Neo Geo CD
Unbeknownst to some, the Neo Geo family of consoles sports some serious street sprinting action with a handful of titles that are curiously entertaining. Considering that SNK’s systems were heavenly for fighting game fans and seemingly nobody else, the idea of the machines possessing small, yet impressive catalogs of racing games may come as a surprise to those who would simply write them off as purely scuffle systems. Over Top was the last racing release to hit the Neo Geo CD. Following the likes of Rally Chase, Riding Hero, and Neo Drift Out, Over Top managed to bring some fresh ideas, and frustrations, to the starting line for the console’s rearmost relay. That said, the game remains my favourite of all Neo Geo racers, thanks to the profusion of charm and detail that developer ADK invested in the release. Read on to find out why this unique racer takes the trophy for me and how it can be somewhat vexing for others.
Lead by Magician Lord designer, Takashi Egashira, and produced by World Heroes all star, Kazuo Arai, Over Top was released in the early fall of 1996. The game is often thought of as the spiritual successor to the Neo Geo’s most prolific racing release, Thrash Rally (also known as Rally Chase – the game legitimately has two names). Being a top-down rally racer, Over Top is assuredly similar to Rally Chase in that they both belong to the same genre, but from what I’ve experienced, that’s where the parallelisms stop. Rally Chase is a fantastic game that boasts tight controls, thoughtful details, and excellent music, coupled with mediocre graphics and somewhat unimaginative vehicle designs. On the other hand, Over Top sports an undeniably energetic soundtrack, outstanding graphics that push the Neo Geo CD’s hardware to its limits, and car and track details that make its predecessor’s look flat and domesticated. Now, don’t get me wrong, Rally Chase truly is a terrific game, and it’s one that I probably play more often than its sequel, but Over Top succeeds it simply by taking more dangerous chances at those sharp corners and by slamming the pedal to the metal – all the time. In fact, that’s where Over Top spins out a little, but I’ll wrap my hands around that wheel later.
From the game’s onset, Over Top boosts right into full throttle with one of my favourite intros to a Neo Geo CD game, full stop. I absolutely love the use of the early CGI, pre-rendered looking graphics that so many developers were experimenting with… two years prior. Yeah, the Neo Geo CD may have been a little behind the times with regards to graphical capabilities, especially when you consider the facts that the Sony PlayStation, Sega Saturn, and Nintendo 64 were already on store shelves by the time of Over Top’s release, consoles that were far more equipped to handle graphics deemed current for the then fifth generation of video games. Being a fourth generation machine, the Neo Geo CD was attempting to turn in fourth grade tests at a fifth grade level, but that was what made its efforts so charming. Sure, Over Top may have looked lame and bovine to the kid burning rubber in Ridge Racer, but looking at its graphics in hindsight allows a greater appreciation for what ADK was trying to accomplish. Throughout the early to late 90s, SNK went from being the Rottweiler to the Pomeranian. Once the big bad dog, now the yappy pintsize with a 24 karat collar, SNK found itself playing in a pen with the very contenders it had bad mouthed just a few years before, only to discover that those contenders were now much bigger, and stronger. Nevertheless, SNK and their pals at ADK pushed on, refusing to go down in blue flames by pumping out titles like Over Top, chock full of caliber, regardless of what year it was. All eight vehicles in the game look sheeny, and I love how they rattle and roll as they anticipate the beginning of a race. You can customize your choice of vehicle by selecting a different colour for it too, an incredibly important option that I don’t remember being offered to me while playing the likes of Mario Kart 64. Take that, Nintendo.
The incredible amount of detail put into the environments of the tracks in Over Top is by far my favourite part about the game. It still impresses me. Everything from the skid marks on the roads that your vehicle will inevitably make, to the miniature people standing on the sidelines, waving their arms and flags in the air as you whiz by, to miniscule, interactive objects like barrels and snowmen that explode as you collide with them all make Over Top a real joy to race through. You can really tell that ADK put a lot of heart and soul into this one. Genuineness on full display and I love every bit of it.
