Mini Reviews July 2017

I’ve got another batch of three mini reviews for you here. These are games that I played in June.  We’ve got an old-timey Gameboy game, an endless runner and an indie game jam entry. Grand Prix cars, solar powered planes and scooters.

F-1 Race (Nintendo, 1984/1990)

F-1 Race is a Pole Position style game from Nintendo for the NES and Gameboy. That tells you almost everything you need to know about it. You’ve played it ,or games like it, a thousand times already. I played the Gameboy version for a while because a friend of mine really likes it. It’s not very original, especially by the time the Gameboy version came out in 1990, but it does what you’d expect a game like this to do and does it pretty well. It has short levels which are ideal for a handheld game, it’s pretty challenging and it has really funky music. It’s fun in the way that all games like this are, but that’s about all you can say.

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Race the Sun (Flippfly, 2013)

Race the Sun by Flippfly is an endless runner where you control a solar powered plane and attempt to fly as far as possible before the sun sets. It first came out in 2013 and has done the rounds on all the major platforms since then. It’s the not the sort of thing I’d play normally but I ended up really enjoying it. The stark, minimalist graphics look really stylish and the soundtrack is also really good. It contributes nicely to the atmosphere and tension of the game. What makes this game great for me are the controls, which are super smooth and responsive. I also enjoy playing in the first-person mode but that be a bit stressful sometimes. To keep things feeling fresh, Race the Sun generates a new landscape every day so even though all the same elements are always there, you’re not playing the exact same levels over and over. I’m sure most people reading this have already played Race the Sun but if anyone hasn’t I can strongly recommend it.

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Scoot Scoot (Watch Yr Step, 2016)

I found Scoot Scoot when I was looking for racing games on itch.io. It’s a scooter agility/autocross game that was created for the “A Game By It’s Cover” game jam in 2016. As it’s a jam game there’s not a whole lot to it but it’s really fun and well-presented. You drive your scooter around a course marked out by traffic cones in a car park and aim to complete 3 laps in as short a time as possible. You’re penalised for touching the cones and rewarded for riding fast through the speed traps spread around the course. It’s just a goofy little game with 1 level but it’s actually quite addictive. It’s available from the creator’s itch.io page (here) under a pay what you like scheme. If you do choose to download it I suggest giving them something because it’s absolutely worth supporting.

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ChoroQ Advance (Electronic Applications, 2001)

Choro Q Advance is the 14th racing game in the Choro Q series and the first of three entries released for the Gameboy Advance. It was developed for Takara by Electronic Applications (Eleca Ltd) and released in Japan and the USA in 2001 and Europe in 2002. Here in Europe we know this game as Penny Racers and in the USA it was called Gadget Racers. Both of these names are re-used for different games in the series so to avoid any confusion I’ve decided to refer to it by its Japanese name.

Choro Q Advance is a cute, colourful and simple game that I think works really well on a handheld console. Like so many racers on the GBA, it has a very SNES-like feel with its Mode 7-style graphics. This graphical style means the terrain is pancake-flat but there’s lot of track-side objects so the environment doesn’t feel as empty as a lot of other games with graphics of this type.

Like its home console counterparts, car customisation is a key feature of Choro Q Advance. You can race on tarmac, dirt, sand, snow or even on water so it’s important to equip the right parts for the race you’re about to enter. You can also collect and swap car bodies which has no effect on your performance but it’s a neat cosmetic touch that I really enjoy. The car bodies are mostly based on real cars with a few extra novelties thrown in and although they’re not named, you can easily tell what they’re supposed to be.

As with all games in this series, the driving mechanics are very basic. It handles like a kart racer with a slightly more realistic drifting technique. Don’t take that as a criticism though, it’s a lot of fun and the simple controls work in this game’s favour. It’s very easy to pick up and play and also easy to return to after a long break. For handheld games, those are very important characteristics.

I wish I had more to say about this game because I’ve wanted to mention it for quite a while. It’s one of those games that doesn’t do anything particularly unique or original but doesn’t really do anything wrong either. Those are the hardest games to talk about in my opinion. I’ve had a copy of it for a few years now and I still play it from time to time whenever I dust off my Gameboy Micro. If you want to play it yourself, it’s easy to get hold of. Loose cartridges are quite cheap and readily available and of course it’s playable in all the popular Gameboy Advance emulators.

 

Slipstream (Capcom, 1995)

I feel like it’s been a while since I featured an honest-to-goodness arcade game on this blog, so here’s Slipstream by Capcom.

