Racing Column

Racing Game of the Week #20: “LEGO Racers 2” (2001)

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“I’ll pack my bags and head into hyperspace
Velocity and time-warp speed
Spend my days in ultraviolet rays
Fun, fun, fun, In the sun, sun, sun.

We’ll lock on course straight through the universe
You and me and the galaxy
Reach the stage where hyper-drive’s engaged
Fun, fun, fun, In the sun, sun, sun,
Fun, fun, fun, In the sun, sun, sun.”

Howard Goodall, “Red Dwarf Theme”

 

FF3-NES-WhiteMage1 “The following is a contributor post by the Purple Prose Mage“.

It is 19th October 2001. An Indonesian fishing boat carrying refugees sinks during a storm south of Java, killing 353 of its passengers. The United States Army’s 75th Ranger Regiment seizes a Taliban airstrip in Operation Rhino; these are the first American military deaths in Afghanistan. “Can’t get you out of my Head” by Kylie Minogue is the UK no. 1 single for its 4th week. From Hell opens at the top of the Northern American box office. LEGO Soft Ware publishes ATD’s LEGO Racers 2 for the PlayStation 2 in Europe.

LEGO Racers had established a series of kart-based racing games themed on LEGO playsets and minfigures and depicted the downfall of its champion, Rocket Racer, during the final boss race. LEGO Racers 2‘s intro sequence reveals the aftermath of Racer’s defeat, in which he returns to his home world of Sandy Bay before making a comeback by entering and winning the Galactic Racing Championship on Xalax.

That’s where the player comes in, creating their own minifigure and giving it a name. This is the character that will be attempting to take on Racer at the next Galactic Racing Championship.

Their mentor will be Sparky, who provides lots of Basil Expositioning. The dialogue is written simply enough for anyone to understand it, but does tend to over-explain everything. The fast forward feature would seem to be an acknowledgement from the developers that they were aware of this.

Sparky owns a garage and offers to lend the player one of his stock vehicles if they don’t want to build one of their own. Building a car from scratch involves selecting a template chassis and adding onto it, although the physics and dynamics of it all is never explained, so there’s no actual right or wrong way to build a car, which is somewhat counter-intuitive to a game in which selecting and assembling the right bricks in the right way is the main thing. If you want, you can just select the chassis and have done with it because even that can be driven on its own. Otherwise, you can select one of Sparky’s custom cars; this is a much better idea, frankly, because they’re designed by the developers, who knew what they were doing and, if nothing else, look much better. Each world requires you to drive a different car, and Sparky is always able to provide. His used car business seems to have a branch in every world.

Once you’ve done that, the story will begin. You are the minifigure you designed; a humble resident of Sandy Bay, which is in fact an island. The characters of the LEGO Racers universe speak a gibberish tongue (because they are so primitive) which is translated by live captions. This language is not very broad, and sounds like the same sentence being repeated. Also, everyone in the Universe speaks this same language, even aliens (explain that, atheists).

Anyway.

When you begin your quest in Sandy Bay, Sparky tells you that “there’s a bit of a commotion going on” in town. Of course, Sandy Bay is so small that “town” is the one paved road on the island… where you also live. Apparently, you didn’t already notice the argument happening on your street, so Sparky instructs you to drive all the way to the beach so he can tell you about it.

The commotion turns out to be four people debating whether or not a digger could win a race against literally any other vehicle. Workman Fred maintains that of course it could but can’t back up his claim. Postman Mike brags that he is in fact Sandy Bay’s fastest racer because he knows all the quick routes that no else does, what with the island being so small and only having one road and everything. Fireman Gavin says that his job is to be the fastest driver on Sandy Bay anyway, despite having never actually faced any competition before. P.C. Bobby is the only one of the four to have a legitimate claim because he has a state-of-the-art police 4X4, though this car is also available for the player to choose from Sparky’s garage, which means that: A) P.C. Bobby has an even chance of being beaten; and B), Sparky would seem to be the private contractor providing everyone with their vehicles. Does that mean he also provided Rocket Racer with his new car? If so, that would be a serious conflict of interest. And how is the player qualified to drive it if they’re not a police officer (which they’re definitely not, because Sandy Bay is so small that they only have one, his name’s even P.C.)?

Anyway, they agree to hold a contest to determine who will represent Sandy Bay at the Galactic Racing Championship. You might think that a Galactic Racing Championship would consist of finalists from each of that galaxy’s solar systems, but apparently even a random island can send someone along, out of five open applicants, because they drive faster than a workman with a digger and a postman. I’m seriously questioning the legitimacy of the competition.

