R.C. Pro-Am II Review

*Review based on R.C. Pro-Am II’s release as part of Rare Replay*

As its name so bluntly implies, R.C. Pro-Am II is the sequel to Rare’s R.C. Pro-Am. Once again, the game is an isometric racer, in which players take control of remote controlled cars and use weapons and items during races. Though R.C. Pro-Am II makes some improvements over its predecessor – including the addition of multiplayer – it also suffers from same of the same shortcomings which, when considering this sequel was released four whole years after the original, is kind of hard to look past.

The core gameplay, for better and worse, is nearly identical to its predecessor. The cars still control surprisingly accurately to remote controlled toys, which is an interesting quirk, but can make some of the gameplay a little frustrating. You still race three other cars, and can still pick up missiles, bombs and shields to aide you in your races. But there are some new twists this time around.

For starters, multiplayer has been added to the experience. This is definitely the game’s greatest contribution to the formula, as it was something the first game was just begging for, but lacked. All the better is that this was one of the few NES games to be played with up to four players! Though getting four people the chance to play at once was certainly a complicated task back in the NES days, the Rare Replay version makes the four-player mayhem far more accessible.

Another difference between this game and the original R.C. Pro-Am is that you no longer pick up weapons and items on the racetrack. Instead, you pick up money during the races, and then purchase upgrades to your car and weapons in between races.

Now, this setup certainly is unique, and in concept I don’t dislike it. But in execution, it has its flaws. For starters, many of the items are just far too expensive. Sure, you can save up money from race to race, but if you want to get any of the good items, you’ll have to go several races without buying anything, which will leave your car slow and defenseless in that duration. But if you buy smaller items as you go, you’ll probably use them up in one or two races (most likely missing your targets due to the controls anyway), and then you won’t be able to afford the fancier stuff. At the very least, they could have made it so you can pick up the traditional items on the tracks, and then use the money for the vehicle upgrades.

What makes this all the worse is that the computer opponents can take the money during races. Now, I suspect this is due to that the other cars could potentially be other players, but couldn’t they have programmed it to differentiate when the other cars are players and when they’re AI, so that the computer can’t take away the player’s potential currency (which, as far as I know, the CPU doesn’t use)? The AI can even pick up 1-ups from the racetrack, preventing you from gaining a potential continue.

Another bit of a downer is that you have no control over what tracks you’re racing on. You simply go through the courses in order, with no alternative modes providing a level select of any kind. Sure, it was the same way in the first game, but that was 1988. R.C. Pro-Am II was released in 1992. You’d think by this point they could have expanded things a little bit.

This brings me to another downside to the game. Despite the four-year gap in between releases, R.C. Pro-Am II uses the same graphics and sounds as its predecessor. Now, as far as NES titles go, R.C. Pro-Am was already pretty colorful and had some catchy music, so it’s not that the aesthetics are bad. But again, with the extended timeframe between the original and this sequel, you’d think a few things could have been touched up. The Super Nintendo was out by this point, and Super Mario Kart was released the very same year as this title. When you take that into consideration, it really makes R.C. Pro-Am II feel like it didn’t give the effort it could have.

This may all sound very negative, but I will stretch that the core gameplay is still fun, and the fact that this entry actually has multiplayer – and for up to four people – helps keep it afloat even with its design flaws and recycled elements. Sure, you’d be better off playing Super Mario Kart with a buddy, but if you want to try out some four-player NES mayhem (even if it’s on Xbox One), R.C. Pro-Am II is far from a lost cause.

 

5

Digger T. Rock Review

*Review based on Digger T. Rock’s release as part of Rare Replay*

1990’s Digger T. Rock holds a special place in Rare’s history, being the first game developed by the studio once they were re-branded as Rareware (though Solar Jetman was published by them earlier that same year, its development was handled by a separate team of developers). Though many of Rare’s library from the 1990s on Nintendo’s platforms are remembered as classics, Digger T. Rock – despite its placement in Rare’s history – has a little more mixed of a reception. Playing it today, it’s not too hard to see why. Though it’s definitely aged better than the ZX Spectrum-era Rare titles, Digger T. Rock still has a number of dated elements that hold back the overall experience.

