Wednesday, December 19, 2012

At Random: R.C. Pro-Am (NES, 1987)

As I pick random games from my ad-hoc collection, I frequently encounter the 8-bit works of Rare Ltd., produced before the company created its major hits like Donkey Kong Country and Goldeneye.  Published by Nintendo, Rare's R.C. Pro-Am was something a little different in the Nintendo Entertainment System library -- a racing game featuring radio-controlled vehicles.

A minor mystery worth noting -- the company billed itself as Rare Coin-It Inc. on some of its early NES games, like Slalom, but it appears this was an alternate corporate identity.  At any rate, the billing here assigns the copyright to Rare Ltd., but the licensing to Rare Coin-It Inc.:

The most unique thing about R.C. Pro-Am is the control scheme -- to simulate the feel of steering a radio-controlled vehicle, the player has to imagine the position of the steering wheel inside the car.  So we don't press up to direct the vehicle northward, we have to turn the internal steering wheel and get the car pointed in the right direction.  The display uses an isometric perspective, so north is up-and-to-the-right; a handy radar display shows the track layout, though it's hard to stay on the road if we focus too much on the map.

This control scheme feels all sorts of wrong, for about two minutes -- then, somehow, the brain adapts and we learn how to nudge the car gently, modifying its direction just as we hit the next curve.  It's part memorization, part instinct -- it's a hard feeling to describe, but somehow this awkward means of piloting starts to feel natural, and we have to start blaming our lack of skill rather than the D-pad when we find ourselves a little too far off course to recover and catch up.

It definitely gets easier once we can handle the vehicle well enough to stay with the pack -- there's no rubber-banding or other modern racing-game dishonesty here, and it helps when we can see the other cars adjusting their own attitudes to make the next bend.  The track layouts become more challenging as we go, and we can pick up new parts strewn about the track to improve our vehicle's basic characteristics:

Learning each track so that we can handle it at top speed presents the primary challenge -- the other racers get in the way on occasion, but they aren't particularly aggressive.  We need to improve our own lap times, claim the power-ups as they go whizzing past, and improvise as necessary to avoid puddles, oil slicks, and the other racers. We can also pick up and deploy forward-firing missiles and rear-dropping bombs, to make life more difficult for our competitors, though it's not an essential part of the gameplay -- sheer speed still counts for more than vehicular dogfighting skill.

With a little luck and practice, we can start claiming victories:

Each victorious race adds a trophy to the player's trophy room, each prize more elaborate than the last.  There aren't a lot of different tracks available in this smallish 64KB cartridge, but mastery of the game requires some old-school arcade-style dedication -- if we lose a race, we get one chance to continue with our progress and accumulated upgrades intact, and after that it's Game Over.  I managed to get to the fourth race without having to try too hard, but the complexity definitely ramps up as we go along.

R.C. Pro-Am sold fairly well in its day, enough to inspire a sequel and a number of spiritual successors.  It may be hard to believe in this day of annualized franchises, but R.C. Pro-Am II was not released until 1992, fairly late in the life of the 8-bit Nintendo console, possibly as a low-budget release requiring less investment than a brand-new title.  It was again developed by Rare, but published by Tradewest with appropriate licensing from Nintendo, owner of the title trademark.  It added some sophistication and depth to the track layout, as well as multiplayer support, but it played very much the same as the original, with slightly fancier renditions of the original game's music and sound effects, and more aggressive AI from the competing racers.  It also inspired a number of other isometric racing games during the 8- and 16-bit era.

Picking it up again after a long, long while, I have to say that there's not a lot of reason to revisit R.C. Pro-Am today -- it accomplished its goals handily in 1987, but the racing genre has moved forward in the decades since, with greater attention to physics and handling and better support for friendly competition.  This is an arcade-style, solo racer, fun for a quick, nostalgic round and deserving of its classic status, but without a multiplayer mode it's not as compelling as it once was.  Still, I enjoyed spending a little time with it for blogging purposes, until I had to face the inevitable:


  1. A minor mystery worth noting -- the company billed itself as Rare Coin-It Inc. on some of its early NES games, like Slalom, but it appears this was an alternate corporate identity.

    Nintendo only allowed 3rd-party developers a limited number of carts they could publish annually, ostensibly to keep developers focused and game quality high -- also to help keep the 3rd parties from forgetting who was the boss. Big, active companies set up puppet companies to extend their allotment of annual NES cart publications, eg. Ultra being a subsidiary of Konami. Part of Rare's plot was to crank out as many NES games as humanly possible while the platform was viable (so as to afford the supercomputers needed to pre-render the DK Country sprites, next step in their scheme for world domination) and so they probably had a couple of puppet companies to publish additional games through.

  2. I have some really fond memories of this game myself--which is kind of funny when you consider the only other racing games I've ever enjoyed are part of the Mario Kart series. Anyway, I imagine you're right when you say that this one is hard to revisit, but that's OK--like you said, it ably served its purpose way back when. Still, thanks for the trip down memory lane :)

  3. Like Bryan this one is a fond memory for a gamer not really into racing games. You could also collect letters on the tracks to spell NINTENDO to change to a whole new class of car, twice. The RC race cars at the end were crazy fast, and a game over would usually mean the end of the gaming session because starting again with the RC pickup trucks (pictured) would feel like a snail in syrup. About the control, they're just relative to the car, not the screen -- a bit like playing Super Sprint at the arcade with the wheel, but with an isometric view instead of straight top-down.