Today I’m going to put my pedal to the metal, feel a little bit annoyed that “pedal” and “metal” don’t rhyme and then crash a sports car into the side of some poor bugger’s house – it’s time for Video System’s 1993 arcade racer Lethal Crash Race!
First things first, that title is 33% a lie. I crashed plenty of times during this game and no-one died. There’s definitely racing and crashing, though. In fact, that’s about all there is to the game, which I suppose is what you want from an arcade racing game. I can’t imagine a coin-op version of Gran Turismo would be that much fun, not when you can’t spend all that time fiddling with your wheel camber or spoiler angles. Speaking of Gran Turismo, I think my favourite part of those game was using the car wash. There was something very satisfying about that. Anyway, back to Lethal Crash Race – obviously you’re going to need some cars to race in, so what does this game have to offer in terms of vehicles?
How about the Dadge Vipre? It’s a sleek and sporty number, with impressive acceleration and a name like someone trying to say “Dodge Viper” with a wet flannel wedged in their mouth.
Or maybe you prefer the classic flair of an Italian supercar, like the Lanborjini Daiblo? It’s got vented disc brakes, who could say no to that?
So yeah, Lethal Crash Race features real cars with their names changed juuust enough to make a mockery of trademarks, and there are plenty of Hontas, Pheraris and Mursedes-Banzes to choose from. I do enjoy such flagrant disregard for brand names; it certainly makes the names quite fun to say out loud. Which I did, several times, alone in my house. Don't judge me.
Each car has a driver, naturally, so there’s a colourful cast of characters for you to choose from. My mind was made up the second I noticed one of the drivers was a large man with a monocle and a vampire cape. What are the rest of the characters like? Who cares, I’m playing as a large man with a monocle and a vampire cape. His name’s Alfredo von Gourmand, and he drives a Porsche 959. Sorry, I mean a “Borsche 969.” He also flicks out his unnaturally long tongue and eats a fly when you select him, so he’s a Dracula and a Renfield.
Then it’s off to “Korea” for the first race. The game doesn’t specify which Korea, but I’m going to assume South. I can’t imagine the Dear Leader would have much truck with illegal street racing, which is what Lethal Crash Race is all about. It’s you against one CPU opponent in a race to the finish line, with no in-built special abilities or weapons to contend with – although you’re not totally defenceless.
The race is underway, and Alfredo and his Borsche immediately takes a healthy lead over his rival because, well, it’s the first stage in the game and thus it’s not really all that difficult. As you can see, Lethal Crash Race is a vertically-oriented racer, which makes sense. Video System (and the later developer Psikyo which was founded by former Video System staff) are most famous for their vertically-scrolling shoot-em-ups, notably the Sonic Wings / Aero Fighters games, so it’s not surprising that they’d put their knowledge of that genre to use when creating Lethal Crash Race.
My rival did manage to catch up to me near the end of the race, thanks to my insistence on driving through all the roadside patio furniture so I could watch it be scattered around the screen. I say “roadside,” someone’s clearly set up a cafe in the middle of the road and that’s not going to end well.
It doesn’t take long to get into Lethal Crash Race’s groove, and the actual gameplay is very easy get a handle on once you realise that two out of the three control buttons are superfluous. As well as using the joystick to steer, you’ve got one button to accelerate (very important) and two other buttons: brake and honk your horn. I cannot think of a single instance in this game where using the brake would be a good idea. Lethal Crash Race is not a game that requires what you would traditionally describe as good driving skills. As for honking your horn, I don’t think it has any practical applications, but it is fun to beep at your rival when you overtake them so the horn is still more useful than the brakes.
The first race ends with Alfredo’s victory, and the startling revelation that beneath his cape he has the body of a Greek god and the underwear of a male stripper. He’s half vampire, half hen night entertainment. He’s a Chippendracula!
And so goes the life of a lethal crash racer. You win a race, travel to another country and meet its resident weirdo – in this case Brazil, and a chap who looks like a cross between Jet from Cowboy Bebop and Popeye. Then you race them and move on. There’s no grand tournament at work here, no grand prix season or glittering prize, you just turn up in different countries and challenge random people to a street race.
Okay, it's not just “street races,” because they don’t all take place on the streets. This one covers the jungles and dry riverbeds of Brazil, for instance. This should give my rival the advantage, because I’m trying to off-road in a precision-engineered sports car and he’s driving a much more sensible truck, but I was willing to discard the stuffy etiquette of the racing driver, so that levelled the playing field a little. One of the nice things about Lethal Crash Race is that your rivals are just as susceptible to the “crash” part of that title, so you can nudge them into nearby cars or other obstacles to slow them down. In this case, I managed to shunt my opponent to the side a few times so they missed the ramps that jump over the speed-reducing swamps, bogging them down just long enough to allow me to take the lead. The way collisions are handled in LCR seems a bit strange at first: they’ll slow you down, but nothing ever really stops you, so you’re constantly barrelling forwards even if you’re ploughing into roadside buildings.
As for the car-to-car collisions, personally I think they’re really well implemented. There’s not so much impact that each hit sends you careening around the course, which could have rapidly become frustrating, but you’ve got just enough grunt to nudge your rivals into hazards and give yourself a bit of breathing space.
The next stage is set in England, and I do always like to see how Japanese game developers have decided to depict my home country. In this case, a lot of it is duck ponds, complete with quacking sound effects. You know what? I’m happy with that. There are a lot worse things for your country to be associated with that the gentle, relaxing scene of a duck pond. Plus I’ve got two duck ponds with a five minute walk of my house, so clearly it’s a very accurate portrayal of England.
