My, Nintendo, how you’ve changed. The Japanese entertainment giant once spent almost a decade on top of the console gaming industry by following up the legendary Nintendo 64 with an equally impressive system in the Nintendo GameCube, but it appears the brand as many of us 90’s kids knew it no longer exists. Riddled with batshit insane decisions which saw the prolific video game company ship not one, but two misguided attempts at a modern home console by pushing gimmicks over gameplay, the new Nintendo Switch – unveiled yesterday – is the pinnacle of poor choices which serves to highlight Nintendo’s fall from grace. This is a very different company than the one which helped propel Mario Kart 64 into the living rooms of basically anyone under the age of twenty five, and I can’t imagine these guys will be around for much longer.
Sure, the under-powered Wii sold a metric tonne of units after it was first introduced on store shelves back in the fall of 2006 – capitalizing on casual-oriented titles such as Wii Sports and Wii Fit to reel in a new audience at the expense of loyal fans – but an incorrect assessment of market trends saw Microsoft and Sony utterly destroy Nintendo’s offering once the masses indicated Call of Duty was here to stay. Essentially, most people did rush out to buy a Wii, only to realize there wasn’t much substance behind the experimental controller, and permanently went back to the other console they owned within less than a month. Playing catch-up for five straight years, Nintendo partially attempted to rectify the obvious gap in performance and capabilities compared to their competitors by releasing the Nintendo Wii U, but once again, a reliance upon gimmicks that nobody really cared for in the first place relegated the system to the status of an expensive paperweight. Hell, aside from Lego City Undercover, and Need for Speed Most Wanted, there weren’t any racing games on the damned thing.
Rather than build a traditional gaming experience to directly compete with what Microsoft and Sony currently offer, Nintendo is set to push out their third gimmick in ten years, completely failing to realize that the market doesn’t give a shit about this stuff anymore. Nintendo’s stock dropped 6.5 percent on the day of the Switch’s reveal, with market analysts downright confused at Nintendo’s business decisions. Simply put, Nintendo is finished.
And that’s a shame. The company which single-handedly revived the video game industry in America after the 1983 crash is now hardwired to self destruct; the indisputable greatness of their four most prominent consoles now relegated to the pages of history books and Wikipedia articles. Sure, we’d been given a not-so-subtle warning beforehand that things at Nintendo had gone haywire – such as their public relations manager moonlighting as an escort – but physically seeing the string of bad decisions manifest into something so utterly useless as the Nintendo Switch is a sight to behold.
The controller looks uncomfortable and clunky, nobody in North America wants a spontaneous game of Madden on a tiny screen in a dingy park when everyone’s been in a competition with their friends to build the most luxurious entertainment center, and given that Nintendo hasn’t actively tried to compete with Sony and Microsoft in terms of performance since 2001, it’s too risky to buy a console that could potentially be less powerful that what you already own and have sunk money into. For those three primary reasons, the Nintendo Switch will be a failure of which the likes we’ve never seen before. It’s going to kill the company. In a world where Grand Theft Auto V earned a billion dollars in revenue within the first 72 hours of the game arriving on shelves, you simply cannot stick your fingers in your ears and instead build something so preposterously nonsensical.
It’s certainly strange to be talking about Nintendo in this manner, as the twenty year period spanning from 1985 to 2005 were basically dominated by Mario’s home system. Yes, you can make an argument that the PlayStation 2 sold more units, or that the Microsoft Xbox was the most powerful console in terms of hardware, but Nintendo systems traditionally featured the highest concentration of games you wanted to play. While Sony’s original PlayStation struggled to maintain 30 FPS in all but a handful of games, busting out the N64 on a mid-range TV was gaming on an entirely different level. And there’s a reason people are still playing Super Mario 64 and Luigi’s Mansion on modern PC emulators, while Crash Bandicoot is relegated to being an obscure relic from a bygone era – Nintendo games were worth every penny of the retail price.
Nintendo systems were also a safe way to enter the world of console gaming without really knowing exactly what you wanted from your gaming experience. Nintendo paid close attention to the types of products arriving on their consoles, meaning the library of games available were never too graphic or too obscure for the general public. The best part of owning a Nintendo console during the final ten years of their dominance, was outright sucking at first-person shooters, yet knowing you could take a chance on something like Metroid Prime at random and still come away totally satisfied with the experience. If you couldn’t deal with the super-serious tone of FIFA 07, whether it was because you were too young at the time, or needed a simple multiplayer co-op sports game for your buddies, Super Mario Strikers was a valid alternative. Each game for all four of Nintendo’s golden systems, regardless of whether it was developed by Nintendo, or an unrelated third party entity, just seemed right for the console it was released on.
So for today, what I’d like to do here on PretendRaceCars.net is to take a look at the five best racing games for Nintendo systems which capture the spirit of Nintendo’s classic consoles – driving games that you could recommend to someone who doesn’t give two shits about race cars or motorcycles in the slightest, yet they could sit down for a day with the title, and at the end of their session say “I get it now, this shit is awesome, I want more.”
