Thursday, March 9, 2023

Game 361: Road Fighter

I had never played or heard of Konami's Road Fighter, a lesser arcade whale, before assembling my DDG list.

A Turbo-style racer, where the other cars act more like obstacles than rivals and your true enemy is the clock, this didn't impress me at first. I never liked Turbo to begin with, and Road Fighter just feels like a budget version with poorer, flatter visuals and joystick/button controls instead of the steering wheel setup used in Indy 4 and TX-1 and everything in between.

With some practice, though - I realized something. This game is better than Turbo! I wouldn't say I got good at Road Fighter - in my best race, I only passed 23 of my 39 rivals, but I did finish the race, and even though I crashed several times, I got to the point where most of the crashes felt like they could have been avoided through more caution or more skill, rather than purely being a consequence of chaotic Turbo-like AI or my own failing reflexes. Learning the track and knowing where I could leadfoot it in relative safety and where I might need to ease on the throttle so I could better react to the traffic allowed me to finish the race, though the ability to continue once per race helped too.

Below, I finish a race using one continue, and when I run out of fuel during the second race, I decline to continue.


There's a couple of reasons why I think Konami's game works for me when Turbo and others like it hadn't.

Firstly, the overhead perspective, reminiscent of Spy Hunter, gives a precise indication of other cars' positions on the road, letting you know exactly how much clearance you have to weave between and around traffic. Having a digital joystick rather than an analog steering wheel, too, helps with this task - staying on the road is not a problem even at max speed, so having precise, consistent lateral movement is more beneficial than the variable turning rates that a wheel provides. The two-button setup is a bit odd, with one button for accelerating in low gear and another for accelerating in high gear, but it isn't complicated, and unlike Spy Hunter, high gear tops out at an intense but manageable speed.

Second, the AI in Road Fighter is more deterministic, and car behaviors can be predicted to an extent based on their color and design. The plain amber cars, for instance, never change lanes at all, the beige muscle cars are your main opponents and will avoid traffic, and the white sports cars actively try to cut you off and will swerve fast to do it. The feeling of seeing a few cars on a wide road ahead, knowing "I can pass them," and then doing it without even having to slow down first, is sweet, and something that I never experienced in any racing game prior. Of course, there were also times I'd want to slow down and give myself more time to size up the situation. Being able to instinctively tell which situation applies under pressure is a learnable skill.

Third, collisions aren't necessarily devastating. It's still difficult to avoid them entirely, but a collision will cause your car to skid, and with good nerves and a bit of luck you can correct this before it turns into a spinout or a crash. Even a crash isn't necessarily fatal; your fuel gauge has a bit more fuel than you need to finish the race and there are fuel pickups throughout the race, which are absolutely worth slowing down to collect. You can crash a few times and still finish, especially if you're good about getting these pickups.

I do kind of wish that the game had three buttons - your car actually has three gears: a low gear with a maximum speed of 192km/h, while the "high gear" button first engages a medium gear with a maximum speed of about 340km/h, and automatically kicks into the high gear that goes up to 400km/h. Low gear is too slow for anything except getting your car moving from a stop; sometimes I wanted to take a difficult stretch a bit slower than maximum speed, but the only way to accomplish this is to release the throttle entirely, press it again, and then enjoy a few seconds of reduced velocity before the car gets back up to speed. A dedicated "medium gear" button that didn't let the car exceed 340km/h would be well suited to my reflexes without putting me to sleep like low gear does.

Some other observations:

  • 18 wheelers occasionally get in your way, and you'd better avoid them, as collision is an instant crash. On later parts of the course, they'll even drop deadly barrels out the back! No shame in slowing down until their load runs out.
  • Water puddles slow you down, which is no big deal. Oil slicks cause an instant skid, which is bad. Both are hard to avoid at maximum speed.
  • Toward the end of the race, you may encounter boulders. Touching these means you crash.
  • You're allowed one continue per race, and using one basically counts as a free completion of the current leg, as you continue from the middle of it with a full fuel tank.
  • If you can go without a collision long enough, you might see a plane, or a train, or Superman (or is it Konamiman?), any of which are worth some bonus points just for spotting.

GAB rating: Good. Road Fighter might not be prettiest or the most technically advanced racer of its day, but balance and a degree of gameplay polish makes all the difference. Turbo felt sloppy and frustrating; Road Fighter feels tight and exhilarating, and tests not just reflexes, but also your steadiness and your risk-taking intuition.

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