Way, way back when the internet was delivered by telephone, we had to use a lot of imagination. Our only access to information on upcoming games was in magazines like Nintendo Power, which would often tell us that every game was a modern masterpiece right up until it came out, at which point their opinion might switch to, “Give it a rental.”
During the long, long approach of the N64, I was left imagining the possibilities of a 3D console. At the time, I had an extremely loose grasp on how video games really functioned so they were all basically magic to me. So when Cruis’n USA was revealed, I had this strange belief that its promise of a sprint across the United States was a lot more than it was. Instead of a bunch of individual tracks, I had conjured images of an actual, seamless road trip across the continent. I might have even visualized a complete, open world; I don’t fully remember, I was a dumb kid.
Anyways, Cruis’n USA was my first big disappointment on the N64, simply because I had unreasonable expectations. So does that mean it’s secretly a good game that I would have enjoyed if I had just given it a chance? Gosh, no.
Did you ever watch the movie, Canonball Run? I didn’t, but I hear it’s about a race across the US, and that’s also the concept of Cruis’n USA. You start off in San Francisco, then gradually work your way to Washington DC. Along the way, you pass by 2D cut-outs of famous cities and monuments and avoid hapless traffic. That’s a pretty interesting concept, really. But, well, we’ve got a lot to unpack here.
In a lot of ways, Cruis’n USA feels like the successor to all those raster games, like Outrun or Road Rash. Each course is one direction only, with you simply trying to reach the destination first, rather than completing a circuit. Adding to this, the landscape is a twisted, undulating snake. You never cross over old areas, so there isn’t much use of the third dimension. The tracks do have subtle variations, with some having narrower roads and roadside obstacles. That’s sort of the nicest thing I can say about the tracks.
THE SMELL OF ASPHALT
Actually, I think that might be the nicest thing I can say about the game. Okay, let’s take a history break here. So, when Nintendo was hyping up the N64, they put together this “Dream Team” of developers, and big, North American arcade manufacturer, Williams, was part of it. In 1994, two years before the N64 hit the market, Williams presented the arcade version of Cruis’n USA under the guise that it had been created using the N64 Development kit. That was a lie, they didn’t.
So when the N64 came out, Williams had to scale back significantly. Then Nintendo forced them to censor certain aspects of it, like the ability to run over animals, and it missed the launch date of the console. So it was a mess from the beginning.
The end result was a game that looks ugly as hell, and still manages to be extremely tacky, even in spite of the removal of animal violence. There’s a tremendous amount of pop-in, the scenery almost entirely consists of horribly compressed 2D sprites, and no attempt was made at hiding the edge of the game’s world. Some courses even start with big holes in the terrain, plainly visible from the starting line.
The game’s physics are horrible. Not only do cars pinwheel off each other at the slightest touch, the hit detection is inconsistent at best. It’s difficult to tell what scenery you can just mow over and what will knock you around. The cars also have a supernatural ability to stick to the road, but on the rare occasion that they take flight, they tend to jerk unnaturally and throw a small fit. The driving physics obviously aren’t meant to be realistic, but they twitch and jerk so much that it makes for a pretty uncomfortable ride.
AS TACKY AS A CARPETED DASHBOARD
It’s really a game of its era. Races are seen off by a bikini clad woman waving a flag, and you roll past the finish line into a crowd of excited beach goers. You’re handed a trophy by an enthusiastic, busty woman. The music is this terrible mix of twangy guitars and synthesized beats that don’t really mix with the game that well.
I mentioned the cardboard scenery before, but I found it hilarious how much emphasis the game puts on it as it speeds by. Sure, this is supposed to be a cruise across America, but I don’t know why you want to call attention to a flat, blurry Mount Rushmore. Every time you pass something of interest, your passenger (I think) exclaims, “Oooo, Redwood Forest!” The worst one is Chicago, which is literally just a flat picture of the Chicago skyline pasted above a tunnel that you speed into. Oh, wow, we’re really getting the full experience here.
The whole game is over pretty quickly, too. Less than an hour, if you’re reasonable at racing game. You can increase the difficulty to try and unlock more cars, but I don’t know, I’m not sure I want to see papercraft America that many times.
OOO, THE FINISH LINE!
Putting aside my initial, childhood disappointment with the game, Cruis’n USA is a pretty dumb game that isn’t really worth playing today. Still, there’s a certain charm and nostalgia with it, as it tries so hard to impress, but really just looks ridiculous. It’s not overly uncomfortable to play, it’s just not good either. The controls are terrible, it’s horrendously ugly, and the design is so extraordinarily tacky. The fact that it was a major figure in the N64’s release means that a lot of people will have some affection towards the title, but everyone else should steer clear. It wasn’t a very good game when it was first released, and time hasn’t done it any favours.
This review was conducted on an N64 console using a cartridge copy of the game. It was paid for by the author.