Top Gear (SNES)

Ever since Namco’s Pole Position made its debut in the arcades in 1982, the racing genre has been considered as an essential medium in the gaming world. The popularity of racing games was further solidified with the increase of video game consoles making their way into homes all throughout the mid-to-late 80’s. When the Super Nintendo came on the scene, most game developers were still trying their best to mimic the style of racing games found in the arcade. You know—choose a fast car, race from point A to point B in under 75 second or so, and try to finish in place. While they were fun, most console racing game were missing a certain flare of realism to accompany the high speed driving. Of course, there were a few games out there that let you shift a gear or two, but that was about as realistic as the game play got (not there’s anything wrong with that). Players looking for something with slightly deeper mechanics were pleased when game developer Kemco created Top Gear on the Super NES—one of the first car driving games on that console.

For an early game in the life span of the Super NES, Top Gear is one meaty installment. You can choose from 4 sports cars with their individual strengths and weaknesses. The 3 most important categories are top speed, grip, and fuel consumption. For instance, if you’re going for the speed demon approach, choose the Cannibal (red)—the fastest car of the bunch, but it has low grip, slow initial acceleration and is the least fuel efficient too. If you’re more concerned about handling those corners with greatest of ease, you’ll want to go for the Sidewinder (white)—the easiest and most fuel efficient vehicle to drive. The Razor (purple) and Weasel are pretty much the same except the Weasel has the faster acceleration and tire grip of the two.

You’ll race through 32 tracks spread across 8 countries including USA (naturally), Germany, Brazil, and Japan. During each race there are 19 other drivers to compete with, including your rival CPU car that will do its best to threaten your chances of finishing in the #1 spot. You can also have a friend race with you and all 19 other cars in the two player mode as well. Interestingly enough, you’ll have to be content with a split screen view whether you’re playing solo or with another person. This took some time to get used to, but actually came in handy when I needed to block the CPU car from passing me. The duration of the races can range from 3 to 7 laps. Longer races take a toll on your fuel gauge, and such information must go into consideration when selecting your car. Thankfully, races that are 6 or 7 laps have a pit lane which allows you (and the CPU driver) to replenish lost fuel. The catch, of course, is that you’ll risk losing 3 or 4 positions, which can be a little difficult regain at times.

The driving mechanics of the game are surprisingly smooth and intuitive. You can choose 4 different control schemes to fit you style of playing. The L & R shoulder buttons on the SNES control pad were perfect for simulating the shifting of gears if you chose the manual transmission. From what I can tell, there’s no major difference in top speed if you opt for the automatic transmission instead, but sometimes I found it more enjoyable to go with the manual one instead. That’s saying a lot, considering that I usually hate driving with a manual setup. All of this complements the main stars of the game themselves—the cars.

The vehicles are fun to drive and maneuver. The sense of speed is quite pleasing and turning corners and navigating hairpin turns are very fluid and more natural than could be said of many racing games back then. In fact, I can’t recall a game from that point in time that featured cars that turned corners as realistically as these do. When cornering on a downward incline, you can “feel” the car getting pulled into slope the faster you go. When climbing a steep hill, your speed noticeably reduces just like it does in real life. There’s nothing negative that can really be said about how the game controls overall. A noteworthy feat for an early console game using what was then new technology.

The car models themselves are well designed and pretty convincing. Simply put, they look great when traversing the many locations in the game. In fact, the visual high point of Top Gear can be best seen in the different scenery within each country. New York is a nice nighttime course with big buildings and small lights constantly ahead of your car. Tokyo is alive with its busy city streets and wide highways. The race in Hiroshima will begin in the morning just before sunrise while it’s still dim. Then as you approach lap 2, the scenery brightens up gradually to reveal a sun kissed landscape in the scrolling foreground with a nice Japanese structure standing under the sun. These are just a few of the well drawn geographical locations to be seen throughout the game. Each country has faithful recreations of the cities, forests, or country sides that beautify each race. Oh, and while you’re driving around in Loch Ness, Scotland, you can spot “Nessy” relaxing in a lake in the distance. But be careful because that particular course has some wicked s-curves as well. Granted, there are a few locations that don’t impress quite as well as others, but most of 32 course selections look very good, with the graphics chugging only a little at the highest speeds when the screen is busy with five or six other cars and objects on the road.

Play or Stay? Top Gear can be described as a complete racer with both arcade and simulation aspects that come together to make a competent game. There’s even a password system in place so that you won’t be forced to race through all 32 tracks in one sitting. Those of you who enjoyed Rad Racer or Sega’s Outrun, but wanted a little more from the experience will find Top Gear to be a welcomed addition to you’re Super NES collection.

Jamie Alston is somewhat of an unusual gamer. While most people crave the visual delights that can be found in many of the current generation consoles of today, he actually prefers the 8-bit & “super 8-bit” (SNES) glory days of yesteryear. This is probably due in part to the fact that his brother chose the Nintendo Entertainment System over the Sega Genesis back in 1989…or maybe it had more to do with that time when he fell and hit his head on the blacktop in elementary school. Whatever the reason might be, Jamie has an undying love for those unnecessarily big cartridges he spent so many summer afternoons playing. When he’s not raiding trucks that “have started to move” for rations and key cards, he stays busy supporting his gaming hobby by working as a Policies & Procedures Analyst for a financial company in Baltimore, Maryland. And when he’s not working for “the man”, he’s working on the next retro review for the week. And when he’s not fighting off writer’s block and much needed sleep, he’s raiding trucks that “have started to”—well, you get the idea. Currently living in Randallstown, MD, Jamie sums up his life long dream this way: “If I one day find myself driving on the highway in a 2004 Honda Accord with an NES directional pad for a steering wheel, you can bet that I’ll be holding the up direction for that turbo boost on the straight-aways. That’s when I’ll know that I’ve finally made it in life”.