Street racing is very different from and, in many ways, more exciting than traditional automobile racing. Competitions take place out on the regular streets and freeways of the city, as opposed to the relatively safe confines of a closed professional course. Instead of cups and medals, prize winnings are paid out in cash, which many participants use to trick out their cars with fancy paint jobs and slick body kits--even when performance upgrades, such as turbo kits and exhaust systems, make the most sense. In street racing, your car's appearance is just as important as winning the race. Need for Speed Underground brings this fast and furious world of street racing on to the Game Boy Advance with mostly positive results. Apart from the graphics, everything from the console versions of the game has made it on to the GBA cartridge.
Need for Speed Underground has all of the necessary options and modes that a handheld racing game ought to have. Competitions include circuit (multiple laps), sprint (half laps), drag, and drift events. Each event has roughly 10 different tracks devoted to it, and you have the option of bringing a friend in for two-player matches using the link cable. While it's nice to be able to race against another live human being and show off your rides to each another, the heart of the game is its single-player underground mode. In the underground mode, you join up with a clique of street racers and participate night after night in various events with the sole purpose of rising up the ranks and funneling cash into your vehicle. The number of available cars, parts, and upgrades is phenomenal. While there are only 20 different basic car bodies to choose from, you can create thousands of unique-looking vehicles with the many hundreds of body parts and paint schemes at your disposal. There aren't many GBA games out there that let you swap out the bumpers, hood, tires, side skirt, and tinting on your car, in addition to the usual set of engine, turbo, brake, and suspension upgrades. Popular manufacturers, such as Ford, Subaru, Nissan, Mazda, and Volkswagen, are represented, as are more than two-dozen parts vendors, including Dazz Motorsport, Enkei, MOMO, and Neuspeed.
When you get out to the street, NFS: Underground sheds its simulator-style trappings and turns into the sort of easygoing driving game that anyone from beginners to experts can jump right into. The A and B buttons control acceleration and braking, and if you select a manual transmission, the L and R buttons allow you to downshift and upshift. A few races into the underground mode, you can purchase a nitro boost upgrade, which you can activate by tapping up on the directional pad. Each course has a good variety of straights, soft curves, sharp turns, and dips. The physics engine has a realistic degree of skid, which is great if you're the kind of player who likes to slide around corners, but it doesn't overdo it to the point that you'll have to worry about spinouts or rollovers. Likewise, you're not really penalized all that much for smacking into walls or colliding with cross traffic. If you smash into a bus at 100mph, you'll lose speed and skid for a bit, but it doesn't take long to regain control and get back in to the race. Each car comes with its own set of speed, acceleration, and handling characteristics, which you'll feel during the race as steering response and skid tendency.
Surprisingly, the game's 3D graphics are both its best feature and its worst problem. The developers really pushed the GBA to the limit using this sort of texture-mapped polygon engine. It's wonderful that you can actually make out details, like window frames, fences, and highway signs, along the road, but the resolutions are so blocky that it's sometimes difficult to figure out which way the pavement is going to turn. It helps to play through the courses and learn where the turns are, although that's the kind of thing that you want to do to learn the layout of a course, not just so you'll remember to take a hard right after the brown splotch up ahead. Thankfully, this pixelation issue doesn't have a bearing on how any of the vehicles look. While you may not be able to distinguish a guardrail from an on-ramp, at times, every car looks shiny and crisp when viewed from all distances and at various angles. This means you'll have plenty of opportunities during the race to admire the custom window tinting and vinyl decorations you applied to your car the night before.
Despite its problematic graphics, Need for Speed Underground is still a joy to play. The courses have a good mixture of powerslide and speed run sections, and CPU drivers tend to keep the races close without resorting to typical cheats, like passing through commuter vehicles or teleporting in right behind you. If you're a wannabe car buff, it's easy to spend hours just upgrading and tinkering with your car in order to develop a custom ride that suits your personality.
The last thing that bears mentioning--and this is only a significant note for some of you--is the fact that the music EA chose to put in the game won't appeal to everyone. During the menus and during each race, you'll hear a random pick from any of four different song loops, including "Get Low" by Lil Jon, "Sucked In" by Jerk, "Doomsday" by Overseer, and "The Only" by Static-X. Luckily, if you don't like the selection of music, you can shut it off in the options menu. In fact, the in-game engine and tire sound effects are superb and can suffice all on their own.
Warts and all, Need for Speed Underground is a good racing game--not because it's pretty, but because it's actually engaging and fun to play.