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Road Runner (NES) artwork

Road Runner (NES) review

"Apparently developed by ACME."

Road Runner (NES) image

I'm tempted to gush over Tengen's NES sidescroller, Road Runner. At the same time, the compulsion to mock it is undeniable. The game manages to do its brand justice, but also biffs it hard in several areas. Despite remaining true to its source material, it features the kind of content all too often seen in shovelware licensed video games. I want simultaneously to recommend Road Runner, and to warn you to run to the hills thanks to its less admirable moments.

In Road Runner, you take the role of the titular bird as he outruns his arch nemesis, Wile E. Coyote. Your mission has no grand objective, such as rescuing a friend or thwarting a power-hungry ruler. Your only goals are to survive and to beat your highest score senseless. You accomplish this by nibbling on piles of birdseed as they appear. On top of that, there's a time limit to abide, lest you starve. In other words, the game forces you into score attack mode by making its collectible morsels necessary for survival.

Various other Road Runner trappings also make appearances, including ACME delivery vans and cockamamie devices, courtesy of the aforementioned company. Wile E. utilizes these bad boys in the hopes of depleting your remaining lives. As they do in the cartoon, his gizmos eventually backfire on him.

Road Runner screenshotRoad Runner screenshot

There, happy now EmP?
And EmP looked down and whispered "no".

Road Runner is a legit product. The game exudes almost everything that defined and made enjoyable the animated shorts on which it is based. At the same time, it wouldn't be accurate to call it a devoted piece of memorabilia, not when its shortcomings are so clearly apparent.

Certain portions of Road Runner are downright intense. During one segment, Wile E. dons a combination gyrocopter-backpack and drops bombs on you. Obviously, dodging the explosives is your top priority, but hunger remains a considerable factor as well. To top it all off, the computer gets wise to your patterns and learns to drop explosives in front of you. As a result, you end up scrambling all over the pavement whilst attempting to keep yourself well fed. Thankfully, the pack eventually malfunctions and roasts Mr. Coyote.

Unfortunately, the stage that hosts the fast-paced gyrocopter event also features a rather broken platforming section. You'll happen upon a gauntlet of sheer drops, most of which are tricky to negotiate for the wrong reasons. You don't want to leap at the last moment, as you would in most platformers, because that typically results in death. On the other hand, jumping too early might throw off your rhythm and leave you susceptible to Wile E. Coyote's grubby mitts. It's also strange that the developers waited until the very end of Road Runner's level cycle to introduce pitfalls, rather than interspersing them throughout the game. Instead of a genuine hazard or a special scene, their including feels tacked on. It's as if the devs couldn't concoct another inventive peril to throw at Road Runner, and instead spammed a garden variety obstacle.

Road Runner screenshotRoad Runner screenshot

Road Runner boasts a diverse collection of dangers, though, from tumbling boulders to landmines. To the clever player, these represent opportunities. With proper maneuvering, you can lure Wile E. into, say, stomping on a mine or scampering into a van's driving path. Regrettably, the game's irksome scrolling cheapens many of those threats. Remember the aforementioned ACME delivery vans? They're a particular nuisance because Road Runner's viewing perspective doesn't scroll until you're practically hugging the left edge of the screen. Because of that, you won't have much time to evade a vehicle when it finally appears. Things get even worse when the game introduces landmines, as you'll need to constantly stop to make sure you aren't about to step on one.

Road Runner's variety makes up for some of its flaws. Stage two, for instance, requires caution and forethought, rather than mindless running or dodging. In the first section, your adversary mounts a rocket and continuously zips across the screen. Meanwhile, you must negotiate a course full of straightaways and intersections that lie at the screen's edge. You thus have to plan ahead and sometimes anticipate your opponent's next move so that you don't inadvertently wander into a trap. It may not be a fast-paced scenario, but it is challenging and tense.

Road Runner screenshotRoad Runner screenshot

It's a shame more of Road Runner's segments aren't similarly worthwhile. There's a convoluted track in stage three, for instance, that is filled with wild branches and deceptive straightaways. It isn't always obvious which route you should take, so you could become coyote chow at a dead-end if you're not careful. Thankfully, properly timing Road Runner's dashing jump allows you to temporarily trip Wile E. up, but sometimes this maneuver is unreliable. Occasionally, it might appear that you can hop past him, but instead you end up in his clutches. It's difficult to know whether or not you're clear of his grasp, which might result in loads of lives lost during this scene. Rather than tough and thrilling, this chunk is cheap and needlessly frustrating.

You constantly have to take the good with the bad when playing Road Runner. Even its soundtrack has its pleasant highs and depressing lows. For one thing, each level sports an NES rendition of a classic composition. Stage one features "William Tell Overture," which translates to one catchy BGM. "Flight of the Bumblebee" also pops up, though in an unrecognizable fashion. Regardless, it's also a snappy tune that works for its assigned stage. Sadly, "Sabre Dance" and Tchaikosky's "Trepak" are clumsy messes. The former hits a few notes awkwardly and sounds altogether rushed, while the latter translates to a cheesy level theme, thanks to its overly cheerful sound and high-pitched notes.

Road Runner is a spotty affair that is sometimes brilliant, but occasionally cringe-worthy. It's sad that the best thing I can say about it is that it's not a total misfire, as maligned licensed games largely tend to be. To put it another way, Road Runner is thankfully no Toxic Crusaders, but it's not in the same league as DuckTales, either.


JoeTheDestroyer's avatar
Staff review by Joseph Shaffer (April 19, 2016)

Rumor has it that Joe is not actually a man, but a machine that likes video games, horror movies, and long walks on the beach. His/Its first contribution to HonestGamers was a review of Breath of Fire III.

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qxz posted April 19, 2016:

I played this game a bit when I was younger around 1991-1992 without any awareness that this was based on an arcade game. The first time I saw the arcade version of Road Runner was during a family vacation near San Diego in 1997 -- 200 miles from where I live in northern Los Angeles County. I would gladly recommend playing Road Runner via MAME, because there's not much likelihood of finding a Road Runner arcade cabinet in the wild. (Just be sure to have a controller with analog control if you do.)
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JoeTheDestroyer posted April 20, 2016:

I've hunted and wanted to play the cabinet. The visuals, given its age, are terrific. I'll likely MAME it eventually, but I've got a tremendous load of arcade games I'd like to MAME first.

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