Friday, November 18, 2011

Of Import: Road Spirits (1991)

Road Spirits: Pleasant Game of Courteous Driving!

That's not the actual tagline for Road Spirits, a 1991 Japanese racing game published by Arc Co. Ltd. and Pack-In Video for the PC Engine CD-ROM format, but it's the most appropriate one I can come up with.  This globe-trotting auto racing game inspired by Sega's OutRun provides seventeen courses scattered around the globe, in no logical order whatsoever.  Road Spirits was never released in the US, but the game is entirely in English so it's no problem for import gaming purposes.  Unless, of course, you were hoping to do some actual gaming.

I really should have taken a hint from the post-title screen -- in fact, I tried not to be ready, I really did.

But claiming unprepared status only takes us to the options screen, where we can select one of the four available vehicles -- we will see these same four vehicles onscreen throughout the game as our competitors, and while they have varying dashboard displays they all seem to handle about the same.  We can also switch from a two-speed to a five-speed transmission, and select a music track before deciding that IT'S ALLRIGHT and we are ready to race.  Once we have made our car and transmission selection, they are locked in for the duration of the game; our most recent race status, and record times for each course, are retained in the PCE's game-save memory.

There are 10 CD-audio music tracks, most of which are laid-back, jazzy 80s pop tracks, except for the bizarre track #10, titled "Q Chan," which sounds like a classical chamber jug band.  There are 10 tracks and 17 levels, and it's nice to have the option of changing the music once in a while.  Some tracks are reminiscent of the OutRun tunes, and I'd say the music is the best part of this disc.

The game engine is simple and runs smoothly -- it's a traditional 8/16-bit "ribbon road" approach, with roadside objects and billboards appearing once in a while and scaling crudely.  What little freshness the game offers occurs mostly in the graphic sets for each course -- the gameplay never changes, nor does the difficulty ramp up in any discernible way, but the CD-ROM storage is used to provide some visual and musical variety.  At playing speed, the billboards are hard to read, so I had to capture some screenshots.  Here, generic Slims cigarettes are promoted:

While in another part of the world, it appears that Beverly  Hillbillies star Buddy Ebsen has gone into the computer peripherals business:

Road Spirits is not difficult, at all -- there are no competitive racers on the road, so all we have to do is maintain control, weave in and out of the sparse traffic without crashing into other cars or roadside objects more than a few times per track, remember to shift into high gear for maximum speed, and get to the end of each course before the four-minute timer is up.  I finished the entire 17-course game in under 90 minutes, and never once ran out of time.  I'm not particularly good at racing games, but I was able to maintain a comfortable cruising speed, drifting through the curves by letting up on the accelerator now and then (the brake button is rarely needed) and finishing each track on the first try in around three-and-a-half minutes.

Our reward for completing each course is an appearance by a comely Japanese lass urging us to Try! Next Road.  Too bad we don't really have to try.

The simple game engine means that all of the tracks are fairly flat -- there are some mild inclines and dips, with the horizon moving up and down, but even in the Swiss Alps we're driving on a pretty flat surface.  The course sequence is strange, emphasized by the between-level map that shows our zig-zag course Indiana Jones style, with animated transportation -- we travel by plane, train, helicopter, even the Space Shuttle to get from one location to another as the game progresses.

Once we have finished the final level, the generically named "Forest Road" which appears to be located somewhere in Canada, we are given a final victory message:

The full scrolling text reads, "CONGRATULATIONS!   YOU ARE REAL ROAD SPIRITS".  Then the display recaps our time for each track, which we have been seeing repeatedly between levels anyway.

Road Spirits is not a terrible game, but it's so mind-numbingly generic and easy that it's more of a travelogue than anything else.  Driving past Moai heads on Easter Island while listening to pleasant music isn't the worst way I've ever killed a few hours on the PC Engine, but I'm glad I didn't import this one back in the day when Japanese games cost upwards of $70.  Now THAT would have been a waste.

If you simply must race randomly around the world, and are NOT looking for any kind of a gaming challenge, you might be able to buy a copy of Road Spirits here.

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