Genre: Racing Developer: Namco Publisher: Namco Players: 1-2 Released: 1991
It’s surprising that there aren’t more racing games involving all-terrain vehicles (ATV). One would think that racing over dunes and through mud would appeal to more people, but apparently that isn’t the case. Relatively few titles have been released over the past two decades, and the most successful series of the bunch, MX vs. ATV was recently discontinued by THQ and its development studio closed. It seems that off-road racing has been hit as hard by the economy as everyone else.
The truth is though, that the ATV genre has never really managed to gain a foothold in mainstream gaming. The granddaddy of ATV games, Namco’s Quad Challenge, was most likely the first of its kind on consoles, and it didn’t exactly set the world on fire. While everyone else was racing Sega’s Ferrari or motor cycle, or competing in the Monaco GP, relatively few seemed interested in taking control of an ATV. The game was quietly released, and while sales figures are elusive, it doesn’t appear that the game was a major hit for Namco.
A game’s success or failure at retail isn’t necessarily dependent on quality, of course, and we’ve all seen horrible titles sell millions while true gems collect dust in bargain bins. The latter is all the more tragic, since many people complaining of a lack of good games in a certain category are missing out on titles that would most likely satisfy them. Even if they are counseled to play the great ones they’ve missed, they often don’t. Those titles that are merely lackluster do far worse, since no one recommends them, and most gamers tend to pick them up on eBay or at flea markets for mere pennies on the dollar. These are the games that provoke a sense of indifference, that feeling of “it’s not that good, but it was cheap.” Namco’s 1991 racer Quad Challenge falls squarely into this category.
I’m willing to take into account the fact that Quad Challenge was a forerunner in its genre. There weren’t that many ATV games around at the time, and there were certainly none on the Genesis. It would be unfair to cite it for lacking features that later ATV games incorporated or even the more complex graphics and features of arcade ATV games had, like Four Trax (the 1989 game on which Quad Challenge is based). No, if we’re going to scrutinize here, it should be on Quad Challenge’s lack of the fundamental qualities that make a racing game fun. There’s no way around that, since there was plenty of Genesis racing titles out by 1991.
At a glance, things seem to be off to a great start. There are two modes of gameplay, practice and championship, each with a specific set of courses. Practice mode lets players race on nine tracks, and championship ups the limit to a whopping 16. Two players can compete against each other, and there are four different ATVs from which to choose, each with varying degrees of acceleration, horsepower, and handling. Personally, I never really noticed any difference among them aside from the color one chooses at the beginning of the race, and that is essentially the limit of customization. That’s a far cry from the original mode in Sega’s Super Hang-On, which lets players customize their bikes by using race winnings to purchase different upgrades. There’s a password system for championship mode, but it does little more than save your progress in the championship, as nothing else changes while you play. That’s probably why it’s a mere four characters long. Could bike upgrades be responsible for Super Hang-On’s massive passwords, causing Namco to keep Quad Challenge as a strictly arcade racer in order to make the player’s life easier? I suppose one can attempt to justify it, but the really bare bones workings of this game really hurt its long-term playability.
Racing always takes place in split-screen mode, regardless of whether or not there’s a second player. This is kind of distracting, and it doesn’t really seem to be necessary. Do I really need half the screen to know where my opponent is on the track? Isn’t that what the course map on the right is for? Races are also timed, and completing a lap extends the timer, similar to OutRun. Courses are mostly comprised of turns and minor bumps, and there is little variety to them. One simply goes around the track, shifting and braking when necessary, but the racing is perhaps the only thing in the game that bears mentioning. Taking turns to sharply can lead to a wipeout, so players must learn to master the correct technique of braking when turning. The bikes can also overheat if they’re pressed too long, so down-shifting at the right time is vital. This was a pleasant change for me, as most other racers of the era consist of just hitting the accelerator and occasionally braking. Success seems to come mostly from learning the track layout. Quad Challenge adds the element of knowing one’s vehicle, as no knowledge of turns and bumps is going to save a bike that’s overheating.
While Quad Challenge makes a minor effort to stand out from the crowd in gameplay, it plays it safe with its presentation. There’s no way it could mimic the smooth scaling of its arcade sibling, and the track sides have been noticeably stripped down to make things easier on the engine. Aside from the occasional bush or sign, there’s nothing but dirt to look at. The tracks themselves are pretty plain as well, and only a change in the distant background makes distinguishing them possible. I do think that Namco copied Nintendo’s own Excitebike when it designed the racers, since they look almost identical. Even the wipeout roll is the same! They at least animate fluidly, which is what Super Hang-On was really lacking (that leaning animation… egad!). The only part of the whole package that I really like is the music, which features that great early ’90s Namco flair, similar to Burning Force. It’s very clear and catchy, and gives the player something to focus on instead of the uninspired visuals.
In the end, there’s not a lot of traction on this ATV’s tires, which may turn off gamers looking for a deeper racing experience. There’s fun to be had here, especially with a second player, but that doesn’t last too long due to the repetitive tracks and dull gameplay. I know I keep comparing Quad Challenge to Sega’s motorcycle classic, but Namco should really have copied Super Hang-On’s original mode. That would have breathed new life into this game and made it a classic. Those looking for a great arcade racer should stick to that one or just play OutRun; it looks as great as it plays. I guess we would have to wait a few more years for Namco to finally emulate Sega’s gaming formula. Perhaps it should have waited until then to bring this ATV racer home.