In Digger T. Rock, players take control of a spelunking adventurer (who bares the same moniker as the game’s title), who’s traversing a series of caves collecting treasures, all while in search of “The Lost City.”

There are eight caves (stages) total, with the goal simply being to find the exit to the next stage. But there’s a catch to this scenario. In perhaps a bit of inspiration from Rare’s previous Snake Rattle ‘N’ Roll, the player must unlock the exit by standing on a special pillar, which will temporarily open the exit. If the player can navigate the cave and make it to the exit in time, they can move on, with extra points being awarded for treasures collected, and for how fast you can make it to the exit after standing on the aforementioned pillar.

Additionally, Digger can use his shovel to attack enemies and create new pathways. Power-ups also lend a helping hand; such as ladders that can connect higher and lower areas, dynamite which is used to blow apart rocky walls, and throwing rocks as an additional weapon against foes.

This all sounds like decent fun, and I suppose in essence, it is. But there are too many elements at play that prevent it from being the Rare classic it could have been.

For starters, Digger T. Rock is an incredibly difficult game, and yet only gives the player only three lives to start with. Should you lose all three, it’s back to the beginning of the game. With how frequently you’ll be falling, getting crushed by rocks. Not to mention certain enemies – as well as your own dynamite – can deplete almost all of your health in one hit. For a game this difficult, a few extra lives or a password system would have gone a long way.

Another aspect that contributes to the game’s difficulty is the overall sense of control. Obviously, being an NES game, there was only so much to work with. But flipping through your different secondary items with one button, and using them with the attack button can become tedious, not to mention hectic during situations when you’re being swarmed by enemies. Then there’s the jumping, which feels a little stiff; and Digger’s general walking speed, which is much too slow when you need to get away from your suspiciously short-fused dynamite.

The steep difficulty and less-than-ideal controls do feel like products of their time, but there is still some fun to be had with Digger T. Rock. Finding and collecting treasure, and discovering secret warp zones provide a good sense of fun, as does the music by David Wise.

Digger T. Rock certainly isn’t a bad game, but it is one that has succumbed to age. And after R.C. Pro-Am, Cobra Triangle and Snake Rattle ‘N’ Roll, Digger T. Rock feels like a step down for Rare’s NES output, despite its merits.

 

5

Cobra Triangle Review

*Review based on Cobra Triangle’s release as part of Rare Replay*

Cobra Triangle is one of Rare’s more fondly remembered NES outings, and it isn’t too difficult to see why. Though at first glance it may appear to be little more than a boat racing game, Cobra Triangle quickly proves itself to be a game of surprising variety.

The first stage of Cobra Triangle is wonderfully deceiving, being a racetrack you may have predicted from the game’s artwork, with controls that are eerily similar to R.C. Pro-Am’s, albeit with a boat instead of remote controlled cars. Your boat also has the benefit of having projectile missiles equipped at all times, as opposed to Pro-Am’s weapons being power-ups.

Once you finish that first race, however, the game starts throwing curveballs at the player through stages that have varying objectives. Soon you’ll be defusing water mines, fighting massive sea monsters, collecting items, and saving swimmers, among other goals. There are twenty-five stages total, with some stages trading places depending on which paths you decide to take in the racing courses.

The sheer variety of ways Cobra Triangle creates with such seemingly simple gameplay is the highlight of the package. As far as NES games go, few titles in the 8-bit console’s library could boast such versatility.

If there is a notable complaint to be found, it’s that the aforementioned “swimmer rescuing” missions are considerably more difficult than the rest of the game, to the point of being frustrating. Enemy ships will come charging at the poor swimmers like bats out of Hell, and your boat isn’t fast enough to keep up with them all. Add in enemy missiles that temporarily stun you, and things get downright stressful. Granted, there only needs to be one swimmer remaining in order to move on to the next stage, but that is much easier said than done (especially when you consider that your thumb might be exhausted, as you have to repeatedly press the attack button to continue firing missiles instead of simply holding it).

While the rescue missions may drain your lives quickly, the rest of the game provides a steep but reasonable challenge. And once a level’s goal has been met, your boat grows a helicopter propeller and flies to the next stage. How cool is that?!

