Have you ever thought to yourself "yeah, Super Mario Bros. is good, but wouldn't it be better if instead of controlling a moustachioed Italian man with a mushroom fixation, you played as a car?" If you have, I've got two things to tell you: firstly, no, that would not be better, as we shall see. Also, congratulations! You'd fit right in at Jaleco, if their 1991 Game Boy title Banishing Racer is anything to go by.
Banishing Racer? What an odd name. Nothing gets banished in this one, except maybe your desire to play remarkably average Game Boy platformers. Thanks to the mix-ups that can happen when transliterating the letters B and V from Japanese into English - as seen in the previous article with the Biggs/ Vicks confusion - I suppose this could be called Vanishing Racer, but that still doesn't make sense because nothing vanishes either. Well, except maybe your desire to play remarkably average Game Boy platformers.
Banishing Racer's opening scenes don't do anything to explain the name, but they do provide an answer about how you're playing as a living car, and that answer is magic. Abandoned and forgotten in a scrapheap somewhere, a big-eyed cartoon car sheds a single tear.
This somehow calls a fairy down from space, who fixes the car up with a wave of her wand. People are struggling, suffering, dying all over the world and their prayers go unanswered, but one hatchback gets all mopey and divine intervention can't get down there fast enough to fix him up? Disgraceful. Of course, I made a mistake in the previous paragraph and the car was alive all along - alive enough to cry, at any rate - so maybe we're looking at a Cars-style human-free universe populated entirely by anthropomorphised vehicles. If that's the case, why was the car in a scrap yard? Is that this universe's equivalent of an old folk's home, or some kind of long-term palliative care ward?
Whatever dismal existence the car was previously suffering through, the fairy's wish has given him a new lease of life which he uses to embark on a road trip across America. On this road trip, you will be controlling the car as he moves from left to right, jumping over some things while jumping onto other things.
No racing, not even any horn-honking - the Game Boy's dearth of buttons sees to that - just platforming of the big 'n' chunky Game Boy type. One button makes the car jump, and the other give it a short burst of speed. Even automobiles follow the platforming game rules, so you can jump onto enemies to get rid of them, with the added bonus that you can use them as platforms. It's all terribly familiar, with the only immediately apparent difference from every other platformer being that you can't turn around. Your car is always facing right, but it doesn't make much of a difference to the gameplay because really, how often are you going to be jumping to the left in this one? I'll tell you: not very.
Here we can see two vehicles about to mate. In nine months, the bottom car will dig a hole in the gravel of a dealership's forecourt before laying her eggs, eggs that will later hatch into a wide variety of two-door coupés and sensible family saloons.
No, of course not, that's me jumping on another car to kill it. Some cars move towards you, some jump into the air every now and then, but none of them are really a threat.
Much more of a threat is the giant bomber that blows up the bridge you were cheerfully driving across mere moments ago. As we're in San Francisco, I can only assume it's the Golden Gate bridge that has just been destroyed. What are the chances that it's one of the many, many other bridges in San Francisco area? I'd say slim to none, but t's all the same to the bomber. Just look at its expression, it'd bomb its own mother if you told it to, and it'd do it with a smile on its face / cockpit.
Speaking of flying, once you reach stage 1-2 your car sprouts wings and takes to the skies, where it is harassed by parrots. I know San Francisco is in sunny California, but between all the palm trees and parrots the developers seem to have confused "California" with "that tropical island where every cartoon pirate buries his treasure".
Somehow, controlling a flying car is less interesting than the basic "driving around on the ground" kind from the previous stage. Just keep tapping jump to maintain your height and try not to think about how much it feels like an underwater stage from Super Mario.
Next you're trying to squeeze past these sinister lorries in a claustrophobic tunnel, which is easily the most engaging of the three stages in the first world because you have to plan your leaps in advance, lest you bounce off a bad guy and into the spikes that line the ceiling. The spikes will kill you in one hit, but then again so does everything else in this game. The fairy may have returned the animating spirit of life itself to our four-wheeled hero, but she imbued him with all the toughness of a wet paper towel and making contact with anything that isn't the floor will cost you a life.
Every city you visit during your road trip is made up of three stages. Some of them have a boss at the end and some of them don't. San Francisco is home to a mini Godzilla creature, which you have to defeat for some reason. No, really, try to come up with a series of events that culminate in a sentient car jumping on the head of a seven-foot-tall dinosaur with fire breath. It'll be a good creative writing exercise for you. Was this the fairy's plan all along? Did she bring rebirth to our heroic vehicle not out of the goodness of her heart but because she needed someone to destroy her enemies? Am I just a patsy in some unseen war for the very heart and soul of America?
