Released during the early years of the SNES’s life, Top Gear is one of the first racing games available for the system. It came out in 1992, only a few months prior to the release of Nintendo’s emblematic racing title: Super Mario Kart. Published by Kemco and developed by Gremlin Graphics, Top Gear borrows a lot of elements from previous Gremlin Graphics racing games such as the Lotus series released on Amiga and Sega systems. Nonetheless, TG sets itself apart from most racing titles of its time by using a lap system instead of an arcade-like checkpoint system (e.g. Out Run and Super Hang-On) .
Top Gear is one of the very first video games I have ever played and surely one of the games I am most nostalgic about. I will attempt to be as objective as possible throughout the review of the different aspects of the game.
Being an early Super Nintendo title, Top Gear’s visuals don’t really impress. They are very simple and use a somewhat limited amount of colors. Even though they tend to change from race to race, the background images used remain the same during the whole race, scrolling a little bit on one side or the other. The look of the various roads is also very repetitive; you will see the same signs on the side of the track about a thousand times during one race. The white lines of the road will also constantly flash before your eyes through the whole game … but I guess that is something you get used to and it shouldn’t really bother you that much while you play. Noticeably, the current lap isn’t shown anywhere on the screen except for when it pops for a few seconds when you pass the finish line. This can often get annoying when you forget which lap you are on during races with multiple laps.
In spite of those graphical flaws, TG’s visuals sometimes add a nice touch to the game. Depending on the race, you will come across different terrains and weathers and even diverse times of the day that are well represented by the game’s art. You will be racing on snowy tracks, rainy roads, in the desert and in areas where the road is under construction. You will be driving during the middle of the day and during the night. One particular track begins during the night and you will see the sun rising up in the sky by the end of the race. The headlights of your car even light up when you race in the midst of night! I particularly like this little addition to the visuals.
Gameplay and Controls
Upon reaching the game’s menu, you will have the option to choose the number of players playing the game (1 or 2). You will also be able to set the game’s difficulty and the speed measurement (MPH or KPH). At the end of each Grand Prix (Country), you will get a password that you can enter by selecting the ”Country” option in the main menu. This password system replaces the save feature and allows you to continue your gaming session every time you boot up the game.
Before you begin to race, you get to set your name, choose between manual and automatic driving and you can choose between a few controller buttons layouts. You finally get to choose your car. Four cars with unique characteristics are available to you. The fastest car (red) has a high top speed, high fuel consumption, low acceleration and its tires barely have any grip to the road when you try to take corners at high speed. The slowest car (white) has a very low top speed compared to the red car but has the best acceleration in the game and the most tire grip, along with a low fuel consumption. The other two cars (purple and blue) share similarities to the red and white cars but their characteristics seem much more balanced.
Top Gear’s controls are very simple, yet very tight. The car’s movement is extremely responsive to the D-Pad which makes zigzagging between the opponents a very fun part of the game even though it looks a bit choppy. TG uses the typical acceleration and braking buttons you’d find in a racer. If you choose to drive manually, the L and R buttons (using the default buttons mapping) will allow you to shift gears up and down. You also get a button to use nitro which will allow you to reach a higher speed for a limited time … but beware, you only get 3 nitros per race and they don’t replenish until the next race.
This brings us to a particular and enjoyable aspect of the game. Despite being a rather simplistic racer, Top Gear requires quite a bit of strategy which adds some depth to its gameplay. In TG, not only do you need to choose when and where to use your precious nitro but you will also need to check your fuel meter. The first few races aren’t too tricky, but quickly enough you will find yourself in need of fuel. If you use the fastest car you will most likely need to stop at the pit during the first country, whereas if you use the slowest one, fuel will not be so much of an issue before the later Grand Prix. The strategic aspect of Top Gear is not something to neglect if you want to get to the end of the game. I personally always find myself using the slowest car and using all my nitro during the final lap of every race for strategic purposes.
Lastly, you can either play this game in single player or multiplayer mode. However, whether you choose one or the other option, your screen will always be split in half. This is both a good and a bad thing. In single player mode, the lower part of the screen displays a computer-driven car. So you end up getting a smaller screen than you would expect when playing a game by yourself. Nevertheless, the addition of a CPU adversary makes the game more challenging when playing alone. The CPU player always uses the car with opposed characteristics to your car. Its skill level is also greater than that of the 18 other AI-driven cars in the race. Hence, this made up rivalry makes the single player experience of Top Gear much more interesting.
Top Gear’s sound effects are average. The cars engine sounds good but some other effects sound a bit more ”cheap.” This is the case of the sound it makes when you bump into another car or when you use a nitro: it makes a screech-like sound.
However, Top Gear’s audio excels in the music department. Each tune is outstanding and motivating. Top Gear’s soundtrack is in my opinion one of the most enjoyable aspects of the game and that’s a fortuitous thing because you will hear the same four tracks during the whole game. Since the music is so good this didn’t seem to bother me at all. Although if you don’t like the game’s music then I guess you are out of luck.
Even though there are some more polished racers out there for the system like F-Zero, Super Mario Kart or even its successors Top Gear 2 and 3000, the original Top Gear was an excellent racing title for its time and will always hold one of the highest spots in my top SNES games list. Even with its choppy but very responsive gameplay and dated graphics, Top Gear is one of those game that I will often find myself popping inside my Super Nintendo because it is so good in spite of its obvious flaws.
On a side note, this game is available for dirt cheap almost everywhere so there is no reason not to give it a shot, if only for its soundtrack!
I give this game a solid 4 out of 5 stars.
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