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Beetle Adventure Racing (N64) Review

Background Info

Some racing games are efforts at simulating various professional circuits; some are arcade games (although several of these have fairly realistic car physics and handle much like real cars). Beetle Adventure Racing (hereafter BAR) mixes up both, adds a battle option, and involves searching for power-ups, goodies, and cheats. Employing the new version of the VW Beetle, it is much like the Rush series, although in some cases it is better precisely because of the simplicity of game design and the richer graphics and more elaborate alternate branches. But is it fun?

Presentation/Graphics : 98
It takes only a few moments for players to see that BAR takes place in a colorful, rich environment that will encourage the search for power-ups and other rewards that is essential to successful gameplay.

Menu graphics are simple, with options spelled out over background shots taken from race courses; it may even pay to watch the introductory sequence to get some tips on what's coming next.

As for cars, well, what we have are variations on the modern Beetle (I don't yet see any power-up that would result in the appearance of the original vehicle). It's not exactly a hard car to render; however, the details of the rendering, to the point that you can see through the tinted windows, is a treat. Brake lights, tire tracks, skid marks, kicking up dust--all here. Crash, however, and the car may shatter into hundreds of pieces . . . before it reappears, ready to go. You can choose from a number of basic paint jobs; as you gain access to more vehicles, different designs or body paints appear (as well as a few more functional flourishes, such as a rear wing). There's also a police car for those so inclined (complete with a siren).

Ah, but the tracks . . . here's where the game really shines. There are six basic tracks (two available at the start of the game; four more to be opened up as you progress through a series of championship circuits). Each has its own distinctive setting:

    Coventry Cove: the English countryside, with small farms, a town, and a castle.
    Mount Mayhem: up in the mountains, with snow and ice (and some clear ground).
    Inferno Isle: beachfront property, a seaside village on a slope, a tropic jungle and a volcano.
    Sunset Sands: ever want to drive inside a pyramid? You can here in Egypt.
    Metro Madness: nothing new to us urban/suburban residents.
    Wicker Woods: I have to leave something to the imagination . . .

Now, I'm a great fan of environments, for I believe they make or break racing games. Some of the more fanciful racing games (Motor Toon Grand Prix 2, for example) contain imaginative and colorful courses; others offer engrossing renditions of real tracks. When this doesn't happen, the game suffers (remember GT 64?). BAR will remind players of Top Gear Rally /Top Gear Overdrive and the Rush series, offering what at first seems like a realistic environment that on inspection offers a few surprises. Want to find one? Drive off the first long bridge you encounter along the main route in Mount Mayhem and into a cave to understand why helicopters are all over the place. The environment includes moving items, some of which startle, while others intervene (there's a tracked crane in Coventry Cove, just over the river that runs through a small town, that can drop its load right in front of you). Elsewhere you can bash into crates and damage the terrain. The result is an inviting array of courses that contribute greatly to one's enjoyment of the game.

In addition, there are a number of far more contained courses for one game option known as Beetle Battle. These environments are fun but nothing exceptional.

Now, people might applaud EA for all this, but dedicated drivers will notice that BAR is developed by Paradigm Entertainment, the same folks who developed F-1 World Grand Prix. They do nice games that are visually appealing.

Finally, there are three camera angles (cockpit and two up-and-behind views), but no rear-view mirror (just the infamous "look back" button).

Presentation/Audio : 88
Beetle Adventure Racing makes the most out of the N64 cart. There is minimal voice input (a few warnings during the race); the music during the races is fine. So are the various engine noises, acoustics (especially in some caves) and collision noises (hit a phone booth and listen to the operator). There are separate volume controls for speech, music, and sound effects. Overall the effect is to draw you into the game's environment even more. The selection menus have their own little upbeat jingle, which does not get too annoying.

Interface/Options : 85
Pretty simple and straightforward. You do not set up your cars, but merely select from an array of (guess what?) Beetles. You can choose from one of three preset controller configurations or create your own. The cars control fairly well, although sometimes the joystick can be a poor substitute for a steering wheel--which is especially important in a game that features running over things. Memory management is equally straightforward, allowing you to save progress, records, and so on.

Gameplay : 97
There are three basic games in BAR: single races, championship circuit, and the Beetle Battle. Only the last takes more than two players. Doubtless there will be players drawn to Beetle Battle, which introduces new twists on Donkey Kong Racing and Mario Karts 64 (pick things up, get power-ups, and so on; the winner is the first to pick up six ladybugs, one of each color, which entails making the pick-up just as the ladybugs, which alternate colors, hits what you need). Yeah, that game is fun. But it is the racing game that renders this game distinctive and a worthy addition to your gaming collection . . .

The Championship Circuit is the heart of the main game. Racers advance up levels of difficulty, and, if successful, open up new tracks (and make more cars available). Moreover, along each course are a series of bonus items, nitro power-ups (a short speed burst), and well-concealed boxes which, when hit, announce their presence with a well-delivered "groovy." There are jumps, ramps, dives, and so on; while traction suffers on snow, ice, and sand, driving over grass presents no problem (and does not hurt speed). Moreover, there are a number of alternative routes branching off the main course, many of which offer rather well-developed environments of their own. Collect boxes totaling a certain value (that total varies by difficulty level) and gain a continue; gain them all and you open up a new Beetle Battle track. To achieve that end, one must explore the shortcuts; but if you take too long, you may be disqualified and lose what you just gained. Moreover, although the shortcuts contain goodies, they are not always "shortcuts" in terms of cutting seconds off one's time, especially if one is collecting boxes along the way. Miss that box, and it's unlikely you'll get a second shot. One of the reasons why a player should become as familiar with each course as possible (use single race for this) is to map out a pattern of taking shortcuts by lap (take the same shortcut each time, and you'll miss out on something else). Some cuts are obvious to the eye; others involve bashing through doors, windows, boarded-up entrances, and so on; still more involve jumps and ramps. Explore! That's part of the adventure.

Advice: build up those continues on the early tracks (although you may have to sacrifice a spot or two in the standings to do so). Set certain contests aside for getting all the bonus boxes; otherwise just shoot for the number needed to score a continue (the points do not carry over from race to race).

The so-called "groovy" boxes (which are not mentioned in the directions) open up cheats (one, which is "near" a barn on Coventry Cove, shows the cheat menu) for both single-race games (which can take place as a time trial, a two-player head-to-head contest, a one-player-versus one-CPU car, or one player against a full grid).

The cars drive well, with fairly realistic physics; players will soon learn to employ their brakes and handbrakes for the old powerslide. Just hitting the accelerator, especially as one advances through the tracks and up the difficulty levels, won't hack it. However, aside from determining the color of your vehicle, forget any notion of setting it up; the selection of cars on each level offers an array of mixes between top speed, acceleration, and handling, which are otherwise not adjustable.

Difficulty : 92
There are three difficulty levels, as well as automatic versus manual transmission. Computer-controlled cars can prove tough one-on-one opponents, cutting you off or forcing you off the road; however, especially on the first two difficulty levels, the race becomes an exercise in passing cars in order. For a game that is part sim, part arcade, part search, the difficulty is appropriate; managing to reach some shortcuts will offer some people the most challenge of all.

Overall : 92
Beetle Adventure Racing manages to balance fun, an acceptable amount of arcade elements, and the basics of a solid if not spectacular sim racer. It is to real racing what NBA Jam was to basketball--but it is much deeper and more engrossing. For those who want to own a competitive racing game, play with the challenge of finding goodies, embrace simplicity and elegance in design and absorbing environments, and have plain old fun, it is a great choice.

By: Brooks Simpson 4/13/99

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