Racing Column

Racing Game of the Week #15 – “Over Top” (1996)

 

“What’s behind you doesn’t matter.”
-Enzo Ferrari

 

 

slipstream “The following is a contributor post by the Slipstream Mage.”

You wake up on April 26th, 1996. Primal Fear starring Richard Gere is tops in the box office for a 3rd straight week. Celine Dion’s ‘Because You Loved Me’ is number 1 on the American charts for a 6th straight week. Pro golfer Nick Faldo is fresh off his 3rd Master’s title. The NBA Playoffs’ first round tipped off the evening before, and will ultimately culminate in the Chicago Bulls returning to the Finals for the first time since 1993, and winning their fourth title in six years. Yes, we’re smack dab in the middle of the 90’s. The Slipstream Mage was wrapping up a successful freshman year, with the spring trimester at the University of Minnesota coming to a close. Duke Nukem 3-D was running on dorm room PCs everywhere, and arcade machines were still abundant in the student union. Life was good.

Anybody who was more than the casual gamer in the 90’s knew about the Neo Geo. For most of us, it was that holy grail of gaming systems that truly, legitimately, brought arcade games to our living room. That was because it was the same hardware that was in the Neo Geo arcade cabinets. For a mere $600 bucks, you could trounce your Genesis- and SNES-owning buddies with actual arcade graphics and floor tile-sized cartridges. So yeah, good luck trying to justify that purchase with your parents. Putting it on a Christmas or Birthday wish list was a surefire way to be laughed out the door, given the absurd price relative it’s competitors. Mercifully, you could still experience Neo Geo games in the arcade though, for a mere quarter (arcade game credits were still going for 2 bits at this point). The Neo Geo became well known for its fighting games (Fatal Fury, Samurai Showdown, King of the Fighters, to name a few) and side-scroller action games (Metal Slug, Magician Lord, Sengoku). But racing games on the system were far and few between.

Enter Over Top and racing in the style of the fixed-perspective, isometric view (if you like these types of games, see my review of Super Pixel Racers). Over Top is a timed stage-based racer that essentially takes you in a long circuitous drive through the countryside, starting and ending in a seemingly Californian American city (just a guess, given the variety of environments within driving distance). Before starting, you get your choice from a range of vehicles, Ferrari to a motorcycle, Humvee to hatchback, and several more types in between. Select a ride, and then pick your favorite color coat of paint (always a nice touch), and hit the road. Each vehicle has its own attributes that impact how fast they can traverse the variety of roadway surfaces you’ll encounter. Asphalt, gravel, sand, and snow are all out there to tread upon. Naturally, the Ferrari is super fast on asphalt, but slower on the loose surfaces. Conversely, the Humvee is terrific on snow and dirt, but less so on asphalt. In the end, the best choice seems to be the nondescript SUV that is well-rounded enough to not be generally competent on any surface.

Your opponents’ taste and budget in vehicles varies widely

The game controls are simplistic in nature, with a 2-button scheme for gas and brake.  The control stick rotates your car in the isometric view. Near as I can tell, there is absolutely no need to take your finger off the gas throughout the race, and you only need to use the brake on a few occasions to help you swing around the tightest of hairpin turns. And the vehicle you chose doesn’t seem to vary in handling characteristics during braking turns. Only your speed and acceleration on the road surface seems to vary between rides.

As you push through to different stages, you’ll encounter a forested village, rocky and snow-covered mountain passes, a desert, a small seaside town, and eventually you’ll return back to the metropolis where you started.  With each stage you clear, you restore some of your ever-diminishing time, a la Pole Position. There are only 6 stages, and once you get to the finish line, that ends the race. This amounts to about 4 minutes and change in gameplay if you manage to clear all stages in time. Given the loop/circuit array of stages, it would have been nice to have an endurance mode where you can keep going until your timer zeroes out. Instead, your quarter nets you less than 5 minutes of gameplay, regardless of your mastery of the drive. And this mastery, it turns out, does not take all that long. I managed to rip thru the full circuit on the ACA/NeoGeo emulated version on Xbox One after less than an hour of continuous play.

The real fun and the trick to completing Over Top’s full circuit, though, comes in discovering the myriad shortcuts littered all around the track. Each stage seems to contain several alternate paths, that are not marked on the GPS screen located in the upper right. And not all are particularly beneficial to your times (if driving the wrong vehicle, some can cost you more time). Find the quickest routes, and you’ll trim time and preserve it for later stages. You do ‘race’ with 3 other CPU controlled opponents, but you rarely see them on the roads beyond the first and last stages, as drivers tend to get separated out across the large map.

Over Top is fun. The graphics are colorful. The sound effects and soundtrack are competent, but not memorable. It controls well enough, and the stages are varied environments are interesting enough to keep you pushing to complete the whole circuit. Once you do, you’ll either be content and put it down, knowing you bested the clock. Or like me, you’ll feel a little empty inside, with the notion that this game could be significantly improved with another whole circuit or at least a few more stages to run through. The bigger takeaway though is probably that even though you might have wanted a Neo Geo sitting in your living room, games like this (at $150 a cart, no less) are probably better experienced in an arcade in small doses, rather than as some kind of gaming status symbol.

My run from Stage 2 to Stage 6.

 

The Slipstream Mage has been a gamer for over 35 years and got his start begging for quarters from his parents at a hotel pool game room.  Racing games from every era are in his blood – challenge him to a lap time at your peril! Find him @JTorto40 on Twitter.

 

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