When game reviewers get all misty-eyed and start fondly using phrases like 'old school,' 'back to the basics,' and even that most moronic (and oxymoronic) label of 'instant classic,' Death Rally is the kind of game they're talking about - a straightforward arcade-style workhorse with the kind of no-crap efficiency and shiny good looks of a car buff's rebuilt, bored-over 400 - all snug belts, steam-cleaned heads, and chrome-mesh tubing. Essentially, Death Rally is Sprint, grimed over and going into the final hairpin with evil on its mind (and maybe a few well-placed mines for the poor slob just a few lengths behind).
In this top-down racing gem, one to four players take the roles of racecar drivers vying for fame, money, prettier cars, and uglier weapons in an automotive competition so corrupt and dangerous it makes most of the ones Speed Racer drove in look like the Harvard Cup Chess Challenge by comparison. (Come to think of it, the driver faces you can choose from in the selection screen even look a little Speed Racer-ish, except for Duke Nukem. Yes, he's here too). After selecting your driver and the color of your Volkswagen Bug - for that's exactly what you get, at least to start with - you select various improvements such as armor, better tires, etc., most of which will be beyond your financial reach until you win a few races (for people who have played Sprint, this screen will be like coming home).
You can forget buying a better car for a while, as immediate repair and survival will be your chief concerns early on. Your first car has only a single machine gun, but you can give yourself some teeth in the Black Market screen, purchasing such goods and services as mines, spiked bumpers, rocket booster fuel... or even out-and-out sabotage on the car of the current race-circuit favorite (for people who have played Sprint, this screen will be like coming home, except you discover that Dad is running guns and Mom is operating a murder-for-hire ring out of the breakfast nook).
For the desperate, there's a shady loan shark who will front you some cold-hard if you look promising - at 100 percent interest. In fact, there's all kinds of shady stuff going on in Death Rally - you'll have the option to accept side-gigs to run drugs or off particular racers before they reach the finish line. Just remember that the kind of guy who asks you to do this kind of stuff is probably also the kind of guy who'll give you grief if you fail.
But on to the meat of the game - the races. The tracks are gorgeous, presented in a locked-to-the-car overhead perspective. Buildings, hills, trees, and other features seem to leap from the screen as you drive your little Matchbox-looking car, godlike, from above: It's Micro Machines with seven priors for homicide. Each track has its own particular attributes, and cars will handle differently depending upon terrain type and available modifications. At the start of each race, weapons are temporarily disabled, to give the cars a few seconds to scatter. Immediately, you must consider your strategy. Just roaring out ahead of the pack will put you in first place... and smack in the sights of three cars' worth of machine guns, all blazing away at you - do you really want that? You could drop some mines behind you and hope your armor holds up long enough for it to pay off, but if those mines aren't run over at once, they'll still be there on the next lap, just as likely as not to cause you problems. Of course, you could hang back and try to take out your opponents with pure firepower, but if you come in last, even your race sponsors won't have anything to do with you, and the money power-ups you nab during the race will be null and void. Other power-ups include the expected ammo, repair-wrench icons, and a really nasty psychoactive mushroom which induces a screen-warbling 'trip,' which must be endured for a few precious seconds as you try to maintain control of your vehicle - hit one of those whilst in the sights of two or three unfriendlies, and it's One-Eight-Seven on Player One.
Death Rally has the great and simple nostalgic tension of arcade racers like Sprint and Off-Road Rally, especially in that final lap when your junked and battered car is limping grimly along just ahead of or behind an opponent, and one power-up, botched turn, turbo-boost, or well-placed land mine can make all the difference. With a few honest (or not-so-honest) wins, you can work your way up to the automotive top of the line, the "Deliverator" - the kind of Mach Five-style racer that would be favored by a guy like Duke Nukem - armed with twin machine guns and annoyingly fast (especially if the vehicle that just got shot to hell and outraced like an electric pram was yours). If you're steering with the keyboard, you're even likely to get those Atari 2600 kind of calluses and blisters on your fingers, and the Old School game experience will be complete. If it seems like I'm waxing romantic about this game, it's because I am. This is simply the best top-down racer to come along in years, maybe even ever. And any game wherein you can lose tire traction in the blood of a bystander you've just run down - well if that doesn't make your eyes go all soggy, I don't reckon anything else could.