Monday, 13 January 2014

Road Fighter (Konami, 1984)

Developed and published by Konami in Japan as an arcade machine in 1984.

Converted and published by Konami for the MSX in 1984 and for the Nintendo Famicom in 1985.

The European NES release published by Palcom Software in 1991.

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INTRO RANT


As one of the games I had decided to write about before I actually registered to Blogger and started doing these comparisons, it has taken an inordinate amount of time to actually get into writing about Road Fighter. Now, though, I know quite well how long it will take me to write about certain types of games, and currently, I just really need some time off from the bigger projects and do some easier ones that I originally set out to do more than those gigantic comparisons. This will work as another mid-term quickie of sorts, as well as an introduction into the gaming world outside of C64 and Spectrum, infinitely better known to the people outside of Europe, but relatively unknown to us who grew up with keyboard-based computers. It is rather interesting, though, that Road Fighter never got released on any of our regularly featured contestants, because it very well could have been a good subject for conversion for the C64, the 48k Spectrum and the Amstrad CPC, not to mention Atari 800 XE/XL. It's not as though it would have been completely impossible to convert, is it?

As I have no real idea of the game's current status in the retro gaming world, other than having two stars out of five at Generation-MSX from 196 votes, I can not say whether this particular game can be considered a classic or anything of the sort. All I know is, this is one of the games that introduced me into NES gaming, and I'm forever grateful for it, because Super Mario Bros. failed to really hit my nerves in the way that would have made the machine any more interesting to me than the handheld Game & Watch consoles. Of course, what made the cassette- and disk-driven computers so much more attractive to most of us in that age was the ability to copy games with very little effort. So naturally, even the MSX was more popular for a good period of time in Finland than the NES, because you could get a cassette drive for the MSX and write your own programs. Anyhoo, how I got into playing Road Fighter on the NES was through a relative of mine, who had somehow gotten this strange cartridge with around 50 games on it, and most of them could even be considered classics - if not for the rest of the world, then at least for the Japanese gamers. I got to play the MSX version a lot later, through emulation, although I have managed to acquire the original cartridge a couple of weeks ago, but initially, I was dumbstruck by how different it looked and felt like to play - it was like a different game. When I finally got to play the true Road Fighter, the arcade version, it was yet another different overall experience, and I thought, why would Konami release three different games with the same name?

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DESCRIPTION & REVIEW


In all its three forms, Road Fighter is a very simple car racing game with no bigger plot than trying to get through the given stages before your fuel runs out. You have the usual enemy vehicles in your way that you must dodge, although instead of straight-on crashing into other vehicles, running into another vehicle will make you bump and slide off left or right randomly, but you can straighten yourself back by counter-steering. This was the one innovative thing in the game, a fairly big step forward in racing games in 1984. Exceptions to this rule are trucks and road blocks into which you will crash no matter what, and oil puddles will make you spin uncontrollably, so you do need to be very careful. I think Jeremy Clarkson put it best: it's not the speed that kills you - it's suddenly becoming stationary. If you blow up, you will lose some 5-6 fuel units, and acceleration is not all that quick as it first appears to be, particularly when you are running out of fuel. Throughout the game, you will be able to pick up some fuel containers along the road, but good driving will grant you some more, better bonus fuel items.

So, it's not exactly the most interesting concept of all time, nor is it a very original variation on a genre that had been at that point been around for quite a few years. What is it about Road Fighter, then, that inspired me to write? I shall tell you: it's the speed that affects your gameplay, easily putting you into the much talked-of Zone. The mechanics are blindingly simple, and you would not expect such crystal clear controls and physics to add up to such an engaging game, but there it is. Road Fighter is exactly the sort of game that you will pick up every now and then, hone up your skills, play it through and leave it at that for another few months or so. That combined with the strange occurence of three unusually different versions of the same game from the same company is what inspired me.

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PLAYABILITY


Since the game only exists as an arcade machine and two different cartridge versions, the loading time is non-existant, so we go straight to playability. Well, one thing we can say already about it - it's instant. The only thing you must wait for are the starting fanfare and the checkpoint pauses between levels, which vary depending on the machine. The NES version is the quickest in this regard (rarely more than 7 seconds, depending on the amount of bonus points you are getting at the end of each level), followed by the Famicom version (plays a bit slower overall), followed by the arcade original with mostly around 13 seconds due to it showing the map progress screen at every checkpoint and the MSX giving you the most pause for breath with 18 seconds for similar reasons. Whether or not this is a good thing is a matter of the player's own skills and ability to be in a relaxed state throughout the game, and likewise the game's difficulty level.