I’m aware that F-Zero GX is the greatest racing game released for the Nintendo GameCube, but let’s be real here – it’s too ridiculously difficult for the common gamer. And given our hardcore background, I’d love to write yet another article praising NASCAR: Dirt to Daytona for all that it managed to accomplish as an oval racing simulator almost fifteen years ago, but I won’t. Kart racers also need not apply, as their lessons in socialism lead to a scenario where skill simply doesn’t apply on the track.
So in our farewell piece to Nintendo, let’s talk about five racing games that fully understood what a Nintendo console was all about.
The introduction of the Sony PlayStation 2 onto the market saw Electronic Arts in a bit of a bind. Traditional sports games like Madden and FIFA had become infinitely more complex than the developer had ever anticipated, turning off several early PlayStation 2 adopters who were overwhelmed by the in-depth control schemes. The solution was to create an offshoot brand that took a more lighthearted approach to the flagship franchises, resulting in the creation of EA Sports BIG. You’re most likely aware of these guys thanks to the astounding popularity of the SSX franchise, yet the brand covered an impressive array of both traditional sports and auto racing disciplines, including soccer, basketball, football, snowmobile racing, rallycross, and even freestyle motocross.
Freekstyle was EA’s spin on the growing popularity of freestyle motocross, which has only expanded since the death of the EA Big brand with the likes of Nitro Circus and Red Bull X-Fighters becoming household names. While motocross games already existed on the Nintendo GameCube platform from developers such as THQ and Acclaim, Freekstyle didn’t require any knowledge of the sport to enjoy the title; opting for extremely simple tracks with ludicrous jumps allowing you to execute hyperbolic tricks in exchange for copious amounts of boost, much like the SSX franchise a few years earlier. Rather than including a cast of fictional characters playing up on motocross culture stereotypes, Freekstyle opted to include real world riders such as Brian Deegan and Mike Metzger to flesh out the personality of the fictional game environment, a move which turned Freekstyle into this really wild rust-filtered post-apocalyptic motocross carnival.
The end result was a phenomenal arcade racing game which draws heavily from the SSX franchise without appearing to be a straight rip-off. The simple gameplay that didn’t ask users to perfectly time jumps or plan their lines through a corner, mixed with radical track designs and a cohesive art direction, was a welcome addition to the GameCube’s vibrant library.
Nintendo has traditionally been extremely weary of adult-themed games appearing on their platforms (despite their old PR lady turning tricks on the side), meaning that GameCube owners in the fall of 2003 were shit out of luck when Grand Theft Auto: Vice City took the world by storm. While older gamers primarily used the playground Rockstar Games had created to act out their inner psychopathic fantasies and challenge themselves to outrun a never-ending supply of SWAT team members, a key element to remember is that open-world driving games were still relatively new at the time, and many flocked to the 3D Grand Theft Auto offerings to merely test drive a massive variety of vehicles and explore a fully-rendered world at their own pace.
The Simpsons: Hit & Run offered a solution to the distinct lack of Grand Theft Auto’s presence on the Nintendo GameCube. While not a racing game in the traditional sense, as virtually everyone who’s heard about this game is well aware that it’s a straight up copy of Grand Theft Auto, Hit & Run centers largely around the driving aspect of open world crime sandboxes thanks to the complete eradication of any actual violence. If you strip out everything except the vehicle based missions from Grand Theft Auto V, and insert the absolute best writers that have ever worked on an episode of The Simpsons, you receive a surprisingly competent product in Hit & Run.
With a campaign mode that featured an abundance of memorable missions, an overall plot that was as deep and interesting as some of the show’s best twenty-two minute episodes, and a structurally sound open world package, Hit & Run was a seriously solid interactive version of Springfield that you could explore at your own free will. Given how popular The Simpsons had been as a television show in 2003, picking this one up was a no-brainer and fit in perfectly with the theme of licensed GameCube games.
Yes, there were indeed a string of Need for Speed titles released for the Nintendo GameCube, but what most people don’t tell you is that many of them suffered from design flaws or massive performance issues. Hot Pursuit 2, released a year earlier, was developed by EA Seattle and paled in comparison to the superior PS2 offering, while Underground’s sequel included arguably more content at the cost of mammoth framerate problems which saw the title’s score slide heavily on Gamespot.com. Future Need for Speed iterations on Nintendo’s small purple box were met with a drastic decline in texture quality to maintain a base level of performance standards, meaning that 2003’s Need for Speed: Underground is really the only entry in the NFS franchise that could be experienced in its full glory on the Nintendo GameCube.
Underground had been released at a time when the popularity and general absurdity of the Fast & the Furious franchise had skyrocketed to instant cult classic status, and the import tuner scene had been thrust into the spotlight. While not an officially licensed tie-in with the movies that inspired it, Underground was seen as the unofficial video game counterpart – and basically everybody knew why Need for Speed had suddenly dropped Ferrari’s and Lamborghini’s for Honda Civics and a robust customization feature.
