What do jet bikes, full-body bunny costumes, pinball and mild eye strain all have in common? If it wasn't for the eye strain I would have accepted "things entombed alongside Michael Jackson" as an answer, but the true solution is the subject of today's article - Imagineer's 1994 Super Famicom title Battle Cross!
Sadly, the Battle Cross in question is not, as I had hoped, an enormous tank in the shape of a crucifix that would crush the enemies of our Lord and Saviour. No, the name comes from battling and, presumably, motocross. Battle Cross is a racing game!
A racing game where bobble-headed mannequins scowl furiously on the starting line, their eyes scrunched so tightly closed that they have no hope of seeing where they're going!
Also, these people. A baby who is surreptitiously giving the audience the middle finger, an anime girl, a middle-aged fellow with the hairstyle of a far younger man and some guy. He's trying to scowl, bless him, but he can't quite muster the same facial contortions as the people from the last picture. I'm sure we'll get to know them all very well.
Battle Cross was a Japan-only release, and as such it all looks terribly confusing at first but is really simple enough. There are three game modes: the single-player Grand Prix, the multiplayer battle mode and a strange amalgamation of racing and Pac-Man, plus the options. I'll get to the other modes in time, but let's start with the Grand Prix.
Firstly, you'll have to select your character. You can play as any of the four weirdoes from the intro, and they each have their own reason for wanting to win the 10,000,000G grand prize. Hang on, G? I have no idea why the prize money for this race is being offered in Haitian Gourdes, but for comparison's sake at the time of writing 100,000,000 Haitian Gourdes were worth £1,474,411. That's not a sum to be sneezed at, and the money will allow these people to live out their dreams. Pictured above is the "average" guy's dream, which I think is to spend the money on building his own racetrack. The guy loves to race, what can I say? The other character's desires are rather more straightforward:
The kid wants to spend it all on food - and with delicacies such as "that meat-on-the-bone you find under bins in every side-scrolling beat-em-up" on offer, who can blame him? The girl wants a huge mansion so she can live out her fantasies of dressing as a Christmas ornament, safe from society's judgemental eyes, and the old man just wants to get laid. The desire for food, shelter and sex - it's the human condition in a nutshell.
There's also a man dressed as a rabbit who provides between-race commentary. Why? Who knows, but I did get a laugh out of his serious expression, one eyebrow cocked as he wonders how this young novice will fare in the competitive world of Battle Cross, or maybe he's wondering if he'll get his deposit back from the costume shop now that he's spilled beer down himself. He's pretty inscrutable.
And they're off! As you can see, Battle Cross is a single-screen racer in the tradition of games like Super Sprint and Super Off-Road, and all the action captured in this one viewpoint as you hurtle around a selection of (and I'm loathe to use this word, but I suppose it's the best one for the job) wacky courses. I'm smiling already, because Battle Cross features the kind of teeny-tiny yet detailed graphics that I always enjoy seeing, provided they're handled well which in this case, they are.
The goal is obvious - finish the race in first place. As far as I can tell, there are no differences between the racers so it's matter of skill, practise and, to a fairly large degree, how lucky you are when it comes to collecting power-ups. The jet-bike you're riding is nimble but slippery, and for the first few races you'll spend a lot of time bouncing off the walls and drifting wide around the corners, and it's all jolly good fun. The action is, in a word sometimes overused but often appropriate here at VGJunk, hectic. Bikes skid around the track at all angles, power-ups come and go in the blink of an eye and your fellow racers are a liability both to you and themselves. Like I said, it's all simple, straightforward fun.
With practise comes the ability to judge corners more accurately and avoid the on-track hazards: on the track pictured above you can see a pit that can be hopped over with a press of a shoulder button, and there's a cannon in the center of the track that fires explosives that'll stun any racer that collides with them. Power-ups, though, that's what Battle Cross is all about.
If you've ever played a racing game with an item-based intervehicle combat system before - Mario Kart being the obvious one - then most of the items will be familiar in function. You can collect speed boosts, both one-use nitros and upgrades to your top speed that last for the whole race. There are homing missiles that fire forwards, and extremely useful mines that you can lay behind you. Seriously, those mines are an absolute godsend if you're in first place and the competition is hot on your tail. Just make sure they're not too close, because if you drop a mine and it's instantly triggered then you'll be caught in the blast too, which will slow you down as well as being embarrassing. There's an item that works the same way as Mario Kart's star, making you invincible and increasing your top speed to the level of a steroid-abusing cheetah.
Probably the most evil of power-ups is the projectile that reverses your controls. If that thing hits you just as you're about to turn a corner, which given the miniature nature of these tracks is almost all the time, be prepare to end up facing the wrong way, the mocking laughter of the other racers ringing in your ears as you struggle to get your jet-bike facing forwards. When you're hit by a power-up with a negative effect, like reversing your controls or slowing you down, if you're lucky you can hit one of the first-aid-kit-carrying fairies that flutter around the track. They'll fix you up, and they don't even seem to mind being run down in the process.
