Friday 19 June 2015

Snes Review : Street Racer (Game 084)

When you imagine blending two games together, 'Mario Kart' and ' Street Fighter' don't seem like the obvious candidates. Can 'Street Racer' exceed the sum of its parts?

Developed by Vivid Image
Published by Ubi Soft
Released in 1994

'Pulsar' and 'R Type'. 'Final Fight' and 'Streets of Rage'. ‘The Legend of Zelda' and 'Golden Axe Warrior'. ‘Strider’ and 'Run Sabre'.

If a game is popular it will be cloned. Developing and publishing any game is expensive after all and piggybacking the success of another title removes some of the chances of failure. Logically if people lapped up a game, why wouldn't they want another that's similar? In the 16 bit era, customers couldn't quickly glance at online reviews to see if a game was good or not. While magazines existed they were only published once a month, so despite best efforts they could only review games that by the time of publication were already in the shops. 20 years ago gamers made purchasing decisions based more on box art and familiarity. "It's fast it's frantic it's furious" boasted the box of a game that could have potentially been overlooked by customers simply because it lacked a recognisable character or film on the front. "It's the first racing and fighting game... It's 'Street Racer'". Most would have glanced  at this name and been reminded of both ‘SuperMario Kart' and 'Street Fighter', which according to designer and creator Mevlut Dinc was always the intention. “I believe ‘Mario Kart’ was and still is one of the best game designs ever, especially with its well executed simple and clever gameplay, and equally good use of Mode 7.
I enjoyed playing with words, so the name ‘Street Racer’ was very deliberate. Since we had racing and fighting in one and ‘Street Fighter’ was absolutely amazing and very popular this name would stick I thought.” The logo design and its colouring was also a deliberate choice by Dinc, one that would maximise sales from brand association. “I asked the guys to deliberately make the logo very similar to‘Street Fighter’ down to the colours and the look.” Of course there's a reason why ‘Mario Kart’ and ‘Street Fighter II’ were worth replicating in the first place, they were both incredible and iconic games. 'Street Racer' may have pulled in the punters by riding on their popularity train, but it had a lot to live up to.

While they may not seem like genres that fit together, the marriage of fighting and racing wasn't a new idea. From 'Spy Hunter' to 'Road Blasters' combat had often been including in a driving game with various amounts of success. 'Super Mario Kart' itself was well regarded for including weapons that levelled that playing field. However in that game consistent victory could only be achieved by knowing the course and having sufficient driving skill (at least until the invention of the blue shell in a later 'Mario Kart' game!) Staying true to its slightly schizophrenic title there are two ways to approach 'Street Racer'. Either you can go all out to get in front of the other drivers and try to stay there. Failing that you can fight and barge the other racers and get an advantage that way.
It is possible to win using either method but what seems to work best is a combination of all out nastiness at the beginning (when the pack is bunched up) followed by a spell of fast and accurate driving. Championship Points are awarded according to your position at the end of the race, but additional points are awarded for damage inflicted to others. It is therefore possible to not finish first and still get the most points from a race.

Like both 'Street Fighter II' and 'Super Mario Kart', in 'Street Racer' there are eight characters to choose from, each has strengths and weaknesses. Their different cars also have varied capabilities, some perform better off-road for example. It wouldn't be a true "'StreetFighter II' clone" though without including special moves and accordingly each driver has unique attacks that can cause maximum damage to an opponent.
In true 'Whacky Races' style these special moves range from ghosts getting called on to attack and distract opposition drivers, spikes coming of tires and even electrifying a car so that should others touch it they get incinerated. It’s a good idea that adds to the quirkiness of the game while defining the personality of each individual racer. These abilities can be activated at a press of a button and a recharge period means that it’s thankfully not possible to over use them. Beyond these special moves though, attacks follow a template that's best described as being like 'Road Rash'. You can attack to either side as often as you want, with the only rule being that you can't do this while cornering. Each hit landed on an opponent lowers their health gauge, which in turn affects their performance on the tracks.

