Ever since their advent, there has always been that one video game that embodied a generation. Those games share a few characteristics, like creating or revolutionizing a genre, completely changing their respective franchises or just being so good, they’re considered timeless classics worthy of preservation. In Brazil exists a game that defies all of those expectations: it’s not exactly a classic, it’s not the best of its genre, and it didn’t even age that well. Yet, our love for it is universal, transcending time, genre, age, even gaming! And today, 27 years after its original release, little has changed.
The name of that game is Top Gear. And let me tell you all about it.
The history leading to Top Gear’s release is not that well documented, as is often the case when we talk about old video games, but from what I can gather it goes a bit like this: In 1992, a British company called Gremlin Software (later, Gremlin Interactive) was making a comeback after some rough times. By that year they had some success with the publishing of one particular series: Lotus, developed by Magnetic Fields. Those were arcade racing games licensed by Lotus (obviously) and very popular on the PC market, especially the Amiga. The third and last game on the series had just been released but Gremlin wasn’t quite done with it yet. The previous installment, Turbo Challenge 2, was released on the Sega Genesis and did well enough to guarantee that the same happened with the sequel, Lotus III. Wanting to expand their reach on the console market, Gremlin prepared to land on a Nintendo console, this time as developers. So they dropped the Lotus license and development on Top Gear started. Originally an NES game, Nintendo used hypnotic suggestion to convince Gremlin to release it on the SNES instead. So they got in contact with Kemco for publishing and five months later, the game emerged.
On a surface level, Top Gear is basically LTC with a fresh coat of paint—not that we would’ve known that at the time—and that’s because it is: the pace, controls, the constant split screen, the refueling mechanic, all of that is inherited by Top Gear. But that’s not a bad thing, Lotus was the quintessential racing game on the Amiga: fast, responsive, purely arcade and with a killer soundtrack to boot, so yeah more of that, please.
Still, Top Gear has a few ideas that justify the name change, starting with the cars: not limited by a single brand, the game is a lot more varied than LTC could ever be. Four vehicles inspired by real-life cars, all of whom I can still recite by name: Cannibal was based on the iconic Ferrari Testarossa and was the red comet of the game, slow to accelerate, horrible at turns, and the only thing higher than its max speed is its gas consumption. Sidewinder—another Ferrari, this time the 228 GTO—was the gentlemen’s choice, the slowest car in the game, but it made up for it by having the best acceleration and being the most cost-effective when it came to gas. Razor and Weasel (Honda NSX and Porsche 995 respectively) are the jack-of-all-trades (aka the Thanos Choice) maintaining a good balance between all stats. So when you pick a car you’re also picking a playstyle: go with Cannibal and you’re gonna fly low but longer courses will be the bane of your existence, pick Sidewinder and you’ll barely see the pit stop screen but you better know your turns to make up for the slower speed. It’s a delicate dance and watching some fool run outta gas mid-race was absolutely priceless.
Then there was the choice between manual or automatic gear—the last mechanic Top Gear would re-use from LTC. The former would secure your place amongst the cool kids while the latter would cast great shame upon your family so don’t do it. Last and certainly not least, everyone had three charges of NOS per race, and knowing when to go all out was important. Personally, I save two charges for the very last lap to avoid any last second surprises, because few things are as satisfying as stealing first place at the last second and even fewer are as frustrating as being on the receiving end of that. Since the game was constantly in split screen, the competitive aspect was emphasized. We would spend entire afternoons competing for the best time and at the same time, working together to unlock new countries to race in a mix of co-op and versus. And that’s still the case today: whenever there’s a retro game convention, you can bet your gas that a Top Gear tournament will be held there. Heck, the last one I attended rewarded the winner with a PS4 Pro. Not bad for a game over two decades old, eh?
