Road Runner is a betrayal of everything the NES stands for.
Road Runner, for a NES game, isn’t all that horrible to play. You’re The Road Runner, and Wile E. Coyote is on the hunt. Your only ability, besides your incredible (not that incredible) speed, is a quick, short jump, but that’s pretty much par for the course for old NES games. There’s four levels of increasing difficulty, and then stage five starts the loop again, but with more obstacles (like landmines) to hamper the poor bird’s progress. Again, this is on the same system as Donkey Kong, so I’m just happy when a game is four repeating, scrolling levels, and not just four screens. There’s even a rough “continue” feature that allows you to skip past completed levels by taking a “shortcut” available in the opening stage. I’m not certain why this isn’t just an option on the Game Over screen, but, hey means you don’t have to play the first (fairly boring) level over and over again.
But a dark secret sleeps in the Road Runner cartridge.
Actually, speaking of the cartridge, no, I’m not referring to the fact that Road Runner is a Tengen “black” release. For those of you that are unaware, Tengen was a front for Atari, aka the company that almost completely destroyed all of video gaming forever and ever. Atari/Tengen was not a big fan of Nintendo’s “we approve all the games, and you’re only allowed to make… let’s arbitrarily say… five games” policy, so, likely with the cartridge-making knowledge that gave us Atari E.T. and Pac-Man, Tengen took their crayons and made their own damn NES games. As a result, there are a number of Tengen NES games floating around that, at first glance, appear to be bootlegs. They’re real, but they don’t have the Nintendo Seal of Quality, and the cartridge is black, oddly shaped, and kinda looks upside-down. That really should be warning enough.
So, technically, the game is a betrayal of Nintendo… but who cares? In a way, you could see Tengen as the plucky freedom fighters battling against the totalitarian Nintendo. Rebellious copies of Tetris and Road Runner leading the vanguard against a corrupt empire. And regarding the weirdo cartridge, if I’ve learned anything from Saturday Morning Cartoons, it’s that it’s not what’s on the outside that counts, but what’s on the inside. So what’s on the inside of Road Runner?
Pure, focused treachery.
Road Runner is a video game protagonist, so, while he can only run and jump, one might expect that there is something else available to the beleaguered bird. Super Mario had his fire flowers, Sonic has his shields, and even Jumpman got loaned a hammer every once in a while. Run and jump is just fine, but there should be just a little bit more, something that turns the tables every once in a while and offers a miniscule change in pace. It could be timed, it could be hit-based, but a basic power-up is just the kind of thing a video game hero needs when facing down an unstoppable enemy.
You, while playing Road Runner, might get excited when you see a rocket laying on the ground. “Oh, cool, a speed-up power-up. I bet that will make this game more fun!” So you navigate Road Runner over that rocket and… nothing happens. Nada, zip, zilch. Not a thing, and Wile E. Coyote is still bearing down on you, so RR runs off… and Wile E. grabs the rocket. Wile E. Coyote is now chasing Road Runner atop an Acme Brand Rocket, and, as one may expect, it makes him harder to avoid than ever. Slowly, it dawns on you what just happened…
Road Runner for NES has power-ups, yes, but you can’t use them. Power-ups, in this game, are only for the villain.
It only gets worse from there, of course. The rocket gives way to spring shoes and a personal helicopter (complete with bombs) that Wile E. can abuse with impunity while Road Runner is stuck on terra firma, dodging every last deluge. Yes, these power-ups eventually “detonate” and temporarily impede the coyote, but that set-back only lasts a second, and then the chase resumes. It may be true to the origin series, yes, but, is it any fun? Not so much.
And what is available to the Road Runner only makes the bird weaker. Bird seed is scattered about the levels, and you may think that this seed increases Road Runner’s strength, speed, or stamina in some fashion, but, nope, it’s pretty much the opposite. You must collect the bird seed, because if you do not, you will eventually run out of energy, and then you’re coyote supper. This is an old school NES game, so there’s no backtracking. The minute a pile of bird seed is scrolled off the stage, the game logs it, and if you miss five piles of seed, then you may as well just hop in the frying pan, it’s time for Road Runner fricassee. Yes, this means that a screen full of birdseed is not something to be celebrated, but a threat: grab all that seed, fragile, flightless bird, or else you’ll be well done.
The writing on the wall quickly becomes clear: the chase is endless, you’re always the victim, and your pursuer can only grow stronger. It is looping games in a sadistic nutshell: you will fail, because you are only growing more tired, and the very embodiment of your death, the coyote that is Thanatos, only grows stronger. There is no escape. You will run, and then you will fail.
Road Runner is a betrayal of everything the NES stood for. It may initially be fun, but this is not the adventure of an elven hero that will eventually be able to sling shining arrows at pig demons. This is no story of a pink puff ball that will grow to slay eldritch horrors. This is far from a kingdom with a tiny Italian fellow that eventually can go fireball for fireball with a gigantic turtle monster. This is the story of a road runner: a weak, succulent bird that is only growing feebler with every button press.
Road Runner, and you, will die. It’s just a matter of time.
Thanks, entropy. Thanks, Tengen.
Maybe it’s okay to judge a cartridge by its cover once in a while.
FGC #89 Road Runner
- System: NES for this review, but there was also an arcade version, and a Commodore 64 copy that I very distinctly remember playing in grade school. Looks like there was also (of course) an Atari version, and I cannot even fathom how bad that had to be.
- Number of Players: One doomed road runner.
- Salt in the wound: Every stage ends with a “bonus tally” for things you may or may not have done during the level. Given most of the bonuses are for being absolutely perfect, like never missing any bird seed or completely avoiding Mr. Coyote, most of the time, you’re not going to receive a bonus, and you’ll just be reminded of how many times you failed. Thanks, again, Tengen!
- Might as well Jump: Road Runner’s jump is one of the saddest ups outside of Captain Toad. It’s not so bad initially, but the game eventually asks you to vault cliff faces and landmines, and, unless you’re some kind of Road Runner expert, you’re going to have one dead bird on your hands. The fact that you receive bonuses for actually clearing those mines is not an excuse to detonate a beloved Looney Tune.
- Did you know? Before he was known as Wile E. Coyote, the unrelenting beast was identified as Don Coyote, obviously a play on Don Quixote. As much as I love a good name pun (and the fine middle initial that is “E”), Don Coyote makes so much more sense. I mean, come on, in everything but this video game, he is eternally chasing a bird that he is destined to never catch, essentially, tilting at windmills for perpetuity. We missed a great literary reference thanks to a century-old mistake.
- Would I play again: Most certainly not. Nowadays, this kind of game would be barely valued at over a dollar on the app store, primarily because it’s so limited in scope. And that’s even before you get into the fact that the game seems to hate the player. And it looks terrible. And it ran over my dog (okay, that might not be true).
What’s next? Random ROB has chosen… Dance Dance Revolution: Konamix for the Playstation. Have you ever been happy just to hear your song? Well, guess this will be one day where I try to tell my point of view. Please look forward to it!