It feels like it’s been a while since I covered a really arcade-y arcade game. I’m still not sure exactly what I mean by arcade-y, but I know it when I see it and I’ve seen it in Capcom’s 1988 top-down racer LED Storm: Rally 2011. So, let’s take a look at it, then, and enjoy the predictions that Capcom made about road conditions in the distant future / recent past of 2011.

I am at a loss to explain what “LED” means in this context. I thought maybe it was a corruption of “lead,” intended to conjure up images of heavy metal and, erm, leaded petrol, but that doesn’t feel right. Some of the artwork and advertisements for the game’s home computer versions claim it stands for “Lazer Enhanced Destruction,” but that explanation wilts in light of the game’s complete lack of lazers (or even lasers.) I suspect it was chosen simply to sound cool, much like how “vanishing” apparently became associated with fast cars in Japanese media.

As for the plot, two chaps challenge one another to a cross country race. The winner presumably receives the large pile of cash, although no prize is ever explicitly mentioned so maybe they’re a couple who just won the lottery and decided to embark on a futuristic cyber-race as a means of spending their new-found wealth. Hopefully this attempt to keep the ennui of the ultra-rich at bay will also keep their relationship alive and healthy.

Here’s the world map, showing the nine stages we’ll be racing through as we head from Capital to SkyCity.009. Oh, and your car talks to you because it’s the future. Looks like Capcom predicted SatNav with this game, although rather than a soothing female voice asking you to turn left in three hundred yards, you get a squawking robot constantly pestering you about energy. The voice identifies itself as “Mac.” Possibly. The voice sample’s a little muddy, so it could be Zack, but given that it says “MC” at the bottom of the screen I’m sticking with Mac.

And then you’re racing, blasting across the elevated highways of Capital City, bumping the other road users out of the way and – I hope – collecting every petrol can and energy pick-up along the way. You’re going to need them. You can see the rival blue car towards the bottom of the screen, although (perhaps surprisingly) you don’t actually need to beat your rival to the finish line. They’re mostly there to get in your way, often re-appearing towards the end of the stage to nudge you off the course. Probably not your romantic partner, then, what with you racing a couple of miles above the distant city below and all.

Being a highly advanced robo-car, you’ve got a couple of tricks up your wheel arches. The main one is jumping, which you can perform either with a button press or by hitting one of the ramps that litter the track for a much higher leap. The game’s attract mode calls them “jumping slopes,” but that’s an unnecessarily grandiose title to be applied to something that’s barely more technologically advanced that the bike ramps you’d build as a kid from the planks you nicked from a building site.
Jumping is an important skill to master in LED Storm. You can squash other cars by jumping on them, and there are frequent gaps in the tracks or patches of speed-reducing mud or gravel that must be hopped over. However, the most vital use of the jump is in collecting extra fuel, because most of the time energy pick-ups gently drift across the course while suspended from balloons. With all the complaints that increased regulations have made Formula 1 less interesting to watch, hopefulyl the pit lanes will be replaced by helium balloon in the near future. That ought to liven things up.

The jumping is so important that when a small squad of skinny golden mechanoids – distant relatives of Crow T. Robot, perhaps – jumps onto your car and hangs on for dear life, it is in your best interests to shake them off as quickly as possible by veering from side-to-side because you can’t jump while they’re on there. It’s a really nice touch, and right from the off LED Storm has a lot of charm in its futuristic cityscapes, sci-fi vehicles and cavorting, capering, spoiler-grabbing robots.

Oh, and you can transform your car into a motorcycle at the press of a button, complete with a really nice transformation animation situation. My personal high watermark for vehicular transformations is Inspector Gadget’s car, and LED Storm’s car-to-bike switch is approaching that level so I spent a lot of time switching back and forth when I might have been better served by trying not to crash.
However, there doesn’t seem to be much point to the transformation. Having played all the way through this game a couple of times with a roughly fifty/fifty split between car and bike, I could see almost zero differences between them. The car mode might be slightly more robust when it comes to collisions, but it’s a very subtle difference if a difference even exists at all. I had thought that the narrower sprite of the bike might make it better for squeezing through small gaps, but the hitbox of the car and bike seems to be the same size. The transformation aspect is kinda redundant, then, but that doesn’t stop it looking cool.

