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volume 1, issue 23

Today in loonygames:

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Pad Happy:
Mirror, Signal, Maneuver

By Nick Ferguson


But racers don’t have to be even vaguely realistic to create a fun playing experience. Where would the genre be without the Ridge Racer power-slide, those ridiculously spectacular Daytona USA collisions, or the zippy anti-grav "future racer", as epitomized by the Wipeout and F-Zero series’? From RC Pro-Am to the Micro Machines series, there are plenty of examples where extreme unrealism has proven just as much (or more) fun than the more sober alternatives. Sega and Namco may be masters of the pseudo-realistic arcade title, but Nintendo have made a massive contribution to gameplay with their playful take on the genre. The launch of the SNES saw the arrival of F-Zero – a blisteringly fast sci-fi racer with wonderful comic-book characters and the most amazing 3D effect seen on a home console. Mode 7 was also used to great effect in Pilotwings, but it was the speed of F-Zero which blew people away.

It wasn’t until Mario Kart, however, that Nintendo produced (arguably) the finest racing game ever made. Some might scoff at the notion that any game populated by cute plumbers, princesses and dinosaurs could lay claim to the title "Best Racing Game of All Time" but they would be missing the point. OK, so Wipeout is faster, Gran Turismo is more realistic and Ridge Racer has prettier tracks, but let’s face it – none of them are as much fun to play from a competitive point of view. Mario Kart’s simple blend of power-ups and speedy (on the 150cc setting, at least) racing action made for one of the most intense gaming experiences ever. If you’re one of those people who couldn’t overcome your hatred of "cute" to play the game (or have only played the sadly inferior 64-bit sequel), I can only pity you. Ingeniously precise control, a perfect balance of power-up items and amazingly competitive, addictive, strategic gameplay - hell, I’d go so far as to say that Mario Kart‘s battle mode was the first real deathmatch game. Think about it.

Nintendo are often seen as the weakest company when it comes to ‘serious’ racing games, but there is a lot to learn from some of their more successful titles: Wave Race 64 is one of the most under-appreciated console games of all time, as it provides an absolutely fantastic feeling of racing on water (one that has yet to be matched by any other game) coupled with the ability to perform some outrageous stunts. It’s such a simple mechanism, but by modeling realistic waves they immediately managed to differentiate the game from every other water-based racer! Diddy Kong Racing, from Rare, was a brave attempt to merge the exploratory gameplay of Mario 64 with the fun competition of Mario Kart. The final gameplay experience was a tad uneven (and the "cute factor" was a bit much, even for cute-meisters like myself) but at least it was an attempt to be different from the multitude of arcade conversions owners of other consoles are faced with.

Racing games can be violent, too. I addressed the similarity between racers and shooters before so it’s not too surprising that there’s a lengthy tradition of games that merge the two genres (with varying degrees of success). Chase HQ was one of the first violent racers (allowing you to, uh, rear-end the bad guys into submission), but it wasn’t until the sequel that you got to do what everyone really wanted to: lean out the window at 100mph and take aim with a rocket launcher. Electronic Arts’ original Road Rash series on the Genesis did a better job than most of balancing the racing action with the more vicious elements (and it even found time to establish some characterization), but more recent takes on the idea (Destruction Derby, Twisted Metal, Vigilante 8) have focused on sheer destruction, creating a bloody breed of deathmatch titles rather than racers. Unfortunately, as is often the case in the industry, a lot of developers use violence as a way of masking the flaws in a rather lackluster title. Some things will never change…

In the future, when we’re wearing jetpacks and going to Mars for long weekends, will people still be playing racing games? I’d like to think so. There’s a purity in the challenge of a good racer that the more complex likes of the first-person shooter or role-playing game can’t quite touch. The best racing games are easy to pick up, but hard to master – too often, games require a good half hour just to learn how to play! So next time you’re drifting by the arcade, or feel like buying something uncomplicated for your console, consider the therapeutic value of a good racer!

(Accelerate. Brake. Steer. Now that’s what I call a game interface).

- Nick Ferguson is a regular contributor to loonygames. Ironically, he cannot drive.


Credits: Pad Happy logo illustrated and is © 1999 Dan Zalkus. Pad Happy is © 1999 Nick Ferguson. All other content is © 1999 loonyboi productions. Unauthorized reproduction is strictly prohibited, so don't try it, or you'll get some real force feedback.