Something that's always been a surprise to me while I've been writing VGJunk is just how many videogames I remember playing in my youth, fifteen or twenty years ago. Even more than that, it's how many games I remember with a surprising degree of clarity after playing them for fifteen minutes on some rainy afternoon in 1992. I'm generally pretty forgetful. To say I have a memory like a sieve would be doing a grave disservice to the liquid-retaining abilities of sieves everywhere, but I saw a picture from THQ's 1992 SNES racing game Road Riot 4WD the other day and a dusty corner of my mind struggled to life and whispered "You've played this. It's shit".
And indeed I have played it: a childhood friend had a copy that he was given / rented / had hurled at him by a dangerous lunatic. I'm pretty sure he didn't buy it because apparently it wasn't released in Europe, but it somehow found its way into his pile of SNES games. I'd hazard a guess that we played it for a few minutes, exchanged a look of quiet bemusement and then went back to Super Mario Kart.
The first few screens promise action - that car is firing a gun, unless that's the beginning of a catastrophic engine failure. The red parts littering the floor might lead you to that conclusion, but this is a Road "Riot" so there's bound to be some damage sustained by the racers. No word yet on if we get to loot a nearby branch of PC World.
This is not a game that's cluttered with extraneous options. Once you've chosen one or two players the only other decision you have to make is the difficulty level. Out of Rookie, Intermediate and Pro I went with Intermediate, because all that time spent tethering people to dune buggies on Just Cause 2 has to count for something. There are no different vehicles to chose from, no list of tournaments to enter: you just choose to either play on your own or have a friend suffer alongside you, select an appropriate level of challenge and off you go, no hanging around, nothing to see here.
There's something to see here, although I'm not sure I approve. I'm not bothered by the cheap sexual imagery but by the fact that Mrs. Bikini-Lady doesn't look like she's wearing shades. She looks like her eyes have fallen out, leaving only gaping black sockets in their place. She's very happy about this. Judging by her outfit she was on the beach when her eyeballs popped out of her skull and I can't imagine the feeling of them rolling around in the sand was very pleasant.
Right, so this first race is designed to gently welcome you to the world of Road Rioting - I'd say it was a qualifying event, but it doesn't seem to make a difference how well you do.
There's the eyeless demon-woman, dropping the flag to start the race. She may be pitting men against each other in a race for their immortal souls, but you can't let it be said that she doesn't like to get involved. As you can see, the screen is split horizontally like in Super Mario Kart and other superior videogames. The bottom half shows one of your computer competitors (or, presumably, a second player) while the top screen is reserved for you and your little red dune buggy. In a game called Road Riot I was expecting to have a vehicle designed for driving on, you know, roads, but the capricious whims of Socketor the Eyeless are not easily understood by the normal run of man.
The B button makes you accelerate, the flag is down - let's drive!
Bugger. My first encounter with a solid roadside obstacle and I've Marc Bolan-ed it. Luckily, turning your dune buggy into a flaming pile of twisted metal is barely a setback at all and you quickly reappear on the track. Once I'd got started again I realised that I seemed to do better if I didn't try to steer, so by simply holding down the accelerator I managed to clear the beginner course
This is going to be a piece of cake. Now for the tournament proper. Who will I be facing off against?
Oh look, it's a large variety of stereotypes! Fantastic, this'll be like Punch-Out: The Racing Game. Time to lay down some guesses as to what countries these fine people represent - the guy in the top-middle will be Africa and the blonde woman (?) to his right with the mad, staring eyes of a serial killer will be German. Saudi Arabian sheik in the top-left corner, unless THQ were overwhelmed by the patriotism of the Gulf War and he's an Iraqi. The guy with the shades on the right-hand side is throwing me a little, but he looks like a cross between a member of a Fifties motorcycle gang and a young Rolf Harris.
That is uncanny. I guess we'll just have to see about the rest.
Every fibre of my being is screaming at me to start with Elvis, because it's Elvis and I want to race against Elvis who better be driving a goddamn pink Cadillac or similar large American auto with a built-in deep fryer. I'm writing this for you kind people though, not me, and so I shall start at the beginning.
Cha Cha McReady, racing out of New Jersey. Her nametag says Shirley but her eyes say I'm not walking away from this race without a steering column wedged up my tailpipe.
At least it's a pleasant location for a race, lots of grass, clear blue skies, mountain views. This stage sponsored by the New Jersey Tourist Board - come for the scenery, stay for the life-or-death dune buggy races! Now that I'm into the meat of the game, my tactic of just holding down GO isn’t cutting it and I've had to learn how to play the bloody thing. And how does it feel to play? Bad. Real bad. I'm sure you're not surprised - this is a cheap THQ racing game that was so bare-bones the entire front end menu consisted of two options and picture of a skull-faced swimwear model. You know what it feels like most? An LCD handheld version of something like OutRun. The steering is light, to say the least, and as soon as you press the pad you fly all the way to that side of the screen in accordance with none of the Earth's known physical laws. There are only ever three parts of the track that you can occupy: right in the middle or all the way over to either side, and it feels like an old Game and Watch-style three-lane driving game but with none of the charm.
Hold that thought: I somehow managed to win the race, and that means it's time for Elvis!
That actually a pretty good picture of an Elvis impersonator. Well done THQ, have yourself a biscuit. So we're in Las Vegas, Casinotown, Hasty Marriage Central, The City That Never Sleeps Because It's Taking Your Life Savings. Ready for a high-speed showdown amongst the neon-lit streets of the Skegness of America?
