There are rail shooters, there are rail shooters, and then there's this: the most raily-est game ever to force you down a preset path while enemies pop up only to be shot moments later. It's Sega's 1991 arcade title Rail Chase!
Okay, so the title screen isn't very promising. Not much of the classic Sega charm of the eighties and early nineties on display, just rusty, riveted metal and a headachy red background. Maybe this is going to be like a cutesy version of Silent Hill (just a heads up: it really, really isn't.)
In Rail Chase you're playing the role of the chasee and not the chaser, so who are you running away from and why do they want you dead?
An evil syndicate - I'm assuming they're a crime syndicate, but they could just be a bunch of vicious bastards who play the lottery together - have removed the sacred treasure of Guaramure, and it's your job to return it to the villagers through the twin powers of mine carts and guns. Of course, the idol doesn't start in the mine cart: no, it's sitting on a plinth just waiting to be picked up by anyone who wanders in.
Take on meeee...
Take me onnnnn...
I’ll be gone, in a mine cart sooooooon!
And so the floor collapses and the idol, plus our hapless heroes, falls into a conveniently-placed mine cart. Sadly that's the last we'll see of the A-Ha pencil effect, which is a shame because it's Rail Chase's best feature and a game completely in that style would have been much nicer to look at than what we actually get.
Before we leave the intro behind, I have to mention the voice acting. It's brief but no less impressive in its power and clarity for that, and it's also proof that the voice acting in House of the Dead 2 was no fluke.
Mary gets her wish and soon enough you are getting out of there, riding in the comfort and style that only comes with rail travel.
It's a pity everyone wants you dead, really. I wasn't kidding when I said that this is the most rail shootery of any game I've ever played - the only gameplay mechanic is to move your cursor over... well, pretty much everything, and hold down the fire button until it's not there any more. In fact, there's no reason to ever let go of the fire button, so you might as well bring some duct tape to hold it down and give your thumb a rest.
Really, that's all there is to it, aside from shooting the occasional first aid kit that somehow doesn't patch up your wounds but rather repairs your trusty mine cart. It's so basic in its approach that you start to wonder how it even got made as late as 1991 - I mean, compare it to Mechanized Attack. That was a game hardly overflowing with innovation, but at least it had a few power-ups and the grenade special attack. Rail Chase has none of that. It's just move the cursor, press the button, repeat until either you run out of credits or you run out of game. It's the Mario Paint fly-swatter game but with more forgettable music. So why am I even writing about it? Well, it is still a Sega game created at the height of their powers and therefore deserves to be remembered, but it's mostly because even a game this tepid still has a few things to amuse me. Take, for example, the first stage's boss(es).
A trio of WCW wrestlers in hockey masks who chase you in an armoured mine cat. That's just a fun thing to see, and it's equally fun to ponder just who the hell they are. Are they employed by the syndicate? Did they get lost on their way to a Friday the 13th convention? Why does there need to be three of them crammed into their tiny little cart? Actually, that last one's easy - it's one guy to light the endless supply of dynamite they chuck at you, one guy to throw the dynamite and another guy to operate the bullet-proof shield attached to the front of the cart, because apparently this kind of thing happens to the syndicate often enough that they have special combat-model mine carts.
The boss actually follows you throughout the entire stage, and every so often you'll have to turn around and shoot them a few times - you can see the little graphic at the top of the screen which shows how far away they are. Mostly, however, you'll be killing hundred of men wearing turbans: some with guns, some with swords and a large number of particularly stupid ones who have decided that the best place to take cover is behind the many boxes of dynamite that line your route. Rail Chase is obviously heavily inspired by Indiana Jones, (just wait until you get chased by a rolling boulder,) although you're actually some kind of Bizarro-Indy who's returning a priceless artefact to its rightful owners instead of keeping if for yourself / out of the hands of Nazis.
After a while the boss will suddenly become vulnerably to bullets and you can shoot him / them to death. If you die they catch up to you and bonk you on the head with a mallet which, along with the physics-defying mine carts and the copious amounts of dynamite they throw at you, puts these guys firmly into the Looney Tunes school of physical violence.
Once the boss is defeated you can roll into stage two... but which stage two will it be? Sega at least tried to shore up Rail Chase's extremely meagre level of content by including some branching routes through the game, although because of the way they branch it's possibly to see every stage after two playthroughs and completing two playthroughs of Rail Chase only takes about thirty minutes.
Stage branching is decided by junctions in the previous stage, with signals that you can shoot to change the directions of the rails. There are quite a lot of these signal points but mostly they just offer a slightly different route through the stage, usually a very clear-cut choice between an Elysian paradise filled with health kits or a route that's nothing but barricades. One switch, however, decides where you'll be heading for stage two.
