Cruis'n USA

What better game to kick things off than the infamous Cruis'n USA?

I'd only had my N64 for a few months when I noticed the Cruis'n USA boxes all over the shelves of my local branch of GAME, but I'd already read the reviews in Games Master and N64 Magazine, and the prognosis was not good. Both magazines had told stories of horrific frame rates, terrible 'twitchy' controls and dreadful visuals, so I was keen to avoid Cruis'n at all costs. Time passed and I never actually played the game during the N64's lifetime as a 'living' console. Fast forward to the present however, and I now have the opportunity.

How does it fare? Not too badly, as it turns out.

Back in the day, money to spend on games was scarce for me so I took magazine reviews very seriously. Those journalists had the power to make or break a game's sales figures in the early days of the internet: where else could you go for game reviews in 1998 but the magazines? Netscape Navigator? Do me a favour - it took about 3 weeks for Alta Vista to load up, let alone get a concise and well written game review up on the screen of your 90Mhz Pentium PC! To that end, my view of Cruis'n USA was very dim - the review scores were barely above the 10% mark in many of the contemporary gaming periodicals, so I spent my cash/trade ins elsewhere (I think I went for Madden 64 on that occasion...which was equally ill-advised, being a person who knew jack shit about NFL).

Genuine N64 screen

Going back to play such a reviled game now, almost 15 years later, I have to say that the reviewers appear to have been overly harsh on Cruis'n USA. It was originally released as an arcade game by (the now defunct) Midway/Williams and then downscaled onto the N64, and was actually one of the US launch titles, but the release was monstrously delayed for the UK and other PAL territories, and I reckon it's this massive gap that lead to the poor review scores: we'd already seen what the N64 was capable of before Cruis'n USA limped onto shelves over here, so it's no surprise that it garnered such low scores.

The sharpness tells me this screen is of an emulated version

The premise of the game is that you choose a car from the initial stable of four, and then race other AI vehicles on stages that represent various locations across the USA. The whole thing is a bit of a Cannonball Run rip-off that sees you racing from coast to coast, traversing cities, forests and deserts while trying to avoid oncoming traffic in the form of trucks, police vehicles and fire engines.

Graphically, Cruis'n USA reminds me a lot of Road Rash on the 3DO - the countryside undulates smoothly but the built-up areas consist of endlessly repeating building textures, much in the vein of the Tom & Jerry cartoons from the 1960s. Collisions are the oddest part of the Cruis'n USA experience - if you hit another vehicle, your car will just stop dead and enter a bizarre spin. If the vehicle you collide with happens to get stuck against another vehicle or a part of the scenery you can literally get stuck in an infinity loop of vehicles bouncing back and forth while spinning around. Very odd. Just as odd is the default control setup - you accelerate with the Z Trigger and steer with the analogue stick, so essentially you can play the game with one hand. I'm guessing this was a left-over from the fact that the US version was a launch title and there weren't any other racing games to compare controls with...but surely the A/B buttons would have been better alternatives for accelerate and brake?!

Visually, the game looks terrible by today's HD standards; but even by the N64's low-res norms Cruis'n is poor. The cars look very angular, and the 'draw in' effect (where the track just fades in to view as you drive along) looks plain wrong. The only thing Cruis'n has going for it in the graphics department is the N64's anti-aliasing overload - what could have looked like complete diarrhoea ends up looking passable due to the smoothing over-compensation of the hardware. Speed wise, slowdown is evident whenever you have a few vehicles or a multi-car pile-up onscreen, but for the most part it whips along at a decent rate and looks ok for a mid nineties arcade conversion on untested hardware.

The music however, is complete dog shit. Play this game with the TV muted and your iPod kicking out of the stereo.

In the face of these criticisms you'd be forgiven for thinking I'm in total agreement with the general consensus, but the thing is, Cruis'n USA still manages to be fun. I sat and played through the entire 'Cruise the USA' mode twice before I decided I'd had enough. The graphics are poor, the controls are weird and the sound is lamentable...but the way the game plays is, well, stupidly addictive. You find yourself wanting to see the next stage, wanting to get to the next checkpoint or unlocking the next bonus vehicle. And with a whole shed load of hindsight, I can't help but feel that the reviewers of the time were overly harsh on Cruis'n USA because they were promised CGI-quality visuals but took delivery of a muddy, terrible sounding and buggy home conversion of a pretty low-quality arcade game. But if you take it for what it is - an arcade game - Cruis'n USA is a fun game at heart.

In defiance of the reviews of the time, Cruis'n USA gets:

5/10

4 comments:

  1. Enjoying your take on all this :) The N64 is still an intriguing piece of hardware for myself as well. I fire mine up now and then and enjoy it as much today as I did when it was new. I miss that period of console development. Now at the age of 42 I am thank full I was old enough to really enjoy the exposure to pretty much everything from the Odyssey2 to our current generation of consoles.

    Lots of fond memories of going to friends houses to play Coleco Vision or Atari, or friends coming over to my house to play Odysse2 and the C64. Then being frustrated by the horrible control discs on a friends Intellivision, looking back now it was all great and we never even realized it at the time :-)

    Cheers :-)

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  2. Hi, thanks a lot for reading and thanks for sharing your memories. It's good to know that someone's enjoying and relating to what I write! Should be more updates coming in the next few days :)

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