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Slipstream is a 2D grand prix themed racer that runs on Sega’s System32 platform. It’s one of the latest arcade-only 2D racers I can think of, being dated 1995. There isn’t a huge amount on information on the net about this game; MAME lists it as a prototype and only 150 boards were supposedly made. It’s listed as being a Brazilian release and the menus are in a mixture of Portuguese, English and Japanese. Despite the inconsistencies in the menus, it looks to be pretty much a finished product in terms of the actual content.

Slipstream features 3 game modes and 4 tracks based on real grand prix circuits in Germany (Hockenheim), Japan (Suzuka), Australia (Adelaide) and Monaco (Circuit de Monaco). It has 8 cars to choose from, each with different performance characteristics. Of these, 4 carry the liveries of prominent Formula 1 teams from 1993 and the remaining 4 are re-colours. For a game of this type, that’s quite a lot of content, particularly the car selection.

 

The graphics are bold, colourful and quite stylised, especially compared to Sega and Namco’s later 2D racers which went for a much more realistic style. For a company that doesn’t really make racing games, Capcom clearly put a lot of effort into the presentation of the tracks. Out of the many, many late 80’s and early 90’s grand prix racers I’ve played, Slipstream’s tracks are among the most faithfully recreated. They’re hardly realistic but they’re easily recognisable and packed with track-side details.

Slipstream looks good and has a lot of content compared to similar releases but the gameplay is mostly standard stuff. The main selling point of the game is the titular slipstream mechanic. Following other cars charges up a meter which is activated when you move out from behind them giving you a huge speed boost. This is a very common mechanic in 3D racers but for a 2D game like this it’s a little unusual. The slipstream boosting is a huge part of the way you play the game and creates situations where you’re constantly trading positions with the AI cars. Even though the position swapping can be fun, it can also lead to frustration when you get overtaken by a boosting car just before the finish line. The key to winning seems to be timing that final push for the line so your rivals don’t get a chance to respond in kind.

 

I think overall Slipstream is a decent game but I can see why it never got a full release. By 1995, a game like this just seems like an anachronism. Sega and Namco released their last 2D racers in 1993 and they’d both been making 3D racing games since before then even. I think this could have been a successful game had it been finished a few years earlier but by the time it was ready the days of the “super scalers” were long gone.

 

 

 

 

NASCAR: Dirt to Daytona (Monster Games, 2002)

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NASCAR: Dirt to Daytona is considered to be one of the best NASCAR games ever made. It’s a perennial contender on top 10 lists and throughout my research it’s been consistently referred to as the best NASCAR game available on a console. I haven’t played nearly enough of the other contenders to say if Dirt to Daytona truly is the best of all time but from my experience with the game I certainly don’t have any reason to doubt that claim.

NASCAR: Dirt to Daytona was developed by Monster Games, the people behind NASCAR Heat, another very well-regarded game with the same license. They would also go on to develop Excite Truck and Excitebike: World Rally for Nintendo. It was released for the Gamecube and Playstation 2 in 2002 and as you would guess from the name, it features racing from a local level right through to the NASCAR Cup Series.

There’s a few things that stand out to me about this game, namely the depth and range of the content on offer and the attention to detail present in the game. Dirt to Daytona offers a good choice of ‘fast action’ modes such as single races, championships and two different challenge modes as well as a very long and in-depth career mode. There’s a lot of fun to be had whichever mode you play but the career is where the game really comes into its own.

The career mode starts you off at the bottom of the ladder, racing a street stock on local dirt tracks and trying to climb through the ranks to reach the NASCAR Cup Series, stopping off in the Modified and Truck divisions along the way. Whenever you start a new division you’ll have a car with only the most basic components fitted so earning money to buy upgrades is essential. You earn money in two ways, from your finishing position in races and from your sponsors. Finishing higher up the order will attract more lucrative sponsorship deals but big money also comes with high expectations and more challenging sponsor objectives.

Playing the career mode takes a significant time investment but NASCAR fans will appreciate its depth and the satisfaction that comes from building your racing team from the ground up. If a long-term commitment isn’t your thing, there’s still plenty of content in the ‘fast action’ modes. The single races and championships will keep most players entertained for a long time and the challenges provide a real test of your driving skill in a variety of conditions.

