Wednesday, December 8, 2010

RUSH 2: Path 2 Despair

Returning to a neglected theme of this blog (the after-college day-to-day drag), for this post I am reviewing a video-game that my roommates and I have been playing too much.

Rush 2 your doom

For those of you who don't know, RUSH 2 is a racing game made in 1998 for the N64. On first blush, it appears to be just like any other arcade-style 90's racing platform (the popular "Cruisin'" series comes to mind). But if you can get your copy of the game to work and play it for any length of time, you will soon realize that whoever created RUSH 2 must have been a single, isolated dude who only allowed himself to work on the game in his unfinished, unheated basement, perched on a chair covered in thumbtacks and flypaper, with an eagle gorging itself on his exposed liver, on Monday nights after getting back from a book club dedicated to repeated readings of The Stranger and the play "No Exit."


FASTEN YOUR SEATBELTS KIDS, DADDY'S MADE A BIG MISTAKE

Let's start with the title animation. It opens with three cars racing through a labyrinthine map, taking 90 degree turns on a dime and demonstrating a general lack of regard for our world's physics. One car manages to pull ahead, but promptly tips, rolls, and explodes into a fireball that forces the other two cars to find alternate routes. The two survivors reemerge on the straightaway, and in the last moments are seen battling to be the first into a tunnel. Green car or black/pink car - which will emerge victorious (read: survive)? Answer: everybody dies! The two cars remain neck-and-neck right up to the last moment and together exceed the  width of the opening; therefore they both explode into fireballs. This is telling, as is the next event. The camera pans out to reveal that the blocky structure housing the tunnel was actually the game's title, writ large: RUSH 2 fills the screen, and a voice whispers, "russssssshhhhhh." The message is clear: this game wins itself, players be damned. Welcome to hell.

A player has several options for gameplay, and there are numerous unlockable features. Without the purchase of the controller pack accessory, however, "saving" will remain impossible. This is why the game displays a 327-character code after each accomplishment, intended to enable the player to resume progress at a later date without saving. Great. A moment's reflection helped me to realize that this is why I have taken to saving my gas receipts and stealing pens from work.

The gameplay itself is frustrating. Unless you are accustomed to driving bumper boats, you will be dissatisfied with the handling; furthermore the AI opponents in Circuit and Single Race are remarkably tough to beat. But, if your mediocrity (or any other aspect of the game) is getting you down, fear not. Contained within each level is a variable number of golden keys held in floating orbs and levitating cans of Mountain Dew as large as virtual dumpsters. You can collect these, and they will do something, maybe.

I'M ON A BOAT I THINK

In order to give the game more than a half-hour of replay value, the developers added a feature called "Stunt Mode." It is the closest thing RUSH 2 has to a saving grace. In this mode, one or two players are able to roam around a huge arena that contains brightly-colored structures of various sizes and shapes. The purpose? Ramping off objects at high speeds in order to put together combinations of flips and spins, which are assigned point values. It's like BMXing with cars.

this will most likely end in death, and a fireball

Stunt mode is what keeps me and my roommates coming back. It may also be what keeps us depressed. "Fog" is a variable element in the game that can be increased to a point sufficient to render the experience akin to playing with Hotwheels under the blankets without a flashlight. Doing this in stunt mode adds a spiritual dimension to the gameplay, which is to say, it begins to feel like purgatory. Or hell

RUSH 2's stunt mode undeniably holds a certain allure; the game teases its players by consistently maintaining the possibility of stunt combos worth hundreds of points. The problems are 
  • this never happens
  • some structures have such steep angles that a car will explode into a fireball on impact, even at low speeds
  • the cars are top-heavy and tend to land on their roofs (resulting in an explosion, and a fireball, and death) 
  • not infrequently, the computer will fail to register rolls and flips, and huge "trick" combinations will generate no points 
  • large portions of the stunt level are dedicated to ramp-less, useless, and alienating moon-surface terrain (alienating, hah)
  • sometimes cars will just, well, explode into fireballs 
But it's not as though the points in stunt mode (or any other mode) matter, anyway. There isn't a discernible goal to be worked towards, or a reason for doing anything while the timer runs out, other than beating the other player (an accomplishment that is necessarily rendered questionable by the glitchy point-tracking system). Records aren't saved for high scores. And, in an interesting twist, even death will not allow a player to escape from this limbo-world before the appointed time; players have infinite lives and 999 seconds to attempt as many jumps and flips as possible off the neon-pulsing 3D hills, half-pipes, and ramps. Terry Eagleton's multifaceted characterization of true metaphysical evil in his study On Evil is apt to account for RUSH 2's eternality and circularity, as well as its general sense of confusion and purposelessness.

this state is only temporary, which is surprisingly unfortunate

At this point, it is worth asking the question, what makes RUSH 2 worth playing at all? 

