Juvenilia interests me. No, that’s not perverted–“juvenilia” is what a famous entity produces in their field before they got good at it (Or, if you’re cynical, before they got famous). Most of the time, juvenilia never sees the light of day.
Sometimes, though, the process of “growing up” takes place in public. The first Rush album was a Led Zeppelin ripoff that doesn’t reflect what most people think of when they think of “Rush”. In the video game realm, Rare released a number of games, some better than others, before finding their form with Battletoads. And then there’s Square. Before becoming the king of the console RPG, the company then called Squaresoft release a couple gimmicky “3D” games.
Released in 1987, Rad Racer is what you’d expect by the title. Taking control of either a Twin Turbo Ferrari or an F-1 Racer, your job is to climb into a car with your girlfriend and go on an illogically planned trek across the country. You’ll start in California, wind through Athens, Georgia (Which looks a lot like Athens, Greece), before going…back to California, and continuing from there.
While the game is called Rad Racer, you don’t race other vehicles per se. Rather, the other cars are mere obstacles in the way as you race against the clock, in the tradition of 80s racers like Hang-On, Pole Position, and Out Run. You begin each course with 45 seconds on the clock. Each course has four sections, and clearing a section extends your timer. Of course, it’s not that easy. Go too far off the road and you’ll hit an obstacle off the side, flip, and lose a bunch of your time as your car decelerates and moves back to the center of the road. hitting other cars in your way will smack you around, sometimes defying the laws of physics (As often as not, hitting a car on your left will make you drift to the left, instead of the right like you’d expect). And sometimes there are spinning cars, which make you fly into the air like hitting a side-of-the-road obstacle.
As you may have guessed, Rad Racer is not a forgiving game. In the earlier courses, you can typically afford to flip once, and a second flip will cause you to run out of time and game over. In the later levels, you can race flawless (As in never flip), and still run out of time if you happen to get stuck behind a slow-moving car for long enough.
The game’s saving grace difficulty-wise is the continue code mentioned in the manual. Similar to 3-D Worldrunner, I had to utilize this code to beat the game, which there’s no great shame in doing. Sometimes the later races decide to put an almost avoidable spinning car in your way, which is the most frustrating part of trying to beat the game in a single go.
While the manual mentions various types of vehicles in your path, the truth is that the computer-controlled vehicles are just palette swaps of your own. This becomes obvious when you pick the F-1 car, which is identical in performance to the Ferrari. The graphics are otherwise simplistic, although course five has a neat touch where you drive adjacent to Square’s US headquarters. Like 3-D Worldrunner, the game includes a 3-D mode where you use red-and-cyan glasses, which I sadly don’t own.
The racing part of Rad Racer contains three musical tracks, which you can swap between at will. If you so desire, you can also race with no music at all. During Homestar Runner‘s heyday, track one was best known as The Stinkoman Theme. The other two tracks are upbeat, with track 2 in particular conjuring the feeling of driving along the beach.
Rad Racer is fascinating in the same way 3-D Worldrunner is, as an artifact of pre-Final Fantasy Square. While it’s not a bad game when you strip it of this historical significance, there’s nothing that sets it apart from the other against-the-clock racers of its day. As the game was never re-released, EBay is your best bet for tracking it down. It’s cheap enough that it’s worth taking a flyer on, even if trying to beat it in one credit is an exercise in frustration.