Top Gear Overdrive
Reviewed by Scott McCall
The Top Gear franchise debuted on the Super NES back in the
spring of 1992. Coming out of nowhere, the game was a major
surprise hit mostly because of a fantastic two-player Championship
mode that was never seen before. But it also had extremely fun
arcade-style racing with nitros and pitstops and a huge track
selection with varying weather conditions. Top Gear 2
(available for the SNES and the only game in the series
available for a non-Nintendo system, the Sega Genesis)
appeared in the fall of 1993, but didn't achieve the same
commercial success. The game introduced a system of
earning better upgrades for your vehicle. Then Top Gear 3000
was released in early 1995 and was a disaster. The game went
with a futuristic theme, straying away from the theme of the
first two. It was the first Top Gear game to include a four-player
mode, though. After that debacle, the next Top Gear game, Top
Gear Rally, didn't appear until the fall of 1997 on the Nintendo
64. Unfortunately, it was a game of love and hate because it didn't
have much to do with the series other than the name. I was one
of the people who absolutely lambasted the game, and now we
come to Top Gear Overdrive, which was developed to hark back
to the series' roots and please people like me. Get ready for
some sweet arcade-style racing.
Top Gear Overdrive was positioned as a racing game for
those "who love to cheat" from the start. In reality, there's
not all that much emphasis on cheating, especially compared
to a Mario Kart 64 or Snowboard Kids. The only forms of
cheating in Top Gear Overdrive are using nitros, taking shortcuts,
and bumping into other cars. So don't dismiss this game yet.
It's hardly a full-fledged racing simulation, but it's fast,
fun, and semi-realistic. Plus, it's got a great one-player
mode in addition to a cool multi-player mode.
Racing comes in two forms in Top Gear Overdrive: Championship
and Versus. The Championship mode is a six-season campaign
that has you using and earning better vehicles as you race the
five tracks (Frigid Peaks, Fertile Canyon, Swampy Depot,
Downtown, and Sandy Beaches) in a variety of weather
conditions (clear, snowy ground, raining, foggy, and night). Each
season has an increasing number of tracks to win, each track
is a three-lap race (an average lap takes about a minute), and
you must finish in the top four to move on to the next race. Like
Top Gear Rally, you start out being able to only pick from two
cars, a VW Bug lookalike and an Eclipse lookalike (the 10 cars
are based on real ones, but they're not officially licensed). Also,
the first two don't move that fast or control that well. But the
game definitely gets a lot faster as you go along. Coming from
a different development team, Top Gear Overdrive doesn't have
the extremely cool Paint Shop feature from Top Gear Rally. But
if it's any consolation, you can hold Z while choosing your car to
bring up a screen that lets you pick a custom color -- from a
palette of 5,768 colors!
The Versus mode works basically the same as the aforementioned
Championship mode, except it's just one race. You can play
any race in a season after you've completed that whole season.
The cars you open up are also available in this mode. And here's
the best news: Not only the Versus mode but the Championship
mode can be played by one to four players! And even in the
three- and four-player modes, there's computer competition -- an
N64 first. So there are a total of 12 cars on the track in the
one-player mode and 8 cars on the track when two to four
people are playing. As a trade-off to the pretty graphics,
though, the intelligence of the cars was designed so no more
than three cars appear on the screen at once. You also always
start out in last place, so that means you'll slowly work your
way to the beginning of the pack by the second or third lap.
Nevertheless, the game can still get frantic as you try to
navigate the bends at high speeds.
In Top Gear Overdrive, money is important because you don't
get anything for free. You win a certain amount of money based
on what position you finished in the top four (and the money
increases each season). There are also special places to run
over on the tracks to get extra money and extra nitros (you
get three nitros each track). Interestingly, whenever someone
runs over the icon, it prevents anyone else from picking up the
item for five seconds. That can make for some heated competition!
Then, after each race, you can either upgrade your vehicle's
handling, acceleration, top speed, or braking, or you can save
up money for the next car. You can also buy nitros, but that
wouldn't be smart since they can be readily found on the track.
Besides the nitros, the two other ways to "cheat" are taking
shortcuts and bumping your opponents. Top Gear Overdrive
has the best use of shortcuts I've seen in some time, with
multiple visible and hidden shortcuts on every track. Some
shortcuts are merely multiple paths that are easily seen.
But other shortcuts can only be taken if you "run" into them.
For example, if you're going fast enough, you can maybe
knock down a barrier to take an alternate route. Also,
some shortcuts are real time savers, but other shortcuts
will only help you if you can navigate them without wrecking.
The game also says you can cheat by running into your opponents.
This really doesn't come into play as much as you would
think -- until you get going really fast. There are certain
barriers that will make your car blow up if you run into
them too fast. You can also blow up by going too fast off a hill
and by jumping over the barrier. If you blow up, you're put back
on the track quickly enough, which doesn't make this slightly
annoying quirk a big problem.
Only the basic options are available in Top Gear Overdrive.