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The aspect of Dirt to Daytona that I’ve seen given the most praise and attention is the physics engine. It’s an excellent mix of simulation and arcade. With the assists turned on most people will be able to turn laps and race but you’ll still need to take a realistic approach to how you drive. You can’t just mash the throttle and expect to get round corners without taking some of the outer wall with you. Turning off the braking and stability assists gives you a more realistic experience and unlocking the optional ‘hardcore physics’ turns the game into a very serious affair indeed. With the available driving options you can turn your game from ‘serious fun’ to ‘serious business’. A noteworthy aspect to the solid driving physics is the car tuning. You’re provided with as full a range of tuning options as you’d find in any modern simulator and from what I gather from other people who actually know what they’re doing, everything works exactly as it should. If, like me, you don’t know your camber from your Camembert, the game provides 2 sample setups for each track that work as a good baseline and even work well without any tweaking unless you’re playing on the highest difficulty setting. Players who know how to set a car up properly will certainly get a bit more out of Dirt to Daytona but the layperson playing on a moderate difficulty setting can get by pretty well without touching the setups at all.

The AI is probably worth mentioning too. For a 14-year-old game it’s pretty astounding how good the AI drivers are in this game. They’ll race you hard and aren’t afraid to muscle you out of the way but there’s none of the pointless aggression that you see from the computer in a lot of modern games such as the Grid series. They struggle a little with regaining control if they get knocked loose and pit-stops tend to turn into a traffic jam but overall they’re very good opponents and they drive quite consistently.

If Dirt to Daytona falls short in any areas it’s in the graphics and the patchy licensing. The two bottom divisions are mostly made up of fictional drivers and tracks and the truck and cup series don’t have full coverage either. It’s not a big complaint but there are some notable omissions that a fan would probably notice. In terms of the graphics I think the game captures the look and feel of the tracks really well but the detail in the models really shows the game’s age. I normally play this game in the Dolphin emulator with the resolution cranked right up and that does a lot to improve the look of the game. That’s definitely how I would recommend you play this game today.

The depth and breadth of the content on offer in NASCAR: Dirt to Daytona combined with the great physics and AI make it one of the most complete oval racing games available on a home console. Whether or not it’s the best console NASCAR game is still open to debate but even so it remains an enjoyable and satisfying game that offers at least as much to a player as modern titles.

Extreme-G 3 (Acclaim, 2001)

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This is a futuristic motorcycle racer developed and published by Acclaim. It was released for the Gamecube and Playstation 2 between 2001 and 2002.

I had this on the Gamecube when it was new. I played it quite a lot at the time but my decision to revisit it was more down to wanting to see what games I could run in Dolphin than any real desire to play it again. In spite of this I actually ended up playing for a few days and even completed it. This game has aged a lot better than I had expected.

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Extreme-G 3 is quite a typical game of this type and it doesn’t stray particularly far from the Wipeout template. You race through futuristic environments at breakneck speeds using a selection of weapons while balancing your shared shield and speed boost energy. Like the Wipeout series, Extreme-G 3 also features licensed music. All the artists featured are affiliated with The Ministry of Sound.

It got decent reviews at the time, quite a lot of 8s. It got a lot of praise for its sense of speed and the quality of its tracks. I would agree that those are definitely the game’s strong points. The tracks are like roller-coasters with banked corners that flow into one another, huge changes in elevation and exciting features such as jumps, loops, corkscrews and my personal favourite, the underwater tunnel. The other main area of praise, the sense of speed, is also a real selling point for this game. I’ve not played many games from this period that can match Extreme-G 3 for sheer speed and even fewer that let you visibly break the sound barrier.

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As well as these two strengths there are a few weaknesses in the game which the passage of time has done nothing to diminish. Firstly, a few of the environments look a bit bland. I think they always did actually and it really goes heavy on the motion blur. You can also find yourself racing alone for extended periods as the field stretches out along the track. If you’re lagging behind you can feel like you’re miles away from anyone and don’t have any indicator of the time gaps to the front or back.

These are only minor issues but I do have a couple of bigger gripes about the game. The first is the weapons system. Your weapons are permanent upgrades that you buy in a shop so both you and your opponents carry them throughout the game. The AI drivers seem to really like the micro-mine weapon in particular. These are little bouncing orbs that you scatter behind you and remain on the track for a few seconds. They’re not a long-term problem but every overtaking opportunity carries the risk of getting a face full of exploding jet balls that can bring you to a dead stop. The other larger problem I have with the game is the huge spike in the difficulty curve near the end of the single player mode. Most of the races are a fair challenge and they gradually become more difficult until the last two or three events which suddenly become incredibly frustrating. The difficulty isn’t insurmountable but it’s a brick wall in the middle of what was a steady challenge up to that point.

