Saturday 27 November 2010

Top Gear 2

Tonight, I take this Mega Drive game round our track, and a violent goose is the star in our reasonably priced car.

Look, it's the Clarkson-less Top Gear 2, the sequel to... well... guess. Among other systems it was brought to the Sega Mega Drive, and is a fine example of a pseudo 3D racing game from the early 1990s. I don't talk about these sorts of games much, so here's an opportunity for me to do so.

The Top Gear video game franchise is much like the TV series. In 1977 the BBC launched Top Gear as a motor show centered around the world of cars. It lasted a couple of decades with various presenters taking the helm, but towards the end of the 1990s the format was looking tired and viewing figures had dropped significantly. Then in 2002 it was rebooted with a studio and is now one of the best shows on TV, appealing not just to motorheads but anyone with a sense of humour.

The unrelated Top Gear games franchise has seen similar problems. The original Top Gear was released for the Super Nintendo in 1992, and was a pretty big success for Gremlin Graphics/Kemco at the time. Nothing groundbreaking, but it received fairly positive review scores and had healthy enough sales for sequels to follow.

Things teetered slightly when the series entered the realm of the Nintendo 64 but it's fair to say the real damage was done by games such as Gran Turismo on the PlayStation. Suddenly a car game of this type couldn't afford not to use two dozen branded car manufacturers, and I feel that Kemco simply couldn't compete, what with Gremlin Graphics being bought out in 1999. The last Top Gear release was 2004's "RPM Tuning", which didn't even have the confidence to use the Top Gear brand in the US.

The Top Gear games have always been a budget racer in the sense that they've never done anything groundbreaking, but in the early 1990s this wasn't a big problem. They were solid racers and worth checking out as a result because the technology was still fairly new and fresh.

But the games usually come attached to Nintendo systems. Top Gear 2 is a bit of an oddball because it was released for Nintendo's main rival of 1992, the Sega Mega Drive. It also saw a release on the Amiga and the Amiga CD32 (which is a system that seems to pop up quite a bit on this blog for some reason).

The game is built similarly to Sega's OutRun, in that you drive forward and turn in a pseudo-3D environment without full control over cameras or direction. The Mega Drive cannot replicate the graphical effects of OutRun all that well (technically neither can the SNES - only one background layer can take advantage of Mode 7 so the sprites are always choppy), but here things look fairly smooth. It also has a boost button (though so did 1989's Turbo OutRun so this is nothing new).

And though it struggles compared to today's standards, life isn't all that bad for Top Gear 2. Gamers of 1992 wouldn't notice many problems and the only real flaw with racers of this type is that everything is extremely flat. You're put against 19 other racers all driving the same car (but in different colours!) and your task is to overtake them all within five or so laps.

The game is more forgiving than most games, in that crashing won't cause your car to explode (though it will slow you down slightly). Your car can, however, take damage, causing it to perform poorly (though again, I don't think it's possible to force yourself to retire. It's quite a challenging game too, so don't go thinking that because you're not crashing all the time it's a walk in the park.

Top Gear 2's additions include your driver shouting pointless phrases at people following collisions, overtaking or use of the boost. It adds a bit of personality to the game I suppose, but the speech bubble does have a nasty habit of obstructing the view. "CRASH 'N' BURN" and "Yo dude!" don't really strike me as being witty remarks either. I don't mind a bit of light-hearted humour but it's a tiny bit out of place here.

But an unacceptable feature of Top Gear 2 is the fact it can't handle both music AND sound effects at once on the Mega Drive, which simply isn't on. Fortunately the music doesn't suck too much in this game (and is actually quite nice, even if it isn't all that memorable) but even by 1992's standards you should expect it to cope with both. I mean it hardly wins the war against Nintendo if there's not enough processing power to have two basic features running in parallel.

Overall I don't think Top Gear 2's all that shabby, and though perhaps you're better off with a SNES or Amiga CD32 copy (the Mega Drive version is essentially a SNES game in disguise), I'd still personally put it above some of the other games that carry the "Top Gear" label. It's unlikely we'll ever see a new Top Gear game, so I guess you could say it's the best you're going to get from this forgotten franchise.

And on that bombshell, it's time to end. Goodnight!

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