I've felt a little down lately. A touch gloomy. Why? Who knows. Maybe it's because 30 Rock is ending soon, maybe it's the continued decline of Western civilisation. It doesn't matter, because if you're a miserable weirdo who spends their time writing about old videogames then there's always one thing you can turn to that'll lift your spirits - Sega arcade games. This one's called Racing Hero!
Hell, I feel better already. The title screen may say '89 but apparently Racing Hero was released in 1990 on Sega's X Board, which also powered games such as Thunder Blade and Super Monaco GP. Between the title and the picture of men riding motorcycles, it does not take a Sherlockian intellect to figure out that Racing Hero is a motorcycle racing game.
Pictured here: an indecisive person who cannot decide whether they want to race or not. Look, either get all the way on the bike or all the way off it, I don't have time for your dilly-dallying.
Immediately I'm confused by the set-up here. Let's disregard the giant ogre giving a thumbs up for a moment: why are cars and bikes racing together / against each other? Surely the differences between the two types of vehicle are so great that they render any contest meaningless? The only feasible explanation is that the bikes and cars are participating in two separate races, but to save time and money they are being run on the same course, simultaneously. I'm a racing hero all right - a hero of efficiency!
Back to the thumbs-up ogre. It's not just me, right? Her face is disturbingly asymmetrical with her right eye being much higher than her left? Good. Just checking.
Palm trees, blue skies, wide open roads... all things I'm not especially fond of in the real world (see my previous "miserable weirdo" statement) but in arcade games from twenty years ago? Love 'em.
Racing Hero is a quintessentially Sega-y title, a checkpoint racer that utilises sprite-scaling to create the appearance of 3D movement and a sense of speed. The controls are simple, even simpler than OutRun due to the lack of a gear system. All you have here is accelerate and brake, and your job is to weave through the traffic, avoid the other racers, try not to crash and reach the checkpoint before your time runs out.
It's an evolution of the gameplay from Sega classics such as OutRun and Super Hang-On, the intervening years allowing for improvements in the scaler technology that turn the graphics up a notch and give proceedings, especially the trackside buildings and objects, a greater sense of solidity and "there-ness."
The fact that you're riding a motorcycle invites comparisons to the Hang-On series, but it feels closer in spirit to OutRun. I'd go as far as to say that it feels more like a follow-up to OutRun than most of the actual OutRun sequels. It has the same traffic-dodging moments, the same beachfront beginnings and the same choose-a-route system that sees your path through the game split at the end of each stage.
It's not exactly the same as OutRun, though - rather than the road physically splitting into a forking path beneath your wheels, you have to select your next destination from two options. I assume Sega made this decision because Racing Hero takes place all over the globe and having a roadsign marked "turn left for France and right for Brazil" would seem a little ridiculous. Then again, a couple of years later Sega released a game about a blue hedgehog who can run really fast, and even Racing Hero has its own unbelievable moments: crashing into a truck at 200 miles an hour is not generally something you can just walk off with an apologetic shrug of the shoulders.
The first stage takes place in Australia. The game doesn't tell you this, but I managed to puzzle it out thanks to the roadside signs that say "KOALA" on them in much the same way my hometown has signs that say "MALTREATED PITBULLS, LARGE RATS" dotting the area. After that, it's a whirlwind tour of the planet, so let's take a look at the other countries you'll be travelling through (assuming you haven't crashed and died of course, those high-powered motorbikes are deathtraps.)
Like OutRun, the right-hand course is harder than the left-hand one, although there seems to be much less difference in challenge between the two routes than there was in OutRun. After an accident-free jaunt through Australia, I was feeling confident so I chose the right-hand option: Brazil. Brazil is a land of lush greenery, waterfalls and weird statues that look like nervous frogs wearing boxing headguards.
The statue of Christ the Redeemer gazes serenly down onto your race, because Jesus was bang into his motorsports.
Sticking to the right-path takes you to Italy. Really high up in Italy, apparently, because you can see all the way to Spain and the Sagrada Familia cathedral in Barcelona. This is the point where someone leaves me a comment telling me that's actually a cathedral in Italy that just looks like Gaudi's work, and that's fine, but I'm going to stick with my high-altitude racing hypothesis.
