I've always had a soft spot for overhead racing games in the mould of Micro Machines. Their history can be traced back to Atari's classic arcade machine Sprint, and it's two follow-ups Super Sprint and Championship Sprint. The actual gameplay was quite simple - there was an overhead view of a track and four cars raced to the finish. Three of them could be controlled by a human player, which was great fun and led to many hours being spent in intense competition down the arcades.
Later, Codemasters had a genius idea. They would create a new game based on the little toy cars that come in collections of five - Micro Machines. They were a great success on the 8-bit and 16-bit consoles such as the NES, Mega Drive and SNES. The Mega Drive version was of particular note because Codemasters actually built two extra controller ports into the cartridge, therefore avoiding the need of a multitap and making 4 player gaming accessible to the masses. Later on they updated the series on the PlayStation in the form of Micro Machines 3D, before making a spin-off game called Micro Maniacs which did away with the cars altogether and just had little freaky people running around the house.
At about the same time, Supersonic, who made the original MM game on the Mega Drive, set about making their own rival games. These started with Supersonic Racers, a valiant but flawed effort, and then Circuit Breakers, which gave Codemasters a run for their money in the gameplay stakes but unfortunately never sold as many copies as it deserved. Most recently, Supersonic made the awesome Mashed, and thanks to word of mouth and a budget price tag, it's been very successful so far. The physics are spot on, and when combined with the weaponry they can lead to hilarious duels to death.
There have been plenty of also-rans in the genre too, like the latest version of Micro Machines developed by Infogrames, which just felt totally wrong to play, and Karnaj Rally on the Game Boy Advance, which actually played quite well but struggled to sell once again because it didn't have a popular license attached to it.
That brings me finally to the subject of this review, Racing Gears Advance. I first saw a preview of this game about half a year ago, and I could tell just from the few screenshots that it had the potential to be amazing. The months rolled on, and still there was no sign of the game. I forgot about it for a while, but then Nintendo Official Magazine reviewed it and gave it a very respectable score (86%, I think it was). At last, it was released just before Christmas, but I had to buy my copy online (Gamestation knew nothing about it). So was it worth all the waiting? Yes. Yes it was.
The first time you pick up and play the game, it's obvious that everything just feels right. The handling is superb - if you take your thumb of the accelerator as you turn into a corner and then quickly slam it back on again, you can powerslide all the way around the bend. This is guaranteed to bring a big smile to your face. When your car is obscured by bits of scenery, be it trees, overhanging buildings or whatever, an arrow appears showing you which direction your car is facing. Simple, but extremely effective. What's more the game features 25 tracks, 12 drivers (all in licensed cars like the Lotus Elise or Dodge Viper), and also includes a range of weapons and car upgrades which add much more depth and longetivity to the game.
A typical cup goes like this - you'll probably get beaten the first time through, but you'll begin to learn the tracks, earn some cash and spot some shortcuts. You buy some better tires, maybe a bigger engine and some weapons, and try again. This time you nail it, and upgrade again before the next cup begins. This pattern continues until you beat the final cup, and then you unlock the custom cup where you can race any combination of tracks just for fun or maybe to finish upgrading your car. Progress is only saved for the character you chose, so you could go back and play the game a further 11 times. Each character has one unique ability, such as stealing money from other racers if their car hits yours, or getting a turbo boost when shot with a weapon.
During the later cups, the game can get a little bit frustrating when all of the CPU controlled opposition decide to ram you/shoot you/zap you with a energy draining weapon, but you can always try again and the addition of Engine, Turbo, Armor, Brake, Weapon and Tire upgrades help you level the playing field. Weapons include standard Nitros, Oil Spills, Missiles, Heat Seekers, Mines, Energy Zappers and Cloaking Devices, and add a bit of strategy to the races. I mostly just stuck with the Nitros and they saw me through, but you could play the game much more aggressively should you wish. Before each race there's even a little reaction based mini game where you have to press the accelerator as soon as possible after the light turns green, which decides on your starting position.
That's the gameplay, now the aesthetics. The graphics are extremely pretty, some of the best on the GBA. Rather than trying (and failing) to produce 3D graphics like PlayStation release, Orbital Media have gone for a sort of isometric, not-quite top down angle, with your little car centre of the the screen. There's always plenty of room to see where you're going (which is another area where these games sometimes fail) and the sensation of speed is very convincing. The speed increases noticeably with each engine upgrade, but as long as you buy the best tires you shouldn't have any trouble making it around the corners. The only gripe that I have about the presentation is the number of menus and the amount of button presses it takes to get through them all before you start a race. It can take quite a few presses to repair any damage from the last race, upgrade your car, switch tires and then finally start the race.
Now the music and sound. The sound effects are nothing amazing, but the music is really good for a GBA cart. It's very funky, and features voice samples and some good drum beats. One tune called 1985 sounds (deliberately) like something a C64 would've produced.
Finally the game also has a multiplayer link-up mode, but not having played it, I can't comment on how good it is. It does sound potentially awesome though.
So there you go. I got my copy of Racing Gears Advance from www.play.com for £17.99 and at that price it's a bargain. If you have a GBA, SP or DS (it looks fantastic on the new handheld by the way) then you should search out a copy and buy it.
The RetroGaming Score: 8 out 10