As Hamster and SNK’s tireless mission to get as much of the NEOGEO library onto mobile continues, the wheel finally lands on Thrash Rally ($3.99). It’s a top-down rally racer from the powerhouse system’s second year on the market, originally developed by the folks at ADK. Interestingly, we’ve already seen the game’s spiritual successor, Over Top, arrive in the ACA NEOGEO mobile line. With that in mind, is there room for Thrash Rally in this increasingly crowded roster? Time to go through the usual questions to see if we get some unusual answers!
SNK wasn’t exactly known for racing games, and I don’t think the NEOGEO ended up changing that perception much. I’m not sure if it was because the hardware was ill-equipped to keep pace with the powerful units SEGA and NAMCO were pushing into the arcade space, or if SNK just felt like they couldn’t really keep up with the competition in a design sense, but we ended up seeing just six racers on the console/arcade hybrid. That’s counting two horse racing games, too. Thrash Rally was the first racer on the system where players controlled cars, and the only top-down one.
The choice to do a top-down racer at this point in time was an interesting one. While this particular branch of the racing genre was still fairly successful on consoles, the more spectacle-heavy arcade scene had long since ditched them in favor of behind-the-back vanishing horizon games. Indeed, we were only a year away from the complete and utter game changer that was SEGA’s Virtua Racing. Even with a bit of scaling thrown in for spice, Thrash Rally looked a bit unimpressive for an arcade game of its vintage.
I guess this kind of gets to the elephant in the corner of the NEOGEO room. As a home console, the NEOGEO was considerably more powerful than anything else you could find at the time. It wasn’t even close. But as arcade hardware went? It was fine, but one of its big selling points for arcade operators was in how affordable it was. It was reasonably priced, generalized hardware that was built to handle a wide variety of experiences. It couldn’t and wouldn’t compete on a power level with more specialized, expensive hardware kits. It had its strengths, of course. When it played to them, the games could have a fair bit of razzle-dazzle. But there was only so much it could do, and each passing year dated the hardware further. The long life of the system must be credited to SNK and its various developers’ art, music, and game design talent. Well, that’s my opinion anyway.
A lot of the games in the early years of the system were trying to puff up its power. The later years came off like SNK was trying to show it could still hang with the competition. But I think if we look at the gooey, delicious middle years, we can find a comfortable groove for its software where it isn’t trying to put up any pretenses and is just enjoying itself. Thrash Rally was an early runner in that field, to me. It looks good for a top-down racer, for whatever that is worth, but it succeeds on its gameplay merits more than anything. I would go so far as to say that it’s a more enjoyable racer than its spiritual follow-up, despite that game having a considerably more gorgeous look.
Thrash Rally is a rally racer where you use your choice of several vehicles and challenge one of two different rally championships. While there aren’t any official licenses in play, everything is very nudge-nudge-wink-wink. That’s particularly the case if you play the Japanese version of the game, where the cars have names like the Toyot GT-Four, Parsche 911, and the Lancian Deleta. The two rally championships are themselves loosely based on the real-life 1992 World Rally Championship and Paris-Cape Town Dakar Rally. You can pick from six cars for the former, which consists of five separate races taking you from Monte Carlo to the United Kingdom. The latter gives you an additional three vehicles to choose from, and it’s just one long race from France to Cape Town.
The game leans more on the arcade side of things to say the least, but you do have to take the terrain into account and learn when to brake and when to gun it. Your choice of car is very important, as each of them have their own parameters that will affect how you have to race. I like the not-Porsche, but I recommend trying them all to see which one fits you best. Unlike a real rally race, there are other drivers on the track with you and you are indeed racing against them. Well, some of them. Some of them are just there to populate the track and get in the way a little. Collision is very loose here, in favor of the player. You’ll often just blaze right through cars in your path, leaving a wreck behind you. You’ll want to aim to get first in every race, but as long as you don’t run out of time you can keep going.
Yes, this is pretty normal as arcade racers go in that you’re up against a clock, an opponent far more nefarious than any competing car. You have to reach each checkpoint before the clock runs out. If at any point you fail to do this, you’re out. You can insert a credit to continue, at least. It’s a solid challenge, especially while you’re getting a feel for the cars and tracks. You can modify the difficulty as usual via the options menu, so you can scale it up or down as needed. Perhaps more useful is the presence of online leaderboards, which allows you to compete with other players’ times. You also get the usual Caravan and Score Attack modes, which are particularly challenging in this game.
You can play the game with an external controller if you have one, but the multiplayer option isn’t available here at all due to it requiring the rarely-used link cable. Touch controls work reasonably well for this game, as it only uses two buttons. Accelerate, brake. Use the virtual stick to steer. Almost as easy as it gets, and it’s more than doable via touch controls. It’s always nice when one of these games plays nicely with touch, and I find myself more encouraged to recommend those that do.
Thrash Rally might not have the graphical sizzle of other racers on the console, but in terms of sheer playability it may well be near the top of the small pack. It fits mobile very well, and whether you’re playing with an external controller or touch controls there is plenty of fun to be had here. It’s kind of funny how top-down racers are probably more acceptable in today’s market than they probably were back in 1991. Well, whatever. If you like top-down racers, pick this one up. You’re not likely to regret it.