The final course on the hard route is good old Great Britain, a land of thatched cottages, red London buses and Tower Bridge in all its grey, out-of-place glory.
Cor blimey, strike a light, it brings a patriotic tear to my eye guv'nor. The best thing about the UK course is that when you finish it, the crowd that gathers to cheer your victory is truly an insightful cross-section of British society.
See, you've got punk rockers rubbing shoulders with children and what look like earless Playboy bunnies. Truly, this is a faultless portrayal of the melting pot that is our sceptered isle, all peoples coming together to stand in front of a motorcycle travelling at 300 kilometres an hour and casually gambling their lives that it'll manage to stop in time.
France obviously can't compete with Britain, but they put on a good show with some lovely-looking buildings and an inordinate amount of sunflowers. Oh, and the Eiffel Tower, that's there too, looking as always like a less-impressive version of Blackpool Tower. Does the Eiffel Tower play host to organ performances (not a euphemism) by the legendary Phill Kelsall, MBE? No, I didn't think so.
China? Bamboo, pictures of pandas and pagoda-style houses. Nice to see that Sega had the same set of vague clichés about China as everyone else. Actually, if you asked people in Britain to sum up China, most answers would probably revolve around Chinese food. I know that's what I'm thinking about. That and how much Beijing is starting to resemble Blade Runner.
Just past the bamboo forests is the, um, Taj Mahal. This isn't like a building which may or may not be the Sagrada Familia appearing in Italy, that is straight-up, unquestionably, 100% definitely the Taj Mahal. Which is in India. Not China. C'mon Sega, at least get an atlas out or something, damn.
Pictured above is the final stage of the left-hand route. It is The Netherlands. The Netherlands course is flat and, honestly, a little boring. That is, unless you like windmills. If you like windmills then you'll like this stage. If you love windmills, you'll love this stage. If you find yourself with an uncontrollable yearning to be physically intimate with any wind-powered milling equipment, please stop playing this game and seek psychiatric help immediately.
The Japan stage shows that Sega were at least even-handed when it came to stereotyping countries, and so their home turf is a mixture of pink cherry blossoms and crowded urban areas. Like the Netherlands, this stage is one of the less interesting routes. No matter how well they're drawn, there's only so much wonderment I can summon up for pink trees.
There's a course in the USA, naturally, although it's dusty and brown rather than looking like an advert from the Bermudan Tourist Board. You have to appreciate the effort expended in capturing so much of the essence of America in one small stage, though. Sure, some minor inaccuracies may be present - I'm no geographer, but even I'm aware that the Statue of Liberty isn't located in a small area of woodland near the Grand Canyon - but these famous landmarks, combined with the thinly-veiled roadside McDonalds' and the billboards starring a fist-throwin' superhero called Captain Eagle, really bring the Home of the Brave to life.
Finally, there's Egypt. It's got sand and pyramids. What the hell else did you think it was going to look like? Maybe one day people outside Africa will think of Egypt without their brains immediately lurching towards enormous, show-offy tombs and lions with the heads of men, but that day is not today and it certainly wasn't in 1989.
That's pretty much the entire Earth traversed by motorcycle, but was driving through all these places any fun? Well, I'm happy to report that it was. Racing Hero is a further refinement of things that Sega were already doing pretty damn well with games like - well, you know the ones, and if you enjoyed Hang-On and OutRun then Racing Hero will not disappoint you. Of course if you don't enjoy behind-the-vehicle viewpoint races against the clock in Sega's trademark bright and cheery style, this game won't change that, and I think there might be something wrong with your brain.
The Super Scaler graphics look fantastic, much improved even in the short time since the first games to use them were released. The controls are smooth and responsive, with just the right amount of "grip" to them so that the sensation of turning corners feels like something you're causing and not like you're being funnelled around the bend, which can sometimes happen with games like this. As I've mentioned, the graphics are excellent: technically very accomplished, more unabashedly vibrant than a Rio carnival putting on a stage show of The Wizard of Oz and full of detail, especially the billboards along the courses are packed with Sega references.
