upgrades to improve your acceleration, top speed and cornering ability.
This version of the game is virtually unchanged from the original NES classic. The only notable difference is the addition of extra AI trucks to race against. It also features a graphical upgrade that I’m quite a fan of. It improves the overall appearance of the game while remaining faithful to the style of the original.
At its core it’s a bare-bones isometric racer but it’s so well made that even to this day, it remains a great game. The handling is really slippery and lively and although the tracks are simple, the races are fast and challenging. It’s so much fun to play that you’ll probably even forgive the aggressive AI rubber-banding.
I’ll have a closer look at the RC Pro-Am series as a whole some time in the future.