A rose, as some talentless hack once put it, may well smell as sweet by some other name…but there’s no denying that certain titles come with some pretty unavoidable connotations. Take the name ‘Crazy Cars’ for example. I don’t know about you, but I can’t gaze upon it without conjuring Dick Dastardly’s Mean machine into my consciousness. This is a slightly unfortunate fact for our latest GX4000 title, however, as Crazy Cars II isn’t an especially crazy game at all. While the original Crazy Cars was a full blooded arcade affair, the sequel that French developers Titus originally unleashed on the world in 1987 aspired to be something a little more…complicated.
Set across four US states, the story of Crazy Cars II is some nonsense about breaking up an illegal car racket run by crooked cops. What this boils down to in practice, however, is the player speeding around in a Ferrari F40 trying to reach a number of arbitrary destinations while avoiding the police and their road blocks. There’s no racing involved at all – it’s just you versus the clock and the police.
If the lack of racing makes Crazy Cars II a bit of an odd ball, it’s also quite hard to work out what skill the game is really trying to test. On paper, there are three game over conditions: Running out of time, being placed under arrest, and leaving the extent of the map. As the time limits granted to the player are ridiculously generous – 12 minutes a pop – the only way the player is likely to see the game over screen in practice is if they stop near a police car or accidentally take a hugely wrong turn.
This means, however, that there’s effectively no punishment for poor driving: Power into the back of a police car and (despite exploding into a colossal fireball) your Ferrari will reincarnate at the edge of the road (as your law-enforcing opponent speeds off into the distance.) Power round a junction and end up eating a lamp post, and you’ll also end up waiting at the edge of the road once again. While it’s true that you do lose time doing this, with 12 minutes to kill you’ve generally got plenty of time to reach your destination.
Consequently, Crazy Cars II actually feels like an orientation simulator: Though the game provides you with a map that marks both your starting location and you’re destination, the rest of the navigation is entirely up to you. As the player, you have to work out both what direction you’re heading in and, from there, the quickest route to get to your goal. Take THAT GPS/iPhone generation!
Crazy Cars II really is a surprisingly ambitious game then. While each state might be a tad smaller than its real life counterpart, they are genuinely open, leaving you as the player free to take any route you want. This freedom isn’t just for sight seeing mind you, as there’s an important be bit of strategic play present here: trunk roads might be straighter and more direct, but they’ll almost certainly have more police and roadblocks to avoid. Backroads might have less police, but they’re almost certainly windier. It’s tricky stuff – and something that actually makes the game a bit more engaging than it might appear on the surface.
The theory is intriguing, then but how does the gameplay stand up in practice? Well, the handling’s a mixed bag to be honest. Originally coded for microcomputers and their joysticks, the game employs the usual microcomputer control mechanic of using up and down to set a cruising speed instead of accelerating/braking in the traditional sense. This makes perfect sense from the perspective of having to steer with a joystick, but it’s still a shame the cart version wasn’t reworked to something a little more controller-friendly.
On top of the strange controls, the handling is also slightly hampered by the road design. Though generally simulating major trunk roads, the width of the roads doesn’t really vary and is barely wider than a car width or two, This makes the physical act of overtaking much harder than it realistically needs to be.
Mind you, once you get into it, the confrontational aspect of the driving is actually rather fun. One thing that definitely helps Crazy Cars in this respect is its physics modelling. Though ploughing directly into the back of a police car will see you explode into a glorious fireball, lightly glancing the side of a car, roadblock or lamp post will simply generate some harmless sparks and allow you to keep going. This ability to shrug off light (though expensive-looking) collisions goes a long way to counteracting the narrow roads, and allows you to attempt some pretty optimistic/unorthodox overtaking manoeuvres.
There are other things in Crazy Car’s favour too. For a start, it’s pretty easy on the eye (for a GX4000 game, at least.) It may have less going on than the likes of Burnin’ Rubber, but the pay off for this is handsomely chunky F40 and police sprites. The palette swaps and state-specific scenery which kick in once you cross the borders are a nice touch too.
Sound, on the other hand, is a much more mixed affair. Though the engine sound is pretty spot on the distant police sirens carry a genuine menace, the highly repetitive and generally unremarkable music is a bit of a let down – especially since the solitary in game composition loops back to the beginning every SINGLE TIME you access the map screen. Oh Eck.
Not that the map map screen itself should be criticised, mind you. As was typical in the late 80’s, the cassette versions of Crazy Cars II were all sold containing a physical paper map which the player was supposed to refer back to whilst playing the game (designed, presumably, to help combat the kind of cheeky chappies who would rather pirate the game than buy it.) Because the GX’s cartridges were a bit more piracy-resistant, Titus decided to put a copy of the game’s map into the game code itself. Hurrah!
Consequently, the GX4000 is in the relatively unusual position of having the definitive (8-bit) version of a multiformat game. True, in 1990 this probably would have been a bit of a hollow victory (the cassette versions would long have been reduced to a price that was 1/10 of the cart’s) but it’s still an interesting factoid to hold onto today.
More generally, however, is Crazy Cars 2 a title worth investigating today? That’s a tricky question to answer. While it might be worth tracking down just to witness how much more ambitious the average Master System and NES games could potentially have been, Crazy Cars’ technical issues reveal an early casualty to the ’empty open world’ problem that has plagued games developers to this day. The driving is fun in parts, but Titus were clearly pushing the machine for more than it could realistically deliver.