 “We all came up with the character ideas and tried to make it truly international and cover as many continents and countries as possible” recalls Dinc.  “We also managed to make sure the characters were very different from anything else before and were very cool looking! Tony West did an amazing job with the graphics and animation.” Dinc speaks the truth, every character has a large presence on screen and each is well animated giving 'Street Racer' a fun, over-the-top cartoony vibe.

As well as individual abilities, each character also has a number of their own self-styled courses which reflect their personality even if they re-enforce cultural stereotypes. Sumo San inhabits a future-Tokyo setting a stark contrast to Suzulu’s African savannah dirt track.
Each track feels varied, though less imaginative than those seen in 'Mario Kart', however some are far too short with lap times of just nine or ten seconds on a few circuits. To counteract this, 'Street Racer' allows you to change the number of laps that make up a race. The default option of five does seem about right though and it's a mystery how anyone would be patient enough to circle the same stretch of road thirty times.

If 'Street Racer' wants to associate itself with 'Super Mario Kart' and 'Street Fighter II' it only seems appropriate for reviewers to judge the game against these two games. However despite being made by just a handful of people, 'Street Racer' holds its head high amongst the inspiration. Famously, industry legend and Former 'Games Master' presenter Domanic Diamond once said that that “’Street Racer’ [poos] on‘Mario Kart from a great height”. Likewise, in America, GamePro magazine were of the belief that in Street Racer was "even better" than 'Super Mario Kart'. They praised the large selection of imaginative tracks, the character specific special weapons and the four player "head-to-head-to-head-to-head" mode concluding that "UbiSoft has outdone itself with this racing winner." Even Super Play magazine, one of 'Super Mario Karts' biggest supporters, advised people “not to bother waiting for ‘Super Mario Kart 2’. After all [with ‘Street Racer’] we’re talking about something which many claim betters one of the greatest games of all time.” When discussing the game, the phrase “’Super Mario Kart’ beater” was used a lot by magazines which according to Super Play “seems like a fair way of judging ‘Street Racer’s worth”.  It was something Tony Mott explored in his review.  “When all is said and done ‘Street Racer’, if not better, is probably as near to its excellence as anyone outside of Nintendo is going to get. It looks beeyootifull and plays just like a good game should. We like it lots”.  

Mevlut Dinc  remembers the origins of the game fondly. “At the time of coming up with the idea of ‘Street Racer’ we were working on the sequel of ‘First Samurai’ with the great Raffaele Cecco!” According to Dinc, they “were discussing developing another game alongside ‘Second Samurai’ and it was Raff's initial idea to do a racer with fighting”. When constructing the game many approaches were considered, although each it seems followed a proven path walked by a previously successful game. Evidently game designer Dinc decided he didn't want to replicate what 'Stunt Race FX' had done. "I didn't want to use vector polygons because many games that use them look similar and it's hard to get a car to behave realistically when it's made up of rectangular blocks". However taking inspiration from 'Mario Kart' and 'F Zero' prompted him to consider the consoles Mode 7 capabilities. "We learnt a few Mode 7 tricks and found that we could keep the speed exactly the same regardless of whether one, two three or four players are racing" he once told Super Play magazine. "The best thing about our efforts was that we didn't need to use a DSP chip to keep the game moving quickly ' Dinc even gloated.

