These days racing games are all about realism. You can easily spend more time buying parts for your cars than actually driving them, and when you do get out on the road you tend to be bound by the laws of physics. This was definitely not the case when San Francisco Rush was released in the mid-90s.
Here we have a driving game that rewards you for trying to kill yourself at every turn. Atari cast aside any hope of attracting simulation racing fans, opting instead to provide players with the sheer joy of flying end-over-end at high speed, often resulting in a satisfying explosion, though I guess landing the trick can be fun, too. You just can’t go wrong.
San Francisco Rush: Extreme Racing was first released to arcades by Midway in 1996, and I’m reviewing the Nintendo 64 version here, which came out in ’97. It’s a nearly perfect port in terms of gameplay, and they actually added a bit of customization to the living room experience. Though, it doesn’t look quite as good as it did in the arcade, and the N64’s controller can’t match the steering wheel setup.
The game was extremely popular in arcades back in the day, and can still sometimes be found in movie theaters and coin laundries the world over. If you never have the fortune of coming across the cabinet in the wild, the N64 game comes pretty close.
There is a place for realism in games, but I am one who believes that there should be absolutely no barrier between the player and fun. The goal should always be to provide gamers with the most fun they can possibly have, and for me, that’s the promise San Francisco Rush delivers on.
It doesn’t matter what a car should actually be able to do. If you’re a game developer and you say to yourself, “We can’t let them have that much fun, because it wouldn’t make any sense,” I am firing you immediately. By which I mean out of a cannon.
San Francisco Rush is crazy, chaotic, and fun.
Now, when I say that the game is crazy and chaotic, don’t take it to mean the game would be no good as a standard racer. There is a lot of skill involved here, and it would stand up fairly well if cars were limited to driving on the surface of the earth–I’m just personally glad that they’re not.
Atari chose to ignore reality in two key areas:
- You can’t oversteer, so you’re not likely to get frustrated by spinning out in this game. You never really want to slow down. It also means you can’t drift, though, which will turn off a lot of folks in a big way.
- The physics engine. The cars feel heavy when you’re cornering or when you bump into another vehicle, but if you hit a ramp you’re pretty much a freaking airplane. This is what sets the Rush games apart.
There are shortcuts all over the game’s six main tracks. Most of them come with a high risk factor, often involving ridiculous jumps over tall buildings. Many of them don’t even cut that much time, but you might find yourself going for them anyway just because they’re so much fun.
When you mess up and find yourself engulfed in a ball of fire (often), you don’t even lose that much time. The game will toss you back onto the track in a position relative to your previous distance from opponents, giving you what amounts to a small time penalty.
Forget about all this racing nonsense!
Uncharacteristic for a racing game, there is also a bit of exploration involved in San Francisco Rush. Not only to find shortcuts and easter eggs–of which there are plenty–but there are also 6-8 keys scattered throughout each track in hard to reach places, which you’ll need to find if you want to unlock new cars.
To help players find all of these things without being constrained by the checkpoint system of a race, a special Practice mode is also included, allowing you to drive around at your leisure.
The best possible use of Practice mode though is pulling off wicked-awesome stunts. My friends and I would take turns showing each other our best jumps for extended sessions, and I probably wound up doing almost as much of this as actual racing back in the day.
In future installations of the Rush series a full-blown Stunt Mode would be included, but you don’t need the word Stunt on the menu to know that driving full-on off of a big hill is going to make your car do something kind of neat.
Eh, it looks a little like poop
The game isn’t extremely ugly by N64 standards, but few games from that era have held up in the department of visuals, and San Francisco Rush is not exceptional in this way. A lot of the textures and details are atrociously stupid looking, but try to look on the bright side and be glad they put these ugly little additions into the game at all.
SF Rush also has one of the best-worst soundtracks I’ve ever heard. I have no idea whether I should add or remove a point for it, so you’ll have to judge that for yourself.
At the end of the day there are two games here. One is a rock-solid mid-90s racer, and the other is a completely insane, flippity-crash, crazy destuct-o-matron. You can play either way and not give a crap about the other one, but when you play both at the same time, this game is magic.