Rad Racer
Platform:  NES
Players:  1

    It's the late 1980's and Nintendo has proven that there is still a market for video games.  In fact the entire world is in love with Nintendo and the NES, a sharp contrast to how many felt about video games at the end of 1983.  Nearly single-handedly Nintendo has saved the video game industry from oblivion and the NES hardware is flying off shelves around the world.  The NES is quite possibly the most important and influential video game console to ever be created and yet in 1987 one genre is still lacking on the NES - racing.  Sure there were many superb platform games and quite a few solid arcade conversions, lots of shooters, a couple great adventure games - but not really a defining racing game.  That all changed when Square released Highway Star for the Famicom in Japan, which was released as Rad Racer for the NES in the United States.  In the United States Rad Racer became one of the signature games for the NES platform and was looked at as the quintessential racing game for the most popular game system since the Atari VCS.  This was with good reason, the game featured sharp graphics, a great soundtrack and intense gameplay.

Description:  Rad Racer drops you into the seat of either a Ferrari 328 or F-1 Machine on a coast to coast speed race.  Both cars handle and perform the same although when driving the F-1 Machine all computer controlled drone cars will be F-1 Machines as well.  When driving the 328 Twin Turbo each course will be accompanied by a different model of drone car.  There are eight courses in all, some which have day and night cycles as well as changing weather conditions.  Each course begins at a standing start with an audible chime that counts down until the race begins.  A timer constantly ticks down and the objective is to reach checkpoints spread out along the course before the timer reaches zero.  Upon reaching a checkpoint more time is added and the race continues.  After reaching the end of a course any remaining time is converted into points which are added to the player's score as a bonus, then the next course begins.  The initial starting time for each course is always the same in respect to which course it is, remaining time from the end of one course cannot be carried over to the next.

The drone cars become more and more of a nuisance as each course is completed as they begin to change lanes more often, move at different rates of speed, and by course five generally become very challenging to get around.  While the only thing the player is racing against is the clock, the drone cars must still be quickly navigated around to save precious time.  If a drone car is traveling at around the same speed as your car you will bounce off of it.  What direction and how hard you bounce off is determined by where you strike a drone car.  If a car is hit dead on you'll simply be bounced back a little, however if you slide across a drone car's rear bumper you'll be thrown to the side.  Additionally if you come upon a slow moving drone car while traveling at high speed you will crash and be tossed from the road surface.  This is also the case if you hit any objects along the side of the course.  After your car lands it is automatically moved to the center lane and the game continues however this eats up valuable time.  Tacked on as a bit of a gimmick, Rad Racer also featured a "3-D" mode with a pair of red / cyan glasses in the box.  This was a cheap and fast rework of the higher quality Famicom 3D System expansion module for the Nintendo Famicom which actually provided a decent, although very primitive, virtual reality experience.  However the 3D mode in Rad Racer boils down to a flickery mess which is why only one other US released game, 3-D WorldRunner, featured the 3D mode.  Note that the Japanese version of Rad Racer (Highway Star) and the Japan only sequel to WorldRunner (JJ: Tobidase Daisakusen Part II) both featured support for the Famicom 3D System as did a few other Famicom titles.  It's a shame this never had an NES counterpart as it's a pretty cool little accessory, fragile, but cool.

Graphics:  This game set the standard for how driving games on the NES would look for the system's entire lifespan.  Viewed from a behind-the-car perspective, the sense of speed is incredible for a game of this era.  Where games like Pole Position and OutRun used the same perspective, none quite conveyed how fast you were zipping by traffic and the roadside like Rad Racer does.  Trees, road signs, light posts, all whiz by at a blinding rate.  Drone cars move at many different rates of speed which further enhances the feeling that you car is actually moving and sliding along the tarmac rather than being a stationary object in the middle of the screen.  Sliding around a corner, slowly losing grip while knocking against a drone car, a slower drone car appears on the horizon, only to flash by it along with the faster drone car, trees streaming by along the roadside - it all makes it seem as if your car has mass and is moving quickly, which is the point of a racing game.  The road surface is standard and remains the same three lanes with a red and white border throughout the entire game.  Roadside objects change in each course and there are generally three or four different objects that will show up in each new course.  Checkpoints are always represented by a pair of checkered flags, one on each side, and the end of a course is lined with checkered flags on each side.