Naturally, the arcade version has a lot more variations regarding the difficulty level than the home conversions. In the arcade's options menu, you can toggle whether you allow continues or not by putting in more money; you can change the speed of your opponents to be either slow or fast; and the fuel consumption has 4 different settings, from slow to very fast. The MSX and Nintendo versions only have two difficulty levels: levels 1 and 2, which affect the number and fiercity of enemies (and some say it even affects the fuel consumption, but I haven't seen any change in it).

In the two home conversions, the car's maneouverability is of a similar design - it turns just as steeply as all the curves in the road are built, and if you happen to go into a tailslide, you will have to countersteer it back by steering it in the direction the car is sliding at. If the car happens to start spinning due to an oil puddle or some heavy bumping, the only thing that can save you from crashing is either a lack of speed or bumping into another car to get you back into a normal tailslide. The original arcade version handles otherwise similarly, but your car's strafing degree is more related to your speed, so it's a bit more difficult to navigate through any diagonal bits of roads.

Getting to cars, let's look at the number and variations on each version of the game. The arcade version is the only one of the three to actually be a racing game - the other two are just driving survival games. Your car is a red sports car, fitted with a V12 DOHC 2500PS engine, that can go a stunning 400kph. Bloody Nora, that's quicker than a Pagani Huayra. Well, your 39 rivals are those bone-coloured Lamborghini look-a-likes, that will avoid traffic admirably, but they tend to slow down rather than crash into a bystander, unlike yourself. All the other normal-looking cars, can be categorized into four categories: dumb (the family sedans), slow (sunday drivers with sporty-looking cars), smart (GT-cars and the likes) and the quick (hot rodders, the most dangerous drivers out there), although the home conversions only have four or five different cars on the roads, while the arcade version has 9 plus yourself and the fuel cars. And that didn't even include the trucks, of which the arcade version has two (the other even drops barrels to make things even more difficult), and the home conversions have only one, which causes enough harm as it is - if you bump into a truck, you will crash instantly.

As for the bonus items, the fuel car is a multi-coloured flashing car that you will need to pick up as often as you can. They never change lanes, so they're fairly easy to pick up. They look a bit different on the Nintendo, without all that flashing, but definitely noticable, and the MSX has a heart-shaped item with the letter 'B' instead of a car. If you manage to drive without crashing for long enough, a different sort of bonus fuel item will appear from the bottom of the screen, making its way up, and once they're off the screen, you will receive a 3000 point bonus and some fuel. Such items include the airplane and Konami Man, making his first appearance in this game, and sometimes, you might even see a train pass by in certain scenes for a similar bonus. The Nintendo version only has the Konami Man featured in this role in addition to the bonus cars, and the MSX version doesn't have any other bonus item than the B-hearts passing by for some reason.

Then, there are the unmoving obstacles. First, there are the railings by the sides of the road, and they are there throughout the game. You will not necessarily crash by driving into them, if your speed is slow enough, but just in case, stay away from them. Second, there are water puddles, which will slow you down some. While the original and the NES versions will only slow you down slightly, the MSX puddles will almost stop you entirely, which is rather peculiar. Third, the oil puddles, which will almost certainly make you drift and spin out of control, so watch out for those, most particularly on the MSX. Finally, there are some thankfully seldomly placed roadworks blacks that only take up one lane's width, but will always come without warning, and you will crash into them instantly, so learn their placements by repeated plays.

Now, the original game is actually quite devilish with its steep ascent of difficulty level, whereas the other two only can go so far with how many cars will occupy the screen at once, and what sort of obstacles and quirks you will be thrown at in the next round. No - the two home conversions will only have three main types of car opponents during the whole game, with an easy lift-up in difficulty, and you will have a good amount of time learning to work the basic mechanics of the game before getting given a few badly behaved cats, while the original gives you a swarm of misbehaving poodles at once, and starts throwing you everything from hungry coyotes to dinosaurs within a couple of stages. And there's six stages to go through. I have never completed the arcade original even in the easiest settings, and for no lack of trying. The MSX version also has six stages to drive through, but it's beatable in one sitting. Compared to either of them, the Famicom version is such a walk in the park with only four stages, that you should be able to complete it easily at least twice in the same run. Since the European NES version plays a bit quicker, it requires some adjustment from the player, but it's not much worse - at least, not nearly as difficult as the original. So, if you have never played Road Fighter, I recommend you to seek out the Famicom version (or the MSX version), and practice on it before trying out the original.

