It’s your chance to play as Hans Moleman in a thrilling deathrace


Race Drivin’ (1992)

I do love witnessing bad driving and the road rage that often follows – it’s a perfect opportunity to see humans at their basest. Look, it’s always understandable. You’re operating heavy, life-threatening machinery. And then some white van man is cutting you up, brake-testing you, giving you rude hand gestures and shouting things in bottom feeder at you. Of course you’re going to give a bit of welly back. After all, you’ve convinced yourself that you are the world’s greatest driver. Or at the very least, you’re country miles better than the constantly-beeping, wrong-direction-indicating, roadsign-ignoring, non-mirror-checking rabble that you always seem to be surrounded by.

But you’re not being fair, because you’re forgetting one thing: while you likely had some good tuition and teaching on your quest to become your country’s bravest driver, many folks of the older generation around you won’t have had that. They’ll not have had practice with the advanced driving simulators that some video games present themselves as in this day and age, like Drive Club, Sega Rally, Gran Turismo and… Race Drivin’?

Yes, we’re looking at another racing game today, which is sure to get you groaning, I know. But you’re gonna love this, because this racing game is like no other that I’ve ever played. And I’ve really run the gauntlet where racers are concerned, I’ll tell you that. Imagine you found yourself in the very depths of a particularly violent bout of road rage. A brain-damaged taxi driver has completely cut you off, and you’re livid. You’re purple in the face, shouting, choking on your own rage, you can’t even get your death threats out properly.

Meanwhile, your aggressor is there flashing a Cheshire Cat grin at you in between a few hard-hitting diatribes of his own. Imagine yourself permanently in that state, then trying to sit down and program a racing game which, truth be told, is still a fair few Programming Textbooks ahead of your actual programming ken. The murderous result ends up little more than a circuit-board of spitefulness and hatred. Which, come to think of it, is a lot like the true form of Race Drivin’ for the Super Nintendo.

Before even beginning on this one, Race Drivin’ does seem to have a bit of a history. Revoltingly, it’s a sequel to another game, fittingly entitled Hard Drivin’. And not only that, they’re arcade games too, which means I’m stuck with a shoddy port – the shoddiest, as it turns out. But whatever about all that, mine is not to reason why, mine is but to play and cry. And when I first caught wind of an outlandish attempt to bring 3D racing to the SNES, long before even the probably unwise FX Chip was conceived of, I simply had to take a look to see how bad it was. This game was unspeakably bad, I was assured and forewarned – borderline unplayable, in fact.

You’ve got an incredible choice of four whole vehicles, of which some are actually roadworthy. They come equipped with some different colours for you to see when you crash, and possibly they have slight speed differences. They may all have similar performances, but three of the four cars are just about unusable.

Why? Because those three clagmobiles all force you to undergo what the game interprets as manual transmission. Typically, the game reads your inputs to change gears as only a mere suggestion, something to go somewhere way down the To Do pile. Thus, as your car flies over a dangerous ramp, Dukes of Hazzard style, it may eventually downshift once or twice a full ten seconds later. That’s all too late of course, and you’re left crashing through the windscreen with your head in your hands.

And having narrowed the choice of vehicle down to, erm, one car, the illusion of choice shatters just a little bit more when you’re presented with a whopping three courses to shudder and jerk your way through. One is completely flat, one has unfinished loop-the-loops and another was based on a particularly horrid lump of vomitus boaked up by the hungover (if not perma-drunk) graphic designer, in a joke that got way out of hand.

What also immediately becomes apparent, once you’ve taken your unfinished battleship prototype to the circuit, is that you might just as well be drivin’ through thick fog for all the visibility you’re afforded. Yes, it may have been a game that gleefully suckled on the teats of an actual graphics chip for 3D graphics that were still way beyond its ambition, but even Stunt Race FX offered the player more of a view ahead.

Now, if you manage to do the nigh-impossible and actually finish a lap against the sadistic time limit you’re given, you’re told that you’ve matched Championship pace. Finally, the race can begin! You eventually run out of time anyway (it’s an arcade conversion after all; even perfect play will still see you lose in the end) and it’s time for the race to begin.