Each course features a different backdrop, color of the area around the road, and skyline.  For instance the first course, Sunset Coastline, is along a beach with sand on either side of the road, the ocean in the distance with palm trees on the horizon and a breezy sky overhead.  The first course is also one that features a day and night cycle.  Near the midpoint of the course the sky will begin to darken and then fall to the curtain of night, a short while later the sky will brighten once again.  Two courses are ran completely in the night - San Francisco Highway and Los Angeles Night Way.  A couple of the later courses feature changing weather conditions that work much in the same way as the day and night cycle at Sunset Coastline.  There are also elevation changes abound and each course has two levels of background that scroll at different speeds, further enhancing the feeling of speed and depth.  Each course is also accompanied by its own set of drone cars which are modeled after real world automobiles.

Over all things look great graphically however there is some flicker when drone cars get near the bottom of the screen.  This is the sprite limitations of the NES hardware showing up as when drone cars get along side the player car there is a little bit of sprite break up.  It's not a huge deal and really isn't all that noticeable unless you look at the game frame by frame but it is there.  Yet with the rest of the graphics looking so nice you really can't argue.  Things are sharp, detailed, and very fast.

Sound:  Without a doubt Rad Racer features one of the all time classic audio packages of NES gaming.  To begin with, the sound effects are superb.  There's a nice digital engine sound of your car throttling up as well as a slightly different sound when you are on the turbo.  When entering a turn, wheels squeal as they lose traction and your car slides.  Bumping into drone cars produces a loud screech and crunch sound and the sound of the car flipping over in mid-air after a wreck is unforgettable.  From accelerating to braking, there is a different and audible sound for nearly everything.  The music, simply put, is amazing.  The score for Rad Racer is some of Nobuo Uematsu's, better known for his Final Fantasy composition, earliest work.  In my opinion it is also his best.  There are three background music tracks in all and while each one is completely different, they all have a blues and jazz feel.  It's incredible that Uematsu was able to get this kind of sound out of the NES hardware, especially considering how young the hardware was at the time.  Also all this was accomplished without using any special sound chips.  It's a shame that the music from Rad Racer is not given the praise in the video game community it so rightly deserves.  Any composer worth their salt can write music for a live orchestra, however being able to design music that sounds this good on hardware restrictions of this era is mind boggling.

Play Control:  Every now and then a driving game comes along that was designed to be controlled with a normal directional pad, Rad Racer is one of those.  Far too many driving games of this vintage even up until today simply have over sensitive controls.  Thankfully control is fast and accurate with the directional pad left and right controlling steering.  Holding up on the directional pad turns on the turbo which boosts your car's acceleration from the 100 km/h band until it tops out at 255 km/h.  Pressing down on the directional pad cycles through each of the background songs and is also how the background music can be turned off.  The A button accelerates and the B button brakes, simple as that.  The Select button is used to switch between normal and "3-D play mode" which, as I mentioned at the top of this review, is nothing more than a gimmick.

Replay:  While there really isn't any replay value beyond the core of the game, many people will find themselves coming back to this title again and again.  After course 8 is completed the ending sequence plays and that's it but as with nearly all arcade racers, the experience and fun are why we keep playing them.  Even today Rad Racer holds up in this department, giving a solid and responsive challenge.

Final Verdict:  If you own an NES you should have a copy of this game, there's no reason not to.  It stands as a prime example of perfect game design of the NES era - easy to pick up and play yet complex enough to invest a good amount of time in.  Rad Racer would do so well in the United Sates that it would spawn a US-only sequel however it would never do as well as the original.  This game is a true classic of the hardware, of the era, and of the NES cultural experience.  It's every bit a part of the NES as is Super Mario Bros. and that's saying quite a lot.

Written on 09-14-06 by David, insanedavid@classicplastic.net

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