In the beloved children's classic The Wind in the Willows, Ratty famously suggests that there is nothing half so much worth doing as simply messing about in boats. He's a liar, of course - he's not even a rat, for starters - but while his estimation of the pleasure of boating may be somewhat exaggerated it is something I've never investigated here at VGJunk and as I am dedicated to exploring the full gamut of possible human experiences (in retro videogame form, at least) then I shall hit the waterways with today's game. It's Sculptured Software's 1991 NES not-quite-as-interesting-as-racing-on-land-em-up Eliminator Boat Duel!
Nobody ever gets eliminated, really. Let's get that out of the way right now, let it be known that alligator will be going hungry today. But there are definitely boats. Well, there are only two boats: yours and your opponents. That's presumably why this is described as a "boat duel," because there is definitely no fencing or standing on opposite prows and shooting at eachother with flintlock pistols.
Eliminator Boat Duel doesn't waste any time getting down to business. Once you've selected your mode, either one of the single-player dificulty levels or the two-player mode, then you're thrown straight into a confrontation with this guy.
Aquarius Rex, your first opponent. He's a hippy, and not, as his name may suggest, a species of as-yet undiscovered undersea dinosaur. You can tell he's a hippy because he says things like "groovy guru vibes" and "Jupiter is aligned with Mars" and "my vessel and I are now an unstoppable fusion of man and machine." Wait, that last one hardly sounds in the best tree-hugging-Mother-Gaia traditions of hippydom, but integrating your boat into your physical flesh-body is surely going to be more effective than chanting some mantras and listening to Jefferson Airplane.
This is the first course. I'll be racing past alligators, a swarm of what are either buoys or green-headed flamingoes, and a mermaid with no head at all, just a wild mane of hair that grows directly from her neck.
Races start, as seems reasonable, on the starting line. Two boats that rather put me in mind of Monopoly houses bob patiently in place, waiting for the bikini girl to drop the flag and send us on our way. I'm the red boat. This is good, because as we all know red ones go faster.
So fast, in fact, that I shot my proverbial bolt far too early and was fined two thousand bucks for a false start. I blame the system that lets the race be started by some girl with a flag. That's much too imprecise for such a keenly-honed mind as mine, I need the mechanical certainty of a countdown or a fat guy in denim overalls sounding an air horn.
Second time around I managed to keep my powder dry, only accelerating when the flag girl's animation was well and truly complete. My reward was a sudden and shocking change of perspective.
Now it's a top-down racer, which was what I was expecting when I came into this game knowing nothing but the title. This is all very obvious: you hold down the accelerator, or whatever speedboats having instead of accelerator pedals... it's some kind of throttle, right? Whatever it is, lock it open and steer through the course as best you can, trying to overtake the other racer while avoiding damage to your own boat.
It's boat racing! From a top-down perspective! Wait, I already said that. Well, that's what this is and there's not much else to it, really. You can collect and use nitros to give you an extra burst of speed, although as ever the nitros seem to do little but send my boat pointy-end first into the nearest solid object.
Upon seeing the above screenshot, many people of around my age will have found their thoughts drawn straight to one particular racing franchise - Codemasters' Micro Machines.
That's the NES version of Micro Machines pictured above and yes, they are very similar. The major differences so far are that Eliminator Boat Duel only features powerboats and not the range of different vehicles found in Codemasters' title, and the races in EBD don't take place in a bubble bath. Both games were released in 1991, so the odds of this being a shallow rip-off of Micro Machines are slim, but if you need a game to compare EBD to then Micro Machines would be the one.
Until you reach the end of the swamp, that is - then the game decides that two different racing perspectives simply aren't enough and the camera switches to a behind-the-boat view. Well, I can't fault the desire of the developers to give a varied gameplay experience.
Although, it's not that varied. You're still in a boat, it's just that you only have to move from side-to-side now. There are pairs of buoys lining the route, and while it's not mandatory that you sail between them it is highly recommended. Power-ups like the nitros and cash bonuses only appear between the buoys, for one thing, but more importantly trying to go on the outside usually means you'll spend the whole time crashing into the poles over and over again, losing all your accumulated speed, wrecking your boat and allowing your rival to cruise ahead. So, uh, don't do that.
I managed to win my first race through repeated and over-zealous use of my nitros, burning enough chemicals in the final stretch of the race to exterminate every living creature in the swamp, which frankly is doing a great service to anyone else who'd like to race here because I hit a lot of alligators on the way to the finish line.
My ecological carnage is justified by the look on that angry hippy's face, though, and it seems that my character agrees - he's completely ignoring the blonde in the bikini in favour of crowing about his victory. That trophy seems a bit extravagant, too. I've only won one race, and there are a lot more to go before I can claim the title of... top boat racer? Heavyweight Speedboat Champion of the World? Poseidon, Lord of the Oceans? It doesn't matter to me; I'm just in it for the cold, hard cash.
