Saturday, 15 March 2014

Road Fighter - Nintendo Entertainment System

Road Fighter  - sounds exciting!
Game: Road Fighter
Format: Nintendo Entertainment System
Developer: Konami/Palcom
Year Released: 1991
Also released on: Arcade, MSX 
Now available on: Nothing

I've always been interested in bad games. Not because I get some perverse pleasure out of attempting to play them. More that I'm fascinated by what makes them so bad. Is it down to poor design or bad controls? Is it too easy, too hard, totally unfair, completely unfathomable or simply not any fun? What was the reason for games that were so clearly terrible still managing to find their way into shops? Why did nobody at any part of the process between the first code being written to the game being put onto a disc, tape or cartridge say "This is complete shite!" and attempt to stop things from going any further. Was it corporate greed, bad planning, ridiculous deadlines, publisher arrogance or contempt of their customers? In the case of Atari, famous for releasing two of the more notorious bad games, Pac-Man and E.T. The Extra Terrestrial for the VCS, it was probably all of the above. Yes, Atari's apparent "policy" of passing any old garbage off as a video game was partly responsible for the entire gaming industry pretty much imploding in the early 80s in the USA. Arguably, they were helped along this path of self-destruction by Coleco and Magnavox who also appeared to allow their Colecovision and Intellivision consoles to play host to countless cartridges of crap. The inevitable collapse resulted in most console manufacturers exiting the industry, with Atari remaining as the sole survivor, but much smaller and much poorer than they once were.

Nintendo's Fun Box
Filling the void and arriving in America as the saviour of the video game industry were Nintendo with their exciting new grey box of fun, the Nintendo Entertainment System, with Mario and his Bros. in tow and lots of other fab games. The NES quickly became the console that all the kids wanted - mostly because it was the only console available. And to prevent a repeat of what had gone before, Nintendo made the most of their monopoly by restricting the activities of the publishers who wanted to release games for their console. All games had to be released on cartridges manufactured by and purchased from Nintendo, only five games per publisher could be released a year, and the publisher couldn't release the game on a competitor's console for a couple of years. Satisfy the big N and you'd get a gold star slapped on your box signifying that Nintendo had given it their Golden Seal of Approval. As a consumer, this meant that every game released for the NES was going to be of high quality, didn't it? Well, no, not entirely. Although the seal of approval gave consumers the impression that Nintendo had given the game their thumbs-up and that the massive grey cartridge that they had in their hand contained something special, the reality was that the seal was just a way of saying that the publisher had kept to Nintendo's rules. As restrictive (and later illegal) as they were, it can't be denied that Nintendo's measures did definitely result in a marked improvement in the quality of games released and prevented publishers from taking the piss and just shitting out code and claiming that it was a game. The NES is still regarded as one of the best consoles in the history of the gaming industry, and that is largely down to the fact that it had some amazing games released for it, games that remain classics today. This was surely down to Nintendo's tight controls. But, they didn't completely prevent the odd turkey from getting out. Road Fighter, released in 1991, is a good example of a game gone bad. It's also a good example of what happens when publishers find a way around Nintendo's rules, and why the rules were there in the first place. Mean Machines, the UK's most popular console magazine in the early nineties, reviewed the game and gave it a rating of 9%, making a point on the issue's front cover that the magazine contained the "Worst Game Ever". Over two decades later, I still hadn't got around to experiencing the alleged horrors of Road Fighter. Until now. But after taking it for a spin, I have to say that it definitely isn't as bad as the review made out. It's by no means a great game, but it certainly isn't deserving of its 9% score.

Road Fighter is a conversion of an arcade game with the same name. Developed by Konami in the mid eighties, the arcade game was an overhead vertical scrolling driving game from an era of when overhead vertical scrolling driving games were all the rage. The idea is simply to drive along a road, avoid other cars and get to the end of the course before you run out of fuel. Once you're out of fuel, it's game over.

Ever get the feeling you're the odd one out?
The NES conversion remains faithful to its arcade parent in that it also requires you to drive along a road, avoid other cars and try not to run out of fuel. Sounds like my typical drive to work. There are only two tantalising options to choose from, representing easy or hard but called level 1 and level 2 just to confuse you. Once you've picked your level, you're onto the open road. After the starting beeps have beeped, your opponents race off, leaving you behind to start your car and build up speed by pushing down the accelerate buttons. You have a choice of two speeds, slow or fast. Slow in this game is apparently 222 kilometres an hour. Fast is a super speedy 400 km/h. One button allows you to drive "slowly", the other makes you go faster. You can move your car left or right using the d-pad. 

