Genre: Racing Developer: Blizzard Ent. Publisher: Interplay Players: 1-2 Released: 1994
The year is 1993. After releasing their smash album Vulgar Display of Power, Pantera is the most popular Metal band of all time. Guns ‘n Roses, the former stars of the rock charts, announce a new record (shortly before breaking up). Teenagers are now favouring the new grunge rock sound pioneered by Nirvana. One of MTVs most popular programs is the Metal-show “Headbangers Wall.” Yes, rock music is at the very height of its popularity. And in order to cash in on that trend, well-established publisher Interplay and a little known developer called Silicon & Synapse (which changes its name to Blizzard Entertainment the very same year) release a little racing game sporting a soundtrack composed of famous rock classics for the high end consoles of that era, SNES and Genesis.
Fast forward fifteen years. Teenagers today weren’t even alive when Kurt Cobain killed himself. The “new” Guns ‘n Roses still haven’t released “Chinese Democracy,” making that album the music industry’s equivalent to Duke Nukem Forever. Metal has returned to a fringe market, hardly getting any airplay on MTV anymore (which has virtually stopped airing music videos altogether). And while once-famous publisher Interplay filed for bankruptcy in 2006, Blizzard has risen to be one of the most successful developers in the industry – not with racing games, but thanks to their MMORPG World of Warcraft.
As it so often goes with fads and trends, most of them don’t age very well. The very same thing applies to this little game – while it certainly has its merits, those are mostly overshadowed by its shortcomings that now, fifteen years later, become even more apparent since the game can’t gain any favour by its choice of soundtrack anymore.
Rock ‘n Roll Racing is a – surprise – racing game. You cruise a number of increasingly (but not too) complex race tracks in an isometric point of view for four laps each against 3 opponents. You gain points and money by reaching first, second or third place – the higher, the more. With a certain amount of points you can qualify for higher divisions, which bring new tracks along with tougher opponents. The money you can use to buy a new car or some upgrades like better tires, engines, or offensive and defensive weaponry. You can shoot your opponents during the race – if a car gets destroyed, it loses a few seconds before respawning, which can decide over winning or losing a race.
Sound familiar? Yes, Rock ‘n Roll Racing is basically the same game as Championship Pro-Am (or R.C. Pro-Am on the NES). It has been upgraded in some respects, though. For example, you can choose a racer at the beginning of the game, each with certain advantages (like being better at top-speed, acceleration or cutting corners). As an easter egg, Blizzard has included Lost Viking character Olaf as well, who is accessible via cheat. The “stages” are separated into five planets with two divisions each. Since each division has at least eight tracks, this makes for an incredible eighty races – in theory. In fact, there are just forty different tracks, since the roster for each planet starts over when you start the second division – the tracks stay the same, only the opponents get a bit tougher. Since you have to repeat each track twice before gaining access to new ones, the gameplay drags down a bit and soon becomes repetitive.
While the graphics are better than those of direct rival Championship Pro-Am, they aren’t too fancy, either. Each planet has its own background graphics, but those aren’t very detailed. Chem IV is mostly yellow and brown – Draconis is mostly purple and black – Inferno is mostly orange and red… you get the idea. If you play the game too long in succession, it gets rather boring to look at.
The biggest plus for the game, at least when it was released, was its soundtrack. Each race is accompanied by one of six hard rock songs which mostly suit the game very well – it gives the race a certain fast-paced and gripping atmosphere (though I never understood the inclusion of the Peter Gunn theme. Neither is this song very hard rock, nor fast paced. In fact, every time I happened to listen to this track during one race, I had the feeling it dragged everything down a bit.) The songs are nicely sampled most of the time, and most classics are easily recognizable, like Black Sabbath’s Paranoid or Golden Earrings Radar Love. The high notes, however, are sometimes annoyingly tinny and sound like a mosquito passing too close by ones ear. The game also sports an announcer with voice samples, who is commenting the race pretty accurately. It suits the atmosphere very well and, while a bit distorted at times, the samples are pretty good. The races are short, and the soundtrack (most of the times) makes them short and fast-paced affairs, especially in higher levels.
However, if you take away the soundtrack, you are left with a simplistic, repetitive gameplay and murky, repetitive background graphics. It is nice for a few races but gets boring pretty fast. Sound effects are few – screeching tires or launching rockets, mostly – and aren’t very good. They even have the tendency to break off abruptly at times, which sounds rather ugly.
Let’s face it, when hard rock and metal were still great, this soundtrack could make up for almost any shortcomings the premise and gameplay had; it could really improve the game. But if you take away the trend and take it at face value, then you have to admit that it isn’t much more than a pretty mediocre game. Hardcore rock fans (there still are some of them out there, and I count myself among them) might gain more pleasure from playing and may add one additional point to the score. Overall, here is a prime example of something that hasn’t aged well. This games sound has gone off and now tastes pretty bland.
SCORE: 6 out of 10