Money that you need to repair and upgrade your boat between races. This is hardly surprising, because it feels like this era in the evolution of videogames was when developers really embraced the idea of customization, of improving yourself through the spending of dollars or yen or astro-credits rather than simple power-ups, a concept which has parallels with the RPG elements that were being incorporated into many adventure games of the time like Castlevania II or The Adventure of Link. What this boiled down to for most racing games of the time was simple - earn money, spend it doing up your car. Or boat, in this case.
There are a few options you can go for, the one you'll be using most frequently being the "please repair my boat because I drive like a blind cave salamander with spatial awareness issues." It's cheap, which is handy, and you'll want to keep your boat in top condition at all times because the more damaged it is, the slower it is. Other possible upgrades are what you'd expect - a more powerful engine, stronger hull, quicker acceleration - and they're much more expensive but they are permanent, unless you really manage to smash your boat up.
Once you've souped up your boat as thoroughly as you can afford, you head back out onto the water for another race... and that's just about the entire Eliminator Boat Duel experience. Once you've beaten the same opponent three times the next challenger will arrive, and so on until you've either beaten them all, realised that EBD isn't for you and started playing something else or been overcome by seasickness. Do you want to see the next challenger? Of course you do, she's a real charmer.
Possible responses to Vicious Vicky's questions include "I was looking at your hair, although I regret doing so now" and "yes, but never a lady with a mouth so vast and gaping that you could slot a breezeblock into it sideways and still have room to spare."
Would it shock you to learn that Vicky is a slightly tougher opponent than Aquarius Rex, and that the competitor following Vicky is slightly tougher still? I hope not, otherwise I fear this videogame-based discussion is going to fly way over your head.
When I started playing Eliminator Boat Duel, I was expecting a simple 8-bit racing title, probably with some boat-upgrading mechanic bolted on, and that the word "duel" being in the title would allow me to make joke about old-timey duellists. That's exactly what I got, but I wasn't expecting it to be so... what's a step up from "competent," but not quite at the level of "impressive"? I suppose it's "good." Yeah, I was not expecting EBD to be this good.
On the basic gameplay level, it ticks all the boxes for a jolly little racing title with no pretensions towards simulation or realism - at least I hope it's not supposed to be realistic, because if it is the developers have been severely misinformed about how easy it is to use an alligator as a ramp. The controls are spot-on, with a nice amount of "give" to them so that you don't just feel like you're racing on land. Particularly impressive is the way the steering upgrades are handled: it's a very subtle improvement each time you upgrade it, but if you've been using the souped-up version for a while and then have to return to the entry-level steering you'll wonder how you ever coped with it in the first place.
The difficulty curve is as smooth and unobtrusive as you like, and best of all there's almost none of the kind of cheating AI behaviour that plagues many games of this vintage. You can actually win by outracing people, and there can even be some strategy involved, although that's partly down to one of the game's big flaws and I'll discuss that in a while.
If the gameplay is better than expected, the presentation is perhaps not quite up to the same standard. It's not terrible, I suppose: the music is too bland to summon any emotional response unless "aural ennui" is an emotion, and the graphics are serviceable, occasionally dipping down to "grotesque" whenever a new challenger is introduced. I mean, just look at this guy.
This is Surfer Bob, and he looks like the product of a miraculous conception between Bill Pullman and Guile from Street Fighter. The genetic impossibility of this union is probably what accounts for his head being made from a giant yam.
While the graphics behind them are solid rather than extraordinary, Eliminator Boat Duel also managed to win over a tiny pocket of my black, shrivelled heart with a few little touches and superfluous flourishes that give the game a bit of much-needed personality. Things like giving each racer a unique portrait for when they've lost a race, that's a nice detail.
Not a nice picture, of course. Surfer Bob looks more grotesque than ever, like he just performed facial transplant surgery on himself using a pizza cutter, but Sculptured Software could have very easily not bothered. Although, while we're on the subject of presentation and surfers, my main disappointment with this game is that they didn't make a NES version of this to serve as Bob's theme music.
There's even some crowd interaction. If the result of the race is too close to call, the spectators - a crowd who are made up entirely of women found in Hugh Hefner's rolodex - demand a slow-motion replay.
Who could argue with a demand like that? Certainly not the race organisers; their hearts were moved by seeing the confused swimsuit models filled with a desperate need to know who won the speedboat race, and so a slo-mo replay is quickly made available.
It's pretty cool, I've got to say. Well, it's cool when you win - seeing your boat lose by millimetres in agonising super-slow-motion isn't much fun, although in my case it did seem to strengthen my resolve to spend the next race trying to ram my opponent's vehicle into dust.
The girls also get very excited if the start of the race is particularly close, jumping around with the kind of carefree abandon that only young women in revealing swimming costumes can. They're the the most naturally happy kind of people! I'll warn you, though - don't go to a real-life speedboat race and expect the crowd to look like this. In fact, don't ever expect anyone to look like this. Identical quintuplets are extremely rare.
It simply feels like Eliminator Boat Duel had more care expended upon it than many other games that would be placed in the same genre. These touches aren't vital to the game, and if they weren't there at all you wouldn't stop to wonder why there are no slo-mo replays or tiny-yet-detailed trackside obstacles like exploding oil drums or, um, drowning people that you can run over with your boat for no apparent gain. No gain for either of us, really. Makes you wonder why I kept purposefully crashing into their helpless, soggy bodies.
Speaking of helpless bodies, let's meet the other racers that you'll be facing if you decide to battle for the... did we decide what the title we're aiming for is yet? No? Okay, we'll go with Boat Race Fastest Guy. Who's up after Surfer Bob, then?
It's Weird Willy, so named because his head is shaped like a weird, y'know, Chia pet. He mentions a flux capacitor! And lima beans! Oh, he's a wacky sort, this one. He's worried about the men in white in white coats finding him, but if I was Weird Willy I'd be more concerned that my head looks like it's perpetually being viewed in a funhouse mirror.
This is Mangler Mike - name of a wrestler, head of a plumber. A head shaped like a Tragedy mask designed to look like an Italian-American stereotype. A head whose eyebrows, mustache and eyes seem to have become interchangeable strips of coarse black hair. Mike, you're much weirder than Willy and far more likely to overcharge me for a simple plumbing job.
Veronica Alabaster is next, and her dialogue reads like the developers were going to make her talk only in sexual innuedo but, ah ha ha, pulled out at the last moment. She's called Alabaster because that's what her bouffant hairstyle is carved from, but I'll give her a break because she's much nicer than the other competitors, congratulating you on your victories and letting you know that you're ready to face the champ.
Disaster Don is the current ruler of the powerboat world. "Disaster" is an ironic nickname, you see. Don is what you'd get if the Fonz drank Dr. Jekyll's potion and started making his own sunglasses from discarded shards of plastic he finds in the dump. Don's tough-guy persona is just a facade which he hides behind due to his bizarrely-shaped mouth. Go on, take a look at the alignment of his lips, chin and teeth and try to figure out what he must look like when he's eating spaghetti. My guess? Like a mop covered in tomato sauce being forced into a paper shredder.
The final set of races are a long, gruelling challenge that require a high level of skill and a great fat dollop of luck to beat... or at least they would if it wasn't for the way the races are structured. You see, each races is split into several section, the change from section to section generally being marked by the changing of the viewpoint. The row of dashes in the HUD show what section you're currently on - the curved bar in the screenshot above means I'm in part three. When you start a new section, you start with a lead based on how well you did in the previous area. A slight lead. No matter where you finished in the last section, you always start near your opponent.
This means that there's no point trying to get into the lead until the final section, so you're best off taking the rest of the race slowly and carefully, trying to keep your opponent in sight (not a difficult task) while collecting as many nitros and cash prizes as you can. Once you've got plenty of nitros, you can even bait the computer into using all theirs up before the end of the race: if you use a turbo, particularly during the behind-the-boat sections, the computer will almost always immediately use one of their own to catch up. If you have more nitros than they do, you can get the computer to waste all its speed-boosts and just blitz past them at the finishing line.
Yes, you should consider retirement. I know I am, I finished the final race with hundreds of thousands of dollars in the bank and I reckon I can get a couple more grand if I melt down all those massive trophies I won.
The real reward for winning the championship is receiving the plaudits from your defeated rivals, and all the other characters come out with a few words in support for your boat racing skills. Weird Willy says something about turtle fins, because he's the wacky one. Vicious Vicky tries to flirt with you, badly. Surfer Bob - who makes me think of Killer BOB from Twin Peaks more each time I write his name - and Mangler Mike do the whole "you can say that again, oh wait you actually said the same thing again" gag and it's so grimly unfunny that I can't help but smile.
Finally, the sun sets on your racing career as you enjoy a romantic sunset voyage in the company of Veronica Alabaster. Her dress may bring to mind a joke about motorboating but hush, let's not spoil this beautiful moment.
Eliminator Boat Duel: well, this one came out of nowhere. I judged the metaphorical book by its cover and was slapped for my insolence, but it was a playful slap with a sense of fun behind it. This is a fun game! A fun game where boats race, so if you like games where things race then this is a good example of an 8-bit one of those. The different viewpoints could have been gimmicky and confusing but instead they help to break up what could otherwise have been a somewhat tedious set of races.
It's not quite some overlooked masterpiece lurking in the dark corners of the NES' back catalogue, and it does have flaws - the lack of motivation to win each section of the race, for one, and while the music and graphics aren't terrible they're certainly nothing special, either - but on the whole Eliminator Boat Duel is worth a go. Still, there's nothing more pleasurable than messing around in boats? Really? You've lived a shallow life, Ratty.