As you’d expect, the first stage is relatively straightforward, and after slaloming through a convoy of trucks, our plucky little car-bike rockets across the finish line of the first stage without running out of fuel. I managed to collect plenty of energy capsules along the way, which meant I never got low on fuel but it did have the drawback of Mac shouting “energy!” every time I fuelled up, his voice sample carrying the unmistakeable cadence of someone who’s starting to get frustrated about having to explain energy to someone who just doesn’t get it.

Mac likes to complain. He’s a whiner, a whinger, and his wheedling voice piping up with “you’re running out of energy!” will become an annoyingly common occurrence as the game continues.

The second stage is the Netwood Forest, presumably named for these large net-like trees that conveniently allow any passing cars on a cross-country race to be seen through their sparse foliage. This time, the creatures hanging from the car are hopping, rabbit-like creatures, so I felt a little bad about shaking them off my car at 250 kilometres an hour. In my defence, without being able to jump I would have run out of energy and thus had to hear more of Mac’s complaining, so I’m sure the rabbits will understand and accept my actions.

This stage is far more open than the first, lacking clear roads a lot of the time, and so you’re free to move around horizontally much more than before while enjoying the robotic wildlife and trying not to plough face-first into a tree. It’s fast-paced, constantly driving the player forward into a stream of colourful opponents and hazards that zip by with impressive smoothness. That said, the main thing that caught my attention in this stage was the music. Here, give stage two’s theme a listen and see if it reminds you of anything.

There’s a riff in there that sure sounds a lot like the Dr. Wily Castle theme from Mega Man 2, huh? As it turns out, LED Storm’s composer is none other than Takashi “Ogeretsukun” Tateishi, who also created the music for Mega Man 2 – and given the 1988 date on both games it seems likely he was working on both soundtracks at around the same time and a bit of cross-pollination set in. On the whole the soundtrack is quite good, with plenty of high-energy tracks, although some of them do feel like they belong in a different game – one that’s a traditional platformer or something rather than a futuristic racing game.

Heading back to actual (if dangerously under-maintained) roads for the Coral Sea stage, where the tranquil blue waters provide a stark contrast to the huge robot woodlice that sit right in the middle of the bloody road, requiring a lot of nimble manoeuvring to get past. Sadly, your vehicle doesn’t do nimble manoeuvring. Not well, at least. Often times, I found the vehicle’s hitbox would clip things behind you, obstacles I felt I’d completely avoided, which made for the occasional frustrating moment in what is otherwise a game that plays perfectly adequately.

I think there’s an explanation for some of the rough edges to be found in LED Storm: Rally 2011. You see, I’ve actually covered this game before, sort of. Many years ago I wrote about another top-down arcade racer from Capcom, a game that was called Mad Gear (yes, like the Final Fight villains) or, in some markets, LED Storm. As it turns out, LED Storm: Rally 2011 is actually an earlier version of that game. Capcom weren’t happy with the way the Rally 2011 version was turning out, so according to former Capcom designer (and co-creator of Street Fighter II and Final Fight) Akira Nishitani, he was tasked with changing things around to ultimately produce the Mad Gear version of the game.

The changes that were made are a little strange. Most of the gameplay is identical, as is the soundtrack, and while the stages were reworked and shuffled around a bit they’re mostly the same. One of the biggest changes is that the transforming car of the Rally 2011 version was replaced by a selection of three vehicles – a Porsche, a Formula 1 car and a lorry – that the player could pick from. Another is that the futuristic, sci-fi designs of the cars, helicopters and other vehicles were replaced with more realistic vehicles and frankly this seems like a major downgrade. The original version of LED Storm has some really appealing vehicle designs – long-legged bug-shaped cars that look like moon rovers from a sixties comic book, bulbous TNT-carrying trucks, galloping cyber-ostriches – and the idea that replacing them with regular cars would somehow be more appealing to arcade players is baffling to me.