Over Top’s soundtrack is a loot bag filled to the brim with tuneful treats. Keiichiro Segawa (who would later go on to lend his talents to the Armored Core series) and Takao Ohima (who handled the music for other Neo Geo CD offerings such as Master of Syougi and World Heroes Perfect) came together to produce 47 minutes worth of magical melodies for a game that wouldn’t rev for anything less. Everything from the music accompanying the selection of your vehicle to the tracks that spin as you race sound as if they bleed nineteen-nineties, and if you know anything about me, then you’ll know that I have absolutely no quarrels with that. Indeed, Over Top’s soundtrack is a superb product of its time, one that will have you legitimately wishing that you were playing the game in a mall arcade as opposed to your own living room. So excellent is Over Top’s soundtrack that, when the discussion turns to the tones of video games, some have even claimed it to be one of their favourites of all time.
Over Top’s gameplay is fast and addictive. As I touched on earlier, the aforementioned fast attribute can actually act as a deterrent for some. Akin to any racing game of substance, the various vehicles of choice in Over Top possess strengths and weaknesses. Upon first play through, it’s naturally tempting to select between the two stunning cars featured on the front of the game’s manual, the 1996 Ferrari F50 (known in the game as the F350) or the 1996 Lamborghini Diablo SV (known as the Dio). Well, I’ll let you know now that ADK took things in a pretty realistic direction with this arcade game, as both of those vehicles are incredibly fun to drive while also being prohibitively difficult to control. They’re fast but wild – offering the perfect balance betwixt risk and reward when attempting to dash through each track as quickly as possible. Additionally, the Ferrari and Lamborghini have a stiff time while slogging through some of the game’s more mountainous terrains, making either of them a poor choice if you’re on anything other than tarmac. I’ll admit that when I first played Over Top, I was a little disappointed. The coolest cars in the game were fun to get behind the wheels of, but only for a little while. It was when I rudely discovered that I could barely control the vehicles as I went smashing into every wall and rail within the game that I realized I needed to do a little more exploring of the choices made available to me. Among the eight available, there are most definitely better, all-around car options that offer predictably improved controls at the cost of reduced speed. I’ve found the 1994 Hummer (called the Falcon 395 in the game) and Kia Sportage (Dominator) to both control and handle the differing in-game environments well. For some bonus, yet bizarre, versatility, you can also select a 1942 Volkswagen Schwimmwagen, which I think is awesome and hilarious at the same time. Even so, for a fast paced arcade game, Over Top takes some patience. The near constant, tight turns that the game throws at you can be irritating at first, but with time and practice, I learned to anticipate more of them with each play through, only making my victory at the finish line that much more satisfying. Unlike some other racing games that are rather easy to get the hang of, Over Top really is all about repetition, wherein if you want to be skilled, you have to earn it first.
Coming as no surprise to anyone that knows (or doesn’t know?) anything about the Neo Geo CD is that the console’s loading times seem to forever be a simmering topic. My thoughts on the supposed issue have and always will remain the same in that I feel that the claims made against the hardware are drastically over exaggerated. Whether you’re running software on the original front or top loading models, or the faster CDZ machine, I have confidence that you’ll be more than fine with half an ounce of patience. That said, Over Top does take quick breaks in-between checkpoints to load the next section of a cruise. This will undoubtedly annoy some but the game does offer a way (of sorts) around the matter. Upon venturing into Over Top’s options menu, the game allows you to choose from your desired music, vehicle and specific destination. As I mentioned earlier, some of the game’s faster vehicles have a hard time trudging it through certain locales, making things not all that fun when attempting to force a Ferrari through the snow. While playing Over Top, what I like to do is select my tunes, choose a particular course that I want to race through with a vehicle that will match well with it, set the route to three or four laps and I’m ready to rock – and because the game technically doesn’t need to load any new content while running laps through a single course, it doesn’t pause following checkpoints either, allowing me to practice on different tracks with a variety of vehicles coupled with the absence of brief interruptions, ultimately making this method of spinning the disc my favourite way of playing.
At first, Over Top is the definitive example of a game that you need to learn to love. Similar to getting in the driver’s seat of a new Lamborghini, the car isn’t going to control the same way that your family sedan does, but once you take the time to master its ins and outs, it becomes an absolute dream to drive… or so I would assume, I’ve never driven a Lambo. What Over Top offers really is what its name implies: over the top music, style, graphics and gameplay all jam packed into one seriously spirited CD. It takes a bit of time to tame, but going in with a preface of patience and understanding will have you enjoying a hidden gem that all too few have gotten the chance to appreciate. So if you’re a fan of top-down rally racers, give Over Top a spin for a challenge you won’t soon forget.