Wednesday, April 06, 2011

Videogame Classics - Motoracer Advance

Motoracer Advance
Delphine Software
Gameboy Advance

April 21, 2003

Shortly after getting into Moto GP (and loving every minute of it), someone pointed me in the direction of Delphine Software's own Motoracer Advance. I can't remember how exactly the subject came up, but I'm glad it did. I have an affinity for anything that shows genuine creativity, that spark of fun, be it art or music or film or even videogames. Motoracer has sparks to spare.

The game is loosely based on a series of motorcycle racing games on the Playstation by Delphine, which featured different styles of racing fused together. I can't say I've ever seen the original games, but chances are that I've missed out. That's not to suggest this title is yet another port; not so. Everything has been built from the ground up.

Every game needs a hook. I found myself hooked once I started my first race and quickly discovered how wonderful everything looks. I wouldn't call it a "cartoon" look, but everything is drawn with a painterly approach, as though sketched with watercolors and stencils. There hasn't been anything on the Advance quite like this; "cartoon" games are usually covered with a saccharine gloss; Motoracer instead resembles an underground comic book. Smooth color, rich tones. Consider, for example, the Kenya course, with its rich browns, its animated locals waving from the side.

Then, of course, things start moving, and you realize how brilliant the game's graphics engine truly is. There are certain expectations with racing titles on Gameboy Advance, usually variations on the Super Nintendo "Mode 7," or the twists and turns of Sega's Hang-On and Outrun, or some attempt at 3D polygons (with mixed results). Adeline has achieved something different here. The game is entirely presented without polygons, and yet we have roads that buckle, heave, and twist in every direction. The first time you take a jump over a hill is a rush; sometimes, there are so many bumps and drops that one could feel dizzy. And everything is wonderfully smooth and very fast, even with a screen filled with trees, poles, buildings, animals, crowds, oncoming traffic. Motocross Advance has achieved something of a minor benchmark with old-school bitmaps. The question then remains: if this is what can be achieved on the Advance with sprites, why even bother with polygons?

That sense of speed is, of course, crucial to any great racing game. And the fact that this is achieved without sacrificing frames of animation only adds to my respect. I'm amazed at how far the horizon stretches. Perhaps that's just a benefit of all the hills and turns that I can see so far. The benefit to the player is that they can plan better for those upcoming turns. The game's camera is low to the ground, closer to a first-person view. Some may complain that their view is blocked because of this, but I've never had any trouble. Most driving games set the camera too high anyway.

Of the three different racing modes, the dirt bikes are my favorite, since they offer the most jumps and hills. In addition to dirt bikes are the GP and Traffic levels. GP includes the same high-speed motorbikes that made Moto GP so cool, with smoother curves and hills. One course takes place across a highway, where players must constantly drive across the narrow off-ramps. Traffic does just what it promises: you race against other drivers through city traffic. Trying to gain the lead while diving down the San Francisco hills is one thing; trying to avoid those trollies is another thing altogether. There are eighteen racetracks between the three modes, each similar in approach but noticeably unique in style.

Regardless of which bike you drive, the steering is impeccable. It's ironic that the motorcycle games on this handheld have turned out to be the best-playing. More often than not, bike games are throwaways after the cars have had their fun. Again, notice how your vehicles don't swerve recklessly every time you make a turn. There's a real sense of gravity at work here, between the traction and those insane drops. Even with the faster bikes (that you unlock as you progress), things never get out of control. Note that I don't crash to a complete stop if I touch one of the other bikers. Note how they actually put up a real fight, instead of letting me walk away with trophies.

There are more features to be discovered in Motoracer Advance. Suffice it to say, there's a lot of game here. Championships, crashes, squashing chickens, hitting fans, cheerleaders, and on and on. Up to four players can race against each other; which of course makes this title a must-have if you and your friends all have Gameboys. I'll be so bold as to say this is the best racer on Nintendo's portable. Alright, the best racer that isn't Super Mario Kart. Close enough.

No comments: