Need For Speed: Underground - Racing through the Concrete Jungle
Racing games have never been my thing. Outside of karters and the occasional destruction simulator, more ‘realistic’ racing games have never really piqued my interest. I remember when I was much smaller taking a bit of interest in the so-called ‘Carpg’, where you start with an absolute piece of crap and, as the game wears on, slowly build up to a monster of a car. Today’s game, Need For Speed Underground, is not exactly what I think of when I imagine the term Carpg, and my biases towards racing games hold true. Despite that, Underground succeeds in creating a bonafide 3D racing experience on the little handheld that could, with enough structure and carrots on sticks to chase to even keep me hanging around - even if occasionally, it flies perhaps a little too close to the sun.
I didn’t have high hopes for this game. As I booted it up, moving through a couple canned menus (seriously, they all use the same car CD stereo-screen-thing that were so prevalent in the early 2000s), I eventually stumbled into the racing itself, having just picked from random one of the starter cars thrown at you. I know nothing about cars - sans the fact that a red car is three times faster then other colours - and just lept in. I’ll be honest; I picked this game because I was a bit short on time and wanted something either short and sweet, or bad enough that I could play it for twenty minutes, have a laugh, and then flame it with a review. I know, I know, it doesn't exactly put me in the best light, but here we are. Seriously though - the GBA has never been a hub for racing games, with even games like Mario Kart Super Circuit being considered the red-headed step child of the series, and this was Need for Speed, a game that was pretty much an annual release back then. I had such low hopes, but…
But by god, this game is actually good.
Easily the most notable factor of Need For Speed Underground is it’s graphics. Now, a few months back I played Kill.Switch, a game that I did not think was particularly good, but praised for doing a pretty decent job of giving us an actual third-person, 3D, FPS for the GBA. Underground does exactly that for the racing genre, giving us full 3D - if a bit limited in scope - environments to race around. Seriously, I don’t want to undersell how impressive this game is visually - in a sense, as we’ll soon get to. The fact that these are actual, albeit simple, 3D race tracks running on the GBA, and the FPS isn’t completely shitting itself (now, it ain’t 30FPS, but it could be a loooot worse) is nothing short of a technical marvel. I’m very interested to see how later games on the series look, as this game was the first of several entries made for the GBA, coming out in 2003 - not even the midpoint of the GBA’s main life cycle, and it *still* looks this impressive. I’m sorry to sound like a broken record, but it’s far and away the best thing about this game.
The biggest issue with the 3D graphics is their fidelity. The way the background and walls you’ll be racing by kind of melt and wiggle as you move can occasionally make it extremely hard to tell when you’ve got a turn coming up. Its ambition with its visuals also leads to many of the tracks feeling very samey - driving laps within a concrete, relatively featureless city, occasionally broken up by crossing through several intersections where you just gotta pray you don’t smash into an unsuspecting driver. Still, I can’t help but look past these issues (unless I get smashed up at the aforementioned intersections) - it’s genuinely incredible that the game looks as good as it, and its issues, after some adjusting, are possible to overlook.
But onto the racing itself, and whilst I lauded the technical aspects of how this game looked, the racing itself… I mean, it’s just fine. And I don’t mean that as an innate negative, let me be clear, it’s more what you kind of expect from a racing game on the GBA. Now, this wasn’t the era of open-world racers like, say, The Crew, or Forza Horizon. No, this was the time where racing games were, surprisingly enough, going around relatively linear courses x amount of times until you win (or in my case, usually lose). Need For Speed Underground is an even more stripped down version of that; the tracks, most of which are urban, concrete jungles, are extremely linear, and once you’ve seen one, you’ve essentially seen them all. The cars themselves handle well enough; again, I don’t know enough about racing games that I have a ton to say here, but I wasn’t (usually) drifting into the side of a building or losing just about every race, but overall it felt like a solid, albeit slightly easy, racer. Seriously, the only times I lost were when I made a stupid mistake and plowed into a random vehicle just before the finish line, and even then I was only losing by mere seconds. To be fair, most of my time with this game was in the first ‘tier’ of the Underground mode, so it’s likely that the game will ramp up with difficulty as you move up the ranks… though with how ‘normal’ the racing is, I’m not sure how much more difficult they could make the game without letting the opponents outright cheat.
