Whenever I review a retro game, I try to give it a fair crack of the whip. It’s easy to forget the massive advances in graphics, sound and processing power which have occurred over the past 20 years or so, and to dismiss older games as “ugly” and “primitive”. With Sega Rally Championship for the Gameboy, that job of readjustment is made easier by the fact that I’ve always thought it was a pretty rubbish interpretation of rally racing, and it remains so today.
Initial impressions are actually quite promising. A couple of introductory attract screens are well drawn and, as is fairly standard these days, you can choose your car from a range of different makes and models. Each has different handling abilities (better acceleration, higher top speed etc.), so you can pick one which best matches your driving style. At least that’s the theory: in reality, it’s painfully hard to discern any real difference between them and they all pretty much handle the same.
Sadly, when you begin the game proper things start to go horribly wrong. Even by GBA standards, the graphics are a bit of a mess. Made up predominantly of browns and greys, they make the game look incredibly ugly and, worse, actually hamper the game play. It’s hard to distinguish between the actual road and roadside scenery, so it is often tricky to work out where the road is heading and get your racing line right. True, the track is littered with road signs warning you which way the track is about to bend, but the clarity of the graphics is so poor that it’s too easy to find yourself mis-reading the road and hurtling into a wall.
Occasionally, you will also come across other cars which you need to avoid… Well, I say cars; they’re more like indistinct blue oblongs that look about as roadworthy as an elephant on wheels. Even so, avoiding them is not as easy as you might think. Clearly all the other drivers in this race were out at an all-night drinking party to which you were not invited, and have not yet sobered up. That’s the only possible explanation for the bizarre way they weave around the track, moving in a way I have never seen cars move before!
I could forgive this graphical ugliness if the processing power was being saved to capture the sense of speed and pants-wetting exhilaration normally associated with rally racing, but it’s not. The scenery comes at you in a series of jerky, glitchy images that compound the messy look of the game. Rather than a smooth 3D racing experience, it’s more like flipping through one of those flick illustration books. You know the ones – where each page has a drawing just slightly different to the one on the previous page, so that when you flick the pages quickly, it creates the illusion of movement. This is how Sega have implemented the 3D perspective in this game. The frame update rate is also awful, so everything is jerky and slow. If Sega were looking to prove that the GBA can’t handle fast, smooth 3D, they did a bang-on job; if they were trying to make a fun, playable game, they were so wide of the mark it’s embarrassing.
At least things are a little better where sound is concerned, with the usual assortment of jolly, fast-paced tunes accompanying each stage. Whilst these are exactly the sort of tune you would expect from a driving game, they are nevertheless reasonable enough and add a sense of urgency and excitement that’s sorely lacking elsewhere in the game. There’s also some excellent speech, as your co-driver calls out instructions, warning you of upcoming hazards or bends in the road. Given that the splodgy graphics make it difficult for you to spot these for yourself, playing this game with the sound turned on is a must.
If you do manage to get past the hideous graphics and slow, jerky 3D then the game does offer some decent longevity. There are a whole series of different championships made up of a number of races on different tracks. Tracks are pretty well designed and also well-balanced, starting off with limited, shallow corners, progressing on later tracks to tight, twisty courses which require you have to real control of your car. Unfortunately, it’s on these tracks where the poor quality graphics have a serious impact on the game play – often, by the time you have worked out where the road is heading, you’ve already crashed into something, robbing your car of its speed and losing vital seconds off your lap time.
I suppose Sega should be congratulated for at least attempting a 3D perspective racing game on the Gameboy Advance’s relatively limited hardware. Unfortunately, it doesn’t’ pull it off and merely reinforces why there were relatively few attempts to bring this type of game to Nintendo’s handheld. On its release in 1994, it was the ugly kid on the block that was always picked last for sport; 20 years on it’s the dirty, smelly old man that no-one wants to sit next to on the bus.