|Just when you thought it was
safe to buy an N64 racer
Over the years the N64 has offered us many a racing game. On the highway or the racetrack, in the mud, the water, the air, even in space, weve played them all. And lets face it, in the beginning there were a few successes (I enjoy Wave Race to this day), but most were mediocre at best. That was then. Recently we have seen the release of slammin arcade racers like Ridge Racer 64, anticipated updates like Excitebike 64, and fan favorites like Pod Racer. The bar has risen and a few people are bound to hit their heads on it. On that note South Peak gives us Rally Challenge 2000, an arcade-style rally racer with a fun and vibrant selection of cars, moderately adjustable game play, and a lot of problems.
The problems begin with the short list of options. Rally Challenge 2000 offers nine cars and nine tracks. This is not an impressive number by anyones standards and I mention it first because it will come up again and again. All of the expected gaming modes are intact: Arcade, Championship, Practice, and Multi-Player. Arcade Mode is a race against the clock and the quickest way to the action. But with only nine tracks and no new cars or options waiting to be unlocked, it ends up short and shallow. Practice mode allows you to explore all of the cars, configure them to your tastes, and race them on any track under any conditions. This may be the only racing game I have played where the Practice Mode is ultimately more satisfying than the Arcade Mode, and still you are only racing against yourself. So that leaves Championship Mode, where you race against both the clock and the computer to win, and everyones favorite, Multi-player, where you race against your friends for bragging rights.
Although the assortment is limited, each car is unique and interesting. South Peak has acquired the licenses to real cars and real sponsors, allowing you such diverse choices as modified street cars, rally-worthy kit cars, and suped-up sport cars. Each then has adjustable settings including tires, steering response, suspension, and gear ratio. This is where the game is at its best because these choices will make all the difference. Yes, your car can and will sustain damage (represented on the game screen by a blue print diagramming your engine, suspension, and tires), so you will want to note both the track and the conditions. Rainy tracks, often flooded, require the right tires for finesse; your suspension will be tested in a course with a lot of turns and jumps; and so on. Any of these things could send you headfirst into the guardrails, and if you think navigating a snow-covered track is hard, try doing it with a mangled steering system.
The controls are standard racing fare, except for the annoying lack of a reverse gear in both the Manual and Automatic transmissions which forces you to take even more damage by correcting against objects you either could have avoided or have already crashed into. Also, there are only two viewpoints available: the typical view from just behind the car, and the in-car view with the handy rear view mirror (the rear view mirror unfortunately disappears in Multi-Player).
Graphically, Rally Challenge 2000 is quite effective on the starting line. As the countdown ticks away you can appreciate the vibrant Nintendo-trademark color scheme, the eclectic locale, the meticulously rendered car, and most impressively, the completely realized reflection-mapped rear window. Then you begin to move. The cars tilt and wobble unconvincingly. The backgrounds become so pixilated that what was intended to be texture becomes distortion and draw-in occurs a paltry 50 feet or so ahead of youjust enough to see the corners as you approach them. Nuances like dust and mud or water splashes are grainy and undeveloped. Weather conditions such as rain are represented by straight, vertical lines, which do not even hit the ground. And the lighting effects are so poor that the headlights project solid cones of white light in front of the car and do not augment their surroundings, but cover them up. The only saving grace is again the reflection in the rear window, which is so smooth, even in transition between exterior skies and lighted tunnel interiors, that it actually looks incongruous to the rest of the game. There is significant slow-down in the Multi-Player Mode. And if all that isnt bad enough, the replays are presented in motion blur which has all the pizzazz of a cake that was dropped on the floor.
The sound is capable, but not exciting. The engines roar, tires squeal, and for some reason the breaks beep. The only complaint here is the announcer, whose uninspired, repetitive, and irritatingly nasal comments I could have done without.
Still, the game might have been salvaged if it had adhered to the mud-drenched, gear-grinding, suspension-pounding essence of rally racing. Instead, Rally Challenge 2000 entrenches its tracks between obstacles so that the cars cant loose control, spin off of the track, or become bogged down. The cars merely collide or nudge up against the walls and come to a stop. Although the damage done to the cars greatly affects their performance, none of it is visible, which diminishes the fun factor. The cars do not so much roll as glide along the track like an air-hockey puck, so that all of the terrain feels the same whether it be a cobblestone street in a German village or the American desert. And in the end it doesnt even follow the rules of rally sport, for although you begin the race alone, you will randomly encounter other cars as you race. The result is astoundingly below average given the N64s current track record and for avid rally race fans only. I recommend a rental. After all, at about seven minutes per race, and nine tracks in all, it will take little more than an hour to finish with one car, even considering the time it takes to cycle through the screens between levels.
An interesting side note: as with any racing venue, the cars in this game are plastered with sponsor adsCastrol, Clarion, and the like. My car of choice, the VW Golf GTI, however, sported huge Sony banners. Ballsy move. How many games can you think of that reserve product placement for the competition?