In most cases, cars just let you pass them. But, some of the drivers are twats and decide to block your way as you approach them to overtake. They tend to drive blue or red cars. The blue cars are probably BMWs and red ones are Audis. Yep, definitely reminds me of my commute to work. Colliding with other vehicles usually results in you spinning off to the side of the road, which causes you to explode when you reach it. But your RAC membership helps you to get back on the road in no time - virtually instantly - ready for you to continue your journey. It is possible to stop your car from spinning out of control after an accident by steering in the opposite direction to the one you're going in straight after having a bump. It's not easy, but might make the difference between you getting to the end of the course or falling short. You see, the car you're driving appears to be the most fuel inefficient car in existence and loses fuel at an alarming rate. Collisions, their often inevitable explosions and the time it takes to get back on the track and back to full speed are the main drain on your fuel. Fortunately, rainbow coloured cars carry fuel and driving into them replenishes a small amount of fuel. Not by much, but if you collect enough, you should have just enough to get you to your destination. Unfortunately, driving up the backsides of rainbow cars tend to be the BMW-driving shitheads so getting hold of fuel can sometimes be a risky manoeuvre. Superman sometimes makes a bizarre cameo appearance, flying along the track. He awards extra fuel and points. Or maybe just points. Usually I'm so in awe by his random appearance that I don't really know what he actually does.

At first, the game feels a bit unfair. Your car just doesn't seem to have enough fuel to complete your journey, so collecting replenishments is essential. Of course, the game wouldn't be that challenging otherwise so it's a bit of a moot criticism. Once you get used to dodging the drivers who appear to be intent on getting in your way and master the art of refuelling, the game becomes much more tolerable and getting from one level to the next is quite achievable, if not entirely fun.
Made it to the end with 1 drop of fuel left. Now, how am I going to get it to the garage to fill up?

Presentation is quite lacking with just a static title screen to welcome you when switching on the game and just text on a black background when picking your options. Its uninspiring but it does the job. Similarly, the graphics aren't amazing but do change for each course although are more reminiscent of early NES games than something released in 1991 (there's a reason for this, to be revealed later). The same can be said about the sound. A tune plays at the start of the first track and when you get to the finishing line of each one, but throughout the game itself, it's just your engine noise and a few effects when overtaking BMWs or Audis, collecting rainbow cars or colliding with something. The engine noise gets a bit grating quite quickly.

Get the rainbow car for extra fuel!! I do that in real life too.

It takes a while to speed up and you definitely don't feel like you're doing the 400 km/h that the speedo says you're doing, but there is a sense of speed and the game scrolls upwards quickly and smoothly. The controls are also fairly responsive as you direct you car, although your car appears to move sideways rather than turn into the direction that you send it. Importantly the controls aren't too sensitive or under sensitive.

Already done this screenshot, haven't I? Oh well,
here it is again. Kaboom!
So, what exactly is wrong with the game? Basically, it's too short and isn't really much fun. There are only four courses and it's possible to complete them in about five minutes. The problem is that it is just an upwards scrolling avoid-em-up. Yes, it can be seen as a test of skills and reactions, and the game does reward skilful playing. But, although it doesn't feel like too much of a chore to play it, it just doesn't endear itself to the player in any way. It doesn't look or sound great, the red and blue cars wind you up, as do the hazards like oil slicks or pot holes in the middle of the road. Collisions result in frustration if you don't manage to salvage things before your car spins out of control and off the side of the road. It's also not easy to avoid a collision. Both buttons are used to accelerate your car, so you don't really have any brakes. The only way of slowing down is by letting go of one of the acceleration buttons. Also, your fuel depletes depending on what speed you're going at. Staying in slow gear the whole way means you lose fuel at a slower rate. So, you can quite easily get to the end of each course by just driving slowly. It makes the game easier, but takes some of the enjoyment out of it. What enjoyment there is in it.
The red car and the blue car had a race. And a truck and a yellow car did too.

Road Fighter isn't completely unplayable and will provide a bit of fun and challenge for a short length of time. After two or three goes though, you'll have either completed it or given up and begun looking for something else to play. If you ever need a game to define the word "average" then Road Fighter would be it.

Roadworks and nobody doing any work. Typical!
Presentation: 30%
A dull title screen is all you get, with in-game presentation lacking. 
Graphics: 40%
The sprites are small and lack suitable animation, and the backgrounds and tracks are uninspiring. Scrolling is fast and smooth though.
Sound: 45%
A couple of tunes introduce and end games, the rest of the game is made up of average sound effects. 
Playability: 55%
Frustrating at first, but there is a feeling of satisfaction once you get to grips with the game and manage to get to the end of a course with fuel to spare.
Overall: 50%
Definitely not the greatest NES game ever released, but certainly not the worst. Playable in small doses but not as enjoyable as it could have been.

The title screen from the game's first release.
Earlier in the review, I mentioned something about Road Fighter being a good example of what happens when publishers find a way around Nintendo's strict licensing rules and why those rules existed in the first place. One of the restrictions that Nintendo placed was that publishing companies could only release a limited number of games for the NES a year, usually five. In theory, this would mean that the publishers would ensure that their games were top notch so that they could maximise sales. It would also give the NES a library of good quality games. One way of getting around this rule was by publishers setting up multiple companies, and producing games under that name. Konami set up Palcom (which later became Ultra) which doubled the number of games they could release. Konami were the developers of the Road Fighter arcade game, but released the NES conversion under their Palcom label. Incidentally, although it wasn't released in the USA and Europe until 1991, the game had actually been programmed and released in Japan for the Famicom in 1985. So, not only did the cheeky beggars use a loophole in Nintendo's licensing policy to allow them to release more games, they used their extra allowance to rerelease substandard games that they'd made years earlier. In a way, it proved that Nintendo were kind of right. A company being less limited in the number of games they can release would result in them being more likely to release crap games.