Normally there's a wave of excitement that floods over you when you put in a Snes cartridge for the very first time. If it's a game you wanted for a while you're excited by the possibility. If it's a new game you’ve never heard of and bought on a whim you're excited by the unknown. When I slot in ‘Top Gear’ I'm not excited I'm the opposite - I’m expecting the worse.
Ringing in my ears are the words of a review from the usually optimistic Super Play magazine. “The general consensus, here in the office is that it’s a little too crude and simple. A little old fashioned and you can do a lot better”.
They are not alone in this opinion. Looking a little further on the internet led me to a ‘Super Nintendo Buyer’s Guide’ published in Canada, whose sole aim was seemingly to shift Nintendo software. Even they had few complementary things to say about ‘Top Gear’. “Top Gear is not one of the most exciting games that one can play”, they wrote. “There is nothing exciting or stimulating enough to instil a sense of awe here”. Needless to say, I was concerned as I looked over the box. I see pictures of cars that look so familiar yet I have never played this game before. They are familiar because the game (and its two sequels) was bought to the Snes by Gremlin Graphics who had also been involved in the identically looking ‘Lotus Turbo Challenge’ Amiga games. In fact it was because of the association with the Amiga games that I bought ‘Top Gear’ and its follow up. However, I didn't buy them to enjoy the thrills and spills of racing; I got them because their soundtracks are made up if remixed music from the ‘Lotus’ games. It may be an odd reason to buy a game, but this (despite negative reviews) was enough to justify the purchase. I loved the music in these Amiga games so had high hopes for what I was about to hear from my Super Nintendo, even if as I was dreading what I would actually play once I flicked the power button.
From the title screen alone I knew I had made a sound investment. Massaging my ears was the fantastic work of Barry Leitch as the title music of ‘Top Gear’ is indeed taken from the ending of ‘Lotus Turbo Challenge 2’. After a few menu options the main race screen quickly appears, which (like 'Mario Kart') is oddly divided horizontally, shared with a computer opponent. 'Top Gear' was one of the first racing games to actually appear on the Snes and unlike 'Mario Kart' & 'Exhaust Heat' it doesn't use a Mode 7 rotating background to give the illusion of motion. Instead this game uses the older method of spites increasing in size to suggest speed.
It’s the same technique that has been used in games like 'Outrun', ’Rad Racer’, 'Chase HQ' and in of course the aforementioned Amiga 'Lotus Turbo Challenge' series. As Edge magazine put it at the time; "this type of game has been around for almost a decade now. Since then it has been copied and imitated to death and 'Top Gear' is the game that stayed on for the funeral."
Even if there's nothing new or groundbreaking on offer in 'Top Gear' what is here is a lot more enjoyable than I expected and it's quickly becoming apparent that some reviewers may have been a touch harsh. You compete in eight tournaments consisting of four races each. In each race there are 20 cars and your position on the starting grid is determined by your finishing position in the previous race. Your aim in each race is to finish in the top five which allows you to progress to the next race.
You are given championship points that in reality count for nothing. It doesn’t matter if you’re leading the ‘World Championship’, if you come sixth in a race you’re still thrown back to the title screen. There are no checkpoints to pass or time limits to chase, just a perpetual need to beat three quarters of the competitors. 'Top Gear' clearly is a game that knows the fun of racing lies in overtaking others and this is where the real skill to winning races lies. You can go full speed round the outside or take a small speed drop and pass on the inside.
Regardless of approach, the handling is spot-on, both in terms of responsiveness and sensitivity. This is handy as courses can have high-speed chicanes to negotiate as well as sweeps and almost right-angled corners. Adding to the challenge is the occasional off-road section that affects the handling appropriately, whilst in other races some on-track hazards force precise steering from the player to avoid grinding to a complete halt, guaranteeing a low race position.
As the name suggests, brakes in this racing game are rarely used. "You won't play a faster racing game than this on any system" enthused Total! Magazine, it makes the likes of 'F-Zero' and 'Mario Kart' appear sluggish in comparison. If the speech bubble shouts of your driver doesn’t make this clear, emphasising the need for speed further are the Nitro boosts. Available to be used at opportune moments, these really show off the breakneck speed of 'Top Gear', even if it means it runs so fast it's actually hard to look at your surroundings. Not that you’re missing out on much there. Although you race around various cities from all over the world (with an inclusion of Sheffiled presumably because this is where Gremlin are based), in reality what this actually means is just a different background, and a change in the (occasionally humorous if slightly stereotypical) track side hazards.
As expected though enriching this surprisingly enjoyable experience is the soundtrack. The recycled ‘Lotus Challenge’ music is frantic energetic music captures and builds on the excitement perfectly. It fits so perfectly into the experience that the melodies seem to almost be dynamic, evolving to match what's going on in the race. High notes and cymbal clashes seem to coincide with sharp turns and generally the music has a rhythm that manages to get the adrenalin going, dramatising the experience as weave between identically looking cars. But for me the audio highlight is the third race of each country when 'Top Gear' uses a remixed version of the original 'Lotus Turbo Challenge' title theme, an anthem from my childhood.
Typically I treat sequels as separate games when it comes to these posts but that really does seem pointless for 'Top Gear 2'. It's so similar to the predecessor that were I to look at the two games individually I would be in danger of repeating myself. "In ‘Top Gear 2’ everything has been improved. The look, the sound, the difficulty and the options all improve on the original version" acknowledged Edge in their second issue. However "in spite of all the serious improvements Gremlin has made, playability hasn’t really moved forward at all." A new full screen rather than split screen display, having your car spin when you crash and fancy weather effects really doesn’t mask the fact that the nuts and bolts are identical.
Adverts may claim that the sequel had "twice the programming horsepower of the original" but in reality it feels like a modern day expansion pack, and if anything it actually feels slightly slower. Just like the original which means all the same faults; the limp collisions and opponent cars that are all indistinguishable from one and other, pointless championship points. It was something Total! Magazine saw too, "new tracks, new cars, new options, sadly though nothing else is new. Virtually identical to 'Top Gear' and lacks any variety whatsoever". Super Play believed that the original "Top Gear looked a bit old fashioned even when it first came out" competing at a time when games were shifting towards Mode 7 style presentation and even taking steps towards the polygonal racers that we are used to today. Consequently, both games feel like a last hurrah for the original driving game style.
Fortunately with identical game play comes similar music, which for some is the reason to buy these games. More tunes have been lifted from the Amiga ‘Lotus’ games (or at least sound very similar) which is quite literally 'music to my ears'. In some respects the game play in both are actually just wallpaper for me to look at while I listen. I bought both expecting little but nostalgic tunes but from both I was pleasantly surprised. 'Top Gear' and its sequel are easy to get into but hard to put down, they are racing games with plenty of mileage.
The learning-curve is ideal; tougher tracks require a few goes to master and whilst it presents a decent challenge, the next country never feels out of reach. Eventually the one player game becomes incredibly monotonous, but until it does you have two games that offer marriage of speed, accessibility and fantastic music that is worth the price of admission alone.
Where did I get these from?
I’m almost reluctant to reveal this super tip for UK collectors, but have you ever thought of looking at other European eBay sites? The postage usually isn’t much more expensive than people charge to post within the UK and often the games that prove expensive here are cheap elsewhere (and vice versa).
For £23.04 (including postage) I got both games boxed and also one other mystery game. From the boxes you can tell they are from France, as the description is written in French, but the instructions have an English section and all game text is in English. Though for me they are not worth much more than this, on UK eBay they will often sell for this much individually if they are boxed in nice condition.