Back in the 80s, there were three arcade games I hunted down and played whenever I could: Star Wars, Outrun and RoadBlasters. All three received home conversions of varying quality, but the Sega Megadrive conversion of Road Blasters has to rank as one of the best.
Set in a futuristic world, you have to take part in a series of races, where the object is not to finish first, but just to finish. Battling against a limited fuel supply, you must get to the finish line before your fuel tank runs dry and avoid other drivers who will look to take you out in a ball of fire. Thankfully, your car comes equipped with weapons, which means you can get them before they get you. It’s a simple equation Cars + Guns = Great Game. A key reason behind the success of RoadBlasters is the perfectly balanced gameplay mechanics which treads that fine line between risk and reward. Accurate shooting is rewarded with a score multiplier by one (essential to get those really high scores). The flip side is that if you fire and miss, you multiplier is decreased by one. So you can’t just take a gung-ho approach, but have to try and shoot as accurately as possible – which can have dangerous consequences if you miss.
Similarly, although your weaponry can be upgraded, you have to earn it. Every so often, a jet will fly overhead and drop a new weapon. If you want it, you need to position your car underneath it to catch it. Again, this adds an extra element as you have to balance your desire to upgrade your weapon against the danger of crashing into something. Fuel management is also a concern. Running out of fuel causes your car to stop and you lose a life (you start with 5). Fuel can be topped up driving over green fuel pods (avoid the red ones; they deplete your supplies still further). On early levels, you seem to have plenty of fuel, but it’s not long before fuel collection becomes an essential part of the game. Again, this adds a strong element of risk and reward. Collecting fuel is essential to getting to the finish line, but the heavy traffic means it’s not always safe to do so. As you’ve probably gathered, Road Blasters is one seriously tough game. It was essentially designed to hoover up 50 pence pieces in the arcade and was designed for short, intense games. This Megadrive version is not quite as difficult, but you’ll still need to put in a lot of practice. The upside is that getting to the next race feels like a real achievement and RoadBlasters is always fun, rather than frustrating.
Complementing the well-balanced risk and reward gameplay is the exhilarating sense of speed. The Megadrive conversion does a good job of retaining this. The level of detail might have been scaled down but this is a worthwhile sacrifice. Scenery whizzes past and there is a blistering sense of speed, making for an exhilarating and exciting game. Sound effects are slightly less impressive. There’s a cracking in-game tune that really gets the adrenalin pumping, but sound eff are more variable. The roar of your car engine is pretty good, but the missiles and explosions sound a little weedy. The arcade version of Road Blasters was a noisy affair and the limited hardware of the day couldn’t replicate this. To compensate for this, just turn your TV up REALLY LOUD! Road Blasters is the perfect example of taking a number of different ideas and blending them together. Combining driving and shooting games is a good idea on paper, and Atari managed to make it work in practice to create a title which is instantly fun, highly addictive and has tons of long term challenge. This was one of my favourite arcade games of the 1980s and it’s credit to the original game and this excellent Megadrive conversion that I’m still playing it nearly 30 years on.