NES roundup: Racers

By ShellShock
Revised on 12/06/07

 

   

 

 

   
             
 

Racing and driving games are not the NES's forte. It's limited hardware is great for platformers and action titles, but reproducing the beauty of arcades like OutRun and sense of speed of Chase HQ was out of the question. Let alone groundbreaking 3D in simulators like Atari's Hard Drivin'.
The NES tried hard though. Bird-view titles like Road Fighter, Micro Machines and Spy Hunter held up the best due to their less graphic-intensive nature and are actually fun to play. But others, like OutRun wannabe Rad Racer or movie license Days Of Thunder didn't quite make it.
If you are thinking about having some high speed thrills on your dusty NES but are tired of the age-old obvious choices, here are 3 average-to-great titles you might have overlooked in the past. Race on!

Race America

Players: 2
About: Race through America
Courtesy of: Absolute
Back in: 1991
Originally on: NES
Also on: N/A

Race America is a fairly obscure racing game.
The first curious thing you'll notice is its western characters' art style, a clear sign of its non japanese origin. It was developed by Absolute Entertainment, a company born out of a former group of Activision employees in 1986. They are best known for the original NES title "A Boy and His Blob" and the cross-platform "Battletank" series, and had been making games since the Amiga and Atari era well into the 16-bit generation (more exactly 1995) when low sales and a bad "Home Improvement" license finally dissolved the company.
If you take a close look at the game's box cover, up on the left corner, you'll see a name claiming ownership of this game. My ignorance's got the best of me this time, so after a little online research I found out that besides being the lead-programmer on this project, Alex DeMeo also worked for Activision, Mindscape, THQ, Atari and Acclaim on multiple ocassions. He was very well known in the Atari console era, with him and his team responsible for a lot of Atari 2600 / 7800 games.
Curiously (and like it used to be popular with computer games back then), lead programmers would sometimes add their name to the game's title. Following this practice, you'll also find "Alex DeMeo's Title Match Pro Wrestling", "David Crane's A Boy and His Blob: Trouble in Blobolonia" and "Garry Kitchen's Battletank". Interestingly, this curious practice stayed in the past.

American NES cover

Race America, as its name implies, has you racing throughout the continent on one-on-one competitions. Just pick one of eight opponents (which also act as difficulty levels) and watch the drivers walk to their cars doing a horribly animated forward moonwalk.
Now here comes the interesting part, the main thing that separate's Race America from other racing titles. The game has 3 totally different view perspectives during a play. For the first section of the race, you'll see both cars from a side view in what it's called the "drag race". When the light goes green, shift up and keep accelerating quickly to stay on the lead (while dodging ridiculously frequent oil-slicks). Around the time you reach the sixth gear, the view automatically switches to the second perspective, the classic "behind-the-car". On this mode, the screen is actually split in two unequal portions: the wide and top section is for the current leader, and the ridiculously diminutive bottom section is for the current loser. Yes. If you are falling behind, your new GameBoy-size screen will be an extra handicap.
Adding to this stupidity, make sure you keep an eye on the opponent's car, since every time you switch positions with it your viewing area will switch too...
Finally, the last perspective is the overhead view. It triggers automatically when you are very close to your opponent and gives you a nice chance to ram him and give him/her the finger as you pass.

So far Race America isn't looking good. The game also has some control issues during the main behind-the-car view. The car is not precise and even a little too sensitive, and vehicules you are supposed to avoid sometimes come at you so fast there's barely any time to react. This leads to a lot of frustrating crashes, and the special effects of the car flipping and bouncing in the air like a ball are neither funny nor realistic.
There's other "skills" you have to master too, that we usually give for granted in other racing titles. No, it's not drifting or using nitro. There's no jumping either. I'm talking about shifting-up and refueling. Yes, mundane tasks like these are a prowess here. To shift up, let go of the gas pedal and push up, then accelerate again. Think it's easy? You'll be surprised how long it takes you to get used to it...
As for refueling, there's no pit-stop. When you are about to go empty you'll see lots of gas drums magically appear on the side of the road. Just decrease your speed and run one of them over. Yes, you heard right. That's what I call a professional american race. And don't think for a minute that this isn't a difficult task either.

European NES cover

After the first 15 minutes the novelty factor of its different view perspectives wears off, and the bad graphics and gameplay issues take over. The hardship of dodging other vehicules and the lack of upgrades for the car make Race America just plain not fun.
There's no incentive to see all stages either. Sure, there's all the palette swaps Mortal Kombat fans will love (oops, low blow) and every now and then your car passes by some random object on the side of the road, but absolutely nothing to look forward to.
The music (or lack of it) doesn't help. Only the "drag-race" and "head-to-head" perspectives have it, having to listen to the horrible sound effects of your constantly crashing car during the rest of it.