It’s three, two, one… go! And then the other motors whizz off into the distance while your jalopy reluctantly guzzles down a mouthful of gas and starts wheezing into life. I’ve seen stoned pandas accelerate to mate faster than your vehicle kicks off in this game, or any of the four vehicles for that matter, and the unfortunate consequence of this is that you will never see your AI rivals again. They’re already on the next grand prix while you’re still coughing and hacking through the first chicane in your Hans Moleman car.

You eventually pick up some speed, which marks the point where you’ve really lost control of proceedings, and you eventually happen upon the ramps I was talking about earlier. No matter what you do, whether you approach them slowly or blaze over them in a heart-stopping manner, you will stack the car completely and crash right through the road, or whatever it is that bland grey texture means to represent.

When you do suffer this almighty crash, the game really revs up, bringing us an unforgettable sequence: a gaping hole cracks into your windscreen with all the sound of a bottom burp – reminiscent of a road-ragey pirate firing his blunderbuss at you in anger. Next, a dire electric guitar riff “plays” as you’re treated to a replay of how you just wrote off the car, before you’re transported back to the road without a scratch and only a few seconds down. Now, why on earth?

What you have to remember about the scenario I’ve just lovingly painted for you is that, while it can all transpire on a short space of track, the whole process itself takes about three hours. That’s because the porters, in their effort to capture the arcade original, were only competent enough to equip the game with a wonderful framerate of about 4 FPS, perhaps 3 with the windows up.

I’m no framerate biologist, but I’m pretty sure that means you could go down the gears for the next corner (only to have your gearbox not work anyway), barely tap the D-Pad left or right so as not to go careening wildly off track, go down to your kitchen, boil the kettle and make a brew for all your peers before heading back into your mancave to reassume control of your car – it’s THAT slow a game.

I’ve seen faster picture slideshows, honestly, and it gets to the stage where’s there no point in you even playing; if you’re pressing buttons on the controller and having them be read seconds later, as the barren Hiroshima-esque environments pass you by at the speed of moss, why not just imagine yourself playing?

It’s a good idea, even if I say it myself, because the game really does get even better in your mind. Look, you can actually pass the unassailable ramp sections and loop-the-loops! Better than that, you can even imagine yourself actually racing against cars rather than having them zoom off into the distance every race! You might even delve into your mind’s playlist and have a nifty background radio song playing in your imagination, rather than the terrible, constant din of the whiny little engine!

It’s not hard for any of us to actually imagine the greatest game of all time. For me, I just have to picture a 3D Secret of Mana with a few more buxom courtesans propping up the Empire’s economy; or just an F-Zero with 2,372 machines on one track the size of Jupiter. For others I know, they’d probably prefer to imagine a Leisure Suit Larry game only it stars the female fighters from Street Fighter. It takes all sorts, I suppose.

But whatever about all that, if I’m having to use my imagination to correct basic flaws in this so-called ‘3-D SENSATION’, and in my favourite genre of game as well, then this really must be an appalling car crash for the ages. It really isn’t that difficult to fathom, you know: a racing game doesn’t exactly live up to its name if it’d be quicker for the player to draw each of the game’s frames by hand.

Out of sheer curiosity, I took a look at the arcade original of Race Drivin’ and was pleasantly surprised – it’d been released four years previously, looked a hell of a lot better and didn’t take the player until sundown to get around the first bend. To bring myself back down to Earth, I took a look at the Mega Drive version. And even more chilling than that, the Brick Game Boy version.

And… they were still better than the SNES effort. I mean they were no great shakes and obviously the Game Boy version’s graphics weren’t far removed from those of a scientific calculator. But crucially, proceedings went by quite a bit quicker than they ever did on the SNES. Obviously that usual suspect, Blast Processing, was mysteriously at play again, able to nurse the Mega Drive version over the line. But being outstripped by the Game Boy version? Really?

Well, apart from serving as a handy brick to put on an accelerator, Race Drivin’ still does serve one other questionable purpose. It may just remain the only game in history that functions as a road-rage simulator: no other driving game out there, not even F-Zero GX at its most sadistic, has ever brought me to genuine tears of anger and epileptic fits of fury so easily.

16 October 2014

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