These days, considering most of us have become accustomed to the smooth frame rates and high definition resolutions provided by modern consoles, revisiting the Nintendo 64 can sometimes be a painful experience as you may find that some of your favourite games haven’t aged very well. Fuzzy textures, choppy frame rates and limited draw distances are commonplace, and you may wonder how some games didn’t induce motion sickness when you used to spend so much time playing them.
Well, that’s not the case with Beetle Adventure Racing, an arcade-style racer developed by Paradigm Entertainment and published by Electronic Arts in March of 1999. As the name suggests, this isn’t a game focused entirely on racing as it also incorporates a strong element of exploration similar to that of Midway’s Rush series from the same era. Though, instead of being restricted an urban cityscapes, you’ll venture through jungles, vast deserts, snowy mountain tops, haunted forests and more, each as full of life as a flagship ride at Disneyland.
Say what you will about the vehicle selection being limited to the Volkswagon Beetle, these distinct cartoon-esque vehicles give the game the fun and carefree vibe of a kart racer, and their vibrancy compliments the excitement of the tracks built around them. You may not believe a Beetle to be synonymous with speed but these Bugs fly around the track and handle like a dream thanks to a fairly realistic physics engine and gratifying power-slide mechanic.
The track selection is limited to six courses – which may seem a little light – but what Beetle Adventure Racing lacks in quantity, it makes up for in quality. These tracks are absolutely massive and bursting at the seams with a plethora of alternate routes, short-cuts and various secrets. Some of these routes are easily accessible while others are risky, thus providing a greater sense of reward. Each one of these sprawling tracks is expertly designed and radiating with enough personality and character to ensure you’ll want to revisit them time and time again.
Not only is there a great sense of diversity between each course, you’ll also visit many different environments and locales in a single race. For example, in Inferno Isle you’ll start off in a dense jungle, visit a seaside city, advance through a volcano, and exit to a village set ablaze by the molten rock that has rained upon it. At one point you’ll even come face-to-face with the famous reptilian antagonist that rampaged through one of Steven Spielberg’s greatest movies. While this is arguably the most memorable course in the game, it’s safe to say that the others are equally ambitious.
In championship mode – the main single-player offering – your goal is not only to finish in first place, but also to smash through as many numbered boxes scattered around the course as possible. Doing so will unlock much-needed continues throughout the various circuits, and if you collect all 100 points available per course, you’ll also unlock additional arenas for the multiplayer mode, Beetle Battle. This won’t be easy though as you’ll need to discover, memorize, and traverse most of the alternate routes in succession during a single race to get them all. Want a real challenge? You’ve got it right here.
As for multiplayer, the racing action is limited to 2-player head-to-head races - however for those with multiple friends, there’s the aforementioned Beetle Battle mode. Here, you’ll fight your opponents for supremacy of an arena while hunting down a colour-changing ladybug emblem that relocates around the map every time a player drives through it. You’ll need to obtain the six different coloured ladybugs indicated on the screen and the first to do so and reach the exit will be crowned victorious. While Beetle Battle can provide some excitement, the novelty seems to wear thin rather quickly. A few of the maps are restricted in size, and littered with obstacles, and some Beetles handle a little bit too stiffly to navigate them with ease.
Now you might think with courses this grand and the limitations of a cartridge-based system that Beetle Adventure Racing may have some noticeable performance issues. Thankfully, that’s not the case at all. Even considering the immense sense of speed on show here, the game still runs remarkably smoothly and maintains a solid frame rate throughout. The draw distance is even impressive compared to many other racing games on the N64 and you’ll find very little, if any, fog in the horizon.
Charismatic vehicles, exhilarating courses and a funky drum and bass soundtrack give Beetle Adventure Racing a personality all of its own. This is easily a game that could have been developed into a series had the proper attention gone into promoting it upon its release. There is a near Nintendo-like level of quality and warmth on display here that is missing from most third-party games and it’s one of the few N64 release that has aged extremely well. If you still have the means, you owe it to yourself to take Beetle Adventure Racing for a ride.
Beetle Adventure Racing is an anomaly. Due to the license you might expect it to be criminally underdeveloped and released solely to capitalize on the rising popularity of a current trend, but that's not the case. While this Adventure may be infested with Bugs, it’s actually an exceptionally well-made game that just may be one of the most charming racing options on the Nintendo 64. Yes, it’s really that good.