Cobra Triangle also made the best of its 8-bit limitations with vehicle (and monster) sprites that were really impressive for their time. Like a number of Rare’s other early titles, the game is played in an isometric view, which can admittedly lead to some tricky perspectives at times (such as when trying to collect items when jumping off ramps). But from a technical standpoint, the graphics remain impressive for how there can be so much going on on-screen, yet it can manage to keep up with the action of your ship without any notable graphical hiccups.

On top of all that, Cobra Triangle also features a catchy soundtrack by none other than David Wise. Though it may not have the same depth or atmosphere as Wise’s later scores, the acclaimed gaming composer does help bring out Cobra Triangle’s unique charm through its soundtrack.

Cobra Triangle remains a fun game to play today, which is quite impressive for something that, on the surface, may just appear to be an NES boat racing game. The rescue missions may break the pacing of the game a bit with their considerably difficulty spike, and the perspectives can be a little misleading at times. But there’s no denying the fun, variety and ambition that Cobra Triangle brought to the NES.

 

6

Snake Rattle ‘N’ Roll Review

*Review based on Snake Rattle ‘N’ Roll’s release as part of Rare Replay*

Snake Rattle ‘N’ Roll has to be one of the more unique games in the NES library, and it’s understandably gained a reputation as one of developer Rare’s classic titles. An isometric platformer that put its own spin on the genre, Snake Rattle ‘N’ Roll is still a lot of fun today, even if some of its elements can be a little on the frustrating side.

One or two players can join in Snake Rattle ‘N’ Roll, with the playable characters being the titular serpents Rattle (a red snake) and Roll (a blue snake). The goal of the game is to extend the snakes’ tails by eating little orbs called Nibbley Pibbleys.

These Nibbley Pibbley’s come in three different colors; red, blue and yellow. Depending on which snake you’re playing as, the red and blue Nibbley Pibbleys will be worth one or two points (two points for eating those that are the same color as your snake, and one point for the opposite color), while the yellow Nibbley Pibbleys grant three points. Every time your snake consumes four points worth of Nibbley Pibbleys, they gain one extension to their tail. When the tail reaches its maximum length for a given stage, the end of the tail begins to glow. When in this state, the snakes are heavy enough to ring a bell on a weighing machine, which opens up the exit to the next stage.

There’s another twist in this scenario, as being hit by enemies will take away the progress on your tail, piece by piece. And you only have so much time to finish a level, so if enemies start chipping away at your tail faster than you can extend it, you’re in trouble. The Nibbley Pibbleys are constantly spawning via Nibbley Dispencors, so you can always potentially regain your tail, provided you’re fast enough.

Before things can become too repetitious, Snake Rattle ‘N’ Roll throws another curveball at the player in that the Nibbleys behave differently in each of the game’s eleven stages. On the first level, they are simply rolling balls, but during the second stage, they begin bouncing around. The third stage sees them growing legs and running away, while on the fourth stage they temporarily melt into the ground, which prevents you from gobbling them up for a short time. It may be a small difference, but the fact that the Nibbley Pibbleys act uniquely to each stage adds a nice touch of variety to the core gameplay, and ensuring that it feels fresh the whole way through.

Considering Snake Rattle ‘N’ Roll was released in a time when every platformer was simply trying to copy Super Mario Bros. (and never replicating its magic), the game was a really fresh take on the genre in its day, and it still feels unique even today. With its genre-defiant attitude, however, come two unfortunate aspects of the game which haven’t aged so gracefully.

The first of these drawbacks is that the isometric perspective can make certain perspectives really tricky, making the platforming of the game often feeling awkward. The second such drawback is that the jumping mechanics can feel a little floaty, with the snakes often seeming like they can only decide where they’re jumping after they’ve already taken to the air. Combine these two elements together, and Snake Rattle ‘N’ Roll can feel infuriatingly intricate with its platforming elements. And considering the stages don’t have outer walls, you can easily overshoot a jump and fall to your death repeatedly due to the floaty jumps and difficult perspectives.

While these elements do hold the game back from being one of the best NES titles, Snake Rattle ‘N’ Roll still remains a highlight in the NES’ library, and something of a turning point for Rare, as it marked the beginning of the cartoonish silliness and wacky humor that would go on to define the British developer for years to come (even the enemies are an odd assortment of vinyl records and sentient feet). And the game has a memorable score by David Wise, taking inspiration from popular music of the 1950s (including, of course, the game’s namesake Shake, Rattle and Roll).