There is one thing that makes the MSX version slightly more difficult than it should be, which is quite possibly just an overlooked feature from the original. Considering the MSX version is the slowest to accelerate (mostly due to its bad screen update), and plays just a bit slower than even the Famicom version, it is perhaps understandable, that the MSX version lacks a breaking mechanism. Then again, it only has one button for throttle. The other two have two buttons, one for each gear. The two-button breaking mechanism works thus: if you are driving on the lower gear, letting go of the button will make the car break instantly; however, if you are driving on the higher gear, and keeping down both buttons, letting go of just the higher one will make you easen your speed back to the highest speed on the lower gear, and if you let go of both buttons, you will start breaking instantly. On the MSX, there is no breaking mechanism, which makes it more difficult to navigate some of the more difficult traffic bits.

In fairness, I cannot really recommend the arcade version to anyone but the most hardcore of gamers. If you are good enough to complete it, then the arcade version certainly is your game. The MSX version offers the same amount of stages, which is nice, but the variety is less tragic, and there's not enough elements to make it quite as enjoyable as the Nintendo version, even if it lacks a couple of stages. Playability-wise, the Famicom version is the most approachable, but the arcade version offers the most challenge.

1. NINTENDO
2. ARCADE
3. MSX

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GRAPHICS


For once, this is the easy bit. Until the early 2000's, no home gaming device was really able to match the quality that arcade machines had to offer in terms of graphics, simply because of dedicated hardware. Of course, the earliest arcade games do not really count, but this is 1984. I will not go into each machine's technical specifications here, because they can easily be found by googling, and you would REALLY need to be a hardcore enthusiast to enjoy reading that sort of material.

Screenshots from the arcade version. Top row, left to right: Title screen, Stages 1-3, High scores table.
Bottom row, left to right: Stages 4-6, Arriving at a checkpoint, Map screen.


Let's start with a line-up of the arcade screens. Although the amount of detail is really astounding for a game of that age, you can still clearly see that the overall graphical style is very much Nintendo-like, being very much tile-based. Still, there are lots of varying sceneries to drive through, and more types cars and objects to pass. The screen resolution isn't much better from the Nintendo and MSX versions, but the speed and the amount of details in the original is that much more epic. If you have a need to see some more pictures of the passing vehicles and all, go check out Road Fighter's StrategyWiki page here.

Nintendo screens. Top row, left to right: Famicom title screen, Stage 1, Stage 2.
Bottom row, left to right: European NES title screen, Stage 3, Stage 4.

Since the Nintendo version only has four stages, it's all for the better that they all look distinctly different. There is a certain lack of detail here, but the speed makes up for the lack of graphical content. The only thing that is really missing from the Nintendo version, is the map screen from between the stages, but then again, it makes the game flow quicker, so I'm not sure it's a bad thing, really. Just for the sake of comparing the Famicom and European NES versions, I have included the two different title screens. The European version only gets to the actual menu screen after pushing the Start button in the new title screen, so I'm not sure if that's a good thing either, but it looks a bit better. What is strange, though, about the Nintendo version, is that it shows "1P" above your score, as if there was supposed to be a two-player mode in the game, which there isn't.

MSX screenshots. Top row, left to right: Title screen, Stages 1-3.
Bottom row, left to right: Stages 4-6, Map screen.

Finally, the MSX version, which understandably takes the last place again. The screen update is horrible to look at, particularly when accelerating, and even in higher speeds, the lack of scrolling abilities gets on your eyes. Considering that most of the games featured on my blog that have had an MSX version, have felt something like a straight port from ZX Spectrum, this doesn't have exactly that sort of a feel, which might be considered a good thing. Then again, the MSX was Konami's chosen platform for trying out different things, particularly as it existed in Japan before the Famicom, so they had a good solid thing going there. All that aside, the sprite colours are blander compared to the other two, so they are slightly harder to follow against the badly scrolling background. Good thing that all the graphics are nicely contrasted in colours, particularly as two of the stages have a completely unique overall look here. It's not too bad at all, but compared to the other two, it just falls a bit too far behind.

1. ARCADE
2. NINTENDO
3. MSX

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SOUNDS


Because this is such an old game, all the sound processors are on a similar level, but the chips and their programmers are just enough different to cause some noticable differences. At best, you will hear 4 voices simultaneously on the arcade version and the Nintendo console, and although the MSX has a similar soundscape in essentials, because of the MSX's AY-chip's different method of handling sounds in different registers, it sounds like you can only hear two or three sounds at a time.