This "DSP chip" is a cartridge mounted chip that helped the Snes console handle more advanced 3D effects. It essentially super-charged the console’s mode 7 graphics, allowing for one giant sprite to be scaled and rotated but also performing very fast vector-based calculations on this sprites movement. These could be dynamically applied to other sprites within a game space, meaning that they could be moved in direct relation to the large sprite as it was manipulated. "We could have done the game with DSP, but it would have been more expensive. So in the end we managed to get everything we wanted including the fighting moves and the transforming vehicles into an 8Mbits cartridge". "Having four players going simultaneously we were obviously concerned about slowdown" Dinc admitted to Super Play at the time. However even without using a DSP chip in Super Plays tests, 4 player mode ‘Street Racer’ was running “at speeds in excess of ‘Super Mario Kart’". Retrospectively, Dinc remains understandably proud of the achievement.  “I truly enjoyed pushing the hardware and getting the best out of the people I worked with. At the time I was not programming any longer but enjoyed encouraging the team to achieve that much extra. We were lucky enough to convince Tony and Chris West to do the game and they did such a great job, we were very proud with the results!” Twenty years later the creator stands by his decision to not use expensive on-cartridge chips. “I knew that not using DSP would save the publisher around $3 per cartridge and I was so happy to discover that we could do this and even make the game technically superior to ‘Super Mario Kart’

While this may be a big technical achievement on paper, in practice for a modern player 'Street Racer' proves hard to play. The player’s view of the road may be at the same angle seen in 'Super Mario Kart' but without using a DSP chip on the cartridge it wasn't possible to include track hazards. There are therefore no fixed objects sitting on the flat ground that changed size and position in relation to the cars and without them suddenly it becomes harder for a player to judge depth. Those green pipes, thwomps and flying fish in the original 'Mario Kart' do more than provide hazards; they give a greater sense of spatial awareness. In a completely flat world you need things at fixed points that change size and position in relation to your position on the track, they help you navigate around a course.

Yes, from above the courses of 'Street Racer' do look nicer than the stages of 'Super Mario Kart'. But this extra detail comes at a cost. When viewed from the perspective seen in game it's hard to know what is road, what is a section of course that'll slow you down, and what will stop you driver completely. A player’s victory can be robbed from them because a line on the ground that was presumed to be a road surface detail is actually a solid wall you can't pass through.

It seems at times that the player's experience was compromised to ensure the game looked nice and there's no denying that 'Street Racer' is striking. Unlike 'Mario Kart' with it perpetual split screen, the one player mode in ‘Street Racer’ is full screen with the top half filled with a combination of stats, maps and parallax. Multiple scrolling layers above the race track convey the sense of depth that's lacking on the course itself. Like the ground and character these are extremely colourful, which is rather appropriate considering the game developer’s name is Vivid Image.

Though it doesn't have the long lasting appeal of music heard in 'Street Fighter II' or 'Super Mario Kart', in-game music in 'Street Racer' isn’t offensive and fits the whacky outrageous game perfectly. The sound effects are best described as functional but that being said they don’t tend to get on your nerves either, which can only be a good thing. It's all clichéd familiar stuff, but truth be told there’s a limit to what developers can do with tyres and engines.

One thing 'Mario Kart' and 'Street Fighter II' share is an incredible multiplayer experience. Nowadays it seems a "kart racer" is only as good as its multiplayer mode and thankfully 'Street Racer' doesn’t disappoint. In addition to being able to pay the main game with a friend, complete with all the same features as the one-player mode, the game also offers two bonus modes. Unfortunately, neither is anywhere near as good as 'Super Mario Kart’s incredible battle mode though.
The first mode “Rumble” is probably closest to the balloon bursting fun that Mario engages in. Like a 16 bit destruction derby the aim is to simply knock opponents out of an arena. In the original 'Mario Kart' to ensure consistent victory you have to spend a lot of time tactically thinking. The battle course are full of places to hide and there's a surprising amount of planning needed to calculate how best to use the weapon you have picked up while simultaneously avoiding a projectile that your opponent has. Without using the DSP chip, 'Street Racer' couldn't use projectile weapons in any mode. Consequently the best tactic in any rumble stage is to circle the centre of a level, wait while the other drivers defeat each other and then simply drive into anyone that remains. However, despite the short comings of rumble mode it works a lot better than "Soccer" mode. Almost as if fighting and driving wasn't enough already, Vivid Image have attempted to shoehorn in yet another genre; the sports sim. CVG Magazine called it “a combination of ‘Road Rash’, ‘Mario Kart’and ‘FIFA’”. This mode sees all eight racers chasing after a football so they can drive it into a solitary goal. It’s less fun and more frustrating than it sounds. The bulk of the time you play, you're simply chasing the ball only to have every one of your attempts on goal blocked. However the computer characters’ efforts almost always sail in.

