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Rad Racer (NES) artwork

Rad Racer (NES) review

"Rad Racer isn't the greatest driving or racing game ever made, but it was a quality piece of work and it remains fun to this day. The fact that it represents the work of some of Square's finest team members before they made it big with the Final Fantasy series makes it potentially interesting for fans of that franchise, as well."

Rad Racer is a time attack-style racing game from Square that is often considered a rival to Sega’s similar title, OutRun (which was released in arcades one year sooner). As a driving game, Rad Racer is both simple and challenging. Players choose either a Ferrari 328 or an F1 racing machine, which they then drive in an attempt to reach the end of each course before the timer expires. Numerous checkpoints wait between the start and finish lines, with each one offering a time extension that will hopefully enable the player to reach yet another checkpoint. So it goes until finally the end of the course is reached.

Officially, the two available vehicles are only different aesthetically, though some people have contested that point. Personally, I always performed better behind the wheel of the F1 machine, though perhaps there was some sort of placebo effect in play. At the very least, that vehicle felt like it handled a little better. The two cars use the same controls and functions, and the only other appreciative difference is the visual form that rival cars take depending on your choice.

As was the case in OutRun, the start and finish lines seem to apply only to your vehicle. There are numerous other vehicles on the road, but they seem to be doing their own thing. They act more as moving obstacles that must be avoided than they do actual competition. Where Rad Racer falls short when compared to OutRun is the lack of the divergent roads that were featured so prominently in the latter title. Though the road does contain numerous twists, turns, and hills, you have no choice about the path you take on your way to the finish line.

When you start driving, you’ll find that the treacherous turns and numerous cars make driving very fast a risky proposition. This is especially true since even driving at normal speed can sometimes make it difficult to negotiate a turn without ramming into other vehicles or obstacles. The option to drive even faster by pressing Up on the d-pad is there if you feel like taking a risk, though. Crashing into an obstacle at high speeds will cause the car to flip over and consume numerous precious seconds before you are finally placed back at the center of the road.

As NES games go, Rad Racer features some very nice graphics and presentation. Day turns to night as you speed down the highway, and you get to see eight different backgrounds that span a variety of settings ranging from Sunset Coastline to the San Francisco Highway to the Grand Canyon. Each environment is gorgeously rendered on the NES. Backdrops feature some parallax scrolling and use the system's relatively limited color palette to create beautiful visages of glowing city skylines at night, rocky canyons, ruins, and so forth.

Unfortunately, the required precision controls and the take-no-prisoners challenge that the game provides actually work against the graphics on display, in the sense that many players may never make it past the initial—and comparatively bland—Sunset Coastline environment that serves as the backdrop. Play well (or succumb to the temptation of using cheat codes), and you'll be rewarded as the game treats you to new visuals. Don't do one of those two things, though, and you might grow bored as you are unable to experience the best that the package has to offer.

Speaking of the visuals, this game also has a well-known gimmick that you can experience for yourself if you're lucky enough to own a complete copy of the original release. Actually, "lucky" might be a generous way of putting it (and in truth, you don't even need a complete copy of the game to see what I’m talking about). In Japan, where Rad Racer was known as Highway Star, the title was one of several Famicom selections to make use of the Famicom 3D System peripheral. That hardware consisted of liquid crystal shutter-glasses that provided a 3D effect not entirely dissimilar to the one that Nintendo 3DS gamers enjoy today without the need for special glasses. When Nintendo localized the game here in North America, the company included a pair of cardboard 3D glasses with red and blue lenses instead. When the player pressed Select, he could activate the so-called 3D mode and witness a jittery, jumping, blurry picture that can only be fairly described as 3D to the visually impaired. In truth, you can "enjoy" the effect almost as much without glasses as you can with them, so give that setting a try if you’re ever playing the game and feeling curious. Of course, if you instead happen to bring together a Famicom, the Famicom 3D System, and Highway Star, then you're in for a treat.

One would be remiss not to mention the soundtrack, as well, which was put together by famed composer Nobuo Uematsu. He was working under the supervision of Final Fantasy creator Hironobu Sakaguchi even before the two collaborated on that breakout role-playing game. You’ll hear Uematsu’s quality work as you race, and you can press Down on the d-pad to change between available selections. If none of those are to your liking, you can simply press the button until the music shuts off entirely, which allows you to listen to little more than the rev of your engine, the squeal of your tires, and the crash-crash-crash sound your car makes when you hit a palm tree by the side of the road.

Rad Racer isn't the greatest driving or racing game ever made, but it was a quality piece of work and it remains fun to this day. Diehard fans will also note that the title was one of the few games to be featured alongside Super Mario Bros. and Tetris on the Nintendo World Championships cartridge, which is sufficient to earn it a special place in gaming's history. Similarly, the fact that it represents the work of some of Square's finest team members before they made it big with the Final Fantasy series makes it potentially interesting for fans of that franchise, as well.

LBD_Nytetrayn's avatar
Freelance review by David Oxford (May 26, 2013)

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