24/11/2018

JALECO RALLY: BIG RUN (ARCADE)

A couple of months ago I wrote about Tuff E Nuff, a SNES fighting game that (awful title aside) helped creators Jaleco strengthen their claim as the most consistent developer of average videogames. Sometimes Jaleco’s games are slightly above average, sometimes they’re slightly below average, but they’re never titles that make you jump for joy or jump around in pain because you hurt your foot when booting the game out of an open window. For this reason I have developed a tremendous amount of affection for Jaleco over the years, and it’s time I put that affection to the test by playing their 1989 off-road-race-em-up Jaleco Rally: Big Run!


“The Supreme 4WD Challenge,” claims the title screen. I’m pretty sure that refers to the concept of the race in question and not the game itself. Jaleco would never have the confidence to describe one of their products as “supreme.”


The Big Run in question is the Paris-Dakar Rally, a real-life off-road rally that sees competitors race from Paris, through southern Europe, across the Mediterranean Sea and down through Africa until they arrive at the finish line in the Senegalese capital Dakar. Or at least it used to, because concerns about terrorism saw the event move to South America in recent years. Supposedly the rally was started when its founder got lost in the Sahara during a different rally and though “hey, this would be a great place to hold a rally of my own!” I think that’s what they mean by making the best of a bad situation.
I feel that I should also mention that the screenshot above means I’ll be humming a-ha’s “Take On Me” throughout this entirety of Big Run. Not to be worry, I’ll be finished writing this article in a day or twooooo…


The attract mode also reveals our racer’s entry form. Apparently our team is called “Big bois.” The Akihabara Big Bois, that’s us.


With coins inserted and start button pressed, the race gets underway. Immediately the Paris part of the Paris-Dakar thing goes right out the window, because you actually start in Tunis. No European section at all, then, and I suspect this is because if there was a Parisian component then Jaleco would have had to create lot of very different backgrounds instead of being able to reuse the same sand dunes and palm trees for the majority of the game.


Big Run is a racing game, of course. A very arcade-y racing game at that, with a sense of depth generated by sprite-scaling techniques a la Sega’s OutRun and some very tight time-limits to beat. The game also measures what position you’re in amongst the other racers, but you can ignore that. The only thing you need to worry about is beating the checkpoint time. In fact, you can be in first place and still be disqualified for running out of time. Presumably this means all the other racers are disqualified too, and this year’s Paris-Dakar Rally comes to an abrupt stop somewhere near the Tunisia-Libya border.
The controls are exactly what you’d expect for this kind of arcade racer. A steering wheel for turning, accelerate and brake buttons, and a gear shift for switching between low and high gear - again, much like OutRun. Man, I wish I was playing OutRun. Oh, and Big Run also has a button for honking your horn. It does nothing besides making a noise but it makes you feel a bit better to honk at the other racers, just like a real car horn.


I was making decent progress in the early going, until there was a sudden ninety-degree turn on the course and I slammed right into this huge billboard of a bikini-clad Marilyn Monroe type. I say billboard, but Monroe’s expression changes from serenity to surprise when you crash into her so maybe she’s actually the 50 Foot Woman on a relaxing desert holiday. Jaleco seem to be very proud of this particular billboard, because it crops up throughout the rest of the game – and I’m convinced they placed the first one on the outside of this tight corner because they knew most first-time players would hit it and thus see it in action.


Aside from the huge sentient advertisements, the rest of the first stage plays out just as you’d expect from an arcade racer of this vintage. You barrel through the sandy locales, trying your best not to get caught in the pack of CPU cars while also avoiding the more interesting hazards. Here, for example, you have to race along a raised section of the track and it’s fully possible to fall off the side, costing you vital seconds. In fact, if you fall off the side you might as well give up there and then because Big Run’s time limits are very strict. Any time I play an arcade racing game of this type I always turn the difficulty down because I have enough confidence on my own self-worth that I don’t need to seek validation by beating a coin-guzzling arcade game on its default settings, but even on easy one major crash can spell the end of a Big Run, erm, run.


After a couple of attempts I made it over the finish line, mostly thanks to a potentially disastrous spin-out being averted when a CPU car rammed me from behind and immediately accelerated me to top speed. Big Run has discrete stages rather than one long course dotted with checkpoints, and here you can see the finish line of stage one. The Colossal Marilyn returns to survey the scene, but I’m more interested in the woman on the right. That’s the girlfriend from OutRun! She’s wearing the same outfit and everything. I guess she just really loves racing. C’mon Sega, give her a spin-of game of her own! Or at least get her in Smash Brothers.


That’s the general flow of Big Run, then. Racing through the desert, crashing into things, admiring the scenery. Look, there’s some camels! And sand! Lots of sand in this one, folks. I dare say there won’t be another videogame with this level of sand content until I get around to creating Professional Sandcastle Builder 2019 and releasing it on Steam. Hey, if all these farming sims can sell thousands of copies I think I can make it work.
In the screenshot above you can just about see that there’s a choice of routes to take through the stage. It’s not like OutRun where each path leads to a completely different stage and most of the time which route you take is determined solely by which direction the computer-controlled cars are shoving you towards, but it’s nice to have a bit of choice.