However, as someone who’s played through the game three times over the past thirteen years, it’s not just the comprehensive customization element which catapults Underground into the number three spot. From a raw driving physics standpoint, Underground’s controls are incredibly tight, and the track layouts were all somewhat memorable thanks to a reliance upon dedicated levels rather than the open world seen in the sequel. Despite appearing to be spontaneous street circuits, Black Box had crafted the circuit layouts in Underground by hand to ensure they were not a series of random corners, but flowed in a way which were enjoyable to drive, meaning you rarely had to rely on checking the map or smashing head-on into a wall to learn a circuit. Whether you were on the track, or in the garage menu, Underground was a solid game, and the simplicity of the racing element combined with the expansive car customization meta-game which capitalized on a new and exciting pop culture trend made for an easy purchase for Nintendo fans. Pretty much everybody with a GameCube owned, or at least tried, Need for Speed Underground.
Many credit Electronic Arts for helping to thrust the Burnout franchise into the limelight, but it’s important to remember the series was once under the guidance of Acclaim Entertainment, and Criterion Games had been seen as underdogs tasked with pushing a relatively obscure racing game into a market dominated by Electronic Arts and the aforementioned Need for Speed franchise. While the yearly renditions of Need for Speed on the Nintendo GameCube obviously sold more copies, Burnout 2: Point of Impact was by far the better game. After a lukewarm reception to the original title – which attempted to experiment with cinematic car crashes when the player fucked up – Criterion jacked up the special effects and sense of speed for Burnout 2, creating a game that was both notoriously difficult to get right, and incredibly hilarious when you got it wrong.
Criterion knew people would intentionally want to see their revitalized damage model in all its glory for Burnout 2, so the team included a special Crash Mode in the sequel to their completely average arcade racer, allowing players to fling their sports car at an intersection full of traffic in an effort to cause the most damage possible. What was intended to be an otherwise goofy diversion from the main campaign mode turned into an extremely strategic high-speed chess match, captivating fans who had taken a risk on Burnout 2. As a result, word quickly spread that this was the best racing game for the Nintendo GameCube, and Criterion were eventually picked up by Electronic Arts once Acclaim Entertainment went bankrupt a few years later.
The quintessential high-speed arcade racer, which drew upon the sloppy handling of Daytona USA as inspiration while inserting an endless wave of commuter and commercial traffic to navigate through, Burnout 2’s frantic battles, iconic knock-off vehicles, and vastly superior level design compared to the original, all contributed to the game being incredibly well-received by those looking for some kind of pick-up-and-play arcade racer that couldn’t keep up with the pace of F-Zero GX. Burnout 2 was absolutely fucking crazy, and it’s exactly what the Nintendo GameCube platform needed after it was clear Mario Kart Double Dash wouldn’t have the lasting appeal of Mario Kart 64. You could give this game to virtually anyone, and a big smile would stretch across their faces the very first time they hopelessly smashed into a bus at 150 mph. It was that kind of game, and Criterion continued to make more of them for the next five years.
It’s extremely difficult to gauge the quality of a Nintendo 64 game in 2016, as most of our collective opinions have been tinted by the fanciest set of nostalgia goggles imaginable. I’m one of those guys who continues to maintain a set of fifth generation emulators on my PC to revisit games that used to kick my ass when I was younger, and unfortunately I’m slowly starting to realize that a vast majority of titles on both the Nintendo 64, as well as Sony’s original PlayStation, simply aren’t as good as I remember them to be. Hot Wheels: Turbo Racing, is not one of those games. In fact, it’s the one ROM worth re-installing Project64 for.
With the Nintendo 64 not adequately equipped to handle the performance requirements of a Need for Speed entry, and the audience far too broad for the market to support a traditional Cops vs. Racers approach, Electronic Arts changed their ideology when creating products for the Nintendo 64, opting to push well-made family-oriented driving games rather than an orgy of 90’s supercars. Beetle Adventure Racing was a bit of a mixed bag, but Hot Wheels: Turbo Racing resonated with the audience, offering what’s undoubtedly one of the best arcade racing experiences ever created for a Nintendo console. The vehicle roster was diverse and drew heavily from the fictional line of Hot Wheels toys rather than flavor-of-the-week replicas, locations were fine-tuned to include mammoth jumps and alternate shortcuts to capitalize on the unique capabilities of each specific car, and the physics engine actually made you wheel the damn thing.
Hot Wheels: Turbo Racing succeeded because the game used the Mattel license to reel people in, but was a ridiculous challenge once you hit the track and forced you to be a better driver. Each car had a very different set of handling characteristics, meaning a big, burly tow truck or jet semi required a significantly different driving style than an open wheel grand prix car or futuristic twin-engine monstrosity. Locations didn’t cater to any specific vehicle on the roster, forcing players to make trade-offs and carefully plan their route around the circuit each lap, otherwise the AI would simply decimate them. Last, but most certainly not least, the game’s basic physics engine allowed you to perform flips, rolls, and spins while flying through the air, rewarding a successful landing with brief shots of turbo – which was necessary to even remain competitive on the higher difficulties. Turbo Racing was an arcade racer at heart, but it didn’t let you win in the way most arcade racers would. The packaging indicates Turbo Racing is a kids game, but make no mistake – it continuously tries to kick your ass.
And that’s what Nintendo games used to be about. Not this shit.
Rest in piece, Nintendo. You were pretty cool at one point.