Whatever the case, I jumped on the dinosaur's head a few times to defeat it. I tried just bouncing in place on its head, but Jaleco obviously saw smart-arses like me coming and made Godzilla Lite fire straight upwards every time you hit it in order to discourage that very behaviour. Still, it was hardly a difficult fight to suss out and once it's over I can head to Las Vegas.
I can tell I'm in Vegas, because there are roaming slot machines that are trying to kill me. There you go, folks: we've had Planes, but the next sequel to Cars will be Slots, a heartwarming tale in which a young condom dispenser dreams of breaking free of his humdrum life to become a glamorous slot machine at one of Las Vegas' top casinos. Starring Jaden Smith as Johnny the condom machine, Tom Waits as the grizzled craps table who helps him achieve his ambitions and Ray Liotta as the king of the slot machines who will do whatever it takes to keep this young punk in his place. That's Slots, coming to a cinema near you as soon as Pixar lift their restraining order on me so I can stuff the script into their mailbox.
More than anything else Banishing Racer is giving me flashbacks to Jaleco's own City Connection. They're both platform-hopping adventures where the player controls a car that's trying to avoid touching other cars, with Banishing Racer feeling like a pseudo-sequel to City Connection where the gameplay has been stretched along a more traditional hop-n-bop axis than the puzzle-like feel of the original. This is to Banishing Racer's detriment, because where City Connection feels fairly fresh and charming even now, Banishing Racer is Just Another Platform Game with little to recommend it over its competitors.
Then I was killed by a familiar monkey. I had a little trouble parsing his face at first - I kept seeing his mighty gorilla pectorals as some kind of inflatable throat-pouch - but there's only one ape with this barrel-throwing pedigree and I eventually recognised him as Donkey Kong. Nintendo's lawyers clearly didn't, but I know DK when I see him. I'd hesitate call him the boss of Las Vegas, partly because all you have to do is drive past him without getting hit but mostly because calling an ape the "boss of Las Vegas" makes me wish this was a game about a gorilla who's also a Mafia don and I can't handle the disappointment of that not being the case.
Onward to world three and... Denver. I'm sorry, my American cousins, but after the glittering metropolises of San Francisco and Las Vegas it's a little hard to get worked out about Denver, Colorado. Even the game doesn't make much effort to spice up the experience: it's all farms, fields and rocks.
There's another flying stage that's notable only for the appearance of these retracting spikes which just scream Mega Man 3 to me. They don't literally scream that, of course. It's beyond the capabilities of the Game Boy's hardware, and if they were going to scream anything it'd be "die die die" as they slide towards the car's unprotected underbelly.
Sometimes a UFO will try to abduct you, and I will confess that this goes down in the "pretty cool" column of my mental notebook. For all it's unoriginality and occasionally frustrating nature, Banishing Racer does have just about enough fun little moments to keep me interested, like the high-kicking cowgirl sign in the Vegas stage or this attempted extraterrestrial kidnapping. I like that the saucer's under-domes look like huge goofy teeth. Forget my earlier pitch, Pixar: make UFOs your next vehicular film and have the main character be a dopey interstellar redneck and I will buy one hundred tickets.
Denver's guardian is a bulldozer, and like the dinosaur before it you just need to jump on top of it a few times to claim victory. However, it spends most of the fight with its plow raised to protect it's weak spot, only lowering it in order to throw rocks at you. That's what I learned from this game - that Denver is composed of farms and rocks in pretty much equal measure. Anyway, I recommend bouncing on the bulldozer's projectile rocks before going for the weak point. It keeps you out of trouble as well as giving you much-needed practise for an upcoming battle.
World four is set in Detroit, which seems appropriate considering I'm playing as a car, and while there is a factory in the final stage most of Detroit is made up of fluctuating water levels and seagulls that drop rocks on you. I hope they're rocks, anyway, and not the other stuff that seagulls are known to drop on people. Given the size and solidity of their projectiles, these seagulls could do with some senna supplements.
There's an underwater level, which works exactly the same way as the flying stages except your car is rather adorably dressed in a snorkel. His charming appearance goes some way to deflating my anger about being underwater when in the previous stage I lost a life if my front tyres got so much as a light spritzing. There must have been a between-stage rustproofing scene I inadvertently skipped. That bootleg squid, clearly inspired by Super Mario's Bloopers, is fun too. Between that and my automotive scuba gear I'd say this is the best of the "flying" stages.