Sandy Bay is a tutorial world, and as such introduces the player to how the game works. It’s like any other kart racing game, really, with various power-ups. Checkpoints hover above the track to keep everyone on course, though jumping over them counts as well. Also, there are arrows and a map. It’s one of the more accessible racing games. It’s LEGO after all, not Gran Turismo. By far the most amusing feature of the game is the way that power-ups don’t just knock other racers off course, but also displace one of their cars’ bricks. If all the bricks on a car are displaced, the driver must run to the pit stop lane for their car to be rebuilt around them. Driving through the pit stop lane during every lap will ensure this never happens. It’s pretty neat.

Inevitably, none of the four amateurs on Sandy Bay will stand a chance against you (unless you just really suck), and so the player character will then have qualified for the Galactic Racing Championship by default. And yet… you can’t go straight away. According to Sparky, being the fastest racer on Sandy Bay doesn’t really mean anything, and he’s got a point. So he advises you to travel to the other LEGO worlds in order to practice – all three of them. Sandy Bay can take you to Dino Island by airship, Mars by rocket, the Arctic by helicopter and then Xalax by portal. To say Sandy Bay is a small island, they seem to have the largest economy imaginable. And there’s no government building anywhere. Yet there is a cave filled with deadly green goo. I suspect there’s more to Sandy Bay than meets the eye.

Anyway.

Each world has its own champion who intends to represent it at Xalax – and this is where things get interesting.

After Sandy Bay, every world has a warp room, which will take the player to the six races that must be won in order to challenge its champion, each with their own podium sequence afterwards. In other words, each world’s champion can challenge each other. I guess it’s good for practice before the final, but when you defeat each champion, they’re all disappointed that they can no longer go to Xalax. Why? Is there a rule that a champion beaten by another champion is disqualified? Or do they just pull out because they’re embarrassed to have been beaten by an amateur? To put it another way, the next time I play this game, should I name my minifigure James Cahill?

You may ask yourself, then, what are the stakes of not being another champion if you’ve already qualified? Because – according to Sparky – travelling to Xalax is expensive. He’s right about that, of course; the portal is punching a hole from one point in space to another, that’s gotta take a hell of a lot of energy and resources. But hang on – if Sandy Bay has that kind of money, why are they not sponsoring their poster boy? This is, after all, the Galactic Racing Championship. Is it not worth funding? And if they have a space rocket that can take a man to Mars, why not just travel to Xalax that way? Or was the portal provided to them by Xalax, so they don’t know where it is? That’s a questionable policy to have if you’re sending one of your own citizens there.

So, Sparky’s solution to the money problem is to travel to the cheaper worlds first, because beating their champions will award you a gold brick. So it’s a wager, then? Of course! That’s why defeated champions can’t go to Xalax – the money they’d have used to travel there was won from them by someone else. In other words, the only way for any champion to be able to travel to Xalax is by winning the collective travel fee by beating all the others in a wager. So there can only ever be one representative at a Galactic Racing Championship. See, that’s not really a Galactic Racing Championship, is it? The people from one planet versus one other person?

And another thing – winning one gold brick from each champion will be enough to travel through the portal to Xalax, but Sparky informs the player that exploring the other worlds in free roam mode will allow them to find more gold bricks. In other words, Sparky is actively encouraging the player to steal the treasures from the other worlds they visit once they’ve vanquished its champion. So he’s an imperialist, then?

That’s not as crazy as it sounds. After defeating Rigel, Sparky encourages stealing his vehicle’s shield generator in order to be less susceptible to power-ups. I’m sorry, but that’s just wrong. You can’t take someone’s shield generator without asking. It’s theft.
Rigel’s vehicle, by the way, is a giant mech that can run. It turns out you don’t need to drive a car during a race, which is consistent with the ability to run without a car if it’s destroyed – and that’s is exactly what the Arctic’s champion, the Berg, does. The Berg is a creature made of crystal who runs on all fours instead of driving a vehicle and leaves behind a trail of spikes growing out of the ground. The only explanation is that he poops them out, clearly. He also gets a head start on you because those traffic lights at the beginning only apply to vehicles, see? As it happens, beating him is easy – just use the one shortcut, because he never will. Once beaten, he’ll give you a pair of snow tyres he was keeping in his cave. Why? What did he want them for? Their rightful owner must feel rather hard-done-to for their tyres to be stolen be a creature that has no use for them and lives in a cave where he’s guarded by a team of polar bears, making it impossible to retrieve them.

