I cannot tell a lie, I do like my racing games. However, while nearly every platform since the days of the humble Spectrum have been spoilt for automobile-related gaming treats, there is one notable omission: the mighty NES. Considering it was the best selling home system ever for a time, this is as baffling as it is disappointing. Off the top of my head and as far as UK/European releases go, there's RC Pro-Am, Turbo Racing, Galaxy 5000, Micro Machines, and that's - apart from the subject of this post - about it. A mystery to be sure, but technical limitations can't be the culprit, as Rad Racer demonstrates.
Rad Racer is an early title for the NES. Published by Square (of Final Fantasy fame) in 1987, it was the first racing game to be released for the system in Western markets and was for a while the only one. And as a first outing, it pretty much nailed it. You race against the clock over eight tracks based on geographical features and locations. Greece, for example, has multiple iterations of The Parthenon decorating the horizon. It's a simple into-the-screen affair of dodging incoming traffic and making it to the checkpoint before the time robs you of acceleration. If you make it you're whisked off to the next level to do much the same. Sounds dull? It's not. Some of the races are very challenging and other cars have the annoying tendency of bending your fender as they position themselves between you and the open road. On later levels they crop up in groups of two or three, and many times a contest has been thwarted as they effectively block the highway. Ramming into the back of them can cause you to crash and flip the motor, but more often than not they knock your speed down. Not so if you come into contact with the roadside furniture. Each crash might set you right back on your wheels (this is Nintendo Land, after all), but it comes with a potentially race-destroying time penalty.
As with games of this character, which became ten-a-penny in late 80s arcades and home systems, there isn't much in the way of variety or depth. So the typical ruses of the time were implemented, such as making the game very tough and supplying no continues. Fine if you're a kid in the 1980s who can only afford a handful of games a year, not if you're an occasional retro gamer with an overweening blogging habit. It also offers a couple of unique ephemeral gaming experiences. The first is the choice between two different cars. One is a Ferrari 328 Twin Turbo bearing a bit of a resemblance to the car in certain other famous game, and the other is a nondescript Formula One motor. The difference between the two is the latter is a touch faster and cars on the road are other kamikaze F1 beasties. There's no other difference, even the end sequence - depicting the Twin Turbo - remains the same. The other is a 3D mode enabled via select. It's probably not a good idea to play this without the glasses because the rapid flashing and blurring is like a bad trip. And, to be honest, the effect isn't that great anyway.
There are a couple of nice cosmetic touches too. One is the inclusion of an in-game radio. Tapping down on the d-pad allows you to cycle through three tunes and the bleepy whirring of the engine. Alas, the music is standard NES fare that doesn't stick in the memory. Another are different day/night or weather cycles in each race. None had no direct impact on gameplay but attempted to convey a sense that you were racing over a lengthy period of time, and not the three minutes(ish) each track took.
Overall, Rad Racer is a slick, well-programmed racer that showed the NES could manage rudimentary three-dimensional games. In fact, what it did manage better than its ilk on other 8-bit systems was a proper sense of speed - there are no lines sitting across the road and landscape simulating kph. And it also managed hills better, giving an approximate sense of undulating terrain - a trick that remained tricky well into the 16-bit era.
Received wisdom has it that Square published Rad Racer as a means of showing off their superlative 3D programming skills, and therefore grabbing some of the home market enraptured by Sega's clutch of mid-late 80s coin-ops (Super Hang-On, OutRun, Space Harrier, Afterburner, Galaxy Force, Power Drift). Others of a more cynical mind noted its similarity - that's one way of putting it - to OutRun. I mean, both feature Ferrari motors and the basic gameplay mechanic is identical. Though done differently, both games can choose between soundtracks, which, again, remained very rare up until the Sega Saturn and Sony PlayStation hit the shelves. Yes, there's truth here, but it was also a manifestation of a publishing culture that flourished when system exclusives were much more common than today. That is me-too-ism. As the Nintendo vs Sega battle got underway, none of the latter's cool coin-ops were going to get released for the NES and its successors (apart from a few sub-licensed to Atari's Tengen label), nor - thanks to the restrictive and long-since illegal licensing practices - would many third party Nintendo games grace Sega's machines. Hence if a game became popular, either Sega or Nintendo or one of their licensees would attempt to provide some kind of competitive response in the form of a cash-in duplicate. RC Pro-Am vs RC Gran Prix, Afterburner vs Top Gun, etc. Sometimes, companies would market nearly-identical games for the same platform.
This is exactly what Rad Racer is. It is pretty much the same game as OutRun for the Master System (though, in an interesting twist, Sega released a specially reprogrammed OutRun 3D for its glasses peripheral in 1988 - the copy becomes the cop-ee). And while it does not sell a lifestyle in the way Sega's premiere racer did, it does probably edge it as the better game. Well worth picking up.