Top Racer: Definitely-Not-Lotus Turbo Challenge

Racing games used to be very different to how we know them today — primarily due to the limitations of the hardware on which they were running.

Instead of unfolding in lovingly rendered, minutely detailed 3D polygonal worlds as most of today’s racers are, they took what we now call a “vanishing point” approach, where the road was drawn using two converging lines to simulate a sense of perspective, and sprites drawn at various sizes were placed along the sides of the track to assist with the illusion of movement and speed.

Of all the racers designed in this way — and there are many, including some developed quite recently! — Kemco’s Top Racer, also known as Top Gear, is one of the finest out there. This is a game that still gets regular play from a lot of racing enthusiasts today — plus now you can enjoy it as part of the Piko Interactive Collection 1 cartridge for Blaze’s Evercade retro gaming system. So let’s take a closer look!

Top Racer has its roots in a slightly older game for home computers: Lotus Esprit Turbo Challenge by Gremlin Graphics. This was incredibly well-received on its original release in 1990, but like many video games primarily aimed at the 8- and 16-bit home computer formats of the day, it was much more well-known in Europe than it was elsewhere in the world.

The second and third games in the Lotus Turbo Challenge series did eventually get console ports to the Sega Mega Drive, but it was 1992’s Top Racer for Super NES, effectively a complete reimagining of the Lotus Turbo Challenge format with all the licensed cars stripped out, that finally enjoyed worldwide success. Particularly in Brazil, interestingly enough — which is why so many attempts to recreate this style of racer from a modern perspective (such as Horizon Chase Turbo and Slipstream) stem from Brazilian creators.

The game’s Brazilian popularity specifically stemmed from the cultural phenomenon of “locadoras” — places where you could pay a fee and just sit and play video games for a set amount of time. As you might expect, multiplayer games proved particularly popular in these establishments, and racing games such as Top Racer were high on the agenda thanks to Brazilian Formula 1 superstar Ayrton Senna being at the height of his popularity at the time.

Even if you’re playing solo, though, Top Racer is a lot of fun — and a great example of what has ensured the continuing popularity of vanishing point racers, even in a world where we have practically photorealistic simulations of motorsports accessible to all. And that simple factor is arcade-style immediacy: you don’t need to know how a car works in order to enjoy Top Racer — all you need to know is how to steer around corners and (preferably) how not to bump into things.

Top Racer unfolds as a series of championship races in various locations around the world. Beginning in the United States, you’ll compete in several races in each region, with your progression to the next event dependent on you finishing in the top five of the pack. Upon successfully clearing a race in the top five, you’ll be awarded championship points; successfully making it through four courses in the same region and finishing the championship in the top three provides you with a password and a new competition in a new part of the world.

The fact you don’t have to win the events in Top Racer in order to progress allows most players to make a decent amount of progress immediately — it also provides a decent amount of longevity to the game, since once you’ve scraped through all the championships in third place, you can then challenge yourself further by actually trying to win the tournaments in their entirety — and then perhaps even trying to win every race.

There is, of course, also your rival racer to consider. While the Evercade version of the game does not, at the time of writing, provide the facility to play Top Racer with a friend, you do always have a computer-controlled rival car playing on the bottom of the split-screen display even if you’re playing solo. While the game drew some criticism on its original release for not allowing full-screen single-player racing — a complaint addressed in the 1993 sequel — being able to see what your “rival” is up to provides an interesting and satisfying experience. Among other things, the rival racer acts as a good “pacer”; if you stay ahead of them, you know you’re going to finish in a decent position. But be prepared — both your rival and the other 18 computer-controlled racers in each event are more than willing to put up a fight, particularly on the higher difficulty levels.

Top Racer is nicely presented. While it doesn’t make use of the Super NES’ iconic hardware sprite scaling and rotation facilities on the trackside objects or other cars, in practice the game is generally moving much too fast for you to really care how many frames of animation the game uses to create the illusion of 3D. The speed of the game is absolutely thrilling, particularly when combined with some distinctly rollercoaster-esque undulations in a number of tracks, and the speedy, slick, smooth scrolling on the lovely pixel-art backdrops to each track give you a strong sense of movement.

The game’s action is accompanied by a stirring soundtrack from Barry Leitch, mostly consisting of reimagined versions of music from the earlier Lotus Turbo Challenge games. The music is catchy and energetic, providing plenty of drive (no pun intended) to push yourself to the limit in each race, and I don’t mind admitting that prior to revisiting Top Racer in more recent years, I’d had Leitch’s tracks from this game stuck well and truly in my head for nearly thirty years. If only I could remember important things as well.

Anyway, Top Racer is a fabulous vanishing point racer, and a delightful addition to the Evercade’s library. It’s one of the more well-known games on the Piko Interactive Collection 1 cartridge — although most people recognise it more readily as Top Gear — and absolutely one of the best. Now I’ve got a rival to beat and he won’t wait for me forever, so if you’ll excuse me, there’s a race to be run.

More about Top Racer (aka Top Gear)

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