Snake Rattle ‘N’ Roll may not be perfect, due to some tricky and aged mechanics,. But the uniqueness and fun of its concept, two-player co-op, and undeniable charm shine through, making for one of the more memorable NES outings you and a friend can partake in even by today’s standards.

 

6

R.C. Pro-Am Review

*Review based on R.C. Pro-Am’s release as part of Rare Replay*

R.C. Pro-Am marked a turning point in Rare’s history, as it’s often regarded as the developer’s first big success on a Nintendo platform. Rare was previously known for their titles for the ZX Spectrum back when they were known as Ultimate Play the Game. But R.C. Pro-Am’s success on the NES lead to a nearly unparalleled partnership between Rare and Nintendo; one which would lead to years of success due to the creation of games like Battletoads, Donkey Kong Country, Killer Instinct, Goldeneye 007 and Banjo-Kazooie.

When playing R.C. Pro-Am today, it’s easy to see what made it so appealing way back when, though it may lack the depth to make it a worthy alternative to more contemporary similar titles.

R.C. Pro-Am is a racing game. A racing game in which you can pick up upgrades and weapons to help to achieve victory. If that sounds a bit like Mario Kart, well, that’s because that’s very much what it’s like. Though with its 1988 release on the NES, R.C. Pro-Am predated the original Super Mario Kart by four years.

Of course, being released four years beforehand, and on a less advanced console, means that R.C. Pro-Am is also a simpler game than Mario Kart. While Super Mario Kart used the SNES’ Super FX chip to give the race tracks a sense of three-dimensional space, R.C. instead went with an isometric view.

The race tracks are small, and only consist of a few twists and turns, and the cars control in a way that feels surprisingly similar to a remote-controlled toy cars. You’ll always race against three other cars, and will have to use weapons to hinder your rivals and boosts to help you achieve first place. Weapons come in a small variety, like missiles which you launch forward, and bombs which you drop behind.

There’s really not much more to it than that, but the gameplay is still engaging and strangely addictive even today. Though there are some drawbacks to the experience.

On the downside of things, each race ends as soon as one racer reaches the finish line. This means you could be in first for the majority of the race, but then potentially fall into fourth place in the last lap, and lose the race as soon as one rival clears the finishing line, thus not giving you a chance to better your placement. This can be particularly annoying because there are only ever four racers at a time. Claiming first through third places will nab you a gold, silver and bronze trophy, but coming in fourth means you lose that race. Lose three times, and you have to start all over. The penalty for the losses is reasonable, but the fact that you can easily get a loss because of one small slip-up is a bit less so.

Another big drawback is that R.C. Pro-Am is only a single-player affair. With its chaotic, combat-heavy races, this is a game that was begging for a second player to get in on the action. Sadly, your only options are to try to beat the computer and better your performances. As fun as the gameplay is, adding a second player to the mix would have given it so much more replay value.

As it is, R.C. Pro-Am is still a fun game, being something of a precursor to the combat-racing and cartoony go-karting genres, and it boasts a fun musical score by David Wise (always a good thing). But, as you may have noticed, I’ve brought up Mario Kart a few times in this review. Considering Mario Kart is beloved for its multiplayer, well, you may find R.C. Pro-Am may make you want to play Nintendo’s iconic racing series after a few short sessions.

 

5

Slalom Review

*Review based on Slalom’s release as part of Rare Replay*

Slalom, as its title suggests, is a skiing video game where players partake in a series of downhill slalom runs. One of the first releases under the then-newly rechristened Rare, Slalom was also the first NES game developed outside of Japan. Perhaps both a testament to the NES’ abilities and to Rare’s output after the name-change, Slalom may be a simple experience, but is considerably more fun than most of the ZX Spectrum games Rare made back when they were known as Ultimate Play the Game.

The gameplay of Slalom is simple enough; you choose one of three mountains, each consisting of eight skiing challenges. Snowy Hill is the place to go for beginners, Steep Peak is of the medium difficulty, and the hilariously-named Mount Nasty provides a challenge for experts.

