Wednesday, October 13, 2010

NES Month: R.C. Pro-Am

R.C. Pro-Am
  • Publisher: Nintendo
  • Developer: Rare
  • Platform/Release: NES: February 1988
  • Genre: Racing
  • Save: None
  • Players: 1
  • Rarity/Cost: Common (US$1-10)
Note: This article was updated on 9 February 2016.

Something has become apparent to me while I've been writing the reviews for NES Month so far: I was pretty bad at video games as a younger child. Of course I still had fun with them, otherwise I wouldn't even be writing this now. The fact that older video games were more challenging to begin with was only part of it. Case in point: R.C. Pro-Am, a game that I used to never even be able to finish the first level of. While some games had roadblocks that I would have never figured out alone in a million years (linking to the game in question without mentioning its name is the snarkiest way to do so), others had genuine challenge even for the gamer I am today. I am happy to say that R.C. Pro-Am falls into the second camp.

In R.C. Pro-Am, you control a red remote-control car through a series of races against three colour-coded rivals. A race ends as soon as the first-place car crosses the finish line, oddly enough, as opposed to waiting for everyone to finish. You get to progress to the next race as long as you're not in the fourth and final position when the race is over. The only difference between placing first and running up but still qualifying is a point bonus, so you don't have to feel bad about it. But if you do fail a race, you only get two more continues until the game forces you back to the first track. I do hate when games don't give me a real, infinite continue option. It’s not like there's an engaging story that it's withholding from me, but I still resent it for withholding the opportunity to make progress, eh? You know, R.C. Pro-Am is one of the games my grandparents got with their NES, so I used to play it a bunch as a kid. As I recall, it was so hard that for the longest time I couldn't even clear the first stage! And it's not like Milon's Secret Castle or anything, where there's some secret you have to look up online or in a magazine. No, what I used to have problems adjusting to were the controls.
You can move on as long as you don't finish a race in last place. [1]
In this game, you hold B to go forward and not hold B to not go forward. As for steering, Left and Right and right on the Control Pad turn your car based on the direction it's currently facing. In other words, Right turns you clockwise and Left is anti-clockwise. In retrospect, I can't think of a better way to handle this. The concept of pressing a direction to steer that way doesn't work for a car like it would if you were controlling a person on foot, and the three-quarter-angled isometric perspective used by the game would complicate matters. And like I said, I got used to the game's control setup over time. Plus, there's a little drifting action going on when you turn sharply, so anyone who's lamented Sega's refusal to release their Initial D game in North America (and never cared enough to import it) can get their jollies here.

But there is one thing about the controls that still gets me. If you spin out of control and hit a wall, you’ll crash and stay stuck there for a second before your car rebuilds itself and gets back in the race. The thing about this is you respawn facing a random direction, so you have to spend another moment reorienting yourself! It's bad enough that crashing eats up so much time on its own; this extra calculation forced upon the player means that so much as one crash could cost you the race! What's wrong with just pointing us in the direction we hit the wall? Answer me, game!

Almost as if this game was intentionally trying to distract you, there are many varieties of goodies to collect and traps to avoid. You can upgrade your machine by picking up tire, engine, and turbo upgrades, which improve your turning, top speed, and acceleration stats in that order. Also, each track has one bonus letter for you to pick up. When you get eight of them, spelling out the word "NINTENDO" [2], your car gets upgraded to a new model. But something about this also bugs me: you see, your rivals always get the class upgrades when you do, so I ask you, what’s the point of having it at all? I mean, sure you get to go faster, but if your opponents do too, the tactical advantage is negated, and all you’re left with is less time to react to stuff!
Upgrade your machine through random parts on the track. [1]
The stuff you have to react to includes traps like puddles, which slow you down, oil slicks, which spin you out for a second or two, and pop-up barriers, which crash you instantly if they're up. On the other hand, there are things you should collect, too. Missiles and bombs, triggered by pressing A, are weapons you can use for an extra edge against your opponents. Roll cages protect you from crashing when you spin out into a wall or hit a pop-up barrier, and zippers catapult you forward ultra-fast-like. With all those, you could say R.C. Pro-Am even paved the way for the likes of Super Mario Kart. There is one thing I noticed, however. If you keep using weapons against the opponents, they’ll grow faster and faster until they boost so fast and so far you’ll never be able to catch them. And there’s no indication this is happening, other than the computer appearing to cheat for no reason! Boy, I’m glad Mario Kart didn’t borrow that feature for itself!

So yes, R.C. Pro-Am is flawed. The isometric perspective being what it is, it's way hard to see in front of you without having practised the track. There's no music during gameplay, although the multiple engine sounds we do get are technically impressive for the NES, and what music clips we do get are also awesome. But more than anything, R.C. Pro-Am is hard, for all its speed, limited continues, and the way it cheats you for using weapons. Despite all this, is it still fun? Eh, off and on. Even if you can't handle it, it is worth playing this just to check out the influence it had on all manner of racing games released since.

Control: 3 NINTENDO letters out of 5
Design: 4 NINTENDO letters out of 5
Graphics: 3 NINTENDO letters out of 5
Audio: 3 NINTENDO letters out of 5
Value: 4 NINTENDO letters out of 5
The Call: 65% (C)

[1] "R.C. Pro-Am - NES Screenshots". MobyGames.

[2] Non-Nintendo sequels and ports use letters of the word "CHAMPION" instead.

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