California Speed might sound like the new trendy drug of choice for Hollywood's swanky celebs, but it's merely Midway's translation of the arcade racing game from Atari Games. Still, "drug" might not be a too-far-off description for this game: Although it gets you juiced up with psychedelic, tripped-out track designs, its shallow gameplay and dated graphics quickly bring you back down to a catatonic stupor. Those of you addicted to simple arcade racers may still feel a "rush," but for the rest, this game's a bad trip.
Clearly, the game's lone bright spot is its wild, colorful, over-the-top track designs. Whether driving up the Golden Gate Bridge, through shopping malls, or into UFOs, the tracks break from the plain-Jane race tracks very effectively. The tracks are also littered with pop-culture references (such as the Intel commercial drive-through in Silicon Valley), and scenic landmarks, such as the Hollywood sign and Pebble Beach. The game's connections to California will be most amusing to those of you who live in or have visited the areas featured in the tracks; if you are one of those people, this game's almost worth renting just to take the California Speed tour. The track layouts themselves contain a handful of secret shortcuts, which are easy to find by racing in practice mode.
Since this game is, at its roots, a fast arcade racer, it's ridiculously easy to learn. There's a brake button (rarely used), accelerator button (always used), and gear shift buttons (can be used, but doing so doesn't offer any advantage). Although the various cars available handle differently, the basic arcade driving maxim is in full effect: Don't hit stuff, and stay fast. It makes for mindless, shallow gameplay that's fun at first, but boredom-inducing in large doses. To combat that malady, the game offers an incentive to play on. The game offers a series of cups to compete in, and beating each cup unlocks a new track or secret car.
The problem with California Speed is that those same eleven tracks have to be raced over and over again to unlock these extras. The tracks' novelty value quickly wears thin, leaving you with an uninspiring series of races. Since the computer AI doesn't offer any semblance of intelligent racing opponents (all they do is go fast, like you), there isn't much driving strategy to employ other than using the too-few shortcuts - additional branching paths may have given the tracks more replay value. And while the car designs (such as the golf cart) are extremely wacky, the default cars handle similarly enough so that the overalldriving experience gets monotonous, regardless of selection.
The Nintendo 64's limitations prevent an exact duplication of the game's arcade-level graphics, so the resulting visuals look just barely above average. While eye-catching in the days of the original San Francisco Rush, this game's graphics are on the verge of becoming dated. The animation, when driving fast, does get a little choppy, but it's not enough to hamper gameplay speed, which remains brisk at all times. As for the cheesy, bland audio tracks, there's thankfully an option to shut them off.
If you worship the looks and gameplay style of Midway's Rush series, this game just makes the grade. But if you think arcade racers are as burned-out as a Hollywood has-been, or as shallow as a bubbly bimbo from Los Angeles, California Speed offers very little to change your mind.