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Retro video game review: Rally Bike

Gameplay screenshots.
Gameplay screenshots.
NintendoLegend.com.

NES Rally Bike video game

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Among Taito's classic arcade cabinets was a top-down vertically scrolling racer called Rally Bike. Released in 1988, it would be ported to the 8-bit Nintendo Entertainment System (NES) home video game console in 1990 by developer Visco and publisher Romstar. How would such a precision title translate onto television screen?

Title screen.
Romstar, NintendoLegend.com.

Gameplay

There have always been a number of challenges in transferring the experience of an arcade cabinet onto a home console. If a player was familiar with the original stand-up version first, they may be disappointed to see the watered-down visuals on the port. The control scheme may suffer, as joysticks or trackballs or other devices had to have commands transferred to the four cardinal directions of the D-Pad. Then there was the issue that many shooters, such as Galaga, had to deal with: In the arcades, they had their own nice, custom, vertically oriented screen to deal with, but at home would have to make due with the horizontal box of the TV.

Rally Bike is no exception to these rules. It lacks the colorful pizzazz of the arcade original, along with its vertical orientation. Fortunately, the result is not horrible, and still manages to craft a challenge that some may enjoy.

In Rally Bike, the player is tasked with controlling a motorcycle (well, maybe its driver, technically) through a series of a handful of races. In each, there are over four dozen other competitors, and the player must achieve a certain placing at the finish in order to continue. The A button accelerates, the Up command accelerates even more, and B brakes. Of course, it cannot be that easy.

The biggest 'catch' to the formula is that the Rally Bike is extremely fragile. If it barely manages to graze any object on the track, be it other racer or a nearby structure, the player loses a life and must restart from the beginning of the race. There are no hit points, there is no forgiveness, there is no mercy in the land of the Bike. Only death. If one single pixel of that bike touches anything else, instant restart.

At least the races are not that long. Complicating matters is the helicopter that drops friendly power-ups, and the fact that the player has to manage fuel as well. Yep, this is one of those games, where you have to pick up fuel or risk dying from lack of propulsive component. Just like Ghostbusters, y'know.

So this arcade-style, high-score-seeking top-down racer assuredly has its fans, and a crowd that would enjoy it. But beyond what has been mentioned, there is just not much to it.

Graphics

Meh.

Okay, honestly, the pixel art going on is not that bad. The varied environments do, sorta, make a player feel as though the races are taking place in different areas. The action flows pretty smoothly, and the illusion of speed is quite believable. But there are some flickering issues, and every once in a while it can be confusing as to which on-course elements are deadly, or which are safe, and which are power-ups, etc.

Sound

The music is not quite there with the upbeat tunes of the arcade original, but the soundtrack is not bad, either. The bigger problem is that, often, the music is drowned out by the repeating chimes or dings or beeps or booms or other noises that Rally Bike insists on infusing throughout the gameplay whenever fuel is coming up, or the helicopter is flying, or fuel is low, or... half the time altogether, basically. What could have been a fun, bob-your-head sort of groovetastic feeling is ruined by a measure of cacophony.

Originality

Ultimately, this is the problem with Rally Bike: There are better top-down racers, there are better vertically oriented games, and there are better NES cartridges overall. With its unique blend of Paperboy-like punishing arcade-style one-hit-kill challenge, and its Bigfoot-like take on rally racing but with more serious difficulty, Rally Bike poses a problem of mathematics.

The conundrum goes like this: In order to become any good at Rally Bike, and thus make it any fun, you have to play it enough to memorize the track layouts. The instruction manual even says as its top tip, "Know the racing course well." But to play it that much would mean choosing it above other games for play time; and, even worse, even when a player has become decent at Rally Bike, it still does not offer any sort of long-term rewarding experience that would lift it up above the higher members of the NES pantheon.

Maybe there are some very specific-taste kind of weirdos out there who are utterly in love with Rally Bike and its confusing engine/tire upgrade system. Perhaps. But for most of us, no matter how admirable of a job this port is, it just is not a great game. Consider trying it out for kicks, as the development chops are not awful, but do not enter the Rally with great expectations.

Overall rating: 2.5/5 stars.