Fortunately most of the interesting scenery was kept intact, with things like the lava-dwelling dinosaurs and giant stone heads that must have crept in from a Konami game helping to keep things interesting. I mean, whatever vehicle you’re driving, you can’t argue with a section spent escaping from the collapsing skeleton of a colossal dinosaur. That could even make a unicycle look cool.

Halfway through the game, and Mac pops up with some encouraging words. I think they’re encouraging, anyway. Reading them again I’d accept that they could also sound like Mac is simply resigned to his fate.

Here in Million Valley, where the vast stone walls loom around the player and someone forgot to close the back of this truck and oh no now there are highly advanced future-containers all over the road, I came to the conclusion that LED Storm has a problem with difficulty. It’s not just that it’s hard, although it is a difficult game, but it's that the difficulty level fluctuates wildly from stage to stage. Maybe less time spent redrawing all the vehicle sprites and more effort putting the stages into a more sensible order would have helped the game.

This is definitely one of those arcade games I’d recommend playing on the easiest difficulty setting, though. This is entirely down to the rigmarole of having to collect fuel. The fuel acts as a timer, because it depletes even when you’re not moving, and it drains so quickly that missing a few energy capsules in a row means that there’s little you can do to stop yourself from grinding to a halt. I know the fuel limitations are there to increase the amount of money people were pumping into the arcade cabinet, but that was back in 1988. That was then and this is now, and at this moment in time I don’t feel the need to prove myself to a thirty-year-old racing game. Having to concentrate on collecting fuel detracts from the enjoyment of the high-speed action and the vibrant, character-packed scenery, so anything that helps to keep the fuel gauge at bay comes with my highest recommendation.

So LED Storm: Rally 2011 is a prototype of sorts, but the question is was it ever released? Perhaps. I suspect that it was put out for location testing at the very least because (a) that’d explain why Capcom though it required a rework and b) there are home computer ports of LED Storm and they’re all based on this version, futuristic cars and all. The home ports are quite good, by most accounts, although even in the Amiga version the graphics suffered a significant downgrade and the colour and vibrancy of the action is probably LED Storm’s strongest suit.

Going back to the start of the article, and I’d have to say that yes, LED Storm is a very arcade-y game. You might well disagree, but for me the top-down racer has always been a genre I associate with the arcades in particular for reasons I can’t adequately explain. Maybe I played a lot of them on my rare childhood visits to the arcades, although my arcade memories are mostly of Capcom fighting games and Side Pocket.
But LED Storm feels arcade-y in other ways, too, even if it lacks the sense of overblown, screaming bigness that makes games like Konami’s Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles or Operation Wolf feel like quintessential arcade games. LED Storm does have those bold colours, graphics that handily surpass the home consoles of the time, it’s got voice samples that impress even as Mac’s constant greedy clamouring for fuel grates on the nerves like a screaming baby on the bus. Yep, feels like an arcade game to me.

None of that matters if the game isn’t any fun to play, but I’m happy to report that LED Storm is an enjoyable little title. In fact, I think I enjoyed it more this time around than I did when I played Mad Gear. The extra interested generated by all the cars looking like vehicles from a non-existent eighties toyline about hot-rod gangs from Neptune helps, but I think it’s more that I happened to be in a state of mind where a simple, uncomplicated arcade racer was just what I fancied. The relentless pace of the gameplay keeps you invested and makes a short run-time feel packed with incident rather than disappointingly brief, and the fact you don’t lose lives (just fuel) for falling of the track or crashing into a huge truck helps prevent the obstacle-strewn courses from becoming too frustrating.

As the red car and the blue car scream over the finishing line, I’m left with the knowledge that I’m going to have this old Milky Way advert stuck in my head for the next few weeks. Oh, and also LED Storm: Rally 2011 is pretty good! It’s got flaws, especially with the fuel system and the refills that often float off the side of the course where you can see them but can’t reach them, and the sometimes hard-to-predict hitboxes. On the whole, though, a fun time was had by all.

The game ends in the same way as the Mad Gear version: with a heartfelt message from Mac about his treasured memories of falling off elevated highways and running out of fuel in the middle of the desert. Capcom changed a lot of the graphics and even the font for the Mad Gear version, but not the spelling – Mac is still “vary giad” to have been with the player. I wish I could say the feeling was mutual, Mac.

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