But TG isn’t perfect and there are a few things that rub me the wrong way. Many of its tracks have the annoying habit of throwing in obstacles in your way, be it rocks or just barricades that force you to one side of the road, and some of those obstacles change with the difficulty making for quite the nuisance, especially when the AI has no trouble dealing with that. The controls aren’t as precise as I remember and for all the strategy the refueling mechanic adds, you can’t deny it kills the pace. But none of that takes away from its shine, cause all the things it does right are enough to keep me coming back for more. And I’m not the only one.
Despite being the second racing game on the SNES, Top Gear is a bit of a hidden gem. The console had a lot of memorable titles during its lifetime that vastly overshadow TG, and in NA the game was released just over a week after Contra III and merely three days after Link To The Past. It really doesn’t help that when you try to Google it, you get results for the show instead of the game.
But while the rest of the world would erase this game’s existence from the collective consciousness, the circumstances in Brazil were just right for the original Top Gear to ignite an everlasting fire. The popularity of the SNES here was starting to solidify around the same time the game was released. It practically came with the console over these parts and word of mouth would do the rest, making Top Gear the reason for owning a SNES and many kids’ first racing game. But it was at the locadoras that the game truly shone the brightest. I already went into great detail in the linked post, but to give you the gist of it: this was a place we went to “pay and play” video games and thanks to its social nature, multiplayer games ruled and TG was a king amongst them. It was easy to approach, exciting to watch and hard to master, thanks to its wonderful presentation and Nintendo hard difficulty. Being good was a badge of pride and honor to be defended with all of one’s might.
But just that isn’t enough to explain TG’s fame in Brazil because other games from that same period aren’t remembered nearly as fondly. No, there is one last thing that can explain this phenomenon: a man called Ayrton “King of Monaco” Senna.
If you don’t know who that is, first I pity you. Second, he’s widely considered as the best F1 driver of all time! In 92, he was at the peak of his popularity: just fresh outta his third world championship victory and driving for McLaren that year. To say that Senna was a national hero is putting it very, very lightly. Brazil would stop to watch him race, adults would celebrate his victories and kids wanted to drive just like him. Funnily enough, that same year Super Monaco GP 2 would feature the legend himself on the cover, but I think that game was too realistic (for the time that is) and all we wanted was just the thrill of the race, without all the details.
Top Gear was successful enough to get a few sequels, but they never clicked with us. The second game while arguably better, removed pit stops, the multiple vehicles and added a directional damage system, while 3000 is set in the future, and you had upgrades that allowed your car to perform special maneuvers like a warp jump for example. So the original is the one that keeps drawing us back with its pure, arcade racing goodness. And what would a racing game be without a soundtrack?
Let me give you a tip: if you ever come to Brazil, there are three things you should never diss while on these lands: our food, our women, and Barry Leitch, Top Gear’s composer. He never achieved huge status in the industry, but the fans he does have are extremely fond of his music and it’s not hard to hear why once you sit down to listen. But TG’s soundtrack is special. For starters, the majority of the songs are not original: Leitch only had a week to work on the music, so he plagiarized himself, arranging four tracks from LTC and shoving them into the game. It wasn’t a copy paste job, as he had to compile the music to play on the SNES, and he also had much more freedom with the console’s eight sound channels, allowing for more interesting arranges. And it was in that freedom, experimenting with minor scales and the echo effect that he created the most iconic video game song of all time (at least for us): Las Vegas— also known as Mad Racer to some.
It would not be an exaggeration to say that this song is the single most popular element of the entire game and it is to Brazil what Super Mario’s theme is to Japan. It opens with a flaming fast arpeggio that became synonymous with Top Gear and there is not a single Brazilian alive that doesn’t recognize those notes. It has countless covers on YouTube, it has been blatantly ripped off in some “popular-for-a-weekend” type of music, and most recently, finally earned its place at the Video Games Live Orchestra, after many years of begging Tommy (and it actually resulted in a beautiful homage to Mr. Leitch. Seriously, watch the video below). I know people who wouldn’t bat an eye over Chrono Trigger’s OST, but hum that arpeggio and they’ll sing along with you. That’s just how much we love Leitch’s music and his absence in future titles of the series was a major turn off for many of us.