Underground’s main mode - funnily enough, titled Underground mode - throws you into the night-time underbelly of street racing. With a crappy car, you’re thrown onto the bottom of the underground racing leaderboards, forcing you to challenge your way up the totem pole to reach the converted top spot. At its heart, there isn’t a lot going on - you challenge another racer, up to only a few rankings above you, on each cycle. After winning or losing the race, your rank will be adjusted, and ultimately you’ll be rewarded with cash and the ability to unlock new car upgrades when you win. I’ll be honest, I’m unfortuntly I’m the kind of person who needs a bit of a goal to chase after - I could never be one of those people who boot up Gran Turismo and just drive around courses all day long. I need something to work towards. Need for Speed Underground Underground mode (it is really hard to not say the word Underground in this review) doesn’t quite have enough going on in it for me to imagine myself playing this long term, but at the very least it’s enough to be working towards that next car, or getting a little bit more juice under the hood of my current car. The mode can be a little frustrating with trying to rank up, as other people in the league can challenge YOU, pushing you down if you lose (and it hurts twice as much when you spin out from the hard-to-read racetracks, too). It makes sense, but god, having three cycles in a row where I was challenged by weaker racers just made the climb take that much longer.
Alongside ranking yourself up in the Underground mode, you’ll also earn currency to either tweak, upgrade, or straight up buy new cars. From what I can tell, the upgrades are relatively linear in nature; for every kind of car part, the next ‘level’ of that part will generally be an upgrade over the previous one. There could be a bit of mix-and-match to be had in getting the best spread of upgrades, but I’ll be honest; I’m not the biggest fan of racing games, but I *loathe* having to go through the process of actually tweaking and upgrading them. I’d rather take this more linear system and just get to the main point of the game - actually racing - then bum around in janky menus trying to tune my car perfectly. Thankfully, buying upgrades for any car raises the ‘value’, so you can throw a thousand bucks into your shitty starter car, and that cost will be deducted from any car you’ll be trading up to. Anyway, it’s a nice way to add a sense of progression to the game, but it’ll probably not scratch the itch of those car nuts who love to ‘get under the hood’, so to speak.
Overall, this is a traditional racing game for the GBA that actually held my attention and does a fantastic job showcasing just what developers could ecke out of the GBA. Even if the visuals can blur and run together, this is a bonafide 3D racer thrown into the small scale. With satisfying enough racing and an engaging enough story mode to race through, Need For Speed Underground is one of the biggest surprises I’ve had on the Game Boy Abyss. It’s technical merits far outweigh its perfectly serviceable racing and engaging enough single player content, but the fact that this game made me stick around even for a couple of hours is an accolade all in itself - I really, really don’t dig racing games. Either way, this game still holds the issues that any racer, Nintendo made or otherwise, will deal with when they’re on the Game Boy Advance, but I genuinely will be surprised if I play a racer (lookin’ at you, Mario Kart Super Circuit) that’ll actually surpass the ambition and satisfying enough racing of Need for Speed: Underground. Hats off - I’m genuinely impressed.
Thank you so much for reading my review of Need For Speed: Underground. Apology for the break in reviews - mental health has been kicking my ass, and I really do want to give these games the reviews they deserve. I can’t promise there’ll be a review next week, but with my poorer mood, I’ll be taking a look at some lesser known, ‘diamond in the rough’ titles that look right up my alley. Next up will Rebelstar Tactical Command, and after that will be Yggdra Union. Either way, I’m back. As always, you can find me over at @Lemmy7003, for as long as Twitter exists, or you can email me at email@example.com and firstname.lastname@example.org if you have any questions or requests. Thanks again for reading, and I’ll see you in my next review.