Well tough, because you get a dirt track. Elvis Vegas doesn't get a pink Cadillac. In fact, he gets the same yellow dune buggy that's occupied the bottom half of the screen in the previous two races. None of the computer "characters" get a special vehicle, or any kind of interesting ability, in fact they get nothing at all barring their pre-race picture. Their inclusion is utterly pointless, at least as utterly pointless as an appearance from a fat Elvis impersonator can be, and they might as well not exist. Just have a bold "02" in Impact font instead of their details. Make the whole thing a time trial. In fact maybe, in a world where Super Mario Kart exists, you just shouldn't have bothered with Road Riot 4WD at all.
Auntie Arctica! Oh ho ho ho. I know I'm in a pretty fucking precarious position when it comes to accusing people of not being funny - glass houses and all that - but come on. Forget the lame pun, though. Look at that portrait of Mrs. Arctica. I can't see her white hood as anything but a toilet bowl, with her bloated face peering up from where there should only be water and possibly a block of Bloo. Now hopefully neither can you.
It's an ice stage! Joy of joys. I know what you're thinking, but you're wrong: this stage isn't a right pain in the arse because you've got no traction and you're sliding everywhere. It is a pain in the arse, but that's because apparently the race organisers were worried about an unauthorised replica of the Titanic taking part and so they littered the track with bloody great icebergs. It's not slippery, though. No more slippery than the feather-light controls normally are, I mean, but the ice track has the same amount of friction as the asphalt track and the dirt track. Its main distinguishing feature is that it is blue. I'm beginning to think that THQ didn't put their all into this one, folks.
He was originally going to be called Sheik Yerbouti, but lawyers from the estate of Frank Zappa quickly put a stop to that.
Here is another desert. This one has palm trees, unlike Las Vegas which has pick-up trucks. That's the kind of satire I can appreciate in my early SNES off-road racing games.
And so it goes on. A man with a giant nose challenges you to a race in Iowa.
Turns out you can't use a cow as a ramp.
More hilarious names, this time attached to a vaguely racist African general. I don't know what his cap badge is supposed to be prohibiting. No fun allowed? No knowing what the hell you're supposed to be doing?
That's the problem with RR4WD, the whole game feels like an exercise in blind luck. The graphics are so jerky and ill-defined that you never really have time to react to what's ahead of you, and neither do the computer-controlled cars - they're swerving around obstacles with no trouble one moment, only to crash for no apparent reason on clear stretches of road, both you and the computer bumbling forward by accelerating, occasionally adjusting the steering and hoping for the best. It's like trying to get a housecat to perform the obstacle course at Crufts - it's really not their thing, and they might go over the seesaw and through the tube or they might sit down and start licking their own nethers.
You know, I have always wondered what the result of a teleporter accident a la The Fly involving Steve Buscemi and Pamela Anderson would look like.
Oh, but the majestic Alps are looking particularly grey this year. That's really all that ever changes in this game, the colour of the background (or in this case, the lack of colour) and sometimes the roadside obstacles. Cows, trees and pick-up trucks all behave identically, of course.
I think it's safe to say that Mexico came out worst in THQ's whirling rampage of deformed pixel faces. Hideous, certainly, but at least it's not a straight-up sombreros-and-siestas stereotype, unless there's a theory in the U.S. that Mexicans are actually a race of highly-evolved earthworms with a passion for drag acts.
Young Rolf Harris fares much better, what with the muscles and relatively human-looking facial features. He's even got the most interesting track in the game, because the background changes from the grey of the streets to the green of the countryside half-way through each lap. Look, I know it's not much but I'm struggling here.
The course does lose points for having taxis parked across it. It will probably not surprise you to learn that Road Riot 4WD does not have the best collision detection ever coded, and when you combine that with your buggy's tendency to slide around like a buttered trout on a freshly-waxed parquet floor getting past these taxis without exploding is best handled by praying to a minor god and hoping. Which god looks over RR4WD? If I had to guess I'd probably say Sterquilinus.
Right, I'm almost there now. Just two more racers left. Who will be my penultimate challenge?
Gah! At least THQ are being even-handed with their geographical clichés: in this case, everyone from the southern USA is sexually deviant hillbilly with a stare that begs to be placed below the headline "Eyes of a Killer". I'm surprised there's no SNES version of Duelling Banjos playing.
Oh, hey, did I mention that your dune buggy does indeed have a gun? Pressing the R button makes you fire a stream of uninteresting red balls ahead of you. If you hit another buggy, said buggy loses some speed. Imagine trying to hit an angry wasp with a tennis ball while riding a bar-room buckin' bronco and you'll get a decent idea of what the inter-vehicle combat is like.
Well look, I've reached the last race. Here is an Australian man called Krazy Killer Karl. I'm sorry I just can't seem to care any more. They didn't even give him corks hanging from his hat. Amateurs.
Done and done. I came first in every race and grasped the golden prize. That's two hours of my life I could have spent watching Alien again, or grouting my bathroom, or having Twilight fanfiction read at me by a clown. All of these things and many, many more would have been preferable to playing RR4WD, but it's over now. I'm sure the ending sequence will be more than exhilarating enough to compensate me for my time.
Ah ha ha. That's it. That's the whole thing. Your driver has been wrapped in tin foil and can only look on in frozen horror as he waits to be thrown into the eyeless bikini-girl's giant oven. That's not a trophy, it's a garnish.
Obviously Road Riot 4WD is not a good game. It's a bad game - not truly awful, just boring, awkward and with a charm vacuum so all-engulfing it makes David Cameron look like Freddie Mercury. I don't blame the people who worked on the game too much, though: this is actually a port of an Atari arcade game, they had a very small team of people working on it and I can only assume a miniscule budget to work with.
Sometime these things just aren't meant to be, and let's face it - a SNES racing game released in 1992 was never going to be as good as Mario Kart anyway. When you get down to it there's only one question that needs to be asked of any sub-par racing title, and that's "is it worse than Hooters Road Trip". The answer to that is fuck no. Nothing's worse than Hooters Road Trip.