08/11/2016

ROLLERBLADE RACER (NES)

I can’t really think of a good way to begin this article, so I’ll just come right out and tell you it’s about rollerblading. “But VGJunk,” a hypothetical pedant might shout, “I think you mean it’s about inline skating because ‘rollerblade’ is a trademarked brand name,” but that’s where you’re wrong: this game is fully licensed and officially sanctioned by RollerBlade, Inc. themselves. That’s right, if you want the real, authentic rollerblading experience, you’re going to have to play Radiance Software and Hi-Tech Expression’s 1993 NES falling-over-em-up Rollerblade Racer!

Here’s a title screen with all the thrill and excitement of a letter from the bank informing you of their updated terms and conditions. I suppose title screens don’t have to be interesting or look good, really. You’ve already bought the game, and you’re not going to be looking at this screen for long unless you really like the registered trademark symbol. The word “SUCKER!” flashing on a blank background might be more appropriate but would be a little too on-the-nose, so instead we get this.


This is Kirk, star of Rollerblade Racer. Hi, Kirk. Let’s be blunt, Kirk looks like a massive dork, with his colour-coordinated safety gear and his rumpled socks. Mind you, I wasn’t expecting the star of this game to look cool. Despite rollerblading’s attempts to cast itself as a hip and radical means of personal transport, it certainly never felt that way when I was a kid. There was a very clear hierarchy when it came to the coolness of wheels you attach to your feet: skateboards were by far the coolest, rollerskates were extremely uncool and considered to be just for girls and rollerblades were only slightly above that. Then razor scooters came along and muddied the waters, but fortunately by then I was into my teens and thus beyond the age when such things are important. I was too busy trying to get hold of trainers that weren't from the market and made by companies like Adodos and Mike to worry about the trendiest way to fall over and graze your elbows.


Speaking of coolness, I feel like “bladegear” is too cool a phrase to be used in this context. As a name for all your hacking tools in a futuristic cyberpunk dystopia, sure, but not to describe plastic knee-pads and your mum’s old bicycle helmet.
Anyway, Kirk’s got a mission: he wants to participate in the Super Rollerblade Challenge, but before they’ll let him in he needs to earn 5,000 qualifying points. Fortunately for him the eyes of the Super Rollerblade Challenge Observation Team are everywhere, tireless and unblinking, so he gains those qualifying points simply by skating around his neighbourhood. Let’s go and do that, then.


What we’ve got here is an isometric skate-em-up, which is pretty much what I expected. Up and down on the d-pad control your speed, left and right do their usual thing and the buttons either make you jump or duck. What’s missing from this rollerblade race is the racing aspect, because there are no other competitors and it’s not even much of race against the clock: you can run out of time, but you get a fairly generous allotment. No, the real goal is to earn points, which you do by jumping (and receiving a bonus based on your remaining time). You don’t even have to jump over things, and any successful landing will net you points so you might as well be jumping all the time.
In fact, I’d strongly advise you to be jumping all the time, because Kirk lives in a blasted urban hellscape. Rabid dogs, open sewers, cracked pavements – all these thing and more conspire to keep our plucky young hero away from the Super Rollerblade Challenge, and jumping over them is the best way to avoid them.


It was at this point that I realised Rollerblade Racer is essentially Paperboy, probably because Paperboy also features hazardous children on tricycles. It’s Paperboy without the newspaper-delivery bits, then. So, erm, Boy? Yeah, let’s go with that. Paperboy was almost a decade old by the time Rollerblade Racer was released, which is possibly why it feels trite and over-familiar even in these early stages, and the inclusion of the hottest skating trend of the nineties isn’t doing much to elevate it. Still, we can all enjoy Kirk’s splay-legged jumping pose. I particularly like the way his hands have been replaced by small plastic spoons.


After one stage, Kirk has already amassed over half the points he needs. The spies of the Super Rollerblade Challenge, lurking in the bushes near his home with their telephoto lenses, were suitably impressed by the way he jumped over all those dustbins.


Just like Paperboy, there’s a bonus round after each main stage. In this case it’s what I would describe as the crappiest version of Donkey Kong, if I hadn’t played so many unofficial home computer ports of Donkey Kong. Skate forwards and jump over the barrels, that’s all you need to do. The only problem you should have is getting over the first barrel, because it’s right in Kirk’s face and you haven’t had time to build up any speed. Once you’re past that (literal) hurdle it’s easy going, although that didn’t prevent me from contorting Kirk into whatever this pose is supposed to be. Maybe he’s a big fan of The Specials. There's definitely some level of ska music involved in this stance.


Do we have to, Kirk? Can’t you just save your energy for the big day? I know I’m only two stages in but I think I’ve already extracted the maximum amount of fun I can from Rollerblade Racer. It’s relatively competent on a technical level, with decent collision detection and controls that are heavy and sluggish but not to a hugely frustrating degree, but it’s also extremely boring.


The next stage takes place downtown, and I think it’s actually easier than the first stage because there’s less stuff in it for Kirk to trip over. It’s just as run-down as the suburbs, though, and just as packed with wild dogs. Dogs are your constant harassers in Rollerblade Racer, appearing in every stage and lunging at Kirk with such ferocity you have to assume he’s using Pedigree Chum as cologne.


And they look so innocent when they’re waiting for Kirk to pass by, too! I’m certain that all dogs are fundamentally Good Boys, but in this universe there’s just something about rollerblading that sends them into a frenzied bloodlust. Maybe they’re from an alternate timeline where their wolf ancestors were hunted by primitive men wearing inline skates.


Bonus stage 2: the traffic cone labyrinth. Kirk’s arms continue to atrophy, having now withered away to the shape of udon noodles. As he collapses to the ground, his enfeebled arms unable to break his fall, I’m finding it extremely difficult not to fill this paragraph with jokes from the traffic cone scenes from I’m Alan Partridge.


