Top Gear

Wielding the bare essentials with finesse, Top Gear pushes your needle to the limit.

Game Name: Top Gear (1992)
Developer: Gremlin Graphics (Guantlet, Hero Quest, Jungle Strike)
Platform: Super Nintendo (reviewed on SNES emulation)
Categories: Heart Throttling, Adrenaline Pumping Racing. Blinding Speed, Epilepsy Warning, Consistent Framerate, Always Split Screen, 2 Players, 4 Cars, Fuel Tracking, Manual/Automatic Transmission, Excellent Tunes, Level Passcodes, Slight Control Lag, Variable Difficulty, AI Loser Assist, No Damage, Nitro Boosts, Photo Finishes, “Realism”

May Appeal To: bots, artificial constructs, video game endurance champions, people with naturally moist eyes, and those with minimal thumb latency.
May Repulse: the tired, lethargic, and any who haven’t cast off the human need to blink.

Comparable To: Super Mario Kart but with less personality or replayability; this game has a fantastic sense of speed like in F-Zero but the tracks feel narrow and more difficult to navigate; Stunt Race FX had worse framerate and was incredibly difficult to control. Cruis’n USA’s topography and locales come to mind despite the tone being completely different.

Learning Curve: 15 minutes for anticipating curves, 1 hour for your eyes to adjust
Game Length: 3 hours if you don’t get disqualified
Difficulty: Adjustable, though high on certain tracks
Mastery: It’s pure racing aside from the artificial boosts to the direct AI opponent.
Getting first in all races takes reaction times of steel though doing so with each of the four available cars seems impossible.

Story: It’s a racing game. You aren’t named, don’t have a personal garage or a rival, and don’t amass wealth or anything that would make the tedium meaningful on a deeper level. Two static images are your reward for victory or defeat and there are no stakes.

Hope you ate your Wheaties and got a good night’s sleep. The endurance trials are taxing for even the most alert players.

Presentation: Top Gear will melt your face off. With perseverence, the initial impressions of impossible demands of instantaneous reaction speeds and threading automotive needles at 200mph gives way to familiarity, even the semblance of control as your low-slung rocket sled hurtles towards hundreds of rocks, signs, and other drivers that will stop you dead in your tracks. Before too long, the hypnotic colors dancing across your pupils jives with the exhilarating trills of a synthetic musical score and your life becomes the trance which continues unabated for the next 10 minutes. The final lap approaches and you hit the Nitro button in one last-ditch effort, the uncanny “khhh” effect indicating your tenuous grasp on reality is about to pop a few more threads in the strain. The scenery blurs, a reminder that your damnable lacrimal ducts serve as a second tier defense against dry eye, and you blink to clear your view, the conventional act causing your car to strike a peripheral roadpost mid-turn and you emerge from warp speed with an abrupt crash that costs the precious seconds required to finish in the top 5 positions.

You curse your frail humanity and eagerly mash buttons to skip the intermission screens before trying the track again for the 20th time.

Despite Nessie making an appearance, the “Beware Monster” signs are the real threat.

Unique Features: Top Gear runs great but the screen is always split right down the middle, occupied by an AI driver if you don’t deploy a friend as a challenger. The game skews towards “simulation” in its tracking of fuel and the musical scores are riveting.

Gameplay: A bit out of the norm for its era, this game might actually qualify as an early simulator – what with the ramp-up of acceleration, simulacrum of racing lines based on speed, the concern for fuel, and a nerve-wracking amount of pit time. Wielding 3 non-replenishable “Nitros” as speed boosts and the lack of any damage as a detriment to poor turn negotiation are really the only detractors from a realistic experience, where the player’s car never sails through the air or bullies the AI opponents off the road. Instead, the game focuses on a model where the player is forced to scrutinize the track layout and make quick reactions second nature. Although any rewards are merely limited to a brief fanfare and a picture of a happy driver holding a trophy, there’s reason enough to perform well and trot the globe to discover the next location with nefarious hairpin turns.

Don’t ease off the accelerator. Ritchie and his friend “computer” are cold, calculating competitors.

The AI is not to be trifled with. Here, they spared a few seconds in the pits to coast across the finish line on an empty tank.

Additional Comments: Braking is optional though avoiding collisions is not. Players who lack the spatial reasoning to define the oddly 2-dimensional car are going to have a tough time when it comes to weaving intricate lines of approach around congested bottlenecks of detritus and enemy drivers. Some difficulties/tracks require near-perfect runs.

What I Liked: I liked the music, liked the challenge, liked the track variety, liked the real-word passcodes, and found the sense of speed to be the most satisfying bit of the game.

What I Disliked: Just as with F-Zero, certain cars are demonstrably inferior to others. (Fuel longevity is critical for the bigger picture.) The difficulty curve during a campaign is also suspect – with the entire circuit closing out with some of the easiest races. Other than that the game is a bit simple in design, affording very little reason to pick it back up again.I abhor the obstructions and wish someone would clean the gray rocks off of the gray road!

Ah, the illusion of choice. The brain can only handle certain speeds and less time refueling equates to more winning.

Glitches Experienced: Absolutely None (Thanks Gremlin Graphics!)

Hours I Played: ~20 as a kid, ~6 as an adult

My Personal Reaction: The nostalgia goggles were thick on this one…. I recall hours of frustration and white-knuckle recitation of tracks which I’d memorized, sitting too close to the CRT TV as my young eyes glazed over from the strain, stumbling about the house due to flashing patterns of red/white course markers burned-into and assuredly-damaging my developing rods and cones. Great times. After having my progression repeatedly stall out on the brutal French tracks, I finally beat the sonuvabitch in my 30s.

Noob Tips: Hold ‘up’ while in the pits to refuel faster. Count how many bars are require in a lap to be more economical with your pit stops. Save Nitros for the last couple of laps.

Depth and Replayability: No Depth, Minimal Replay; Multiplayer might be good for kicks

Suggested Value: $1, $25 for a physical cartridge

Where to Buy: eBay, local classic gaming store

Subjective Categorical Ranking:
(Platform capabilities are considered for Graphics and Sound)

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I dunno, may I?

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