It’s weird how some memories stick with you for the longest time, for seemingly no reason whatsoever.
Prior to picking up a copy again recently, I hadn’t played Top Gear on the Super NES since the early ’90s when it was first released. And yet upon firing it up I confirmed something I had suspected for a while: its music had indeed been stuck in my head for nearly thirty years.
I was also pleased to discover that Top Gear is indeed still a whole lot of fun — and a great example of a type of racing game that has been rendered largely obsolete by the advances in technology over the years.
Those who have been around for as long as I have will know that I am, of course, talking about the “vanishing point” racer — games that did their best to “fake” a three-dimensional effect without actually using techniques that we take for granted today such as polygons.
“Vanishing point” racers date back to the earliest days of gaming and Namco’s Pole Position. The subgenre’s name comes from the fact that the 3D illusion in these early racers was created by moving the vanishing point of the road around on the screen and drawing lines from the “foreground” (actually the bottom of the display) to said vanishing point. Later games such as Sega’s Out Run — still one of the most well-regarded racers of this type — built on the basic technique by adding undulations to the road for greater realism, but the principles remained the same.
“Vanishing point” racers distinguish themselves from the 3D racers of today (and indeed the Mode 7 racers of the SNES era such as Super Mario Kart and F-Zero) by the fact you never really “turn” your vehicle; instead, you simply adjust your speed and horizontal position on the road, with corners effectively forcing you towards their outside edge unless you steer around them. In this way, they’re actually a lot more accessible than many modern racers — there’s no way you’ll find yourself facing the wrong way, for example, and there’s no way of getting “lost” on a complicated course with shortcuts or multiple routes. The price you pay for this is, of course, realism.
Top Gear (nothing to do with the TV show) from Kemco hails from 1992, some six years after Out Run was released. Despite being published by a Japanese outfit, it was actually developed by the UK-based team Gremlin Graphics. Gremlin had previously released an extremely well-received racing game called Lotus Esprit Turbo Challenge for the home computers of the day back in 1990, and Top Gear is effectively a reimagining of that game without the licensed vehicles. Indeed, Top Gear even goes so far as to use a number of musical tracks from the Lotus series, albeit making use of the SNES’ impressive wavetable sound synthesis hardware rather than the digital soundtrack of the Amiga version or the three-channel square-wave music from the Atari ST.
Like Lotus Esprit Turbo Challenge, Top Gear challenges you to win a series of races against a large pack of 19 other cars, one of whom is a designated “rival” controlled either by a second player or the AI — whether you’re playing single player or with a friend, the game unfolds in split-screen. You’ll need to place in the top five in order to progress to the next race, and races are split into groups of four, with each new group unfolding in a different region or country.
Unlike most arcade-style racers of this type, in Top Gear you have a few additional considerations to take into account rather than just flooring it all the way to the finish line. The most significant of these is fuel; while the first few races can easily be completed on a single tank of petrol, by the end of the first group of races in the USA you’ll have to start making strategic pit stops in order to make it to the finish line. And you can be damn sure the other 19 racers aren’t going to wait for you while you fill up your tank, which is why you can speed off before it’s full if you wish.
As you progress through the game, you’ll start encountering longer and longer races that demand multiple pit stops, and timing these properly is key to victory. You’re not going to hold on to that lead if you pit on the final lap, for example, so you’ll need to decide carefully when to pull in and fill up. And just hoping for the best isn’t going to work, either; running out of fuel results in immediate disqualification once your car rolls to a stop.
There are four different cars to choose from in Top Gear, each of which have somewhat different characteristics, including fuel efficiency. Pleasingly, the computer-controlled rival is as much a slave to these characteristics as these are, so you’ll know, for example, that if you’re in the white car and the AI is in the red car, you’re going to be able to survive at least a lap or two longer due to your greater fuel efficiency.
You also have three nitro boosts to use in a race, and again, careful timing of these is essential for victory. Most races after the first few consist of six or more laps, so you have plenty of time to learn the courses and where the best places to fire them off are — the straight leading to the finish line is normally a good bet.
The courses themselves are interestingly varied and progress nicely in difficulty as you work your way through the game. Most of the initial four US courses are pretty straightforward, but before long you’ll start having to contend with obstacles in the road as well as on the sides, rapid changes of direction, disorienting undulations that would doubtless cause extreme vomiting in reality and even changes in road surface.
The game still looks pretty nice and moves along at a fair old clip; while it doesn’t make use of the SNES’ hardware scaling and rotation abilities anywhere other than the title screen, the sprite-based scenery and vehicles feature enough frames of animation to provide a convincing “quasi-3D” effect, and there’s plenty of fun detail in the roadside objects if you happen to catch a glimpse of them — lots of “Save the Trees” signs in the track supposedly set in and around the Brazilian rainforests, for example.
While the game doesn’t feature the fancy weather effects of its 1993 sequel (or indeed Lotus Turbo Challenge 2 from a year earlier on home computers), it does at least feature some night-time stages for variety, including both some convincing “fading into darkness” fogging on the track and even rudimentary headlight effects. The variety between the stages is primarily provided by the scenery on the horizon — which does a decent job of capturing the essence of the various locales in which you find yourself racing — and the actual layout of the courses themselves, which quickly become pretty fiendish once you graduate from the initial US championship.
Top Gear remains a highly enjoyable installment in the SNES library, and is somewhat noteworthy from a historical perspective too in that it went on to spawn an impressive number of follow-ups across both the SNES and N64 eras. It’s simple, pure, fun early ’90s racing — and is even more of a blast if you drag a friend along for the ride, too.
More about Top Gear
If you enjoyed this article and want to see more like it, please consider showing your social support with likes, shares and comments, or become a Patron. You can also buy me a coffee if you want to show some one-time support. Thank you!