These are just a few of them, and boy are there some obscure games on display here. At the risk of destroying the carefully-cultivated yet utterly false image of me being some all-knowing games wizard, I had to look up whether Flash Point was even a thing. Turns out it's a Tetris rip-off that Sega released in 1989. There are plenty more famous names in there too, but my one disappointment is that I couldn't get a decent screenshot of that Megadrive billboard, hidden as they were behind the mighty palm forests of Australia. I kept expecting to see Sonic the Hedgehog on a billboard - that's just where the mind naturally goes when you think of Sega and their characters - but of course Racing Hero was released before the first Sonic game. Don't worry, he appears in plenty of other games.
The graphics are good, but if there's one part of a Sega arcade game that'll pique my interest, it's the soundtrack, and I'm happy to say that Racing Hero delivers on that front. It's not a huge selection of tracks, just four in-race tunes and various short jingles, but each of the four main tracks fit neatly under the banner of the "Sega Arcade Racer" while still managing to feel musically distinct from the other games that Racing Hero would be compared to.
This is my favourite track, which as far as I can tell is just called "BGM 3". Composed by Hikoshi Hashimoto, it's the bassline that does it for me on this one because lord knows I can't resist that synth bass, (see also Chrono Trigger, Jaleco's E.D.F.,) but all the tracks are excellent and will be going onto my MP3 player so I can relive the high-speed thrills of Racing Hero while my bus is stuck in traffic.
Racing Hero serves up a very enjoyable slice of classic arcade-style racing action, but it's not one hundred percent perfect. It's flaws are small, but they exist. It doesn't feel quite as fast as other Sega racers, for one thing. The collision detection, while generally good, seems to get a bit confused when you're passing close to another bike. Even my own incompetence - a force not to be underestimated - could not account for the amount of times I though I was clear of my rivals only for the game to say "nope, your bikes meet in a feverish embrace of steel and sparks and you are thrown to the ground, destroying any hope you had of victory."
That's the other thing about this game that I wasn't wild about - the difficulty. This is a tough game. It's a race against the clock, and the clock really does not want to be beaten. Even on the easiest difficulty settings, the time you're given to complete each stage is far from generous, especially if you take the right-hand courses: despite racing through the Great Britain stage without so much as grazing an obstacle or letting go of the throttle unless it was absolutely necessary, I still ran out of time and only completed the game because my bike's forward momentum carried me over the line. When the game actually finished I must have had -2 seconds left on the clock, which does make for an exciting finale but feels rather unfair. I have no problem with the game being tough, but there's no reward for doing well and the lack of leeway from the timer can kill your game dead. Crash big on the first corner and I'm sorry but that's it, you're done, you might as well give up now because you won't make the time back.
None of those things are game-breakers, though, and they don't account for the fact that Racing Hero is somewhere down near the "what the hell are you talking about?" end of the obscurity spectrum. Racing Hero has no console ports, no remakes, barely a second thought given to it, but why? Saturation of the market, maybe - Sega put out plenty of arcade racers around this time, and Racing Hero doesn't quite have what it takes to stand out. The lack of a console port is probably down to the systems of the time not being about to really do justice to games like OutRun, never mind something more advanced, until eventually home gaming hardware had moved on and Racing Hero was forgotten.
Mostly, I think Racing Hero was forgotten because it's kind of... forgettable. It's a good game, very good even: smooth, responsive, well-crafted fun wrapped up in the sunny embrace of that famous Sega style. That's the problem, though. It doesn't have its own style. You can look at it and you'll probably think "yup, that's definitely a Sega arcade game from the early nineties," but that's all the definition it has and when it's compared to true, enduring classics like OutRun and Hang-On it's just a bit generic.
I'm still recommending that you play it, of course. An ever-so-slightly bland Sega racing game from 1990 is still a Sega racing game from 1990 after all, and while Racing Hero might not quite live up to its illustrious forebears that's hardly a crime, is it? I mean, what games could? Just take Racing Hero on its own merits, enjoy the ride and always remember that The Netherlands are made up of nothing but grass and windmills.