Another thing the player can do during exploration is take errands from locals. For instance, Sandy Bay’s bonus game is a total Crazy Taxi ripoff. The player discovers that Doctor Dave was waiting for a taxi to take him to the science lab that’s just a few minutes’ walk from his house, but can no longer do so because he’s become too busy, what with Sandy Bay being such a small island with a low population and all. The player volunteers to take him instead, prompting a mini-game in which other passengers around the island must be taken to where they can’t be bothered to walk to. The player even drives a taxi – presumably given to him by Sparky. But hang on… if there only needs to be one taxi driver for such a small island, why don’t we see him during this mini-game? And if the taxi was provided by Sparky… what’s going on?

Anyway.

The player then delivers two more passengers before deciding to abandon the rest. For such a minimal effort, Doctor Dave pays him with a gold brick.

Such mini-games are to be found when exploring the worlds. One such mission on Mars involves helping the science team based there restore power to your rocket ship by collecting enough power crystals the aliens have scattered around the planet’s surface. This is rather pointless because, as Sparky points out at the beginning of a particular race (he always provides information about the track you’re about to drive), the cave you go through on Mars is the Martians’ power storage, and it does indeed contain the same power crystals that the mini-game asks you to collect. They’re bobbing up and down in an alien goo, so it looks like a gigantic carrot soup. In fact, that’s where one of the golden bricks is. Instead, the scientists want you to go collect the power crystals that are scattered around the surface. There might be a good reason they’ve been left there, out of the liquid – do they not work? Why else would they not be stored in the power storage in the alien liquid? Do the scientists not want to send someone into the power storage? It’s easy, it’s just a big cave. There are no aliens there and it’s a frequent thoroughfare in the Mars races. More to the point, why can’t the scientists do it themselves? Isn’t that their job? Is that not what they’re there for?

So if the player needs money to travel to Xalax, why not just work a couple of errand jobs on the different worlds to raise the funds? Clearly, ending the hopes and dreams of his rivals is a higher priority.

Another thing that occurred to me is that every world has a way back to Sandy Bay, but to no other world. If you want to travel to Mars from Dino Island, you have to take the airship back to Sandy Bay, then take the rocket. That is, assuming the airship isn’t still on Sandy Bay – there is just one, after all. So Sandy Bay is a terminal for the other worlds? Then where are the travellers, coming to and from each one? Can’t they afford the travel fees? Also, why does Sandy Bay not have a warp room? If every other world has six races that must be won before challenging its champion, why does Sandy Bay have a different competition structure? That doesn’t seem fair. The competition authority must be taking bribes.

Anyway.

When the three other champions have been defeated, the player now has enough gold bricks to travel through the portal to Xalax. It’s been activated the whole time but for some reason, you can only use it now. Following the same competition structure, winning six races allows to race Rocket Racer and become the Galactic Racing Championship. Xalax is by far the best world – it’s an arena beneath a cool-looking space cluster with an excited crowd who have come to watch an even that can really be completed in fifteen minutes. But unlike the other worlds, a different track is set up for each race, each being a different kind of obstacle course. That’s why it’s so disappointing that Rocket Racer’s boss race is a straight-up circle. The key is that you’re actually supposed to not take the ramps, they’ll slow you down.

When you beat Rocket Racer, he’s actually kinda cool about it, though he claims that no one has beat him in the dome before, so either multiple championships have already taken place or he’s taking full advantage of the technicality that he’s never been the defending champion before. After this, all the previous racers that the player’s beat come to congratulate him – including Rigel, who never confronts him about stealing his shield generator. Perhaps Sparky lied to him. It would make sense, given Sparky’s history.

I think the only explanation is that Sparky is secretly extorting the entire galaxy. He has a monopoly on every business, meaning every racer gets their car from him, allowing him to profit from every win. With every route to each LEGO world going through Sandy Bay, everyone will be forced to pay his toll fees. Ultimately, the Galactic Racing Championship is a con motivating the people of the galaxy to buy his cars, give him a share of their winnings and pay his toll fees. It doesn’t matter who wins or loses, because he makes a profit. I’ll bet he never has to pay taxes, either, because the whole thing resembles a looped trust system. This entire thing is a pyramid scheme making him rich while the rest of the galaxy becomes poorer.

What an odd game this is.


 

The Purple Prose Mage is the authorb of the Racing Game of the Week column and is currently working on a documentary about the Driver series for its 20th anniversary on 25th June. He also likes reviewing the latest book he’s read on his own blog, covering the World Rally Championship and generally posting about what he’s been playing, at alexsigsworth.wordpress.com.

 

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