On rare occasion, a game so revolutionary will appear that not only will it receive the usual much deserved critical acclaim, it’ll become responsible for the creation of an entirely new genre. Take Super Mario Kart for instance — the title single-handedly responsible for the birth of the console kart racer.
Following its huge overnight success back in 1992, it doesn’t come as any great surprise to find the subsequent years littered with countless imitators and challengers – most, if not all, inferior to the title from which they drew their inspiration.
But what about Street Racer? Published by Ubisoft back in the mid 90s on a plethora of different platforms including the Super Nintendo, how does it size up on the very same console as the game that started it all?
Upon powering on, the similarities are immediately obvious. Take your pick from a cast of eight humorously cheesy characters and select a cup competition to participate in. The game boasts a total of twenty-four playable tracks and although there are only four different cups to choose from (including a custom cup mode where you can put together your own ideal sequence of races), it’s possible to increase the game’s difficulty should it initially prove too much of a stroll.
Visually, Street Racer is a nice looking title, boasting detailed sprites and extremely colourful tracks and backdrops. The developers, Vivid Image, certainly lived up to their name: the game makes great use of the Super Nintendo’s Mode 7 capabilities, with the track smoothly rotating as the player takes corners, the other drivers scaling in and out of the distance appropriately to create a convincing sense of depth. Unfortunately however, there is a distinct lack of vertical track objects in Street Racer (a la the pipe and Thwomp sprites in Super Mario Kart) which can leave the game looking a bit flat at times in comparison. For the most part however, like Super Mario Kart and F-Zero before it, Street Racer succeeds in creating the illusion of racing in 3D, even if everything is really only two-dimensional.
In-game music is also of a good standard, featuring many memorable and catchy tunes which will stick in your head. The sound effects are typically functional, and while nothing to write home about, they don’t tend to get on your nerves either which can only be a good thing. There’s only so much the developers can do with squealing tyres and revving engines after all.
Of course, looking and sounding nice all counts for nothing if the gameplay isn’t up to scratch, but thankfully Street Racer also holds its own in this regard too. The game places significant emphasis on driving well, staying on the track, taking corners smoothly and gradually building up speed and momentum. As is to be expected, running off course drastically cuts your speed and on harder difficulty levels it’s crucial to remain on the track at all times if you want to be among the front-runners.
Rather curiously for a kart racer, there aren’t really any conventional power-ups in Street Racer. Instead, each character comes equipped with their own trademark attacks and special abilities. For instance, Hodja can levitate over opponents with his magic carpet, while Raphael’s super-charged stereo system will blow away anyone that gets too close. It’s a good idea and helps to add to the quirkiness of the game and the personality of each individual racer more than a generic, interchangeable set of items ever could. Each character has two of these abilities that can be activated by pressing either A or X, with a recharge period meaning that it’s thankfully not possible to rely on special attacks over driving prowess.
In addition, it’s not only possible, but actively encouraged for players to lash out sideways at opponents through by pressing either the L or R button depending on the desired direction. Unlike special moves, players can constantly attempt to smack their rivals without having to pause for breath and it’s extremely satisfying to deliver a backhander right in the face of an encroaching rival, sending them off course as you speed off up the track. Every character’s special and physical attacks are well animated and certainly quirky and charming, which helps to give Street Racer a fun, over-the-top and cartoony vibe.
Also unusually, Street Racer offers no power sliding ability, a decision that perhaps runs the risk of rendering the race experience rather rudimentary and basic. There’s no need to fret however, as the developers have more than made up for its absence with a number of other interesting inclusions. First off is the implementation of a damage meter which, when depleted by rival attacks or by driving over one of the many bomb icons which litter each track, will noticeably cut your speed, but yellow toolkit icons can be collected in order to replenish it. Also to be found lying around on the racetrack are blue boost icons, which can be stored up and then activated at any time with a push of the Y button, and smaller star icons that will provide the driver who collects the most with a bonus point after the race. Extra points can also be earned through achievements such as lapping an opponent or even being the most aggressive driver. It’s a nifty touch, providing an extra incentive during the race.
Additionally, racers can also hop into the air with a quick press of Up on the D-Pad. While it can be invaluable for avoiding the bomb icons that litter the track, it’s also possible to hop across rough terrain and cut corners with this ability, which can feel slightly cheap. Because of its mapping on the D-Pad also, sometimes you’ll find yourself inadvertently triggering a hop when frantically steering from left to right which can be irritating.
As well as individual abilities, each character also has two or three of their own self-styled courses which reflect their personality – ranging from Sumo San’s future-Tokyo setting to Suzulu’s African savannah dirt track. The layouts are functional enough, although some are perhaps slightly on the short side with lap times as short as nine or ten seconds on certain circuits. Street Racer does however come with the option to change the number of laps that make up a race — going all the way up to 30 for those patient (or crazy) enough — if the default setting of five seems too stingy.
In fact, the level of customisation on the whole available in Street Racer is fairly good, and helps to add a degree of replay value. As well as the aforementioned ability to change the number of laps, difficulty setting and the inclusion of a Custom Cup, players can also choose to turn off physical and special attacks and even damage, for those that would prefer to enjoy a completely pure racing experience.
Of course, you can’t have a decent kart racer without a multiplayer mode and thankfully Street Racer doesn’t disappoint – very good news indeed since admittedly there’s only so much fun you can have by yourself with a game of this nature. In addition to the unsurprising inclusion of a two-player mode (complete with all the same features as the one-player), the game also offers the more uncommon ability to play with up to three other people – as long as you’re one of the rare few that possesses a Super Nintendo multitap, that is.
For some bizarre reason however, perhaps down to the limitations of the SNES or the inner workings of Mode 7, Vivid Image have decided to implement a curious looking horizontally-stacked method of splitting the screen, instead of the now established ‘four corners’ method. Although it takes some getting used to, it’s certainly better than nothing – especially considering Street Racer comes from an era when having the chance to play with more than one other person was far from commonplace.
If you do manage to get bored of the actual racing however, Street Racer also includes two bonus modes. Unfortunately, they’re not a patch on Mario Kart’s epic battle mode. On offer is Rumble — a dull affair where the aim is to simply knock opponents out of an arena — and Soccer, a strange take on the beautiful game which sees all eight racers vying for control of the ball in an attempt to score into a solitary goal guarded by a moving horizontal bar. It’s frustrating stuff as you find yourself chasing the ball for ages only to have your attempts blocked while the computer characters’ efforts almost always sail in. The mode does feature possibly the only ever cameo of Woking FC in a Nintendo game however, so at least that’s something.
Though its source of inspiration is almost embarrassingly obvious, to immediately dismiss Street Racer as a drastically inferior rip-off would be unfair. The developers have certainly brought some of their own ideas to the table and by offering a decent amount of options to play with and a combination of colourful visuals, wacky characters and slick racing, Street Racer is a solid alternative for those who’ve grown tired of Super Mario Kart. You just might want to grab a few friends first though, as the very nature of the game tends to render the one-player experience slightly shallow. A quick blast of fun, but don’t expect to remain hooked for hours on end.