In Europe, Race America was released as "Corvette ZR-1 Challenge". If you take a look at the comparison pictures you'll see how some screens' graphics are different, clearly depicting Corvettes in all of them instead of Dodge Vipers. Even the car's sprite has been swapped.
Since the rest of the game is still intact, and given the "all american" theme is still there, it seems like the simplest explaination would be that Absolute couldn't get the proper rights from Chevrolet in the U.S.. Otherwise, I'm sure the combination of U.S. courses and western character art added to a license to America's most famous sports car would have sounded more appealing to the public than a game entitled "Race America".

Should you care?

If you are a NES fan and have easy access to the ROM, make sure you give Race America a try. The innovative and original (but useless and gimmicky) perspective-switching system is worth a look at. But this one is not a fun ride, and it won't keep you in front of the screen for longer than 15 minutes.

 

 

 

 

 
 
 
Race America NES
Drag-race view.
 
Race America NES
Being second has an extra handicap: your TV
screen suddenly transforms into a GameBoy Color
screen.
 
Race America NES
 
Race America NES
Head-to-head view.
 
Race America NES
Think you can count how many colors there are
on this screen?
 
Race America NES
You just have to see how horrible this animation is.
 
Race America NES
 
Race America NES
Strange headline.
 
Race America NES
 
Race America NES
 
Race America NES
 
 
Versions comparison

NES (American)
 

NES (European )
 
             
 
F-1 Sensation

Players: 1
About: Formula 1 racing
Courtesy of: Konami
Back in: 1993
Originally on: NES
Also on: N/A

There was this unique relationship between Konami and sports games. They were obviously no EA Sports (thank god). But back in the 8 and 16-bit days, the fact that Madden, Jordan, Senna and other celebrities were playing rough for other companies didn't stop them from every now and then spewing out fun, easy to pick up sport titles mixed with what they do best: arcades.
Since 1983's classic "Track & Field", Konami started to very slowly squeeze-in titles like "Double Dribble", "Blades of Steel" and "Skate Or Die" into the arcades, their 8-bit ports following soon after. No official licenses, sponsors or sports celebrities. Just pure pick-up-and-play arcade fun.
Their list of sports games was and still is very small to this day, doing very little for the company compared to the sea of TMNT, Castlevania and Metal Gear games bringing in most of their profits.

Japanese Famicom cover

F-1 Sensation was one of the few lucky ones that got special attention. Konami decided to acquire the license, and the title became a "Formula 1 World Championship" official product.
All F-1 celebrity names are here. Lots of official sponsors too, like "Shell", "Agip", "Fosters" and "Pirelli"; and even original cars from "Williams", "Ferrari" and "McLaren" among others.
Also going against Konami's usual arcade posture, Sensation introduces some car customizing. Pick your favorite team and proceed to modify things like your car's color, type of tires, suspension, etc. Everything thru a very simple and quick interface that avoids boring you with too many technicalities. Konami did a great job managing to add a little more complexity without ever ditching the arcade feel.
How does it drive? Like one of the best racing games on the NES. You won't find any other titles that can do this good a job of reproducing the sense of speed on Nintendo's 8-bits. When there aren't too many cars on screen, the road flies by surprisingly smooth and looks excellent.
The car controls flawlessly too, and even if you are not happy with it and needed to tweak something up, it's extremely easy to do so before the race.

F-1 Sensation NES
All the big names are here.

Too many crashes have your engine failing? Off-road skids wearing your tires out? A handy display on the upper-left corner will blink and sound an alarm when your car needs maintenance, and the car's computer will notify you via scrolling text on its LCD panel. Then just head to the pit! Quickly choose what needs to be repaired and start mashing on the "A" button to help your team finish quicker.
You might also be paying the pit an early visit if it starts raining. Weather forecasts are available right before each race, but unexpected weather changes during race become more common as you race in harder ranks, forcing you to switch tires as soon as possible.

European NES cover

Available play modes are: "Free Run", where you choose one of 18 international courses for a single race, or the classic "Grand Prix" where you race in all of them for points.
There's not a second player option, although it's understandable since the cart already suffers from some slowdown and lots of sprite flickering. ANY additional car on screen will cause half its sprite to disappear, the same happening constantly to every added car.
Otherwise, being one of the console's last titles, the game pushes the graphics to its limits. The best a NES cart can look.

F-1 Sensation Famicom
Formula 1 Sensation NES
The only difference between the european
and japanese versions is the placement of the
"lap" and "position" indicators on the screen.

Konami had great music composers back in the 8-bit era, and even in their few sports games this holds true. Sensation is right up there, its soundtrack reminding me a lot of TMNT's and the cool Blades of Steel soundtrack. Although they probably sound similar because they used the same tools to compose them.

F-1 Sensation is known in Europe as "Formula 1 Sensation", but was never released in the U.S. Most likely due to the fact that F-1 is not as popular as Nascar racing on these shores.

Should you care?

