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Formula One: Built to Win (NES) artwork

Formula One: Built to Win (NES) review

"There wasnt much of a difference between the first few Formula One races and the last few American ones, so I jumped out to a hefty lead in the points standings over real-life drivers of the time (with slightly altered names, such as A. Frost instead of Alain Prost or A. Zenna instead of Ayrton Senna). I was feeling fine. Only a few races from winning the F-1 championship, I felt not even the wrath of God himself could stop me!"

Long before racing games like Gran Turismo were considered humanly possible to develop, Id seen the future of this genre. While Setas 1990 NES cart Formula One: Built to Win may not have had a bajillion cars, racing that was even remotely close to realistic or the THRILL of repeatedly replaying license tests in order to actually get to, you know, partake in that did a fine job of setting the foundation for that series.

During the early 90s, it was hard for me to not be impressed by Built to Win. Up until that point, the only racing games Id ever played seriously were: (1) R.C. Pro-Am for the NES, (2) Pole Position II for the Atari 7800 and (3) Bump N Jump for the Atari 2600. While all had their appeal, none of them really satisfied my urge to have a true racing game. R.C. Pro-Am seemed more like an obstacle course with racing involved; Pole Position II didnt have any depth and Bump N Jump really wasn't a racing game.....but it had cars!

Seta proved up to the task of whetting my appetite in this regard. Not only did Built to Win have 30 American tracks that needed to be dominated, but also an entire Formula One series! All-in-all, the game had nearly 50 different races for me to win! However, all of this would have had little meaning to me if not for the fact the game had a few role-playing elements.

In the beginning, I had $2000 in my pocket and a low-powered, ineffectual car at my disposal. Starting with the first New York race, I slowly built up my cash supply by barely edging out a group of seven other pathetic drivers. The money I earned from winning these races immediately was invested into my car, as I was able to buy upgrades to the brakes, chassis, bumper, engine and various other parts. Some upgrades made my car more durable, so I could simply bludgeon my opponents off the road without worrying that the impact would send me out-of-control. Other enhancements improved its handling or allowed it to reach higher speeds.

As I progressed through the United States (visiting Detroit and Miami next), I earned a new license, which allowed me to enter tougher races and buy better equipment. Even today, I wish Gran Turismo had learned from Built to Win in this regard. Advancing a game through excellence on the race track is a lot more fun than progressing solely because one has the willpower to do a 20-second segment of a track over and over until they meet a time requirement.

After collecting enough money, I was able to buy a better car, which helped me get through the Great Plains and Rocky Mountain states. A few trips to the Las Vegas casino and its ever-so-generous slot machine (Im serious -- no one-armed bandit in ANY other game Ive played has ever given me big payoffs the way this one does!) ensured Id have enough money to buy a third car and all of the best equipment to finish off the American courses.

Until this point, Id found the game to be extremely fun, if a bit too easy. Anytime Id struggled with anything, the answer would be to grab a handful of cash, go to a parts shop and upgrade my car. If that didnt work, Id grab a wheelbarrow full of money and buy a new car. And that was all it took to carry me through all of those American races.

But then, the Formula One series began. Consisting of a slew of races (well into double-digits) taking place all over the world, this series proved to be far more difficult than anything I had previously encountered. There wasnt much of a difference between the first few Formula One races and the last few American ones, so I jumped out to a hefty lead in the points standings over real-life drivers of the time (with slightly altered names, such as A. Frost instead of Alain Prost or A. Zenna instead of Ayrton Senna). I was feeling fine. Only a few races from winning the F-1 championship, I felt not even the wrath of God himself could stop me!

However, pride comes before a fall and when I got to the seventh race of the series, God smote me down. Even though Id built up my cars body all the way, even the lightest tap by a computer car would send me spinning. Even though Id maxed out its acceleration and top speed, I had trouble keeping up with all but the weakest of my opponents. Back in the day, Senna and Prost (or Zenna and Frost) were the gods of Formula One racing. On my television screen, I was now witness to this as they quickly erased their deficit in the points races, caught me, passed me and left me in the dust. When all was said and done, Id finished fourth overall behind those two and another perennial power, Nigel Mansell (N. Lansell, I believe).

Im not going to lie -- I loved most aspects of Built to Win. Being able to gradually improve my car and buy upgraded vehicles was a blast and the sheer number of courses in this game was mind-boggling for the time. But Ive never been a fan of games changing the rules towards the end. For nearly all this game, while some degree of proficiency was required to advance, I was able to help my cause by purchasing better parts -- which gave me a good deal of leeway in the event I didnt navigate a track perfectly.

After those first few F-1 races, there is no margin for error and nothing I could do to help my cause. And there was no learning curve taking me to this point. I simply went from winning every time out to considering myself fortunate to finish fourth or fifth in each eight-car race. Id practice each race over and over, resetting just before the conclusion, and still struggled to do better than third place -- if I was both lucky and good! Still, Formula One: Built to Win is a well-designed game that was the most impressive racing title of olden times. Easy to get into and quite addictive, this is a fun (if somewhat flawed, especially towards the end) cart that gave us gamers a sneak peek at what the future of racing simulators would become.

Rating: 8/10

overdrive's avatar
Staff review by Rob Hamilton (June 05, 2006)

Rob Hamilton is the official drunken master of review writing for Honestgamers.

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