Rad Racer was a racing game released for Nintendo's 8-Bit funbox back in the late 1980s, developed by Square before their Final Fantasy days. Its original Japanese Famicom title of Highway Star obviously wasn't cool enough, so it received its name Rad Racer for American and European NES owners, with ‘Rad’ being the on-trend word for anything that met with the approval of the youth of the time. Can't say I recall anybody I know saying it then. ‘Mint’ and ‘Skill’ seemed to be the words going around my school back then. Not sure if Mint Racer would really work as the title of a game though - although it could feature Polos I suppose. Ahem...
The aim of Rad Racer is to race from the west coast to the east coast of the good ol' United States of America over eight fun-filled courses. On starting the game, you have a choice of two vehicles. One is a red Ferrari-style car. The other is a cream F1 racing car. Apart from colour and style, both cars are identical in performance, being able to reach speeds of 255 km/h. Wooosh! There are no other pre-game options, so once you've selected your car, you're ready to race.
Before each race, you are treated to a map of the course on which you are about to embark. Apparently that's correct English but I don't like it. Once you've studied the map and made yourself aware of where you're going, not that it really makes any difference, you can press A to get taken to the track. And after a quick countdown, the race begins.
If you're using a control pad, driving your chosen vehicle is easy. Left makes your car go left, right makes it go right, A accelerates it and B brakes it. Quite handy, having the buttons with the same first letter as the words. Helps me to remember. I might stick an A and a B sticker onto my shoes so I know which foot does what when driving. Anyway, it appears that your car isn't just equipped with a steering wheel and pedals. Nope, not at all. It also has a radio and a turbo, and your control pad has the handy ability of controlling both of these too. Pushing down on the controller allows you to scroll through three different background tracks or to switch the music off completely. And, if you reach a speed of 90 km/h or more, holding the up button down activates the turbo. The turbo lasts as long as you keep it held down and you can let go of it and, assuming you're still travelling at over 90 km/h, reapply it whenever you like, whether this is if you need to slow down a little or if your turbo-holding finger starts to ache. Usually it'll be the latter. None of this malarkey of turbos only last for five seconds, and running out just at the time it would actually be useful. Chase HQ, I'm looking at you.
As a racing simulator, it is your mission to overtake the other idiots on the road who seem intent on getting in your way. Not only that, you're also racing against a tight time limit. Each track is split into checkpoints and passing through them adds more time to the timer. Reach the end of the track before running out of time and you get to race on the next track. Reach the end of the eighth track, and you've beaten the game. Each track takes place in a different location. You start in a palm tree-lined sunny setting, not unlike that of another racing game of its time. Other locations include San Francisco at night, the rocky mountains, the desert, Los Angeles, somewhere snowy and, um, Athens. Yes, apparently this trip across the USA also incorporates the capital of Greece. According to the game's manual, this is a result of the race space-warping to there. Hmmmm.
Although the game initially looks like a cash-in of Out Run, which was of course huge at the time, it soon becomes apparent that it is quite a different game. Yep, the first level does bear more than a passing resemblence to Sega's racer, as does the red car that features in both games, but the similarities mostly end there. If we're going to compare it to anything, which I'm about to do right after writing this, it's probably more similar to Hang On. Each track has its own theme, the scenery kind of changes mid-race, there are no branching paths, you are given a visual clue of how much further you have to go in the HUD, and if you run out of time before reaching a checkpoint, you'll just continue to roll with the possibility that you may just about get through it. And then as if by magic, your vehicle will suddenly start working again. By the way, what does HUD actually stand for? I mean, I know what it is, that it's the little on-screen display which gives you bits of info, but I've never known what the letters actually mean. Honking Unicorn Diarrhea? I suppose I could have looked it up rather than looking up how to spell diarrhea. Oh well, it shall now forever have to remain a mystery.
Controls on the game are very tight with your car responding quickly and appropriately to your commands. Sometimes you may change the radio station by accident by pushing down when you're midway through a tense maneouvre. Kind of reminds me of similar situations when driving to work, where I press the radio tuning button rather than indicating. Not sure how. The radio tune button in my car is on the steering wheel itself, and the indicator is behind the wheel on the left of it. Or the right. It'll be one of the two, I'm sure of it. What you do find while driving in this game is that it isn't possible to maintain full speed constantly. You do have to let go of the turbo and maybe even use the brakes every now and again. This is often because bends come out of nowhere and require you to be driving at an appropriate speed for them. It's also because some of the other knobheads on the road decide to veer into your lane when they see you trying to overtake. Or sometimes a group of three of them think it'll be funny if they use all three lanes and drive at almost the same speed as each other. Again, reminds me of driving to work. Especially when pissing Eddie Stobart vans decide the middle lane is there for them to do 50.1 mph so they can eventually overtake the Downton lorry in the left lane doing 50 mph. And the right hand lane has somebody in a little Renault Clio trying to get past both of them. In these situations in the game, you have no choice but to slow down and drive up the backside of one of the vehicles until you finally get your chance to get past. It's kind of like being an Audi driver I suppose.
