Author: John Legendoffzelda (Revieweris Nonprofessionalum)
What Capcom had done for Disney, Sunsoft attempted to do for Looney Tunes: craft a series of fine games that would help those characters make an indelible impression on the video game world (at least in the early 1990s). Working with developer ICOM, they gave themselves a serious head start by making their first game about Wile E. Coyote and the Road Runner. Designed in Chuck Jones’ cartoons as an object of unobtainable prey, the Road Runner can go fast enough to make the paved roads behind him lift off the ground at times. With the right design choices, a game based on such material could be fast-paced fun. And with plenty of old WB-style cartoon wit, it could be a worthy part of the Looney Tunes canon. Sadly, whatever decisions were made in the final product, Road Runner’s Death Valley Rally feels like a considerably different result – Sonic the Hedgehog with slipperier platforming. A fair amount of the wit is there, but the rest of the game is a little patchy, and overall it isn’t fun enough.
While the game calls itself a “Rally”, there’s no conventional racing that occurs; what happens is the Road Runner simply zips through five different stages broken into a couple of sections, with a miniature checkered flag to cross at the end. Each section has a collection of flagpoles the Road Runner can touch, and a timer that, thankfully, doesn’t cost the player a life if it runs out. Both of these are goals to consider on the way to the flag, as they count towards bonus points at the end. Being a game primarily about speed, part of the stage structure gives him the freedom to run. He can go into a normal stride with his legs turned into a motion wheel, or he can perform a boost of speed that lets him zoom up walls and through the enemies in his path – usually desert fauna and such. The boost is controlled by a meter, which depletes rapidly if the player is too liberal with the ability but can be refilled with piles of birdseed. The Road Runner can only obtain the birdseed by pecking at it, another move that can be used against enemies. He has to stand still in a precise location to peck correctly, but with those requirements, it’s sort of a safer move than doing a headlong dash – it saves the player from running into a cactus or similar immobile hazards, and also from running right off an important ledge and into an undesirable situation.
Those ledges make up the other, unsavory part of the stage structure, the part that forces the Road Runner to jump. His jump is really sort of graceful, as it contains a lot of horizontal propulsion and it lets him leap across a lot of ground. Unfortunately the stages are vertically arranged, with ledges and platforms floating at various altitudes that he needs to cross safely in order to win. From this, a conflict forms. The Road Runner actually has an insufficient jump. When he has to move up and down, he becomes unwieldy – he floats around in the air like a bouncing rubber ball, and the height he can reach is just barely enough to make it to the next platform. One wrong motion and he has to climb back up and do it over. He should just be able to run through everything like he does best, but the game can’t let him do that; it peppers the running with dangerous floating platforms, enemies and bottomless ledges that he could encounter at any given point unless he slows down. And there are 90° walls that he can’t slow down for and must instead birdseed-boost up to clear the stage. When he runs into one of these walls and he’s out of boost, then he’s pretty much doomed. So, in effect the Road Runner’s own game makes him do things he can’t do well, and the player becomes unsatisfied.
This wouldn’t be half as bad, though, if these problems could exist without the overbearing role Wile E. Coyote plays. Upgraded from the constantly-foiled antagonist of the cartoons, Wile E. is now a persistent thorn in the player’s side; at every turn he’s there, bouncing or zipping across the screen with some kind of unique Road Runner-catching method in an attempt to whittle down the Road Runner’s hit points before he crosses that flag. Even if he does cross the flag, Wile E. will be at the end of every stage with a convoluted boss fight. He’ll be controlling a big device and the Road Runner has to peck at its weak points while avoiding everything else. Of all the nuisances in this game, Wile E. Coyote is the least manageable, and it seems the only purpose his part serves is made to maintain the old dynamic that he and the Road Runner share.
Little details such as that are what the game means to show: it wants to not just be a game, but a playable all-out Road Runner cartoon. The stages have names like “Zippity Splat” and “Quantum Beep”; the Road Runner and Wile E. are introduced with fake Latin taxonomies, and every Game Over screen shows the old “That’s All, Folks!” that concluded the old shorts. Jokes like Wile E. plummeting to the ground are thrown in as well, and the graphics capabilities of the Super Nintendo portray them nicely. Everything looks nice, from the characters to the backgrounds, full of the color and jaggedness that marked Chuck Jones’ directorial style. The homage is only ruined by the music, presented at the beginning as a badly-mixed version of “Merrily We Roll Along” and shown later to be completely lame. It’s all the sort of flatly cartoonish musical junk that’s associable with misspellings of “Looney Tunes”, and feels as out of place as the lesser parts of the gameplay.
The allure of the concept of Road Runner’s Death Valley Rally is more enticing than the game itself. It’s the chance to play as the Road Runner, to feel what it’s like to participate in a classic Looney Tunes short. Not enough of a real game was built around this idea, and what’s left is a half-fun platformer that only slightly rises above its mediocrity with its attention to detail. It’s easier to enjoy the Road Runner by watching a video compilation of his cartoons than by putting this cartridge into a console.
Three out of five stars.
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