However, it's the humble front-mounted guns that stand out most for me. Once you pick them up, you can fire bullets directly ahead of you whenever you like. Hit an opponent, slow them down. Great! But there's a catch - you've got all the ammunition you could ever need, but firing the guns slows you down slightly. If you fire and miss your target, they'll actually get further ahead. It's such a wonderfully simple idea, a risk-and-reward strategy that punishes reckless firing but not too harshly, that I can't believe it's not in more games.
After a few races the Grand Prix will be over, and if you managed to come first then you'll get a little scene where your chosen character endures an "ironic genie" type reward - in the girl's case, she finally has the mansion of her dreams but she spends all her time cleaning it. I think that's what's going on, at least - maybe she's actually a chambermaid and this whole thing was a retreat into fantasy, an escape from the grinding drudgery of her real life.
So, the gameplay is fun and the Grand Prix is a decent enough way to enjoy Battle Cross if you're a lonely hermit, but the multiplayer mode is where this game really shines.
This game has what all good multiplayer party games should have - the potential to enrage your fellow players, to set brother against brother, to tear apart even the firmest friendships as you shoot each other with the "Reverse Controls" item just before the finish line. Battle Cross is fair in the same way that a tornado is fair: there are things you can do to protect yourself, but in the end your fragile life is subject to its whims. Power-ups come and go capriciously, and unlike many other combat-racing games they aren't tied to your current position - you'll never get the Thunder item if you're occupying first place in Mario Kart, but here you could easily happen upon the super-boost item when you're way out in front, or anywhere in the pack, and because the tracks are so compact any weapon fired is likely to hit someone, even if it's not the intended target. This, I think, is part of what makes Battle Cross so much fun to play with others - players will frequently find themselves two laps behind the leader or so far out in front that victory should be a formality, but all it takes is one wayward missile or lucky item pick-up to swing the whole thing around. If you're playing the single-player mode this could have the potential to get irritating, but in the free-for-all of the multiplayer mode, where loud accusations of cheating and solemn vows of revenge are all part of the fun, it's a very enjoyable mix.
As I mentioned before, there is one other game mode that works as a cross between racing and Pac-Man. You select a track, then spend ten laps trying to both get the best time and collect as many dots as possible. There are also blue slimes, straight out of an 8-bit RPG, pottering around the course and you can shoot those for extra points. It's easily the weakest of the three game modes, lacking as it does the madcap frenzy of having other racers to contend with, but it does at least feature more of the rabbit man.
The results are in, and the rabbit man's mood is "sultry." I have no idea whether this is a good result, a bad result or merely an indifferent one - the rabbit man's expression gives nothing away. I told you he was inscrutable.
That's the gameplay, then, and it's definitely enjoyable if not particularly innovative. The thing that moves Battle Cross up a degree or two in my estimation, to the point where I'd actively recommend it to others, is the presentation. I've already mentioned that I love this style of miniature-yet-detailed graphics, but there's something more to it than that, a sense of fun that permeates every screen of the game. Why make selecting options as dull as choosing a number from a list when you can have little animations instead?
My favourite example of this is selecting the CPU difficulty in multiplayer: rather than just being labelled "easy" or "hard" or what have you, there's a little animation of a racer who gets more confident as you turn the difficulty up, from having a bowed head and meekly wringing his hands to full-on cocky bastard pose with raised index finger. At least, I hope that's his index finger.
Then there are the tracks themselves, each one a self-contained scene full of notable features, both things that affect the race like the bumpers and pinball flippers on the circus track pictured above, as well as superfluous but pleasing details like the fact that the boxes showing each racer's position as displayed as the coaches of a train...
...or the Alpine vista from the mountain circuit, complete with a wolf howling on a clifftop...
...or the scene from the beach track depicting some kind of Godzilla-style monster emerging from the sea, ready to play havoc with that poor woman's sunbathing routine. I feel a little like I'm breaking some videogame code here by not accepting that gameplay is the be all and end all of a good game, but then I realise that's a ridiculous position to hold because, (as Battle Cross makes abundantly clear,) vibrant, interesting graphics can elevate a game beyond what it would have been had it looked like the inside of a leper's sock. In short, I really like the graphics and, for me anyway, they add a lot to the game.
If you're looking for a 16-bit racing game where the emphasis is on skillful driving rather than slowing down your opponents with a constant stream of landmines you should probably look elsewhere, but if you're after a fun, simple party racer with a multiplayer mode that could well lead to divorce, fistfights and wild speculation about the parentage of your fellow competitors, then Battle Cross is a good bet. Its biggest flaw is that because the graphics are so small, it can be easy to lose sight of your character in the confusion, but once you learn to keep an eye on them at all times it becomes less of a problem. It won't blow your mind, and it's not as good as Mario Kart or Bomberman despite feeling like a fusion of the two, but give Battle Cross a chance and let that mysterious rabbit man into your heart.