Graveyard: Rad Racer

Out back of the Hardcore Gamer office you’ll find our Graveyard, where countless long-dead classics lie. We come here to pay our respects, to reminisce, and to wonder aloud what a passing mad doctor might be able do with all these corpses and some high-definition lightning.

Growing up in late ’80s and early ’90s, pawn shops were a great way to get NES games for cheap. When new releases sold for $50, and magazines weren’t anywhere near as popular as they would become, you would either need to rent games, borrow them from friends, or blind buy. With pawn shop purchases, my mother and I would do blind buying and largely go by what looked fun on the cartridge art. While this strategy may seem risky, a lot of NES games had things approximating a screenshot on them, so you would at least have some idea of what you were playing when you bought it.

Since I couldn’t see 3D, the promise of “3D RACING ACTION” didn’t excite me, but the flashy red card in the foreground did. It reminded me of Outrun — one of my favorite arcade racers. As luck would have it, this was Square’s attempt to make an Outrun-style game on the NES. It certainly didn’t match that game’s graphics or soundtrack, but is far more console-friendly than Sega’s series. They’re both checkpoint racers, but Rad Racer (which may be the most ’80s name for a game that actually isn’t terrible) gives you many more of them per track. It’s a little tougher to figure out when you’ve hit one though since you just have a small checkered flag next to the track and the little meter at the bottom showing how much progress you’ve made from the start (the big S) to the goal (the big G). Outrun‘s gigantic signage made it far more apparent, but was also made for you to chuck quarters into frequently.

The traffic here is a bit less rampant than Outrun, but is still prone to cause some challenge — especially when you get one car on one lane, then another one on each other lane in fairly quick succession. Nowadays, you’d be able to more easily tell which way to handle the situation thanks to fancy 3D modeling, but games then didn’t have such luxuries. The sprites had a simulation of scaling and flickered a ton too. It was a challenge to navigate tough sections like this, but rewarding when you could. And then inevitably, some VW Bug knock-off would come strolling into your lane out of absolutely freaking nowhere to be a dick and send you off the road. For some reason, bouncing on their left side could send you hurdling towards the right.  I’m no physics expert, but I’m fairly sure that’s impossible. It sure is amusing to see though.

Unlike a lot of racing games at the time, this one gives you points based on how long you last. The longer you go, the more you’ll have at the end when you either reach a checkpoint, the end of a stage, or simply run out of time. One cool thing is that you do run out of time, unlike Outrun, things aren’t completely over. You’re allowed to keep going until your speed drops to zero. This means that you can have an extra 5-10 seconds to race and possibly hit the checkpoint or even the end of the stage. It may not seem very likely, but just while playing through the game again for this piece, I was able to save myself from an early end thanks to this little feature twice. I can’t imagine how many times this saved me back in the day.

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Unlike a lot of NES racers, this gave you more than one vehicle to choose from. You had the Ferrari 328, which I’m sure just like Outrun received all necessary legal clearances to be called that. Then you had the F1 machine, which looked far less cool. Then and now, I always went with the cooler-looking vehicle. Choosing the F1 now led to me to laugh at the absurdity of seeing an F1 racer on basic roads and unlike the Ferrari, which has a slew of VW Bug and Corvette knock-offs as rivals, with this, you just get other F1 cars. So instead of the silly visual of just one F1 racer on the road, you have a sea of them and they’re a weird shade of green too.

The garish green at least works well when you get to night time races, though, which are bathed in crazy color schemes. The completely black road with only green stripes to indicate where you are reminds me a lot of Night Driver — the very first arcade game I can remember playing, which itself brings back great memories. The visuals seem a bit limited, but are actually showing off a lot of detail. You can see a lot of lit buildings and other large structures in the background and it all adds up to make the world you’re in seem far more alive and real than one would expect from 8-bit hardware.

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Beyond day and night, you’ll also race in more colorful areas like Athens and even take on some winter-themed stages. It’s a visually diverse and impressive game despite some rough edges like sprite flicker. There’s no slowdown of any kind and the sense of speed is outstanding. That’s a hard enough thing to nail down with newer technology, so to see it done so well in an older game makes it even more impressive now than it was then. Crash animations are also quite violent and you can definitely feel the impact thanks to the visuals and sound effects meshing well together. The music doesn’t reach Outrun‘s lofty heights, but is still pretty fun and light-hearted.

Rad Racer has held up surprisingly well given that it’s basically a clone of a full-fledged arcade game crafted for 8-bit hardware. It’s got a far less steep learning curve than any of the Outrun games and controls better than most NES racers. Hopefully, this will get re-released at some point in a Square Classics Collection or something like that, because like Einhander and the Bushido Blade games, it’s an example of Square delivering an outstanding non-RPG game that hasn’t been re-released. As a result, you get outstanding games that can be tough to find. Fortunately for Rad Racer, it can be found fairly cheaply on eBay for under $10 and is easily worth that price.