Looking at the control first, the default controller setup has
the A button for gas, the B button for brake, the Z button for
nitro, the R button to look behind you, the Left C button to
shift gears, and the Bottom C button to switch between three
camera views. I recommend you don't shift in this game
because only one button does it; you shift up while holding
the gas button and shift down when it's not pressed. The actual
feel is still too loose for an arcade-style racing game, but
it's not as bad as Top Gear Rally because you learn to compensate
for it going around bends. Besides, bumping off of objects
won't make you lose too much speed.
You can also toggle the sound configuration, turn the brightness
setting on or off, reset the save data, and switch the resolution
setting. The sound configuration option lets you change the
sound type and levels, which is something you may want to
change slightly. If you turn the Brightness setting on, which
I don't recommend you do, then it brightens the picture quality.
Picking the "Reset Save Data" option will reset the Championship
season data if you want to start a new one. Finally, there are
three options for the "Hi-Res" setting: off, half, and full. Off
makes the game run in normal resolution without the Expansion
Pak. Half makes the game run in a letterboxed high-resolution
mode without the Expansion Pak. Full makes the game run in a
full-screen high-resolution mode, but it requires the Expansion
Pak to even switch to the option.
The biggest problem with Top Gear Overdrive is that it seems
rushed. What kind of a racing game, even if it uses weapons
or cheats, doesn't have a Time Trial mode? And why doesn't the
game save your best racing times? Furthermore, you can only
save one Championship season at a time, which is a problem
if you want to have one by yourself and one with friends. I
would have welcomed Controller Pak support with open arms.
Plus, the Versus mode was obviously thrown in at the last
minute, because after you finish a race, it automatically takes
you back to the title screen. Why doesn't it let me immediately
pick another track with the same cars? And why doesn't it
keep track of how many times each person won?
One portion of the game that doesn't seem rushed is in the
area of graphics. Top Gear Overdrive is absolutely breathtaking.
The five tracks are completely different in terms of texturing and
design. You'll find waterfalls, bridges, wheat fields, forests,
ships, and much more populating the environments. The distant
backgrounds, which are absent in the three- and four-player modes,
almost look like painted murals, adding to the beauty. The cars
are modeled more accurately and realistically than Top Gear Rally,
too. The weather effects are even quite impressive. And
guess what? There's absolutely no pop-up, absolutely no fog, and
almost zero clipping. But most important is despite the splendor
of the graphics, the game moves extremely smoothly and extremely
quickly. One has to wonder how Snowblind Studios was able to
make the game look this good yet maintain an excellent frame
rate? The developers were also able to attain a fast and fun
multi-player mode (although it's still slower than the one-player
mode) for Top Gear Overdrive. Make sure you open up the faster
cars for greatest enjoyment, though.
But wait. We didn't talk about the Expansion Pak yet. Being the
second game to support the accessory (NFL Quarterback Club '99
was the first), Top Gear Overdrive actually makes good use
of the exciting addition of more memory. By plugging the
Expansion Pak into your system, it enables the game to run in
a higher resolution mode that is full screen. The full-screen,
high-resolution mode actually makes the game run a smidgen
slower, but it gives the textures and backgrounds more definition
and more clarity. The cars also lose their jagged look. Whether you
choose to play Top Gear Overdrive with or without the Expansion
Pak, it's the best looking racing game for the system thus far.
The buzz in the music industry is that heavy metal is starting
to make a comeback, and Kemco and Snowblind Studios decided
to go with such music in digitized form because the graphics are
too beautiful to have much processing power left for MIDI music.
They actually licensed MPEG Layer-3 Audio playback technology
and enlisted the services of an upcoming metal band. Portland,
OR-based Grindstone supplies six tracks -- complete songs with
vocals -- from its self-titled album. With song names such as
"Hollow Eyes," "Threshold," "Appropriate," "Mir," "Everything," and
"Come Alive," the music is much like the heavy metal sound that
dominated in the mid-to-late 1980's. And I love it. For space
reasons, the songs are in mono and do lose some of their quality,
but it's more impressive than I was originally expecting. The
actual sound effects, however, are in stereo and are pretty good.
The only problem is that there's not much variety and almost no
voice. What's extremely disappointing, though, is that the music
was removed from the two-, three-, and four-player modes,
although there are still sound effects.
Top Gear Overdrive still can't quite live up to the legacy of the
original, but it's the best Top Gear game since then. With gorgeous
graphics, excellent track design, fitting original music, fast and
frantic races, great multi-player racing, and a cool cash/upgrade
system, Top Gear Overdrive stands on its own as one of the N64's
best racing experiences. Only the few problems of not enough tracks,
lacking features, touchy control, and a difficulty setting that's a
little too easy detract from the game. Otherwise, it's a great game
for both arcade racing fans and for those looking for something
more akin to PlayStation racing games. A tremendous first effort
by the small group at Snowblind Studios.
Graphics: 4.8 out of 5
Sound: 4.7 out of 5
Control: 3.5 out of 5
Gameplay: 4.3 out of 5
Lastability: 4.2 out of 5
Overall: 4.3 out of 5