Back in the 80s/90s, there were three arcade games I hunted down and played whenever I could: Star Wars, Outrun and Road Blasters. All three received conversions of varying quality for the home computers and consoles of the time, but the Sega Mega Drive conversion of Road Blasters has to rank as one of the best.
The concept behind Road Blasters is not exactly challenging. It was designed as an arcade game, meaning it had to be instantly accessible for newcomers, but challenging enough to hold the attention of experienced gamers. Set in a futuristic world, you have to take part in a series of races, where the object is not to finish first, but just to finish. Battling against a limited fuel supply, you must get to the finish line before your fuel tank runs dry. Of course, other drivers will look to impede your progress and crashing into them will see your car explode in a ball of fire. Thankfully, they can be blasted out of the way using your car's on-board guns. It's a simple equation Cars + Guns = Great Game.
There's no doubt that one of the reasons why this conversion works so well is because the gameplay mechanics are so perfectly balanced. The game might not feature any particularly revolutionary ideas, but they are implemented to create a game that balances that fine line between risk and reward. Accurate shooting, for example, is rewarded by increasing your score multiplier by one (essential to get those really high scores). However, the flip side of that is that if you fire and miss, you score multiplier is decreased by one. So you can't just take a gung-ho approach and keep your finger permanently on the fire button, but have to try and shoot as accurately as possible.
The same is true of the additional weaponry that can be collected: you have to earn it; it's not simply given to you automatically. Every so often, a jet will fly overhead carrying a new weapon. After a few seconds, it will release this and you need to position your car underneath it to catch it - fail to do so and there's no weapons upgrade for you. Once again, this adds an extra element as you have to balance your desire to upgrade your weapon against the need not to crash into something.
As if you didn't have enough to worry about, fuel management is also a concern. Running out of fuel causes your car to stop and you lose a life (you start with 5). Fuel can be topped up along the way by driving over the green fuel pods (avoid the red ones; these deplete your supplies still further). On early levels, you seem to have plenty of fuel, but it's not long before fuel collection becomes an essential part of the game if you're to stand a chance of finishing. Again, this adds a strong element of risk and reward. Do you make an extra effort to collect that pod, but understand that you might crash or do you drive more conservatively but risk running out of time?
All these elements come together perfectly to produce a game which is far deeper and more strategic than at first appears. This is far from being a simple driving/shooting game and you need to balance so many different elements that it becomes a real challenge. Sure, there's not much variety and it can become repetitive after a while, but it's still a lot of fun.
Make no mistake about it; Road Blasters is one seriously tough game. It was essentially designed to hoover up 50 pence pieces in the arcade and as such was designed for short, intense games. This Mega Drive version is not quite as difficult as its arcade counterpart, but the difficulty level is still high and if you want to see the later levels, you are going to have to put in some serious practice. Not that you'll mind because the game is so well structured that Road Blasters is tremendous fun. Yes, it's very tricky (many is the time I have lost all my lives on a single level due to poor fuel management), but at least you feel like you've earned every scrap of progress. This is not a game that rewards you with an "Achievement" just because you've managed to turn your console on.
Complementing the superbly balanced gameplay are the excellent graphics. Sure, they might look a little dated and dull now, but in the context of the late 80s, they were pretty impressive. Your car is large and well animated and there's some nice scaling on opposition cars (so that they get bigger as you drive towards them). The various hazards (mines, roadside gun emplacements) are pretty simple, but look effective and add to the sense of danger.
What really impresses, though, is the sheer speed. Too many conversions of arcade racers were horribly slow (the Commodore 64 conversion of Outrun was particularly dire) which destroyed any element of fun. This Megadrive version really has an impressive turn of speed which seriously adds to the excitement. The level of detail (particularly on the scenery) might have been scaled down from its arcade counterpart, but this is a trade-off to ensure the game can run at a decent speed; and it's a worthwhile sacrifice. Scenery whizzes past and there is a blistering sense of speed (probably the most impressive I have seen on an 8 bit computer outside the C64 conversion of Turbo Outrun). It really is an exhilarating and exciting game to play.
Sound effects are slightly less impressive. There's a cracking in-game tune that really gets the adrenalin pumping. Again, it's probably one of the best of its kind and really captures the spirit of the game perfectly. Sound effects are not quite so good. The roar of your car engine is pretty good, but the missiles and explosions all sound a little weedy. Sound is probably the major area that lets this conversion down. The arcade version of Road Blasters was a noisy affair and the limited hardware of the day just couldn't replicate this.
Controls are also pretty straightforward. The usual directional buttons are used to control steering, with acceleration handled automatically. The only other thing you need to worry about is using the fire button to shoot. As befits its arcade origins, Road Blasters is deliberately kept simple so that anyone can just sit down and play instantly, without needing to work out and remember a series of complex controls. Controls do initially feel a little bit twitchy and you'll find yourself slaloming all over the road (and off it!) Within a short space of time, though, you'll have mastered them and know exactly how long to hold a button down in order to safely negotiate a corner or weave your way between a couple of enemy cars.
Road Blasters is the perfect example of taking a number of different ideas and blending them together in a single game. Everything is perfectly balanced to create a title which is instantly fun, highly addictive and has tons of long term challenge. This was one of my favourite arcade games of the 1980s and the Mega Drive received one of the best conversions. It's credit to the quality of both the game and this conversion that I'm still playing it over 20 years later.
(c) Copyright SWSt 2012