A wise philosopher once said: Video Games Can Be About Anything. Think about any game, and how truly out there and strange their settings are. A plumber saving a magical kingdom from a family of evil turtles. A man armed only with a pack of cigarettes taking down a nuclear-equipped terrorist group. A medieval Syrian assassin loaded up on cocaine time-travelling to the 1980s to kill Mikhail Gorbachev and Ronald Reagan. Games that we as an audience consider to be “normal” are pretty weird in actuality. Of course, there are simulation titles and sports games to keep things grounded a little bit (with some exceptions to be made there, as well).
The Paris-Dakar Rally is (or was) a rally race series that would begin in Paris, France and end in Dakar, Senegal. It was a very popular event, with musicians and actors competing in the race mixed in with all the professional drivers. Making a video game based on it seems like a no-brainer, right? Racing games tend to be fun, and even the worst ones sell decently enough for a company to make at least a small profit. So that is exactly what developer ISCO did, and now we have the Paris-Dakar Rally Special for the Famicom.
ISCO are a unique developer, we’ll say. They’re mostly known for their porting of other companies games, mostly Data East (Two Crude Dudes and Captain America and The Avengers on Sega Genesis being done by them). However, they did do their own original titles. And by “original titles,” I mean absolute fucking dog shit like Seikima II: Akuma no Gyakushu and Transformers Convoy no Nazo. The former is a terrible platformer with confusing level layouts and terrible music, which is an absolute insult given that it’s a game based on a really cool metal band from the 80s. The latter is that game we all played because we looked at a list of NES ROMs and thought that, holy shit, there’s a Transformers Nintendo game!? It has to be good! And then it wasn’t. So ISCO’s output is…something.
Okay, so ISCO struck out twice with their games so far. It would be pretty easy to think that Paris-Dakar Rally would suck too. Not only does the game not suck, but it may very well be one of the most, if not the most, imaginative of the 8-bit era.
The thing about this racing game is that the first thing you do is not race. Rather, you have to wander around Tokyo, talking to banks, corporate offices, and racing clubs to get a sponsorship and enough money to buy a car. It’s a nice bit of flavor, given that the real-life rally was a primarily privateer affair (privateer in this case meaning drivers who are not part of an auto manufacturer and must pay their way into a race).
Once all that’s out of the way, you then have to get yourself a navigator to help you with all the terrain on the desert tracks. You get assigned one based on how well you do on a reflex test? Okay, sure.
Now, as someone who has played through this game multiple times, I’ll straight up admit that I have no idea if this entire segment actually effects how the rest of the game is played; I have not noticed any difference in the cars regardless of my sponsor or navigator. But whatever, I appreciate the effort put into making all this.
Once all of that is out of the way, we fly to Paris and actually begin the race. Let me tell you all right now that this first level is by far the hardest of the bunch. If you’ve ever seen a video from the Japanese Retro side of Youtube, they tend to give up here. It’s simple enough in concept: you drive, trying to make it to the end of the course. You have to dodge other cars, obstacles in the road, and barrels being tossed onto the track. There will be cars that will suddenly speed up from behind you in an attempt to crash into you, and speeding up to maximum acceleration will only make them fly at you faster. At the same time, you can’t take the race slow, as you still want to get a good completion time, and you’ll run out of fuel. You get three hits and a full of tank of gas before you’re fucked, and if you’re fucked, then you get to restart the whole race from the beginning. It’s hard, but it’s definitely doable if you’re willing to put some time into pattern memorization and knowing when to speed up and slow down (kind of like real racing that way).
Then the second half of Paris begins. Now the course is a…maze? Like, a Pac-Man style maze where you need to dodge other cars, who are now very much trying to collide into you. Alright.
The next stop on the rally is leaving Paris and getting to Barcelona. That’s an easy enough race, simply avoid falling boulders, dodge eggs being laid by birds overhead, and if any lizards or sewer rats get in the way, shoot them with your gun!
Yes, okay, so P-DRS is not even remotely a realistic racing game. It’s not even an unrealistic racing game like Rad Racer or Outrun. Like I quoted at the beginning: Video Games Can Be About Anything. This is not the video game version of a realistic race, this is unbridled creativity and/or not giving a fuck. This is a race from Paris to Dakar as envisioned by a madman. Normally, a lesser reviewer who have made some tired crack along the lines of “heh, what were these guys on when they made this game, DRUGS!?” I will not be doing that, because that’s a disservice to this game that we have been given. It takes a special kind of person to take the concept of a racing game, then turn it into a side-scrolling shooter only part of the way through. A shooter where you need to get out of the car and solve some basic switch puzzles, sometimes walking on clouds to do so.
I need to make this clear: I am not being sarcastic, this is not some weird gimmick I’m doing. Paris-Dakar Rally Special rules. This game is really good, despite what its reputation would have you believe. It is an absolute work of art, this complete risk being taken to make something truly original, something I love about the 8-bit era of games where developers made whatever they wanted.
The next leg of the race is Barcelona to Alger. Geography students out there, or I guess anyone who looked at a map on Google, knows that there’s a pretty big body of water that separates these two places. You would think that maybe the race crews would take a ferry across, and continue the race.
Or, you know, just fucking drive through the ocean.
Much like the Mach 5, your Rally car is submersible, as are your guns. You’ll need those guns, because you have to face sharks, octopi, schools of fish, helicopters dropping bombs (as opposed to providing medical aid, something they are meant to do in the real rally), and missiles fired at you from an unknown source.
Emerging from the ocean, we arrive at the desert. The first half is fairly benign, with more shooting at animals the size of your car and sometimes navigating deep rivers. Snakes, camels, moles, stuff like that.
The second half, however, is much different. The organizers of the race didn’t seem to think that it was a bad idea to hold a race in the middle of an active war zone. Now my 4WD is taking out tanks, attack helicopters and fighter jets. I need to reiterate that this game rules.
You think after all of this, the final level in Dakar is going to be completely wild. Just the most off-the-wall shit imaginable. In a way, it kind of is, because it is simply a race on a dirt track in Dakar.
That’s the twist. After all these genre-changing levels, full of weird shit, the final level is an actual racing game. You know, ISCO could have made all of their levels like this. They could have done a regular racing game, and it probably would have been fine. Good, but not great. Instead, they made something that lives up to the name of Special. A wild, extremely memorable experience that I’m sure pissed off a few people expecting a playable version of the actual Paris-Dakar Rally. Like, there wouldn’t be a bait-and-switch in games this good until Solid Snake stopped being the protagonist in Metal Gear.
Look at this cover. Would you have had any idea of what was actually happening in this game?
Creativity like this is a rare unicorn; it’s not often that the whole “average video game concept turned on its ear in increasingly strange ways” actually works. I mean, sure, P-DRS isn’t exactly Mega Man 2 or something in terms of being technically good, but sometimes there’s more to being a game than technically good. Sometimes all a game needs to be good is to make you laugh at an absurd situation while you make an Abrams tank explode with a gun mounted to an brandless race car.
Video games can be about anything.