Okay, so later on it does get a bit more stereotypically British, with the wrought-iron lampposts and cobbled streets, plus a large collection of the Queen’s Guard. I suspect this entire race was simply a test of the Queen’s Guards famous resolve by lining them up on the finish line and seeing whether they flinch when a racing car drives straight at them.
Now that I’ve had a few races to get to grips with LCR, I’ve come to the conclusion that it’s really good fun. It’s definitely fast, which helps, and tearing through the tracks and smashing through obstacles is enjoyable in exactly the kind of way that an arcade racer should be. It doesn’t really feel all that much like a racing game, truth be told. Not many of the usual hallmarks of a racing game are present. You never have to brake, there’s not much of a “racing line” to adhere to – it’s really all about reactions, and taking the opportunity to mess up your opponent’s race by leading them into other road users.
Plus, it’s all presented in a graphical style that I really like, with that small-yet-detailed look that’s something of a Video System (and later Psikyo) hallmark. Everything’s crisp, there’s a good level of detail that provides fun backdrops without being too busy or confusing when you’re blasting through them at two hundred miles an hour, and you can tell someone had a lot of fun drawing all the cars.
Something I’m not so keen on is the game’s music. It’s not horrendous or anything, just a set of fairly bog-standard techno tunes that have all the impact of a moth’s fart. What makes it worse is that if there was ever a game that could have benefited from some ludicrously cheesy guitar rock, it’s this one. If I play it again, I’ll probably listen to the F-Zero X soundtrack at the same time.
I managed to lose the race against Alfredo’s doppelganger, but LCR is generous with its continue system and you can try the race you failed again. You can even select a different character: I went with the duo of Ellen and Cindy / Cincia, who you might recognise from their later appearances as playable pilots in the Sonic Wings series. The thing is, there doesn’t seem to be much point picking a different character, because all the cars are disappointingly similar. Some might have slightly higher straight-line speed or marginally smoother handling, but really they’re all much of a muchness. The only car that I did notice a difference with was the Mercedes-Benz, and that difference was that I crashed into a lot more things because the car’s bloody massive.
As Lethal Crash Race moves towards its latter stages, one thing I noticed is that a lot of the tracks feel very similar, as though they’re assembled from a limited pool of pre-made sections. Quick chicanes are very common, as are sections where the road narrows, but thankfully you’ve got a rally-style “upcoming corner” indicator to let you know what you’re about to crash into. There are also some corners where the entire track “rotates” - think of a top-down SNES racer using Mode 7 effects – but on the whole they can feel a bit samey. This isn’t necessarily a complaint, though, mostly because the races in LCR only take a couple of minutes at most, so you don’t have much time to get burned out on them.
Oh, and your sodding car can explode. It took me until the final third of the game to realise this. You’ve got a damage bar at the top of the screen and everything. Too many collisions and whoops, I guess the name Lethal Crash Race is accurate after all. The damage is cumulative, too, and it’s not automatically repaired between races. There are repair item that appear on the track sometimes, but after a few races your car is almost certainly going to take enough damage to blow up. I’m not sure how I feel about this as a gameplay mechanic: on the one hand, it adds a bit of tension and collecting repair kits gives you something else to focus on beside winning the race, but smashing through every single roadside object and pinballing around the sides of the track like a hyperactive child in a soft play area is what LCR is all about, and it doesn’t feel right that I’m being punished for driving like a lunatic.
Forget what I said about the F-Zero X soundtrack: now that I’m driving down the highway in a red Ferrari, trying to overtake a yellow car with a big RIVAL indicator over the top of it, it has become clear that I should actually be listening to the OutRun 2006: Coast 2 Coast soundtrack instead. I mean, that statement’s true in any situation, really. Speaking of, I haven’t mentioned it for a while so here’s a reminder that the song “Night Flight” from the OutRun 2006 soundtrack includes the lyric “this is paradise / and it’s very nice,” which is simultaneously the best and worst lyric ever written.
Also fun: the opportunity to race against Bebop from Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles, before he became a mutated warthog creature.
The final race took me through the streets of a Japanese city and then some kind of temple, which served as a reminder that there’s a good reason people don’t generally hold motor races in temples. There’s just too much stuff to crash into. LCR has had a particularly smooth difficulty curve up to this point, with the races definitely becoming harder to win as you progress but without any obnoxious spikes in difficulty, so that by the time you reach the end it’s pretty goddamn difficult to hold onto a lead but it never feels unfair. Like, I had to try the race a few times but each time I felt as though I was getting a little better until I managed to win. An honest victory! At the end of an arcade game! Who would have thought it possible?
I switched back to Alfredo at some point, which means I get to see Alfredo’s ending. And what an ending it is, especially if you’re a big fan of chiselled abs, restrictive underwear and inappropriate amounts of exposed flesh.
So inappropriate, in fact, that Alfredo is hauled away on charges of indecent exposure. Seems reasonable to me, there’s no way he managed to do all that aggressive driving and subsequent victorious flexing without at least one of his nuts falling out of his posing pouch. Maybe it’s an Al Capone type situation: they couldn’t bust him for illegal street racing, so they had to arrest him for outraging public decency.
It’s always nice when I can unreservedly recommend a game I’ve written about, especially when it’s something that most people probably haven’t played, so I’m happy to report that Lethal Crash Race is definitely worth your time. It’s simple and straightforward in the best possible way, a real arcade-style experience packed with high-speed racing and almost constant stimulatory overload that’s a blast to play mostly because it refuses to play much like a racing game at all. The relatively samey tracks and cars mean it might not keep you hooked for hour after hour, but I’m sure LCR will become a game I return to whenever I’m in the mood for a quick fix of complete automotive insanity. Now I’ve just got to figure out whether Alfredo’s get-up of a cape and only a cape is enough to include him in my own personal category of “vampires that are Draculas.”
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