Review by Mariner

Reviewed: 08/30/04

The bare necessities

Isn't it amazing how far games have come? On the Atari, you'd be lucky to get background music, a backstory, or even a background. Now, all games seem to revolve around these lavish tales, stunning us with cutscenes and dazzling effects and tons of noises. We have extras, unlockables, Easter eggs, multiple characters, a gazillion styles of play, dozens of combos and button combinations and all sorts of neat things. It's great, it really is. The game industry has already been pushed further than any of the pioneers could have ever imagined, engaging us in all sorts of unique ways to keep our interest. But sometimes it's best to step away from all of that, to realize that those extras only enhance a game, but cannot save one that is flawed. Every once in a while we need a game that mocks these extras, proudly standing alone and stripped down to its basest form - pure, unadulterated gameplay. Nintendo realized this, and gave us Uniracers.

Do yourself a favor and read the "backstory" found in the instruction manual (reproduced on the FAQ on this site, if that helps). For those too lazy, it basically states that a very bored god created the sentient unicycles to race each other for eternity to impress his girlfriend or something. Funny, perhaps, but stupid and nonsensical. More importantly, though, it mocks the modern sentiment (and I for one enjoy a good mocking). Why one earth would anyone need a story for half the games we play? Yet these developers keep coming forward and vomiting out awful excuses for their games, as if the reason we want to roll monkeys across tricky terrain is because we are deeply concerned with their banana problems. We don't need plots to half the games that have them! And yes, this seriously is one of the reasons why I love this game so much, since its utterly ridiculous and irreverent story shows those stupid premises that other games have for what they really are - impediments to the game. The story says it best: "if you stopped a Unicycle and asked, you'd find that none of them really cared. It's RACING that's the thing."

Same thing with the graphics. You want a spiffy background? Sorry, this one is almost completely bare. Flashy and unique unicycles? Nope - they're completely normal looking and the only differences between them is their color. Mode 7 or other flashy effects? Yeah right, the closest you'll get is the seat moving around occasionally. And yet, despite all these supposed setbacks, the game looks nice. Not beautiful, not spectacular, but nice. Everything is so clean and smooth and fast, and the bare graphics only focus the player onto the race. And because it is apparently the only game out there that actually considers less graphics as a capable method of creating a vivid picture, the look of the game manages to stand out amongst the crowd.

And don't forget all the extra goodies in this game, or lack thereof. So often we are bogged down with unlockables and customization and all sorts of "replay" issues that we forget they don't really matter at all. Uniracers, however, seems to stand proud as a game that needs not such useless distractions. Yes, there are multiple machines to choose from - but every single one is the exact same. Yes, you can unlock things - but only more races. Instead of worrying about unlocking unicycle profiles or picking the best cycle for the race, you just worry about winning. Getting the gold in all these matches is the only thing that matters. I admit that I enjoy a game where you have to unlock tons of stuff just as much as everyone else does. But such prattle is just a gimmick - it doesn't affect how much fun you have with the game or whether or not you'll replay it or anything. Uniracers reminds us of that which we should never forget - the game is the important thing, not the stuff around it.

So if this racing title does strip a game down to its basic elements, one must naturally expect those elements to be darn good. Uniracers does not disappoint. There are three difficulty levels, 9 different circuits, and 5 different tracks on each circuit. Two of said tracks are always of a "get to the finish line first" mode, forcing you to rely on quick reflexes and taking advantage of areas where you can build up speed. Two more are laps, so that memorizing the shorter track and repetitious excellence are required. And the final one is a stunt track, a place to show off your moves and gain enough points to qualify. Stunts, namely flips, twists, and rolls, are rather simple to pull off, but a variety and number of them are required to get the points you need. These stunts are also useful in the racing levels, as any successful stunt will bring you a much needed burst of speed. And you'll need them, as there is no acceleration button or braking or sliding or anything of the sort. See, the tracks are 2-D, with a view like any side scroller. You merely hold down the direction you want to go in!

Seems like a strange way to race, doesn't it? And yet it works here quite well. Since it's a side scroller, you don't have to much reaction time to what's coming up, right? The game knows this, and provides a way out. The colors on the track each signify what's coming up- green means everything's safe, red means there will be a major height shift, orange means some goo is coming up, and yellow says you're near the end. Thus, the secret is knowing when to time your jumps, how long should you be doing tricks while in the air, knowing when to switch directions on corkscrews and turns, which tricks to use, etc. How close am I to the ground, do I have time for another flip, when should I jump here, can I get onto that other ledge? So no, it's not exactly your normal racing game. Rather than worrying about your acceleration and how to take corners, or even interfering with those racing around you, you must worry about watching the upcoming track, timing your jumps, and just where can I get your speed boosts in. Different, yes, but effective. It's still dependant on skill, practice, and timing, and so works just as well as its more normal kin.

And once you get used to it, you'll find that this seemingly simple setup can become surprisingly challenging. Yes, a few screwups won't hurt you in the bronze medal. But once you start going for the silver and especially the gold, you'll need to know the layout of the track, be able to get in a trick for a speed boost whenever you can, and know exactly when to do every last maneuver. And once again, the utter simplicity and sheer basicness of the game makes this attribute stand out more. There's no complex maneuvers to "cheat" your way to the top like the F-Zero X series, and no way to choose cycles with attributes that match the course. Since you can't interfere with the other unicycle in any way, it all rests on you racing your best, not making the computer race its worst. Many of the very best action games rely on the ability to make you act as an extension of the game. You end up practicing so much that every press of a button is practically automatic, and you get through the levels as much on instinct and reflex as by thinking and responding. Uniracers falls into this category, using its simplicity to build up a challenging game that will cause you much anguish and grief, but a true feeling of accomplishment when conquered.

This is the type of game that would inspire me if I were a developer. No, that doesn't mean I'd want to remake a game like this - it's not like there's much room to make a new 2-D unicycle game. But I love its philosophy - forget the trends of the gaming industry, toss all conventional wisdom of what a game needs aside, and just focus on making a good game. Remember that everything else is just extra, and if I had the guts I'd make a game like this that shrugs aside those extras and hope the game's core and uniqueness can make it stand out. Such an event rarely happens, but Uniracers is definitely one of those rare occasions. Is it perfect? Should all other games emulate it? Of course not; those extras are often useful and worthwhile additions, and turning a genre upside down for one unique game just doesn't work. But we can play this game and enjoy it, honoring it for its ideas and remembering its lessons. If you ever want to go back to the basics, this is it.

Rating:   4.5 - Outstanding

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