Haven't you heard enough already? This is as good as professional racing gets on the NES. Fun and almost technically perfect, squeezing out every last ounce of CPU power out of the console. Even though Sensation fits right in between the simulator and arcade genres, if you are not into Formula 1 at all the lack of variety might get you bored after a while.

 

 

Formula One:
Built to Win

Players: 1
About: Racing and building cars
Courtesy of: Seta
Back in: 1990
Originally on: NES
Also on: N/A

Except for a couple of F-1 titles for the SNES, you won't find Seta Corporation very involved in the driving/racing genre. You might recognize them though for their Castlevania/Prince of Persia experiment on the SNES entitled "Nosferatu", though their cup of tea are mahjong, golf and puzzle games.
With barely any experience on the genre, they released "Formula One: Built To Win" for Nintendo's 8-bits. Think of it as Gran Turismo's grand daddy on the NES, minus the simulation. The basics of what made GT so popular can be found in its "Normal" mode: different licenses, cars, parts to buy and sell, and tracks.

American NES cover

You begin the game with $2000 in your pocket and a red Mini-Cooper, ready to visit some of the most important U.S. cities in order to make some cash on their tracks.
By winning races, not only do you secure money to upgrade your car, but also adquire higher rank licenses that allow you to buy faster cars and race in harder circuits. All this to finally be able to race internationally on the world's most famous F-1 courses with your formula-1 license.
Although there's only 4 cars in total, the transition between them is Built To Win's apex. Saving money is hard work, and selling upgrade parts or re-visiting some circuits to get that Ferrari F-40 is worth every minute of it. Just watching your new car now fly thru what before were tough opponents is very satisfying.

Formula One: Built To Win NES
Built To Win's four available cars.

In every city you'll be able to check the status of your car, sign up for the local races, and save your game; while in some of them you'll find part shops, speed shops to sell extra parts, car shops, and even a casino where you can play the slots. All of them supervised by cute anime-looking girls.
In addition the this main mode, there's also a "Free" mode just like in Konami's "F-1 Sensation", in which you are presented with a choice of cars and circuits for quick racing.

Formula One: Built To Win NES
The girls are a nice addition, but the interface
looks like the one on early Final Fantasy
titles.

Here's an interesting trick involving the casino you can pull out as soon as you start the "Normal" game. Just head to Las Vegas and play two $1000 tokens in the slots. If you win something, save the game and bet again. If you lose just reset your NES. Repeat this process, and with a little patience (and specially if you hit a triple 7) you'll have enough money to swiftly cruise thru the entire game.

Formula One: Built To Win NES
The casino trick makes things much easier.

Seta's Built To Win controls perfectly. Shifting gears is automatic, and the car's nitro easy to use. Despite the high speeds the cars reach with it, you'll rarely find yourself hitting the brakes during curves, giving this cart a pure arcade feel. Easy in the beginning, but very slowly raising the difficulty level to reach its top during the F-1 races, which are a miraculous task to complete.

Technically, it leaves a little to be desired. Sprite flickering is not as bad as F-1 Sensation's but still present, and the interface design and overall presentation are just plain and boring.
There's a choice of 3 small tunes right before each race. All of them are short and catchy but sound terrible because they seem to be composed using only one audio channel. Choose "No music" when these monotone beats start drilling into your brain.
On the good side, circuits and their backgrounds look excellent and are very varied. The different cars' sprites look awesome and are well animated too, each including its own on-screen dashboard design. Very nice.

Should you care?

Variety is the name of this game. Although with some technical and presentation flaws, the 4 different cars, upgrades, circuits and details like the casino will keep you hooked until the end. Well... that's if you ever get past the very difficult F-1 races towards the end of it.
Forget R.C. Pro-Am and Micro-Machines, this is probably the best, most obscure NES racer period.

 

 

 

     
F-1 Sensation Famicom
 
F-1 Sensation Famicom
 
F-1 Sensation Famicom
 
F-1 Sensation Famicom
 
F-1 Sensation Famicom
Engrish!
 
F-1 Sensation Famicom
Ignoring the car's onboard computer will cost you
the race.
 
F-1 Sensation Famicom
 
F-1 Sensation Famicom
Lots of sprite flickering constantly show during
the game.
 
F-1 Sensation Famicom
Button-mashing helps your crew finish quicker!
 
F-1 Sensation Famicom
 
F-1 Sensation Famicom
 
 
 
Formula One: Built To Win NES
 
Formula One: Built To Win NES
 
Formula One: Built To Win NES
Presentation is not BTW's forte. Just look at this
map.
 
Formula One: Built To Win NES
 
Formula One: Built To Win NES
 
Formula One: Built To Win NES
 
Formula One: Built To Win NES
 
Formula One: Built To Win NES
Racing goes international when you get your F-1
license.
 
Formula One: Built To Win NES
 
Formula One: Built To Win NES
 
Formula One: Built To Win NES