By the end of the Nineties, UK developer Rareware had established itself as one of the most talented softcos in the world, and along with Nintendo's own in-house output, had helped to placate Nintendo 64 gamers throughout most of the console's life with a steady supply of premium software.
Having delivered the exuberant Jet Force Gemini to critical acclaim, busily putting the final flourishes to a Banjo-Kazooie sequel and the small matter of their impossibly-anticipated and much-delayed Perfect Dark, Rare still had time to take on what would have been a huge licence for any other company at the time. Its N64 successes obviously hadn't escaped the attention of Disney Interactive, but although still a commercially popular platform, interest in the system was beginning to wane.
This was actually a sort-of console sequel to Game Boy Color outing Mickey’s Racing Adventure from a full year earlier, albeit ironically somewhat less ambitious in design than its handheld brother. A family-friendly racing game using an updated version of the brilliant Diddy Kong Racing engine was probably agreed as the most obvious and quickest formula to get Mickey and his chums on Nintendo's flagging home console.
As it happened, Mickey’s Speedway USA went largely unnoticed by the time it was released at the end of 2000, presumably because most N64 gamers at the time were too occupied with Perfect Dark's Combat Simulator to care.
As you'd expect, it follows the usual kart racer template cemented in years gone by: a selection of ten Disney characters to choose from, each with unique racing styles; offensive and defensive power-ups to dispense throughout each of the tracks' three laps; the customary Grand Prix with points awarded for finishing higher on the grid; and an up-to 4-player racing and battle mode. Each track takes place in an American city, so among others there's a snow-covered course in Alaska, a swing around the New York cityscapes and a trip across the Golden Gate Bridge in San Francisco.
What strikes you as soon as you approach the first bend of the first race in Indianapolis is just how beautifully everything looks and moves. There's a hint of those dreamy water-colour hues from Jet Force Gemini in the backgrounds, with varied and colourful textures decorating every section of the track. Clearly at this stage, Rare already knew how to push the aging hardware to the limit and find new ways around the system's limited texture cache. And it's fast. Fast and silky smooth, with tight controls to match. In the Professional class, it's not uncommon to finish stages in under a minute; zipping along at a pace faster than Mario Kart 64 or Diddy Kong Racing.
Although a Disney licensed game, there's surprisingly little in the way of that indefinable Disney atmosphere found in the likes of SEGA's Castle of Illusion, or even Capcom's Mickey's Magical Adventure series on the Super Nintendo. In comparison to the nauseating presentation of Diddy Kong Racing which at times threatened to ruin an otherwise excellent game, here the characters, music and story are largely unobtrusive. That will come as relief to those subjected to Diddy Kong Racing's hyperactive colour schemes and maddening twee jingles, and who probably still suffer Timber-induced nightmares to this day. Or that could just be us.
And while Diddy Kong Racing’s child-like demeanour hides a challenge that could frustrate even the most patient, here we have a game that is initially far more sedate, offering little in the way of the same difficulty as its predecessor. This is obviously aimed at younger players: course layouts are simple to negotiate and it’s often possible to breeze through the championship mode several seconds ahead of the nearest CPU opponents. It’s only really when you take on the higher racing classes that the increase of speed begins to provide an added challenge, as swinging your kart around the corners at breakneck speeds requires dexterous use of that lovely powerslide. Nice touches the player will notice after a while are things like the speed of your kart increasing as you travel downhill, leaves swirling up off the ground as the karts drive over them and the sun setting gradually in the distance during a race.
Less impressive are the throwaway weapons available, which feel like afterthoughts rather than necessary additions: a customary speed boost and a neat baseball projectile attack which bounces off the walls and remains on the track are satisfactory enough, but others like the homing bicycle and another which resembles a hairdryer (yep, you read both of those right) are just too weak and ineffective, though certainly not lacking in imagination.
So, the Grand Prix mode has its gripes, but with that solid game engine underpinning it all, the Time Trial mode can help provide some substantial thrills, with a selection of staff records to be broken. The aforementioned multiplayer racing and battle modes are an improvement over DKR’s drab equivalents, but not by much.
You can probably already tell there’s a lot about Mickey’s Speedway USA that remains curious, but even though there’s the feeling Rare was mostly plain sailing on this title, it says a lot about the studio's ability that it could still produce a game of this quality. It undoubtedly lacks the variety and imagination of Diddy Kong Racing, or the character and track design of Mario Kart 64, but technically it shines, demonstrating glimpses of what was still possible at this point with the N64. By that alone it probably deserves a second look.