Ah yes, the CPU cars. Here we come to one of Big Run’s deepest flaws, and that’s too much traffic. There are almost always cars nearby and frequently, as in the screenshot above, they’re positioned in such a way that they cover the entire road ahead of you despite having the whole goddamn desert to drive in. It makes it very difficult to build up any sense of speed – and consequently fun – when you’re constantly having to nose your way through a congealed blob of your fellow racers. In other racing games of this type, the issue of traffic is alleviated by having wider roads and a nimble, precisely-controlled vehicle, but neither of those things apply to Big Run. As a result, the other cars aren’t a challenging obstacle to avoid, they’re just a pain in the arse.


Honestly, just look at this bullshit. Guys, the Sahara Desert is over three and a half million square miles in size, so why are you all right up my arsehole?!


Sadly, even when the traffic is flowing a bit more freely Big Run still isn’t all that much fun to play. It never feels fast, for one thing, and I’m sad to report it doesn’t handle very well, either. A lot of the time it’s merely okay, but your car does feel sluggish and tight corners can be a proper nightmare because your car has a tendency to turn slowly for a while and then suddenly “snap” to a point past the angle you’re aiming for, making it difficult to perform anything but the shallowest turns smoothly. It reminds me a lot of Jaleco’s other arcade racer Cisco Heat; I assume both games run on the same engine. Sadly Big Run lacks Cisco Heat’s engaging visual madness. As we’ve established, it’s mostly sand.


It’s nicely drawn sand, at least, and the visuals are a strong point in Big Run’s favour. It looks better in motion than it does in still pictures – especially now that recent versions of MAME can run the game more accurately than ever – and I particularly like the way the sand dunes are drawn and shaded. They look really solid. Or perhaps I get that feeling of solidity because I couldn’t stop crashing into the bloody things.


As Big Run moves into its latter stages and you race through Niger and past Timbuktu, the scenery gains a bit more greenery and even the occasional water hazard - and the hint of a good game glitters below the dusty surface. That might just be down to me wanting Big Run to be fun, though. I really like this style of arcade racer, and I can usually trust Jaleco to come up with something that’s a solid six-out-of-ten at least… but Big Run doesn’t quite make the cut. I’ve certainly played worse racing games from the time, and Big Run does offer something different from the usual street or circuit races of its competitors, but the punishing time limits, the twitchy, unsatisfying controls and the vast swarms of roaming cars completely unconcerned by the safety of themselves and others make Big Run something of a chore to play. By the time I’d reached Mali, every minor collision or contact with the undergrowth was making my grind my teeth in a way that would horrifying my dentist.


I did find myself negotiating some of the most convoluted sections of track while leaving my car in low gear, something that’d you’d never really do in any of Big Run’s peers – but it worked well enough that I wonder whether it was the intended way to traverse the trickier roadways. There’s almost an interesting idea in there, the concept of selecting the right gear for the situation, and because it’s an interesting idea that means it almost certainly wasn’t intentional.


Eventually I reached the final stage. The game calls it the “victory run” in the bottom corner, which strikes me as rather presumptuous. They must not have seen me barely scraping through all the other stages in fourth place. The only victory here is the victory over common sense that playing all the way through a game I'm not enjoying represents.


In the end I did achieve victory, and the ending sequence begins with your car driving slowly past all the people who have made this trans-African rally possible: your pit crew, the girlfriend from OutRun and her many identical sisters, the living billboards of iconic actresses, the scores of locals who have every right to be pissed off that I showed up in their countries, drove like a like an absolute lunatic through their cities and repeatedly crashed my car into their houses before receiving a prize and pissing off home. Frankly, I should be in prison.


Then our driver ascends the podium, accompanied by a woman who is at least eighty percent leg. No wonder she’s wearing a leotard. Imagine how hard it’d be to find trousers with a twenty-inch waist and thirty-four inch legs.


Jaleco Rally: Big Run is a mediocre game and therefore fits nicely into Jaleco’s catalogue, but sadly there are degrees of mediocrity and this one falls on the low end of that scale. It’s not totally awful or anything; the graphics are nice, the soundtrack’s okay and on the simpler, less busy sections of the course it’s a perfectly acceptable racing game. However, it commits the sin of being a racing game that never lets you really get going. There’s very little sense of speed or flow when you’re constantly being boxed in by other drivers and struggling to take corners without suddenly lurching off in a new and unexpected direction, and with that in mind it’s not a game I can recommend. Perhaps the SNES port is better, but I haven't played that one and the arcade original isn't exactly encouraging me to check it out. I’ll be sticking to OutRun, but then of course I will. Hell, I might even mix it up a bit by playing some Super Hang-On. I’m a man of simple tastes, after all.

Oh, and while I’ve got you, here’s my roughly annual reminder that if for some reason you enjoy VGJunk you can always donate a couple of quid to the cause, if you like. I’ve got a new job coming up but it doesn’t start for a while, so hopefully this’ll be the last time I ever bring it up. Thanks for reading, as always.

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