Another point for my ever-expanding list of “things I don’t know much about” is rally racing (though I know someone who does…) However, we’re not looking at a particularly authentic version of the sport today. Power Drive Rally is a Jaguar-exclusive sequel to Power Drive for the Mega Drive (drive-ity drive drive drive). It’s got a clean coat of graphics paint, but how does it fare in play?
If you’re not familiar with Power Drive, then the NES’ R.C. Pro Am is probably your next best point of reference. You’ll be controlling your car from a scrolling overhead view, navigating twists and corners while avoiding bumps and grabbing powerups like turbo and time bonuses. It’s all loose fun, and driving skills won’t exactly be taxed here. That’s not to say that some strict time limits in later levels won’t have you breathlessly squealing around to the finish with seconds to spare.
Power Drive Rally features two modes in name only. The first “practice” mode is flat useless, as it will only let you drive on four of the tracks, with no ability to select your car. The second “career” mode is the real meat of the game, and has you spending weeks in locales such as England, Arizona, Finland, and Italy, rushing through a series of 34 races while building up a reserve of cash. Naturally, you’ll be doing this racing in such rally stalwarts as the Toyota Celica, Renault Clio Turbo, and the venerable Mini Cooper.
Controls are simple enough. Left and right rotate your vehicle accordingly. C brakes, B accelerates, and A switches into reverse. There is no option for manual transmission, which seems like a cardinal sin in a racing game, but again, they’re not going for realism here. The number pad barely gets used, except for the superfluous options to toggle your headlights and hit the horn. Physics are very arcadey, with cars that drift and turn easily. Later vehicles make even sharper, on-a-dime turns, and I never once had to tap the brakes to navigate a corner.
There are a three flavors of races: Rally Cross, Skill Test, and Special Stage. You never get the option to pick your race, so you’ll never know what’s coming next. Special is a simple time attack – you’ll need to complete 3 to 5 laps under the qualifying time, which helpfully ticks down at the top of the screen. Rally Cross is the same, but with the addition of one computer-controlled opponent. You do not have to beat this driver, but you get a cash bonus if you do. Some diverse weather options (rain, snow, nighttime) add a further layer of complexity to these events.
The Skill Test stage asks you to pull off a series of maneuvers before time runs out. These include stopping at a marked line, backing into a boxed area, or spiraling around a series of cones to stop on a marked bulls-eye. Any cones you hit automatically deduct from your time. While I suppose this does break up some theoretical racing monotony, it’s also not explained well and not at all optional. You will have to qualify in these test stages just the same as a race, and figure out each challenge based on nothing more than icons marked on the track. For example, it took me a good 15 tries to figure out that I had to stop in a certain spot on the cone spiral section.
Races are entirely qualify or don’t events. Though you can see your own time placed up against the course’s best, there is no cash bonus for beating it. If you qualify, you get the winnings from that race (usually around $3-4k) and the ability to save your game. If you do not, you pay the entry fee for that race again and give the course another try. The money you amass is spent on new cars (once you proceed far enough into the career), and on repairs to your existing car. You cannot modify or upgrade any parts.
As you race, parts of your car wear down. The percentage of wear is shown on a repair screen between races, and covers areas like engine, tires, and suspension. As your engine accumulates wear, your top speed slowly decreases (you can even watch this happen on the speedometer during a race). Worn tires affect handling. Worn lights will flicker intermittently during the race. Repair costs are calculated per percent reduction, and are absolutely astronomical. Expect to drop hundreds of dollars for an engine repair of 1%. Costs scale too, so at an engine with 40% wear, I was being asked for $2500 just to repair it to 39%.
Crashing into things will obviously accelerate this process, but you’ll take damage even over a perfect run. It hardly seems fair to accumulate serious repair bills just in the process of racing. Those thousands of dollars are exactly what you’ll need to buy your next car, and the performance upgrade you gain with a more expensive vehicle is indeed significant. I eventually just had to accept that I would drive my current car into the ground, saving all possible cash for the new one as soon at it was available. However, this policy definitely left me with some close calls, and I can’t imagine trying to play “legit” by paying course re-entry fees instead of reloading a save.
Multiplayer is included in a limited sense. Up to eight players can participate (selected with the number pad at the main menu), but it’s hot seat only. Each player will run the same track, then pass the controller to the next player. The game does at least track times well here – each player enters their initials, and the “Time to beat” is updated with the best run. After all players have done their circuit, a results screen shows all final times and awards a $1k bonus to the top driver. “Points” are also allocated, which accumulate over all tracks and rate players in a separate “Championship” score screen.
Direct competion would have been nice, of course, but this system works. The only disappointment I can find is that there doesn’t appear to be any ability to save a multiplayer match, so you’re either always playing the initial England tracks, or spending one marathon session with your friends.
Graphics look like something the SNES could produce, except much sharper due to being rendered at a higher resolution. Small details (like flag men on the Skill stages) are easy to pick out, and each region has appropriate and distinctive features. Weather is mostly an extra layer of rain or snow running over the background graphics, but the effect works and has proper driving repercussions as well. Everything scrolls with nary a hitch, so all races have some satisfying speed and are easy to navigate.
Audio consists of some eminently forgettable background themes, the same grinding engine noise for all the cars, and digital samples of your navigator’s speech. A yellow arrow indicator reinforces his commands, in case you don’t know what “hairpin right” or “square left” mean. His instructions are accurate, if a bit rapid-fire, and a combination of these alerts and a decent camera zoom angle meant that I rarely had an issue with not being able to see past the screen’s scrolling edge.
An authentic rally racer this is not, but a lot of fun it is indeed. Its sharpness and fluidity again show the Jaguar’s 2D prowess, and its ease of control lets you jump in and spin around the tracks without much fuss. The career campaign is fairly substantial, and thankfully lets you save your progress, but supporting content or game modes are essentially absent. Overall, a competent and fun title, but one without any “must play” hooks.
Nice speed, cars handle well. Good variety of tracks in the campaign mode.
No modes beyond campaign. No head-to-head multiplayer. Only three race types.