Hot Rod (1988) By:Sega Genre:Overhead Racing Players:1-3 Difficulty:Medium Featured Version:Arcade First Day Score: 134,793 Also Available For:Amiga, Atari ST, Commodore 64, Amstrad CPC, ZX Spectrum
Although Sega had released overhead-viewed vehicular-based games before - they were one of the very first in fact, after Atari - they hadn't actually made too many in what had quickly become known as the 'traditional' format. This late 80's release, however, is exactly that. Taking its cue, as so many did, from Super Sprint, Hot Rod is also a circuit-based game but is viewed from a slightly more zoomed-in perspective. Races are contested by four cars, up to three of which can be controlled by human players, with the fourth and any unused player cars being controlled by the computer. Unlike many games of this type, however, progression through the various races is not dependent on finishing in first place or within a time-limit; instead you have a finite supply of 'gas' with which to complete the solitary lap of each circuit. Running out means game over!
Of course, before each race begins you're given enough gas to reach the end - it would be rather unfair if you weren't, even for an arcade game! However, if you should fall so far behind that your car drops off the screen, it'll be shunted back into the thick of the action, but at a price - around twenty fuel units each time - so if this happens more than two times (at most) in a race you're in trouble! The road surface does feature an occasional helping hand though. The 'P' icons are just for points but those bearing a 'G' award you with a bit more gas and so can often be worth a slight detour. With or without their help though, if you make it to the end of a course in any position, you're awarded prize money. This can be spent in the shop which is waiting between each race. From here you can purchase new engines, tyres, bumpers, and wings (the rear spoiler kind, not the aeroplane kind).
Since simply finishing a race allows you to proceed to the next one, skillful driving is probably more important than upgrading your car, but that prize money has to be spent somewhere and there are quite a few races to battle through as well - thirty, no less, which are spread evenly over ten different environments. These range from obstacle-strewn race circuits, gravelly woodside roads, beaches, a construction site, snowy and desert areas, and there are even courses with public highways criss-crossing them! Predictably, there are some with different road surfaces as well such as dirt, sand, water, and snow, with appropriate tyres available from the shop accordingly. As already mentioned, races consists of only one lap of each circuit (or indeed point-to-point course) so they don't usually last very long, and some have shortcuts as well like bridges and side-roads.
A few courses even feature the odd train-track (not sure what a train is doing on a race circuit though). You can cross the tracks without any problems but if a train comes along - oof! Other obstacles include skiddy water areas and drums, which must be filled with anti-matter or something as they make your car explode! These things all make Hot Rod quite a tricky game but there are two things that make it even tougher. First of all, the merest touch of the sides of the course results in an immediate and total loss of speed (although the cars can't hit each other) which can get mighty annoying when trying to navigate intricate sections of track. Secondly, the game 'camera' tries to keep all four cars on screen where possible so if you're in the lead, you often can't see hardly any distance in front of you. It's quite a fast game too, which can make the problem even bigger.
The graphical style is quite an interesting one but I'm not sure if I like it. The game is running on Sega's System 24 board so the level of detail isn't bad but it's not a very colourful game as you can see from the shots, and it's also not a very noisy game. The Fantasy Zone shop tune makes a welcome return here (in the shop, obviously) but there's no other music in the game and only minimal effects. Despite all these seemingly negative points though, I still can't help but like it. I'm not really sure why either, it should be really annoying. It is, quite often, but it's also very addictive. One reason for this could be the cars which, aside from their bumping against the side of the tracks, are enjoyable to drive. The large number of tracks certainly doesn't hurt either, and nor does their interesting and varied design, not to mention the relative ease of being able to see a decent number of them, so the simple racing action can be great fun. Obviously it's more enjoyable when competing against other humans but even for one player there's a lot to like here.