FGC #297 Uniracers

Gotta race fastLet’s have a big hand for Uniracers, one of the stupidest, smartest games for the Super Nintendo.

Racing games have always been fairly intriguing from a gameplay perspective. Racing, in a weird way, is maybe the purest, easiest to understand form of gaming. If you were to take a random bumpkin off the street and show him someone playing Super Mario Bros. stage 5-1, there is no immediate indicator that this player is over halfway to saving a princess from dinoturtle clutches. Meanwhile, take that same unobservant fellow, show him a race with four cars, and one car is right there in the front, well, he’s easily going to spot the winner. And what’s more, depending on the perspective, it’s really easy to tell just how much that winner is winning. “A big lead” could be understood by Einstein or a toddler, and that instant recognition is essential for a fun gaming experience. Taking ten minutes to clear Quick Man’s stage isn’t a clear measurement that you’re doing something wrong, but being fourth place out of four cars certainly means it’s time to git gud.

Of course, while identifying the winner in a race is easy, recognizing how to get better at racing is a little bit more tricky. “Go faster” is the obvious answer here, but, by their very nature, videogames can’t be well balanced if one car/racer is naturally faster than another. There are games where the “challenge” is creating the perfect load-out before a race, but that creates more of a RRPG (Racing Role Playing Game) than a pure racing experience. And in games where there are projectiles (whether they be missiles or turtle shells), the answer usually involves dodging or properly rationing your own weapons supply, and acknowledging that ramming into seven banana peels in a row might slow your roll. But once you iron out all the fluff, once it’s just you and a couple of other cars (or maybe a time trial), then the careful dynamics of racing come to the forefront. How do you corner? Do you ever use your breaks? Better memorize that track, learn every last bend and nook and cranny, and then, and only then, will you be able to obtain the checkered flag.

WeeeeBut, uh, important side note? Pretty much none of that could work in a 2-D world.

Racing games need 3-D, or at least some stab at a 3-D world. Mario Kart might be a Mode 7 trick, but you’ll note Mario’s racing adventures are not nearly as 2-D as his turtle stomping times (or the delightful, pretend 2-D characters on the Mario Kart title screen). Super Off-Road and racing games of its time offered big, overhead maps that were closer to Zelda than Mega Man or Castlevania. And once gaming systems were able to support “real” 3-D, we never looked back, and haven’t so much as attempted a 2-D racing game since. And who would even want to try such a thing? A 2-D racing game would just be nothing more than “hold right to win”. Maybe the tracks could have some obstacles or other such nonsense, but it would still be an amazingly hobbled experience compared to proper racing.

But there was a 2-D racing game back in the 90’s, and it was one that everyone played…

Gotta go fast

Okay, yes, that was technically an action platformer hop ‘n bop (or whatever), but there was a 2-player “race mode” in every Sonic the Hedgehog since Sonic 2 (“So also Sonic 3?” “Yes.”). It wasn’t much of anything, but this was a game released within a decade of Ice Climber, so the stupid kids of the time (this stupid kid included) went gaga for (super) Sonic racing. And why wouldn’t we? This was Blast Processing! This was as fast as a 16-bit game could go! Feel the need for sonic speed!

So Nintendo, never one to be outdone by an erinaceinae, decided they were going to showcase the native speed of the Super Nintendo. With the help of DMA Design, Uniracers was born. And, naturally, it was a 2-D racing game… so hold right to win, article over. Have a nice day!

YuckBut wait, there’s more! Uniracers is not as simple as Sonic the Hedgehog 2P Mode, and it doesn’t rely on silly powerups or spiny distractions. Uniracers has one simple trick up its sleeve: do tricks. While racing forward (or backward, let’s not assume all tracks have to go right), if there’s a spare length of track, go ahead and jump, and attempt to flip your unicycle. Perform even the fastest flip, and you’ll gain a speed boost. Wipeout and you lose some speed. That’s it. Figure out the ins and outs of the tracks, determine exactly when you can get flipping and when you should hold off, and you’ll win every race. Quick, simple, and easy to understand. Always be tricky.

And that is brilliant in its simplicity. I… don’t think I’ve ever met an actual unicyclist, but I remember being seven and having a bike (but not a skateboard), and all anybody ever wanted to do was show off rad tricks. It’s natural to want to do “cool stuff” with your toys, and it follows directly into videogames. What is a speed run but a “tricky”, stylish way to play a videogame? So of course the first thing a player is going to do with a uniracer is attempt random tricks. And then that unicycle goes faster! Awesome! This is the path to victory! No tutorial necessary, you know everything you would ever need within the first ten seconds. And that’s the essence of a good racing game.

And that’s why Uniracers is simultaneously dazzling and thoughtless. It’s a 2-D racing game, which means extremely limited gameplay, but it also teaches the player that “simple” gameplay almost instantly, and exemplifies the “easy to learn, hard to master” maxim used to advertise many lesser games. Uniracers is a stupid concept with the smartest design, and thus becomes one of the best, wildest games on the Super Nintendo.

FGC #297 Uniracers

  • System: Super Nintendo. Gee, wonder why this franchise never saw another system.
  • RadicalNumber of players: I think you can have a league with, like, infinity players. Or maybe just eight. But there are only two simultaneous players, so we’ll say two.
  • Favorite Uniracer: Why would I enter my own name when there’s a red Robbie right there? Works for me, dude.
  • Pixar Problems: Pixar, foreshadowing its eventual absorption into the Disney machine, claims to hold the copyright on moderately sentient unicycles. Apparently that held up in court, and Uniracers was sued into oblivion, causing production of the game to stop prematurely. This is likely why the franchise has never been revisited. Oh, that, and unicycles are boring.
  • Brain Problems: I always think Uniracers and Stunt Race FX are N64 games for some reason. Conceptually, I know they’re not, but they’re lodged in that part of my brain. Probably has something to do with the box art…
  • Did you know? If you attempt to enter “Sonic” as a player name, the game will chastise you for being “Not cool enough”. Ice burn, Uniracers.
  • Would I play again: It sure would be nice to see Uniracers on, I don’t know, a tiny Super Nintendo or something, but I don’t think that’s going to happen. That said, I’d like to take Uniracers for a spin more often, but I’m a lot more likely to play something a tweak more complicated (like Mario Kart 64), so the odds are low on this one getting popped in again.

What’s next? Random ROB has chosen… Rumble Roses for the Playstation 2! I think I let ROB watch too much Netflix recently. Get ready for some foxy… wrestling. Please look forward to it!


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