Taking you all the way from the “Land Down Under” to the “City that Never Sleeps”, Top Gear 2 (TG2) offers everything a dyed-in-the-wool racing fan needs: turbulent and challenging courses, stellar upgrade opportunities, screeching crashes and magnificent landscapes. The one or two-player Championship Circuit is such a complete package you’ll forgive the fact there is no time trial opportunity. That’s right, TG2 moves past its predecessor’s legacy of one-and-done format, quadri-selection of automobiles and arcade-classic tunes. What we have left is a success in simplistic realism that saves fantasy elements for the sequel, Top Gear 3000 (weapons, warping and aliens, oh, my!). The Top Gear franchise wasn’t quite as popular in leaping to 3D as F-Zero and Mario Kart with the N64, but in its 16-bit form Kemco produced a few games worth any SNES fan’s gander.
After you’ve chosen your transmission type (manual/automatic), mileage read-out (mph/kph), control scheme and racing name (no bad words, please), the last thing to do is select your paint before hitting the track. The circuit begins in Australia. Why you ask? Because it begins with the letter ‘A’ (seriously, the circuit goes in alphabetical order)! The right to continue racing must be earned after every race, which means placing at worst 10th place out of 20. Qualifying four times in a row is necessary to complete a country and receive a password. But you want to do better than placing 10th because cash is awarded to only the top 6 finishers, and you’ll need plenty of moolah for those tasty upgrades.
For 64 tracks, there is a healthy variety of course personality. The standard hazards are wooden A-frames, speed bumps, and markers on the course perimeter. Weather also plays a significant role, as visibility is challenged by precipitation on rainy, snowy and foggy courses. As for night courses, let’s just say you won’t find any street lamps lighting your way. On select tracks there are ‘goodies’ dispersed: an ‘S’ token will give a brief burst of speed, an ‘N’ grants you an extra nitro and a ‘$‘ is a thousand extra bucks. Typical courses feature four laps and take under 3 minutes to finish competitively, but some races have as few as two laps and one has nine. My favorite aspect of course variety is the scenery. The weather and landscape give each country texture: the Leaning Tower of Pisa in Italy and the Taj Mahal in India are two wonders worth ogling at. Don’t expect to see Big Ben in London, however, cause the course is one big dose of London Fog.
Nearly the entire controller can be used to avoid hazards and borders, pass competitors and cruise to a victorious finish. Thankfully the perfectly intuitive driving controls are a strength of the game. Tracks are designed so that hitting side markers stops the car and incurs damage to the vehicle, but all are avoidable by stepping off the gas (mapped at X), or tapping break (B) on sharp turns. Nitros are mapped conveniently (A), and are best used on straight-aways. Using them to up-shift and down-shift can be a fun use of top triggers. When burning a nitro, the user must be on his/her toes when navigating right and left, especially since bumping a competitor from behind will incur vehicle damage. The ‘start’ button naturally pauses the game, and having the ‘select’ function as a horn is a fun way to round out the entire control pad.
The driving screen layout is one of the most sensibly presented I’ve seen in racing games. In a pseudo 1st person perspective ala F-Zero or Mario Kart, your vehicle slides side to side with Mode-7 ease. The screen’s lower half allows plenty of visibility for upcoming obstructions and passable vehicles. Lower-middle boasts the track’s particular scenery as well as such situation-specific word bubbles as “Eat my dust!” and “Bonanza!” rising from your race car. The top right corner shows elapsed time to the hundredth second, a lap count and your present placement. The yellow track map is incredibly helpful as it clearly shows the progress of the human racer(s) and the lead car, as well as hard turns and straight-aways. On the left is an engine strain gauge, speedometer, remaining nitros, transmission type and gear number, as well as vehicle body damage taken and fuel gauge. It’s remarkable how much the developers were able to cram on the screen: a bucket of useful information available at a glance without detracting from the player’s view of his car’s movement.
In addition to qualifying to the next country, upgrading your vehicle is a satisfying element of progress. A race day screen showing the country, city, length and lap count of the upcoming track precedes the upgrade menu. Here, your inventory is shown along with the eight categories of parts you can purchase, each with three tiers of quality. While one first-place finish of $10,000 is enough to purchase both the best available ‘wet‘ and ‘dry‘ tires, it takes the equivalent of eight first-place finishes to buy the best engine. A new nitro-box will give you a more buoyant boost, a gear box more gears, and side, front and rear body armor will protect your car from slowing down after crashes. There is definitely a strategy of balancing necessary upgrades and delayed gratification. It’s certainly a thrill to go from default nitro box to best, and struggle with glee to not crash your recently upgraded vehicle.
Because of a lack of variety, music and sound is not a strength of TG2. The opening theme is a thrill, embodying 90’s cool and a proverbial cruise at dusk wearing blue jeans, a leather jacket and a white t-shirt. The tune between courses is good, but you’d better fall in love with the in-course theme because it’s the only one you’ll hear while driving! The variety of level texture and difficulty aren’t quite enough to cover this up, especially since TG1 was known for some jammin‘ melodies. While driving you’re privy only to sound effects caused by wheels, the engine and crashing. While 64 courses may be a good bit, having at minimum one track per continent would have been a blessing.
There’s no head-to-head mode, but two players are free to join circuit mode together. While in effect competing for cash, with a bit of co-op there can be plenty of success to go around. It’s best to compete for high placement in the first several countries, but in later countries when the competitions get stiff is when one player might wish to place dead last while his partner goes for the gold. Then when the next race begins, starting positions will be swapped, continually making sure one of the racers earns top dollar. But competing leads way to comedy, as seeing a human driver up ahead chip wood, go over speed bumps or crash and burn after consecutive collisions is a real hoot.
Rating Top Gear 2 hinges on how much the gamer values simplicity done well. Without much extra pizazz, TG2 offers a colorful atmosphere and solid gameplay. Time trial will be missed by some, but in its place is a properly challenging progression through levels and a satisfying upgrade system. Admittedly, an unlock-able time trial course would have been fantastic. Built-in difficulties are nice touch, such as black, grey, white and blue paints corresponding with night, fog, snow and rainy levels. With a better array of music, TG2 could be considered a stunner. Even still, it approaches “hidden gem” territory in one of video game’s classic genres.
Four Stars out of Five
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