Monday, June 8, 2009

Stunt Race FX- SNES- Nintendo

The goal of Retro Treasures has always been, and will always be, to seek out those little gems that have been lost to the ages. Whether they are games that were overshadowed at launch by bigger and better ones, games that were ahead of their time, or just games that fill a necessary niche and grant players a new game they missed out on in a beloved genre. Of course, I did leave room for special occasions, I would add my voice to the multitudes and discuss one of the big names. After all, it was finally beating Chrono Trigger after years of attempts that lead me to create this blog. As a result, I never expected to be able to legitimately review a Shigeru Miyamoto game outside of one of those rare occasions. But, I had forgotten that in 1994 Miyamoto and Nintendo EAD released a little racing game using the Super FX, the graphics chip that allowed their carts to produce true 3D images. But does Stunt Race FX live up to the Miyamoto name, or does it buckle under the weight of the SNES' own limitations?

As Stunt Race FX is a racing game, it is completely devoid of plot. Due to that fact, I will move on to discuss the five modes of play: Speed Trax, Stunt Trax, Battle Trax, Test Run, and Free Trax.

Speed Trax is the standard racing circuit, and a mode that will feel familiar to anyone that has played the Mario Kart franchise. In this mode, players pick on of three vehicles (The Coupe, The F-Type, or 4WD Truck), and compete against three other drivers in either the Novice, Expert, or Master class. Each class contains 4 tracks, but what makes the game stand out from Mario Kart are the inclusion of a time limit for each race and a bonus race in the middle of the class, which is played by driving an 18 wheeler around a course through slalom gates for time and extra lives.

Stunt Trax, despite its name, is rather light on stunts. Instead, the player can expect to drive their chosen vehicle through one of four themed obstacle courses as they attempt to collect as many stars as they can out of forty total. An ice level, a water level, an off road course, and a level made of almost nothing but hills are the challenging areas players must navigate. Even finishing one of these courses may take more than a few tries, especially if a player hasn't mastered the nuances of their chosen ride.

Battle Trax is a fairly straightforward verses mode. The player and a friend compete head to head in order to determine which of them is superior in early 3D racing. There isn't much to this mode other than that. There are. however, four courses that are only playable in this mode, and a trick involving waiting at the start of the race to sub in computer drivers.

Test Run is an interesting mode that exists solely for the beginner to learn how to drive. There is only one unnamed course, and after three laps the player is kicked out to the mode select screen. This mode is only available for a short time as once the player beats either of the first two classes in Speed Trax, the training level disappears and is replaced by the final mode.

Free Trax is the time trail of Stunt Race, and can serve the same function as Test Run with the added bonus of actually allowing new players to learn on a course they will be racing on. In Free Trax, a player races alone through the course to test their mastery of a specific track. As an added bonus, there is one extra vehicle available in this mode, the 2WD motorbike. With high speed and high acceleration, the 2WD will test even the best players finesse as the finicky bike threatens to spill at even the slightest miss turn.

As I've already mentioned, there are what amounts to five vehicles in the game, and two of those are only usable at certain times. Each vehicle has specific characteristics that set them apart from the others. The 4WD is the sturdiest, able to take a good bit of damage and possesses high acceleration. It is, however, the slowest of the racers . The coupe is the balanced racer, never excelling at nor lagging in any of the stats. The F-type, though, is all speed, and as a result has slow acceleration and a weak frame. Obviously, as the speed of the vehicles increases, the ease of handling them decreases. This makes the 4WD an ideal choice for the beginning player as it requires little of the finesse that the F-Type demands from its driver.

Driving in Stunt Race is simple. B is gas, Y is boost, and A is break. However, while that's enough to get around the course in the truck, it simply won't cut it when driving the faster cars. For that, the player needs to use the L and R buttons. These cause the car to perform a hard turn in the direction pressed. Maintaining control while holding these turns isn't as easy as performing the slight turns of the cross pad, but it is necessary for making it around some of the sharper curves at high speed.

Which leads me to the subject of crashing, a situation any racing game fan, and quite a few people that aren't, have experienced numerous times. Like F-Zero, the Stunt Race vehicles all have a damage bar, and once it fills up, the race is over. Thankfully, the game has colored blobs that heal or restore boosts. A red blob heals the damage done to the player's car while a blue on refiles the boost meter by about fifty percent.

As good as the game plays, it does have a couple major flaws. One being that it has not aged well. The graphics are so blocky and rudimentary, that they fly past ugly and gain a sense of beauty that only someone who remembers that era fondly could enjoy. As a result, visibility is dreadful. More often than not, even on the perfectly clear and simple maps, turns and signs warning of those turns appear without warning giving one little time to react. The game can, also, never decide what is an adequate draw distance, so occasionally, you'll see one section of a wall before you see a closer one. Or the player might see the path below, before the one he or she is driving on has finished forming. As a result, memorization is even more vital to this game than in later racers, and that comes with the added difficulty of few consistent visual clues to speed the process up.

Because of the graphical problems, the game is extremely difficult to play for long stretches at a time. Anytime I played for more than thirty minutes, I would be left with a nagging headache and tired eyes for the rest of the day. Which is sad when one considers how charming the vehicles are with their big bulbous eyes and bright colors.

Another problem is that the game never really creates the sense that the player is working towards something. No matter the mode being played, time was what the game kept track of. As a result of that, it always felt like playing a time trail. It didn't matter if the player came in first or fourth as long as their time was low. And even should one place first in every event, victory only means a screen showing the times for each race. This left victory feeling pointless and hollow.

Musically, the game is everything one would expect from a Nintendo EAD developed game. The soundtrack is bumping and fun, creating an easy energy that is fun to drive to. The sound effects are also nice. The squeal of the tires and the roar of the engine are noticeable but never overpowering.

Stunt Race FX is something that has to be played to be believed. Just watching it one can't get a sense of just how good it feels to drive in this game. It is a simple, pick-up-and-play racer that sits comfortably on the technical side of the genre and offers plenty to be mastered for the more serious racing game fan. It's unfortunate that the graphics have aged so poorly, but not nearly as unfortunate as the fact that Nintendo has abandoned this series to history. Stunt Race FX is a wonderful racer that's worth at least a test drive to see if you can appreciate the engine below the rusted coat of paint.

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