On to the factory, which is where Banishing Racer starts getting difficult, for a variety of reasons. It's partly down to the usual upwards surge of any platform game's difficulty curve - there are more enemies about, more obstacles to avoid and narrower margins of error in which to avoid them. However, the difficulty is amplified by the quirks of the game's physics. For one thing, it's sometimes hard to tell if your car is going to make contact with the platform you're slinging it towards. I've mentioned this before in the Beethoven's 2nd article, but it's a problem that arises when your character is longer than they are tall: where is their contact point with the ground? It's difficult to judge when you're playing as something that doesn't have feet, and in Banishing Racer's case you can just about say it's your back wheels that have to land in the right place, but it's a fairly nebulous part of your sprite and often you'll fall off a ledge you could have sworn you'd landed on.
Your little car can also "dash" very briefly for a little extra speed, and I'm not sure if this was down to my own incompetence or the game's controls but I seemed to have frequent problems with getting my car to jump after a dash. A much better use for the dash is to use it after you've jumped, in which case it propels you further forward than a jump alone would. I'm not complaining about this mechanic - it makes a nice change from the norm and it helps with bouncing from enemy to enemy without touching the ground, which not only is the best way to earn extra lives but they're also the moments when Banishing Racer is most fun. It's just that it's so contrary to the usual videogame "dash, then jump" technique that it requires some getting used to.
Oh, and did I mention that you die in one hit from anything? Because that quickly becomes tiresome, especially when the small screen of the Game Boy gives you little chance to react to oncoming traffic. It's not something that ruins the game, but if it was a touch more forgiving I think I'd enjoy this adventure that little bit more.
Our hero has reached the final world and his final destination: New York, where things look more like City Connection than ever before, as this screenshot shows.
Surely there has to be some connection, no pun intended, between the two games? I wonder if they shared some production staff, because the alternative is that there were multiple people at Jaleco who separately thought that cars avoiding other cars while driving along girders was an idea that could sustain a videogame.
Okay, so it's not just cars you're avoiding. There are also Pac-Men on springs that bounce across the scenery. Coming soon from the people who brought you Cars and Planes - Pac-Men on Springs! Okay, enough Pixar pitches for today. I'll gather them all together and offer them to a mockbuster-producing company like The Asylum once I've finished this article, but first our car needs to take a trip on the subway.
Yep, a car taking the subway. That all seems logical. I like that you have to jump over the ticket barriers. It's not just Grand Theft Auto that's warping our children's minds with its brazen displays of criminality.
It might seem ridiculous to have a car getting on the underground, but you're missing the point. This is all an excuse to get out hero beneath the surface of New York. And who else lives underneath New York?
The Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles! Or their bootleg allies the Young Adult Judo Tortoises, an organisation that decided nunchucks were the superior weapon and so outfitted all their members with a pair. After this, I think you'd be well within your rights to describe Banishing Racer as "that game where you run over the Ninja Turtles with your car". Call it a lazy pop-culture reference if you like, but I'm always happy to see the Ninja Turtles.
Okay guys, that's enough with the Ninja Turtles now.
Here's the final stage, where Banishing Racer somehow manages to be both at its best and its worst. It's a forced-scrolling stage featuring multiple paths, many of which lead to extremely challenging switchbacks that have to be taken as fast as possible, leading to gameplay that's more about memorisation than skill... but when you have figured out which routes to take, the game flows together in a satisfying way as you try to quickly bounce from enemy to enemy in order to clear the road to victory and a confrontation with the final boss.
Said boss is a tank that transforms into a bipedal armoured chicken-bot. Or maybe it's an eagle, and the fairy repaired this car so it could travel across America and defeat the ultra-nationalistic Eagleborg 3000 before it can start punishing people from not displaying the Stars and Stripes or lacking interest in the Superbowl.
As ever, launching your car onto the boss' head is the way to win. I hope you got plenty of practise in using the bulldozer boss' rocks as platforms, because you'll be doing the same thing here only with missiles instead of boulders. If you had a health bar then this fight would be a breeze, but because you die in one hit the battle is balanced somewhere on the line between "tense" and "frustrating." It only took me a couple of tries so it can't be that hard, and once Robobeak is neutralised the game is over.
The car flies into space at the end. I can't see a reason why this would happen, but then again I also fought the Ninja Turtles and grew wings on occasion so it's perhaps best to not think too hard about these things.
Banishing Racer is an average game, but what did you expect? It was made by Jaleco, and they only ever made average games. I'd say it's on the higher end of average, mind you - despite the drawbacks created by the controls, lack of originality and unpredictable difficulty spikes, there's just about enough here for you to get some fun out of a playthrough. The graphics are charming in a simplistic way and the gameplay is serviceable, occasionally reaching "rather diverting" on the Pleasure Barometer, especially when you've got a bit more freedom to put car-squashing chains together. Plus it makes a great trivia question answer: which was the only game to feature Donkey Kong, the Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles and a swarm of Pac-Men with springs wedged up their backsides? That's Banishing Racer, only from Jaleco.