Wednesday, February 1, 2012
Top 5 Racing Games
#5 - Mario Kart DS: Let's face it, it's kind of hard to make a list like this without bringing up at least one of the Mario Kart games. However, I am only including one of the games from this series on this list due to how critical I tend to be in my approach to each entry in the series. Mario Kart games are great fun all around, but there are some that I don't care for as much as others. I got my start on Mario Kart 64 which, great game as it is, hasn't aged quite as well as some of the more recent releases. Mario Kart Double Dash should be recognized for exploring interesting new territory but, as a whole, I felt the Gamecube one was the weakest of the bunch.
The reason that Mario Kart DS ranks as my favorite in the series is because of the tracks available. Since none of the Mario Kart games have any real story to speak of, the tracks often serve as a make-or-break deal for me. There are some really creative aesthetics coupled with nice variation in the layout of the tracks, with Luigi's Mansion, Delfino Square, Waluigi Pinball, and Tick-Tock Clock being among the most noteworthy mentions. The retro tracks are a solid bunch too, with the likes of Frappe Snowland, Banshee Boardwalk, and Yoshi Circuit rounding out the package. Not to mention that the controls are very smooth - props to Nintendo for sticking to what we already know works and not messing up the controls by trying to implement much from the touch screen.
#4 - F-Zero X: Back in the day, I used to rent as many N64 games as I could from Blockbuster, and F-Zero X was among those. I didn't rent this one as frequently as Pokémon Snap, Ocarina of Time, or even Snowboard Kids, but it stood out to me, even at a young age, for a few key reasons. First off was the over-the-top futuristic racing scenario. As a kid, I simply thought it was a cool concept. Today, I realize how much of a different racing experience it provides, with the potential for sliding around turns, knocking other racers out of your path, or even the unfortunate plummet off the track into the abyss below. Second were the track designs and racer stats. Anyone's who's played this game knows how you have to be ready for whatever the next course is about to throw at you, and this can lead to a lot of trial-and-error approaches early on. The racers proved a solid progression system. You won't have access to anything spectacular to start with, but the default racers are well-balanced and give you a chance to get a good feel for the game before you take that next step up in difficulty.
F-Zero X is a very nontraditional Nintendo game in a lot of respects. It's not gushing with mature content, by any means, but the heavy metal and techno tunes coupled with the ripped t-shirt-clad menu girls implies this is a racing game for the teens on up (both were kind of edgy back in the day). It's a challenging game - there are times when the slightest of screw-ups can send you hurtling to your death, forcing you to restart the race (as I experienced more than a few times on the pipes of Big Blue) - but that's just the way I like it.
#3 - Diddy Kong Racing: This was an easy pick for me, and not just because it was the first video game I ever owned. Diddy Kong Racing is a kart racer, and a darn good one at that. It's not the same as Mario Kart, despite the fact that both games are host to a cast of characters from across various games. Diddy Kong Racing has something of a story to it. It's by no means the greatest storytelling you can find in a video game, but the way Wizpig and adventure mode acted as the core of the experience gave me a reason to want to complete the main game.
The major worlds are host to four tracks and one mini-game each. Each world has a different theme, and the tracks explore different styles in which said themes could be approached. For example, the Renaissance-themed Dragon Forest dishes out a haunted forest, plains riddled with windmills, a castle, and a medieval village. Some tracks proved vehicle-specific, or at least more friendly toward one vehicle over another. They are not frequent, but courses that force players to use the hovercraft or the jet end up as some of the best-designed of the bunch, and can certainly help in learning to master these alternative vehicles.
The items are another highlight. As opposed to Mario Kart's greater variety, Diddy Kong racing takes to a stacking method. By collecting a single red balloon, players can fire a missile. Or, they can choose to wait and grab another red balloon to upgrade to a homing missile. It presents an element of careful strategy not always explored in kart racers. And man, do those items come in mighty handy when you're taking on any of the game's five bosses (because they're all pretty challenging).
#2 - Midnight Club II: This is a game that breathes atmosphere through every nook and cranny of its three overworld cities. From Los Angeles to Paris to Tokyo, the game presents you with a superb variety of race variants. There's the tried-and-true races against multiple AI opponents, there's the series of scattered checkpoints, and there are instances where you have to outrun the police (you are street racing illegally, after all). There's even one mission where you are the unwitting accomplice in a plot to spread bombs through the Parisian catacombs.
What makes this game so memorable is not its selection of excellently rendered automobiles, which range from the classy and sporty to the suped-up and decked out. It's not the controls which are so fluid and perfect for the PS2. All of these certainly help the overall package to reach greater heights, but the soundtrack is the definitive reason to play this game. Whether you are punching the turbo to beat your opponent to the finish line at the last minute or simply free-roaming in cruise mode, the experimental techno and hip-hop tracks from Thomas Bangalter, Felix Da Housecat, patientzero, 8-Off Agallah (to name just a few) act as the soul of the experience.
#1 - Hydro Thunder: "Three!...Two!...One! GO, GO, GO!" If F-Zero was the hyper-futuristic equvialent to a car racing game, then Hydro Thunder is essentially the same to boat racing. I can't say that I've played many boat racing games - I don't think that there are that many around, and I don't imagine there are many noteworthy mentions among the bunch. But Hydro Thunder stands out to me for a lot of reasons. On the more simplistic side of things, the game is gorgeous to look at, regardless of whether you are playing it on the N64, Dreamcast, or Arcade. It's not that the graphics look incredible by today's standards - far from it. But the whole aesthetic appeal of surreal environments of each track combined with space-age boats immediately immerses you in the experience.
Breaking down the particulars, though, Hydro Thunder requires time and patience to master. While each course has its boost locations, figuring out the best time to use them can draw a fine line between first and last place. There's also the matter of shortcuts and jumps to improve your ranking. Despite its age, the game's controls are still surprisingly fluid, and offer an experience that does well to balance the realistic elements of boat racing with the ridiculous angle of strapping rockets to the back of your machine. The different layouts of each track keep you on your toes at all times while also providing enough space for you to maneuver in the water. All in all, the game has a very arcade-style feel about it, whether you're actually playing the arcade version or one of the console releases.