Once your mountain is picked, you must head down the mountain while avoiding hazards, obstacles and other skiers to keep your momentum going. You can pass through flag posts to gain speed, but if you run into a flag, it’s the same as hitting any other obstacle, and you lose speed. You must make it to the goal within a time limit, with extra points being rewarded for reaching the goal faster and for your performance. But, should you fail to make it to the goal within the time limit of even a single challenge, the game is over, and you go back to the beginning.

If that sounds a bit unforgiving, it’s because it is. Though the core gameplay is fun and addicting, Slalom is one of those NES games that will definitely take a lot of patience before you get the hang of it. Expect to throw a few fits of rage when you start failing on the earlier levels of Snowy Hill repeatedly.

It must also be said that a little something is lost in the Xbox One version in Rare Replay, as this is a game tailor-made for the D-pad, but the Xbox One controller’s D-pad is far from ideal. You’re honestly better off with the joystick if playing on Xbox One, but of course that doesn’t feel right either.

Still, if you can muster up the courage for its challenge, then you have a fun NES game on your hands. The re-release’s controls may not be ideal, but they could certainly be much worse. The simple gameplay of going downhill and avoiding obstacles is a lot more fun than it may sound, and the game has a fun sense of humor by peppering the stages with obstacles like snowmen and kids playing in the snow. And, for an NES game, Slalom has surprisingly strong visuals, with the levels moving in such a way as to bring to mind SNES titles like F-Zero and Super Mario Kart.

It may be simple stuff, but Slalom provides some good, challenging, 8-bit fun.

 

5

Gunfright Review

*Review based on Gunfright’s release as part of Rare Replay*

Another one of Ultimate Play the Game’s (now Rare) early ZX Spectrum titles, Gunfright used a similar isometric style to Knight Lore. But instead of werewolves and dungeons, we have gunslingers in the wild west. It also abandons the puzzle and platforming elements in favor of “action.”

In Gunfright, the player takes control of the town sheriff, who is on a mission to track down a band of outlaws and gun them down. The game begins with a quick first-person mini-game, in which the player shoots falling bags of money to claim their initial sum of cash, with which they purchase more ammunition every time they use all six bullets in their gun’s barrel, as well as pay a small fee every time they hitch a ride on a horse for extra speed.

After the mini-game, the primary isometric gameplay takes place. Here, you basically just walk around the town, looking for the outlaws (one at a time). There are two kinds of citizens around town: southern belles who run around the place much faster than our hero can move (which proves to be incredibly problematic, as coming into contact with them results in instant death), and bouncing, sombrero-wearing gentlemen, who point to the direction of the current outlaw.

If you shoot these civilians, you have to pay a hefty penalty out of your cash. It took me a good while to figure out that the sombrero NPCs were pointing in a direction and not pointing again. Suffice to say, I was continuously losing dough before I figured that one out.

As stated, coming into contact with these civilians kills you. And like the previous ZX Spectrum games by Ultimate Play the Game, these characters seem to be everywhere, so you’ll often die just because you couldn’t navigate around the civilians quickly enough.

Should you manage to come across an outlaw, one of you has to initiate a duel (it’s easiest if you shoot first – like Han Solo – since the outlaws often just walk around aimlessly even when you’re right in front of them). Once the duel starts, you go back into a first-person view like in the opening mini-game. You have to pelt the outlaw with as many bullets as possible from the get-go, because if you hesitate for even a second, they’ll riddle you with bullets and you’ll have to find them all over again. As you can imagine, it’s frustrating.

Honestly, there’s not much about Gunfright that’s fun (except maybe the initial money bag mini-game). Many of the same issues that plagued Ultimate Play the Game’s previous ZX Spectrum outings are in full force here (too many characters on-screen that run much faster than you and can kill you with a touch, confusing world design, etc.). The repeated sins even go so far as the sound effects, which once again recycle the irritating, plinky-plonky noises of Atic Atac (Ultimate Play the Game sure got a lot of mileage out of those sounds). And now you have even less visual space for the action, as most of the screen is filled up by your remaining cash and bullets, price tags for items, and wanted posters of the outlaws.

Gunfright more or less serves as a showcase of the dated issues and mechanics of its older ZX Spectrum siblings, all wrapped up in a convenient, wild west adorned package.

 

2