Depending on what speed you're doing, it is possible to hit another car and be slightly nudged out of the way, so it's not always an issue if they're trying to block you. Drive too fast, and they give you a bigger nudge, sending you off the road, or into another car which then ping pongs you off the road. And if there's some roadside feature like a sign, a tree, a rock or a street light there, you'll be thrown upwards to somersault into the air. Of course, this being the 1980s, cars back then appear to be as robust as the consoles they were being driven on, and will continue to work regardless of the level of physical mistreatment they've endured. Okay, there's a bit of a wait for your car to return to the track and you then have to build its speed back up, but before you know it, you're making your merry way again towards the next checkpoint. Driving into other cars at excessively excessive speed also results in you partaking in some mid-air gymnastics. So don't do it.
Once you've mastered the fairly basic tactic of not driving like a plonker for the entire duration, and know when to use your turbo and your brakes, and figured out the strategy for overtaking, the game itself isn't too tough. Although tracks increase in difficulty as you move through them, it doesn't take too long to beat the game. It is largely a case of keeping your eyes glued to the road for the entire duration. It's also fairly forgiving where you can have a couple of crashes on each track but still just about be able to make it to the end before time runs out. If you fail to get to the end of a track before time runs out though, you do get sent right back to the beginning, so it's important not to be too sloppy or else you end up having a lot of road to drive over again to get back to where you were. Fortunately though, Rad Racer is actually quite a lot of fun to play. It really conveys a great sense of speed, and is surprisingly smooth for its time. There are times where you do get to put your foot down, and weaving in and out of cars at speed genuinely feels quite exhilerating. Even today, the game plays well.
Graphics in Rad Racer are largely minimalistic but capture the theme of each track very well. Every course differs from each other and have their own assets, colour schemes and backgrounds. Some of the backgrounds are even multi-layered so the foreground part of them moves faster than the area behind them, giving the illusion of depth. In the night time courses, you race along a black track with neon road markings which are simple but very effective. On other courses, using your turbo causes the screen to vibrate. Your car is also well illustrated - opponents' cars probably not as much so, but, like the tracks, they change for each course too. Cars featured include a Volkswagen Beetle, Corvette, Porsch and Lambaghini, amongst others. The HUD (still not sure what that means), clearly displays your current speed, remaining time, percentage of the track completed and your score.
As for sound, there are three background tracks to choose from in-game or the option to listen to engine noises only. The music is ok, although the second track does sound a little unsuited to the game, probably being more suited to a cutesy platformer than a racing game. But the other two tracks are fairly appealing, being upbeat and fast-paced. And the benefit of being able to change them during gameplay means that, once you get bored of one of them, you can move to another one. There are sound effects throughout the game for when you bump into other cars, crash or use your turbo or brakes. With the music off, being able to hear the engine noise also enables you to hear the sound of approaching cars too, which may be useful. Or it might just grate after a while.
All-in-all, Rad Racer is an excellent game for the NES. It's great to control and definitely feels fair, offering a good challenge without being impossible to beat. It isn't really a matter of memorising tracks and knowing when bends are about to come up - just about being able to respond to the situations as they occur, and within a short time of playing it, doing so becomes quite natural. Almost like driving for real. However, even with eight varying tracks, it can become a bit repetitive. I can imagine at the time though, this being one of those games people would keep coming back to to beat again and again. And I think that, now that I've discovered it in these modern times, I'll probably give it another run out every now and again.
We can't end though without a final comparison to Out Run. It appears obvious that Rad Racer wanted to be the NES' answer to Sega's arcade hit, just by going off the game's looks and initial feel when starting it up. And although it turns out to be quite different, Rad Racer is just as good a game to play. Its issue though is that it lacks some of Out Run's charm. Graphics and sound are good, but don't capture the sun-kissed chilled atmosphere of Sega's game. Out Run also has the benefit of having a wider and more lasting appeal, just by being an arcade game and receiving a multitide of computer and console ports. Nintendo's restrictive business practices of the time mean that Rad Racer remained a NES-only game, with just the original and a US-only sequel being the franchise's sole appearances and the lack of any subsequent rereleases of either game puts them at risk of being lost to history.