Fortunately this is the only occasion in the whole game when the computer controlled characters have an unfair advantage over the player. Games in the ‘Mario Kart' series infamously have various mechanisms in place to remove any lead the played has legitimately earned. From projectile weapons that can't be avoided to AI opponents being able to move twice as quickly when they are too far behind, the series is designed so that there is always other drivers around you. This is not the case in 'Street Racer' however, with additional points even being awarded for lapping slower drivers. However if you are playing 'Street Racer' without taking advantage of the four player mode you are missing out on the game’s headline feature. It is a feature Dinc is understandably most proud of. "We were really doing incredible things with really not so powerful hardware. And the gameplay was more important in those days. Everything was more original and we were always breaking new ground." Perhaps it's because of the limitations of the Snes, but Vivid Image decided to implement a curious looking horizontally-stacked method of splitting the screen, instead of the now established ‘four corners’ method. “We felt splitting the screen horizontally would make it easier for four players to play together looking at the same monitor!” admits Dinc. “I think ‘Street Racer’ was the first ever four player driving game!” It’s a great point that Mevlut Dinc makes and before being too critical it's importantly to remember that 'Street Racer' was released at a time before the now familiar multiplayer standards were established. Although viewing a race in just a sliver across the screen feels outdated and takes some getting used to, it’s certainly better than limiting play to two players as was the case in ‘Super Mario Kart’.

Mega Drive Version.
Maybe it's owing to the four player mode that so many people remember 'Street Racer' so fondly. Mevlut Dinc even has letters from the time of the game's release where fans proudly declare how much they adore the game. ”The game is brilliant” a hand written letter cries, “it’s better than ‘Super Mario Kart!’ Almost certainly this enthusiastic fan was playing 'Street Racer' on the Snes as despite having the same name and characters, the port of the game to other systems was not a faithful one. Without the technical ability to rotate and scale a large floor sprite (only possible on the Snes because of its dedicated Mode 7 capabilities) 'Street Racer' on the Amiga, Mega Drive and Gameboy plays more like 'OutRun' or 'Top Gear'. While these versions are certainly fun (with the same character sprites and stage designs) they couldn't really be described as "'Mario Kart'clones". "The tracks don't have the same pseudo 3D technology" noted Andrew Korn when reviewing the Amiga port. "The result is a compromise, the tracks significantly simpler. “Street Racer's cars are detailed and the art work is very well done, but as the game progresses you'll find that the tracks are a lot less directly engaging".

It does seem slightly ironic that the way the game attracted an audience all those years ago is what puts them off returning to 'Street Racer' today. The many sequels to 'Super Mario Kart'have given the original game legendary status, with a cloud of nostalgia disguising any of the game’s short comings. As a result a game that's "like 'Mario Kart'" will not be chosen to be revisited when the "real" 'Mario Kart' is just as easy to get. There’s a general consensus that you shouldn't settle for an imitation when the original and best is on offer. But to ignore the copycat completely would be a shame, as even if it isn't as good as 'Mario Kart' there's still much enjoyment to be had and when placed side by side to realise how many differences there's actually are. What’s most amazing perhaps is that ‘Street Racer’ a game made by a handful of people, can hold its own when sat next to a Nintendo game so significant that it created one of the world’s most recognisable franchise.

Where Did I get this game from?
If the price people are willing to pay for a game is a barometer of it’s popularity, then ‘ Street Racer’ is certainly a game less fondly sought after than ‘Super Mario Kart’. While Nintendo’s game often sells for in excess of £40 on eBay, a boxed complete copy of ‘Street Racer’ typically sells for half this. For that price, it’s a piece of gaming history that should be sitting on any collector’s shelf.

1 comment:

  1. Thanks Julian, nicely put together and really enjoyed reading it! :)


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