Review: Mach Rider (3DS eShop / NES)

A forgotten gem from the NES launch library

Mach Rider is an impressive feat for an NES title — a faux-3D motorcycle combat game with dozens of courses, an endurance mode, and a track editor. Not only was Mach Rider an NES title, but it was an October 1985 NES launch title. Namco's Pole Position had only hit arcades three years earlier, and already Nintendo R&D2 was evolving the groundbreaking racing concept for home consoles. Today, Mach Rider is lost in the shuffle and overshadowed by Nintendo's other customisable-track motorcycling NES launch title, but if you give it a chance you'll find a deep, rewarding, vehicular manslaughtering arcade-style experience.

IN THE YEAR 2112, THE EARTH HAS BEEN INVADED BY EVIL FORCES.
JOURNEY TO NEIGHBORING SECTORS DESTROYING INVADERS.
YOU ARE "MACH RIDER"!

That's all the exposition you get in Mach Rider. Mad Max Beyond Thunderdome hit cinemas the summer before Mach Rider's release, and the influence of the Aussie post-apocalyptic franchise shows. This title's eponymous protagonist treks across desert wastelands and ruined cities in his (or her?) search for survivors; it's a much darker tone than we're used to seeing from Nintendo. Taking its name from a 1972 Nintendo toy car (back when Nintendo made toys), Mach Rider has never had a sequel. F-Zero would arguably serve as its spiritual successor, borrowing Mach Rider's 3D perspective and futuristic racing combat.

The game has gorgeous graphics for a 1985 NES release. In addition to the faux-3D perspective and blistering speed, Mach Rider's death animation features the character exploding into spectacular pieces, before coming back together again if the player has any lives left. The soundtrack consists of only a few songs, and they're solid 8-bit tunes on par with the music of most of Nintendo's B-list releases on the NES.

Mach Rider features a more complex control scheme than many racing games of its time. In addition to standard "A to accelerate, D-pad to move left and right" controls, you press B to fire your machine gun... and you press up and down on the D-pad to change gears. There are four gears and, like in real life, you can't just switch to fourth gear right away. It's best to start off in first gear and slowly make your way up. Along with the combat, this gives Mach Rider a depth not seen in many of its contemporaries.

It's split into four modes: Fighting Course, Endurance Course, Solo Course, and Design. There's no multiplayer to speak of, but that's not a huge surprise considering that it was an NES launch title. Fighting Course is the campaign mode, consisting of 20 sectors. You choose between two different tracks in each sector, adding a rudimentary level of non-linearity to the experience. All you have to do is make it to the finish line to proceed to the next stage, avoiding obstacles like oil slicks and tacks on the road. As the name of the Fighting Course mode implies, you also fight off opposing cars who can ram you to death with a single hit from behind. They can sneak up on you quickly, so you have to keep a watchful eye on your rear-view mirror in the corner of the screen. Mach Rider isn't defenceless, though: you've got the aforementioned machine gun you can use to destroy enemies and obstacles.

At the end of each stage you're scored not on how long it took you to reach the finish line, but on how many opposing racers and obstacles you've blown up. You get bonus points for defeating enemies by ramming them into obstacles. In the first stage you get unlimited lives, but after that you can only die four times before you reach game over. As you progress to later sectors the enemy cars take multiple hits to destroy, and there are even environmental effects — it'll start snowing in the middle of a race, and the track will become slippery. Hard to believe this came out in 1985! Like many arcade-style games of the mid-'80s, though, it's incredibly difficult. Enemies sneak up on you and ram you from behind with virtually zero chance to get out of the way, and you need lightning-quick reflexes to dodge all the barrels and boulders on the track.

Endurance Course, Mach Rider's time trial mode, is a much more welcoming introduction to the game. The same obstacles and opponents from Fighting Course are there, but you have unlimited lives — all you have to do is travel a certain distance within a given time limit. Solo Course is exactly the same as Endurance Course, except there are no other vehicles on the road to contend with. It's the easiest mode in the game, but it's also fairly boring, so you'll quickly want to graduate to Endurance Course.

Design mode is a curious affair. You're presented with a blank map of the course, with 40 different track tiles of all sorts of twists and turns that you can place wherever you want. Control is a bit awkward at first: to select which tile you're placing you have to hold down B and then choose it with the D-pad. Then you let go of B, move around the map with the D-pad, and press A to place the tile. It's cumbersome, but there aren't many alternatives for operating such a complex level editor with the NES controller's scant number of buttons. After you design a course you can use it to play any of the game's three other modes.

When Mach Rider was originally released, the Japan-only Famicom Data Recorder was required to save players' custom courses, since the NES didn't have enough memory; fans in the West were out of luck. Unfortunately, fans in the West are still out of luck with the 3DS Virtual Console release of Mach Rider. The "SAVE" and "LOAD" buttons are sitting there teasing us, but alas, players cannot save their custom courses. Nintendo rarely adds extra features to its Virtual Console releases, but this seems like a simple fix that could've easily been implemented.

Conclusion

Mach Rider is an overlooked gem from the NES launch library. It's a technical wonder for the time, with a darker mood than Nintendo is typically known for. The game's flagship Fighting Course is too hellishly difficult for all except the most experienced arcade racing fans, but the more approachable Endurance Course makes up for it. The custom course design mode would be a selling point, but the lack of a course save function is a huge oversight on the part of Nintendo. It's not an all-time classic, but Mach Rider stands the test of time better than most other home console racing games from the 1980s, and it translates smoothly to 3DS.