I fell over one too many times and got a game over. See, this is why you should have just waited for the main event once you’d collected the requisite amount of points, Kirk. You just had to push it, and now night has fallen and you have to make you way home in the dark. You saw how bad the city was in the daytime, right? There’s no way Kirk’s going to make it before he’s devoured by the roaming bands of toxi-mutants and the feral dogs with a taste for human flesh.


Having survived the night by hiding in one of the many dustbins left haphazardly in the middle of the road, Kirk resumes his skating odyssey with a trip to the beach. Oh look, he’s getting some sunbathing in. Well, you’d want to look your bronzed best for the Super Rollerblade Challenge, wouldn’t you?


The beach is much the same as the other stage. The puddles of water are patches of sand now, but there are still dozens of killer dogs patiently waiting for their chance to rise up against their human masters. One new thing are the frisbees, which you have to duck underneath. Anything that adds a bit more complexity to Rollerblade Racer is welcome, I suppose, although once you’ve built up enough speed you’ll be past most frisbees before they get near you.


The next bonus stage is a trough. That’s it, you ride through a gutter that’s got ideas above it’s station. You might think it’s a gnarly half-pipe that you can do all kinds of Tony Hawk’s Pro Skater style tricks on, but no – approaching the lip of the pipe will cause Kirk to fall over just like he does when confronted by small puddles, grass, kerbs and slightly uneven tarmac. All you need to do, especially because you’ll long-since have collected the 5,000 points, is hold up on the d-pad until you reach the end of the stage. It’s not so much Skate or Die as it is Skate and Die of Boredom.


Boring in a different way, mostly because it forces you into repeated attempts and rote learning of obstacle locations, is the final stage before the big challenge. It’s a park, with narrow pathways, bridges over rivers and staircases to contend with. There are also multiple unattended babies just sitting around, so if you’re looking for a free baby, perhaps one that you can raise as a warrior who will avenge your death when the hordes of rabid dogs finally overwhelm you, then I suggest you get down to this park.


Most of the things that try to ruin Kirk’s day are fairly innocent. The dogs are simply acting on their animal instincts, the beach balls and frisbees are unfortunate mis-throws, the children on tricycles don’t really know what they’re doing… but then there are these guys. They see Kirk skating towards them and they purposely stick out their legs to trip him up. There’s nothing accidental about it: they saw a kid rollerblading along the path and thought “it’d be really funny if I legged this child up.” I think that makes them the most evil villain I’ve ever faced in a videogame, and I’ve completed Wolfenstein 3D.


At last, Kirk has reached the Super Rollerblade Challenge. It might look like the first bonus stage, but that’s only because it is the first bonus stage. But wait, there’s more! It’s also the other two bonus stages! You play the three bonus stages as one consecutive stage, then they repeat a couple of times. That’s it. That’s what I needed all those points to participate in, despite having already played the constituent parts. The developers are showing the kind of innovative thinking you usually only see when the Royal Family needs to come up with a name for a new baby, and honestly it’s about what I expected. I had imagined there might be some other people here - a crowd, even - but there’s no evidence that the Super Rollerblade Challenge isn’t all a product of Kirk’s fevered imagination and he’s set the whole thing up on his suburban street.


Best of all, if you move over to the left and jump onto the pavement, you can stay on the pavement for the whole stage, completely avoiding all the obstacles. Amazing, truly amazing.


The game ends with the same screen as when you get a game over, except now Kirk is waxing lyrical about the quality of the final course. Kirk is easily pleased, isn’t he? Well, as long as he had fun, that’s the main thing. Wait, hang on – further reading implies that Kirk wasn’t actually competing in the Super Rollerblade Challenge and the organisers just let him on the course to piss about for a while. Next time he’s going to compete? Oh no, I’m not falling for that. The game restarted and as far as I could tell it was identical, so there’s no way I’m going through all this again on the off chance there’s another ending. I’ve had enough of that sort of thing, what with playing Ghouls ‘n Ghosts recently. As far as I’m concerned, Rollerblade Racer ends right here, right now.


Some games are bad because of awful design choices, or a lack of budget, or thanks to offensive content… but some games are just a bit rubbish, and that’s the category into which Rollerblade Racer squarely falls. I’d like to think I try to give all the games I write about a fair shake, but sometimes a game just rubs me the wrong way for reasons I can’t really explain. I think in this case there’s an air of laziness that hangs over proceedings, a lack of ambition that’s hardly surprising when you consider it’s a rip-off of a decade-old arcade game. It’s not that terrible to play – I’ve certainly played worse – but the stodgy controls, ugly graphics and lack of anything unique means it’s destined for that great grey void where all the uninspired and forgotten console games end up. So why did I bother writing about it? I haven’t got a clue, pal. Maybe deep down I’m bitter about never learning to rollerblade as a kid.

7 comments:

  1. That "aw shucks" tone all the dialogue seemed to have is endearing in a weird kind of way,though. I feel like there are some games today that could use a tone like that.

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    1. I can agree with that, I know I've been playing a lot more "cutesy" games recently.

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  2. The only place in which you can associate roller skating with baddassery is in the arcade game Roller Games by good old Konami.

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    1. The music's certainly a lot cooler in Rollergames!

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  3. I imagine the guy who "accidently" trip Krik will say "I'm just reading newspaper here. It's your solely fault to not be careful, kid"

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  4. Best rollerblading title goes to skitchin on the mega drive (aka road rash on rollerblades). awesome 90s flavoured soundtrack too.

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  5. After the "Rollerblade" vs "in-line skate" thing I really feel like the "frisbee" thing was on purpose.

    ReplyDelete

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