One route takes you through a grimy industrial city. There are hundreds of flamethrowers pointing directly across the track, attached to hinges that rotate the flamethrowers to an upright position when you shoot them, and a sensible person can ask only one question of this: why? Why has your mine cart system, presumably used 99.99% of the time for the transport of minerals or waste materials, been constructed as a hellish gauntlet of searing flame? Are your workers really that unruly that the only thing that can keep them in check is a regular blast of fire? No wonder they're all so eager to stand next to the large boxes of explosives.
The other route takes you through a mountain pass, into a cavern and through some ancient ruins. It's pretty dull.
Oh, and I wasn't kidding about getting chased by a giant rolling boulder. This (let's be generous and say) "homage" to Indiana Jones neatly covers one of my major gripes with Rail Chase, and that's that you can't avoid taking damage, at least if you're not playing two player. There's simply too much on the screen that needs shooting, and no matter how fast you move the cursor you can't possibly destroy everything in time. The boulder, for example, cannot be destroyed before it damages you - I knew it was coming, I placed the crosshairs over it and held down fire for the entire time it was on the screen and it still hit me a couple of times before crumbling into pebbles. I know this game is meant to be played by two people, and I don't mind taking the punishment if it's just because I'm not that good at the game, but situations where you can't avoid taking damage really aggravate me.
The rest of the game is more of the same, your mine cart hurtling through areas familiar from any Indy-inspired adventure - underground temples, the jungle, floating down rivers only to go over a waterfall. You know, the usual. It all moves by a fair old pace, and I've got to give Sega credit for imbuing the game with a good sense of movement: the familiar Super-Scaler style works well here, particularly when you're banking around corners at wild angles.
So, erm, anything else of interest? Well, I quite like stage three's boss. It's a strange blocky thing equipped with two catapults that I at first thought were launching coconuts at me, although I'm sure they're actually supposed to be rocks. After facing enemies armed with guns, dynamite, flamethrowers and hammers this catapult machine didn't seem too threatening - almost laughable - until it caught up with me. Then it opened up and an angry woman straight-up executed me with a pistol.
Look at the faint, chilling smile on her lips after she's done the deed. This lady really enjoys her work. They probably gave her the catapult machine because otherwise her hunts are over far too quickly and she loves the chase.
You also spend a fair amount of time off the tracks. Here's a challenge for any engineers out there - play through Rail Chase, (don't worry, it doesn't take long,) check out the off-road section here and try to calculate how much momentum the cart would have needed to build up in order to get it to speed through this rail-less jungle. I'm guessing it would have needed to have been dropped from orbit.
Floating along the river might be marginally more feasible, becauses at least there's a current to push you along. I like that the enemies riding the jet-ski things took the time to put on their life jackets; that's a level of regard for personal safety rarely displayed by cannon-fodder troops in a shooting game.
This guy is the final boss. I presume he's the head of the Hearn Syndicate. I certainly hope he is, because he's dressed like an evil wizard from a fantasy game and you can only pull that off if you're the boss. Just like every other boss in the game, he chases you in his souped-up mine cart instead of using, I don't know, a helicopter of something, or waiting at the end of this section of track with all his troops lined up like a firing squad. Mind you, judging by his get-up he's not one to let function get in the way of form and hell, when is he going to get another chance to use the mine cart he's had converted into a rolling death machine complete with missile launchers and bullet-proof armour? Those things have no resale value, so he better get some use out of it now.
He has to take matters into his own hands, because his troops are so dreadfully incompetent. That's not the best place to be flying a biplane, now is it? The Super Scaler tech not really living up to its name there, because those guys are either ten feet tall or that plane is tiny, but at least it can fly through trees with no apparent damage.
Eventually the bad guy explodes, as all good bad guys should, and you can safely return the treasured idol to the village of Guaramure.
This is easy enough to do, because the mine cart track conveniently runs right into the village square and then stops. I might have killed the head of the syndicate but there were an awful lot of bad guys that got away, and I don't think there's going to be much stopping them from rolling down the tracks into Guaramure and taking the idol again. Oh well, that's not my problem, so I'll just sit back and enjoy the ending. Oh wait, this is the ending. A few happy townspeople milling about and a creepy old man whose face is so blocky that it's almost indecipherable invading your personal space.
"Heh heh heh..."And that's Rail Chase, a complete non-event of a game that's only really worth mentioning because it was released during what I'd call Sega's golden era. Is it a bad game? Well, I'm not sure I'd go that far but it feels like a sloppy game. There's no focus to it, no rhythm, no finesse - you just barrel forwards while enemies appear without rhyme or reason. The graphics are okay if lacking in imagination, the music is utterly forgettable and the whole thing just feels lazy and rushed.The whole thing feels like a pallid, mutant clone of a Sega arcade title that didn't quite come out right.
I'd imagine the experience is improved by playing Rail Chase on the original arcade hardware but even that seems hampered by the fact that you use a basic joystick instead of a gun-shaped controller.
Sega obviously saw something in Rail Chase that I'm missing, because they went on to not only make a sequel but also a rollercoaster based on the game for use in Sega's own Joypolis arcade / theme park chain. Hopefully it didn't frequently lurch off the rails like in the actual game.