Not gonna lie, I cried. Jump to 4:30 for the man Barry himself!
And that’s the story of Top Gear: A good game, that with the right timing and the right music won over an entire nation. But while its story ends here, its legacy does not. That’s because history has a funny habit of repeating itself, and in August 2015, twenty-three years after its original release, a worthy successor would arise. Fittingly, it would do so by Brazilian hands.
Imitation is the sincerest form of flattery, and after playing Horizon Chase it’s not hard to see why. Developed by Aquiris Game Studio and originally released for mobile devices, it did well enough to secure itself a big boy console release in 2018, in the shape of Horizon Chase Turbo. And how could it not? In an era where a new Burnout game was but a dream and Need For Speed lost its soul inside a loot box, HC offered no bullshit, straight to the point, arcade racing that we haven’t seen since the 90s, capturing the sense of speed from that age and modernizing it for a whole new generation. And people really liked it.
Horizon Chase takes the best of its parent franchise and mashes them into a single product. Starting with the pit stop mechanic that was replaced with fuel pickups. They serve the same purpose but with this new system the pace of the race never drops, and you’re able to focus solely on the track ahead. The upgrade system from TG 2 is back, but now you earn them through special races and tracks no longer have any obstacles (thank God). There are 32 vehicles to choose from (and more to come in future updates) all of whom handle differently, a ridiculously huge World Tour mode with more than a hundred races, online leaderboards, and four player split-screen. There’s content here for days.
The presentation is another thing HCT nails. Beautiful low poly graphics evoke memories of the 16 bit times, all the vehicles are “inspired” by real-life counterparts, the track layouts received a lot of care and the developers paid huge attention to details, making the many locations you’ll be racing feel very authentic and best of all, the game runs like butter! I tried it on my laptoaster and the framerate was smooth like baby skin. Even the way that your car never leaves the center of the screen and how every vehicle has different taunts and reaction speech bubbles simulate Top Gear’s style flawlessly!
And if that was all, Horizon Chase would’ve been just a pretty good throwback to the good old days. Then they got Barry Leitch to compose the soundtrack, and that’s when everything went from pretty good to “I need to change my pants now”. Without a ridiculously tight deadline and with the wonders of modern technology, Leitch was able to outdo himself. The music oozes with style, the different instrumentations keeps things consistent but varied, and the many motifs from Top Gear sprinkled in nearly every song will instantly take anyone back to the 90s. The cherry on top of this cake is a reimagining of Las Vegas, brought to a new generation in all of its nostalgic glory. In fact, in the original mobile release, this was your reward for getting first place in every race. In HCT it’s a regular track that fittingly enough, plays for the first time in one of the races in Brazil.
Leitch has gone on record saying that this is the soundtrack he always wanted to create, and every second of it shows! If I have one petty complaint, is that I wish there were more guitars in the soundtrack. That’s it.
Top Gear was an important game for my generation. It gave us endless afternoons of competition, it was the cause of fierce rivalries and everlasting friendships, it helped shape the love some have for automobiles— hell for some, its music even helped launch a musical career! But it has been almost 30 years now and a whole new generation was born into a very different world. What this game means to us is not something we can truly pass on. Top Gear was part of an experience, a product of our time in more ways than just its release date. Maybe this is why Aquiris decided to create Horizon Chase. More than just a way for old-timers to relive their youth, their game serves as a way to keep that flame alive and pass it on, and the fact it captivated both those who remember Top Gear and those who never played it, it’s proof that it can. I’m sure that for some, this will become the Top Gear of their time and maybe in the future, they’ll make a throwback game to Horizon Chase instead.
Like the stretching horizon, the possibilities are endless. And I just can’t wait to get there.