"It begins to feel like you're sliding around the course, rather than taking advantage of the tight steering you enjoyed early on. Meanwhile, your opponents are doing the same all around you and just ahead. Missiles become extremely important, particularly on final laps, and there's very little that can be more frustrating than pressing the 'B' button only to find that you've used your last shell."
If you like racing in simplistic circles, then I've got just the game for you: Championship Pro-Am. Developed by Rare and published by Midway, this game will make driving in straight lines a thing of the past. And in case you're wondering, it also happens to be quite a fun little title. Still, any bundle of joy is not without its poo, and the game has plenty of that, too. And so I ask: does the poo outweigh the good? Well, no. But it does come close.
The game's premise is simple: you drive a car around something like 30 tracks, trying to finish in third place or better on each course so that you can advance to the next. The number of laps varies, as does the shape of a given course, but there are typically somewhere around three laps and there are only around six different course patterns.
The patterns are noticed quite easily because of the way the game is designed. There's your isometric view of the course that takes up the top three fourths of the screen, while the remainder is a bar across the bottom that shows various details about your performance. At the center of this bar is the map, which is a green square with gray that represents the course. You can see blobs of color on the gray that of course represent the other drivers. Early on, the shapes begin to repeat, with the occasional variation thrown in for good measure. If you think the diminutive number of unique track shapes makes the game dull, though, you're in for a surprise. A number of them, actually.
First, there are the hazards to consider. Even the first track has some. They range from rain clouds (run through their puddles and you're slowed to a crawl) to oil slicks (they set you spinning and you'll likely turn into a heap of metal after colliding with a nearby wall). Later on, there are even new threats like metal barriers that pop up out of the road at set points. These odd little threats mean that even if a track's shape looks familiar, the dangers you'll face will soon set things apart.
It's not just the obstacles you have to watch for, though; along the way you can grab a bundle of goodies that are absolutely essential to your success. First, there are the vehicle upgrades, which improve your current ride in three areas (tires, top speed, and acceleration). These are placed about the track in fairly consistent locations that usually involve driving a set path. Pass over one and it's added to your inventory, while on-screen your vehicle gets an extra little burst of speed that can sometimes mean the difference between a first-place victory and total failure. Even if you're missing your upgrades as you advance, your opponents surely are not. Therefore, memorization plays a key role.
Besides upgrades to your vehicle, you'll also find a number of other items. One is a roll cage that grants you temporary invulnerability. Because most tracks are quite short, you'll usually get to enjoy it for around two laps. When you grab it, your vehicle will start glowing and you can push your opponents off the road with glee. Unfortunately, they can beat you to the goods and return the favor.
More important than the roll cages, though, are your missiles, bombs and ammunition. Early on, you'll find a missile icon lying on the road. Pick it up and you can fire five shots before the 'B' button suddenly reverts to the cute little horn sound. Alternatively, you can save your shots for when you need them most, and also pick up the stars that litter the track. Each adds one more shot to your stockpile. Later in the game, you will also find bombs lying in the road, which work great when opponents are coming up from behind. The problem is that the game doesn't let you choose your poison. If you pick up a bomb icon, all your ammunition switches to the sort that falls out your butt. Depending on your playing style, you may well find yourself cursing when you accidentally brush against a bomb and can no longer fire shots at the fellow just a few feet ahead of you. Later in the game, there are objects lying in the road that alternate between skulls and stars, and you'll want to run over them only when they're the latter, or else watch your stock of ammunition plummet.
A dwindling supply of ammo is the last thing you want in this game, too. As you advance to the later courses, the designers let loose with everything in the book. Zip pads pop up all over the familiar tracks, and oil slicks seem to line each corner. It begins to feel like you're sliding around the course, rather than taking advantage of the tight steering you enjoyed early on. Meanwhile, your opponents are doing the same all around you and just ahead. Missiles become extremely important, particularly on final laps, and there's very little that can be more frustrating than pressing the 'B' button only to find that you've used your last shell.
If that's not enough to get you scurrying, you'll also find a letter on each track. The goal is to spell out the word 'Champion.' When you do so, you'll receive a huge boost to your score, and you'll suddenly be driving a new type of car. Unfortunately, so will all of your opponents. Not only that, but your upgrades will all fly out the window, and you'll be starting from scratch. Even so, it's fun to switch because of the sense of accomplishment, and also because even the unenhanced new vehicle drives better than your former one. There are a total of two such upgrades. One looks like a Jeep, the other a dune buggy. It's only when you start driving this third car that the game really swings into high gear.
By now, I'd imagine some of you are thinking to yourselves ''Boy, this game sounds familiar.'' And so it should. When I began playing, I noticed right from the title screen that this is nothing more than a port of the 8-bit NES title, R.C. Pro-Am. There are only a few differences.
The first difference is the letters. In the original version, players spelled 'Nintendo' (Nintendo published the 8-bit version, so they must have worked out something sweet with Rare). Somehow, spelling out 'Champion' just doesn't feel right. Nor does racing against five opponents instead of three. The game can now be even cheaper, as there are more opponents who can pass you. You have to stay ahead of 60 percent of your opponents instead of a quarter of them like in R.C. Pro-Am. You're still limited to three continues, too.
Of course, not all the differences are negative. The game now looks much prettier than it did before, with decent color variety in the fields around the track (though they all are the same green tone) and nice shading on the trees. Rare also added iron towers and crossbeams throughout, so your cars will sometimes pass under such structures. It's purely a visual difference, but it does look a lot better and remind you that you're playing a 16-bit title.
Music has also improved, if only slightly. The compositions are still the same, but it seems like they added another instrument in there somewhere, and the sound is a bit clearer than I recall from the 8-bit version. Still, the number of tunes here hasn't really increased. As a result, the limited stockpile of tunes grows old quickly and is likely to make you reach for the 'mute' button on your remote.
A final improvement is in the area of records. When you power on the system, there are high scores and best laps to beat, so the game has you put in your initials before playing. That's a cool concept, though it's unfortunately turned sour when you turn off the unit; there's no battery in the cart, and scores thus are not saved. Not only that, but the default lap times are easily beat. Because of this, the added feature hardly seems worth the effort.
Still, one has to credit Rare for at least trying. They knew they had to find some way to lengthen the experience, or else why would anyone spend $50.00 for the game? Now, years later, that question has changed to a new one: Is it worth spending a few bucks to add Championship Pro-Am to your collection? For the right person, the answer is 'yes.' But if you've played one of the earlier editions and the lure of a graphical upgrade doesn't have you interested, you'd do better to pass on this one. The new coat of paint hasn't really made the old veteran that much better.
Staff review by Jason Venter (April 24, 2004)
Jason Venter has been playing games for 30 years, since discovering the Apple IIe version of Mario Bros. in his elementary school days. Now he writes about them, here at HonestGamers and also at other sites that agree to pay him for his words.
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