The arcade version has clearly the biggest arsenal of sound effects and tunes to go with all the graphical elements that weren't translated to the two home conversions. For starters, you have an effect for inserting a coin - a three-note ditty with three overlapped pitches for each note, going in an ascending manner. Then, you get the intro jingle, which is the same for all versions, basically. Starting lights: bonggg, bonggg, bonggg, BONGGG!, as it usually goes. The first thing to really set the arcade version apart from the other two is the engine sound: here, you will hear an almost engine-like roaring, with an odd number of alternating sounds getting higher in pitch and quicker in tempo as you accelerate, making the engine gradually sound like a slightly unbalanced chord. When you pass a rival car, you will hear the famous doppler-effect-like sound of a passing car, but it doesn't get played for any other cars. The trucks have their own noise; bonuses have their own bleepy sound in addition to the flying bonuses' noises; bumping, crashing, tailsliding and braking produce their own designated sound effects, and when you are running out of fuel, a three-octave alarm ditty starts annoying you on top of everything. As for the other music in the game, there are only a few short jingles for getting to the checkpoint, another for the map screen, one for reaching the goal and one for Game Over.

Comparing that to the version most familiar to myself, the Nintendo version, that's not too much more, really. There, you will only lack for any menu sounds and the jingle for the map screen, since there is none such thing. The engine sound is different, a bit more simplistic and annoying, and has been known to wake up a sleeping man even with low volume on the TV set - it has a constant three-pitched booming that bears little similarity to an engine. Also, since there are no actual rivals on the Nintendo version, the passing car sounds have been given to the red cars, which act a bit dangerously. Other than that, the sound library for the Nintendo version is rather well stocked.

Sadly, the AY-chip on the MSX performs rather poorly here, with even more monotonic noises than what the Nintendo version has to offer. The engine might have two sounds simultaneously, but it sounds like only one, and when you pick up any bonuses or have something other things happening than just driving, that would cause another sound effect to play, the engine sound would sort of drop to a half of its original volume for some reason. My guess is that it's the other similar engine sound that's been left to drone at the back, while the more noisy one has been replaced with the new sound effect. The MSX version has no menu sounds, no map screen music, no sound effect for trucks, no flying bonus sounds (because there are no flying bonuses), and no breaking noise (because of no brakes). You do get a unique ping-type sound at the beginning of every new stage, and the fuel-running-out melody has a small pause at the end of the loop, which makes it sound like a limping xylophonist. Unlike with Nintendo, the sound for passing cars has been designated for the blue cars this time, which act much like the other sunday drivers. However much you would want to find something good to say about it, the MSX version just isn't much of a performer.

1. ARCADE
2. NINTENDO
3. MSX

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OVERALL


This time, we have a very unusual three-some, since it's the first time in the history of this blog that the game isn't available on either Commodore 64 or ZX Spectrum. Also, it's the first time that from the worst to the best, the versions also can be thought of as the easiest to find to the most difficult to find as real game media. Still, this method of scoring doesn't necessarily mean the one with the highest score is actually the best one around. Although it certainly is the original.

1. ARCADE = Playability 2, Graphics 3, Sounds 3 = TOTAL 8
2. NINTENDO = Playability 3, Graphics 2, Sounds 2 = TOTAL 7
3. MSX = Playability 1, Graphics 1, Sounds 1 = TOTAL 3

As is so often the case, you shouldn't just base your preferences on a writing you found on the internet. Go and find the game and try it out by yourself, see which you one prefer. Currently, I prefer the MSX version, because it's the one I've played the least, but the Famicom version is the one I usually go to, if I want to have a good 10 minutes wasted on an 8-bit racer.

Road Fighter did have some sequels, such as Midnight Run in 1995 and Winding Heat in 1996, but they are too new for me to bother with them. Midnight Run is available on the first PlayStation (although it only had a Japanese release), and all the other Road Fighters are purely arcade machines. For a more faithful modern representation of the original game, try the 2003 remake by Brain Games, released for Windows and Nintendo Wii's Homebrew Channel, or the Nintendo version's re-release for the Virtual Console service. -- UPDATE!, 25th of October, 2014: As I mentioned in my September 2014 Updates entry, there also exists a curious mash-up version of Road Fighter vs. Spy Hunter on the Texas Instruments' TI-99/4a computer, aptly titled ROAD HUNTER. Read more about it from the said update entry.

Perhaps Road Fighter was not the most obvious choice for this sort of blog entry, but it was planned to be done since before the first post for FRGCB, so it was high time I got it finally done. Next similar case will probably be up some time next month, who knows with which game, but next time, back to normal service.

Thanks for reading again, see you next time!

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