If you asked me to name ten games that helped define the NES, there’s a chance that I’d drop Rad Racer into that list, but probably not for the reason you’d expect. Sure, it sold somewhere around 2 million units and established itself as the preeminent racing game on the console at the time of its 1987 release. It came out in a red letter year for the NES, which saw many of its most defining games hit the North American markets alongside it — The Legend of Zelda, Metroid, and Mega Man to name a few.
No, the reason I consider Rad Racer to be a fixture of the NES library is because of a scene in the 1989 film, The Wizard. In it, the primary antagonist, your typical over-confident, elite gamer with a bad attitude, decides to demonstrate his incredible skills using the Power Glove on a game of Rad Racer. He makes a pedestrian effort on the first race, then turns and delivers the classic line, “I love the Power Glove… It’s so bad.”
Aw, yeah. That’s the good stuff. But how bad is Rad Racer?
In 1986, Sega released the seminal raster racer OutRun in arcades. For those uninitiated, when I call it a raster racer, I’m referring to racing games that use a 2D raster effect to generate pseudo-3D roads. OutRun utilized this effect to make a game that was just about driving, rather than actual racing. You competed against the clock to make it to the end of a branching route. In that way, it felt like it acknowledged the limitations of the raster effect, such as its difficulty in simulating a complete circuit or keeping persistent track of AI opponents, and instead focused on what it did well.
Rad Racer is basically OutRun on the NES. Okay, that might be a bit disingenuous, but the similarities are pretty stark. You drive a red Ferrari (or a yellow F1 racer, if you’re into that) and your only true opponent is the clock. Between you and the finish line is kilometers of rolling raster countryside and people out for a Sunday drive. The only thing missing is the branching routes and some actual scenery.
BEHIND THE WHEEL
To be fair to Rad Racer, it’s not a complete rip-off of OutRun. Rather than the branching routes, it takes you through eight separate tracks in various locations, from San Francisco to Los Angeles (judging from the background, I think they meant Las Vegas). The tracks are then divided by checkpoints that add to your available time. It’s closer to a race than a joyride, but you aren’t ranked, so the other cars on the tracks are mere obstacles.
There’s no difference between the two vehicles offered to you aside from the appearance of both your ride and the other cars on the road. Rather than OutRun’s two-speed manual transmission, the cars are fully automatic, but holding up on the control pad puts it into turbo. Rather than a simple boost, it pushes your engine to a maximum speed of 255KPH, which provides the satisfying feeling of putting your foot down on the accelerator. By the end of the game, you’ll probably have the turbo held down most of the time.
Perhaps the most notable difference between this and OutRun is that the other drivers are a bit more reactive. Each track consists of a one-way, three lane road and cars always stick to a lane, with their speed varying between locations. Traffic continually stream in, and some cars intentionally switch lanes to attempt to block you. It’s a rather rudimentary system — if you watch carefully you’ll notice that the game has a maximum of three cars on screen at once, and they’ll never cross into the same lane — but it has a significant impact. Rather than a simple sprint from point A to point B, there’s a force that’s actively working against you. In a way, it’s an interesting wrinkle.
PASSING LANE: THE GAME
Years ago, I made my first attempt at seeing the ending of Rad Racer, and ended up walking away near the end after declaring the game a, “road rage simulator.” It’s been a while since I last dove into the game, and I’ve improved significantly since then. I figured this time around, I’d have a much more comfortable drive, so I discarded my old opinion and started fresh. As it turns out, I was pretty spot on with my initial analysis. I spent more time on the last track of the game than I did with all the other tracks combined. In this duration, quite a few curses were flung at the screen.
Not that the final stage of a game shouldn’t be challenging, but the challenge Rad Racer presents is just annoying. Remember a couple paragraphs back when I mentioned that Rad Racer’s key mechanic was the motorists that deliberately try and get in your way. I want you to visualize that. Imagine trying to get somewhere in a hurry and finding yourself trapped behind three like-minded motorists who are all going below the speed limit. Sounds like hell, doesn’t it?
To be fair, there’s a reasonable difficulty curve being followed. The further you get into the game, the less forgiving it is of missteps. By the last level, however, the requirements to finish are incredibly low, and the traffic is much worse. It’s like every track in Rad Racer is set during Sunday brunch and the road is clogged with elderly motorists. The point I want to make is: being stuck behind a group of cars, waiting for your opportunity to pass, then losing because you were trapped behind them for too long just isn’t fun. Losing because you were intentionally cut off by another car and bounced into a tree isn’t fun, either. This is the crux of the game’s challenge. It’s not fun.
RAD OR BAD
A lot of the stuff leading up to that, on the other hand, is perfectly serviceable fun. It’s just a little dry. There’s very little scenery, the tracks are essentially interchangeable, and there isn’t much depth to really sink your teeth into. The open road is nice and smooth, and the sense of speed is somewhat impressive. It was a serviceable raster racer for the time, as there weren’t many available on the console, which may have helped cement it as an important facet of the NES library, but these days there’s very little reason to go back to it. Heck, the port of OutRun for the Sega Master System was released the same year, and I found that to be a much better game than Rad Racer.
The only real value that I can find for Rad Racer is its status a an NES staple. It was frequently used in advertising for the system, so it has an almost ubiquitous status in the library. Whether or not that’s reason enough for you to check it out is up to you.
This review was conducted using a cartridge version of the game on an original NES. It was paid for by the author.