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The flaws I’ve outlined didn’t really spoil my enjoyment of the game, in fact Extreme-G 3 exceeded my expectations, but I know that for some they could be deal-breakers. The Extreme-G series produced some of the better Wipeout clones out there and this one in particular is definitely above average. I think I would still recommend this game on the strength of the tracks alone, at least in the short-term. I enjoyed it but I don’t think I’ll be playing it again in a hurry. It might be a good idea to look up some cheats so you can just jump in and try all the tracks without having to go through the full single player mode.

 

Mini Reviews 18/07/2016

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)

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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.

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Pico Racer – kometbomb, 2016 (PICO-8/browser)

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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.

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Championship Pro-Am – Rare/Tradewest, 1992 (Megadrive)

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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.

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Indy 500 (Sega, 1995)

The last game in our Indy 500 season is one of Sega’s lesser-known arcade releases from the 1990s. Indy 500 is an open-wheel racing game with an official license from the Indianapolis Motor Speedway and the look and feel of mid 1990’s Indy car racing. It was released in 1995 and made use of the Model 2 arcade platform.

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This game was released in the year of Jacques Villeneuve’s controversial win. On lap 190, the race leader, Scott Goodyear jumped the restart from a yellow flag period and overtook the pace car. Race officials handed him a stop and go penalty which he ignored on his team’s advice, thinking they could file a protest after the race. Although Villeneuve crossed the line in second, Goodyear’s refusal to stop for his penalty meant that his laps had ceased counting after 195. This put him in 14th place and handed the win to the future F1 world driver’s Champion.

This was the last Indy 500 before the open-wheel split which saw the formation of the Indy Racing League as a rival organisation to CART, the main sanctioning body of Indy car racing since the early 1980’s. This period of inter-organisational conflict spelled the end of the glory days of American open-wheel racing in the eyes of many fans.

There isn’t a clear lineage between this game and Sega’s previous open-wheel themed racer, Virtua Racing, but it’s tempting to draw a comparison between the two. On the surface, they’re similar games but Indy 500 has a few new mechanics that distinguish it from its forerunner. The first is drafting, running closely behind other cars to reduce drag and increase your speed. This is something that Daytona USA also made use of but Indy 500 emphasises it much more heavily. The other extra mechanic that this game has over Virtua Racing is tyre degradation. You will gradually lose grip over the course of a race, making the car more likely to slide while cornering. It could be my imagination, but rough handling appears to speed up this process .

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There are three tracks to choose from. A licensed version of the Indianapolis Motor Speedway and two fictional tracks, Highland Raceway and Bayside Street. These appear to be based on 1990’s CART series staples, Leguna Seca and Surfer’s Paradise respectively. The track selection as a whole is reminiscent of Daytona USA which also offers an oval, a road course and a street circuit. The representation of the Indianapolis Motor Speedway in the game is easily recognisable. I suppose it would need to be if wanted to carry an official license.

The graphics are good and definitely comparable in quality to other big-name arcade games of the mid 1990’s. The overall style is as bold and colourful as you would expect from Sega. A nice blue sky, lots of track-side objects and bright primary colours everywhere. I would say that in terms of presentation, most games on the Model 2 platform have aged quite well, particularly the racing games. Although the graphics have held up very well, the music is maybe the weakest point of the game. There’s nothing especially wrong with it but it’s not really memorable and that’s something Sega normally excel at.  I have read that Indy 500 was originally intended as a Model 3 game but hardware delays led to it being released on the older hardware. I’ve not seen any sources on that however so I wouldn’t take it as gospel.

Like most of Sega’s racing games from this period, it’s not too hard to reach the finish line in Indy 500 but winning is much more of a challenge. To produce good lap times you have to drive very smoothly and take advantage of the drafting mechanic as much as you can. On the Indianapolis course in particular, you’re absolutely not going to win unless you can move in and out of the slipstream effectively and take corners without scrubbing off too much speed.

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Indy500 is a fast, challenging and stylish game that perhaps doesn’t sit alongside titles such as Daytona USA as an all-time great but it still deserves a lot more recognition. Sega made a lot of games around this period that seem to have drifted into obscurity. So many games on the Model 2 platform either never made it to home consoles or were just forgotten with the death of the Sega Saturn. Indy 500 is one of those that never made it into the living room. Currently, the only way to play it is in a particular emulator. This is a barrier to entry that not everyone will want to cross but those that do want to seek it out won’t be disappointed.