Honestly, it is difficult to say, outside of a weak appeal to the idea that "some games are so bad, they're good." But additionally, it is interesting to note that RUSH 2's lack of sophistication in graphics and gameplay actually works to the advantage of the player. Since it is simply incapable of offering the level of depth and immersion that gamers have been taught for years to expect, it is easy to achieve analytic and existential distance from RUSH 2. Players of this game are self-aware in a way that players of (for example) Oblivion may not be, because, if for no other reason, it remains painfully present to consciousness that RUSH 2 is a poorly-designed game from an era when games generally were designed to be diversions from real life rather than stand-ins for it. A newer and better game would strive to allow a player to become so involved that it would become possible to temporarily forget a life outside of its virtual confines. 

It may be depressing to realize that two hours have gone by without a single combo-multiplier in stunt mode (this is depressing for several reasons, not least of which being the fact that you have just spent two hours playing RUSH 2), but it would be far more depressing to realize that two years have gone by at a dead-end job, and that three level 80 characters in World of Warcraft are at the center of your life. RUSH 2's unexpected strength, grounded in its many technical weaknesses, is that, at the end of the day, its simplicity and its goofily one-dimensional racing/crashing universe only allow it to be considered as a game and a diversion, and not as a potential lifestyle choice. Its existentially-distressing evocations are real, but slight, and furthermore offer the benefit of points of reference for the real life that the player of RUSH 2 is unable to forget even for a moment while playing the game. For this reason, I have to give RUSH 2 a higher score than it has probably ever received. 

8/10

11 comments:

  1. If you believe that the goal of stunt mode is to garner points, you're gravely mistaken. The real goal is to see if you can get your cars to collide midair, preferably with low-gravity physics turned on. Based on personal experience dating back to my childhood, I would also suggest that you should paint the van pink, declare that Barbie and Ken are driving it, and then roleplay their fiery auto-immolation. Repeatedly.

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  2. Don't forget the feature where you turn down the volume and score the do-stunts-in-a-void mode with whatever music's on your iPod.

    Recommended:
    -Barber's Adagio for Strings
    -Peanuts Christmas
    -that song on the new Kanye album with the extended Chris Rock outro
    -the Glee version of Teenage Dream

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  3. My favorite part of this game (well, of San Francisco Rush, which is what my brother had when we were little) was ramming into my brother. Also, picking the color of the car.

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  4. I think you just wrote your Leuven essay.

    There are two features you neglected that I think are worth mentioning.

    One feature that you didn't mention is the Random Reset. When you drive off a ramp and end up too high or facing too vertically, the game doesn't know how to calculate your position and decides to Reset the car more or less in place, but often facing a different direction and moving at a lower speed and removing any rotation the car had. This also happens sometimes if the car is about to drive through a wall or barrier or engage in some other kind of superpositioning. Actually, it happens a lot of other times, too, and inexplicably. This feature often makes a trick that much more unpredictable and impossible. For example, anyone who goes off the pink half-pipe at top speed knows the forlornness of being reset at the apogee, with the top of the car now facing down, transferring any Air Time points one might have received into more energy for the resulting explosion.

    The other feature is what we have called "Space." This is where, if you drive off the pink half-pipe at full speed (which so far has required use of the Super Speed cheat), sometimes you can drive over the side wall of the level and onto an infinite, flat, black plane outside of the level. This is useful for netting a few back-to-back combo tricks, but we have yet to successfully return to the level as-designed afterward.

    One other minor feature is the Controlled Reset feature. If you are directly facing a wall and can't turn (who remembers where the Reverse button is, right?) or stuck somewhere, you can hit a button to reset your car a few yards away from and at a 45 degree angle to where it had been. Occasionally, performing a Controlled Reset near or under the upper level will teleport you onto the upper level of the game, which unsurprisingly doesn't make much sense.

    I'm with Steve that playing this game to calming music (or any music at all) contributes to the self-conscious escapism of the game. I also wonder whether I'm supposed to believe that there is a driver inside the car (that represents either me or someone else), or that I am controlling the car remotely. Either way, a single car driving in an enclosed, purposeless space and nonetheless attempting to perform tricks which are impossible and nonetheless don't matter is almost as disconcerting as two cars doing the same without any means of communicating or connecting with each other other than colliding and exploding.

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  7. Oh man, I wrote a super-long response to your review, but it looks like it got deleted (due to technical difficulties I won't detail here). My main point was that there are two important game elements you neglected:

    1. Random Reset: When the game for whatever reason can't calculate your position, it resets your car in roughly the same place and with no rotation or speed; if it happens in the air, it often causes your car to turn topside-down, turning an otherwise completable trick into an explosion.

    2. "Space": If you go off the pink ramp with sufficient speed, you can jump one of the walls of the game and drive on an infinite black plane. None of us have succeeded in returning to the main area from here, however, at least not without using the Reset button on the controller (which functions similarly to the Random Reset). It is also sometimes possible to drive through walls, under the floor, etc. for a few seconds before Random Reset kicks in.

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  8. You're right! I totally forgot about those aspects. Thanks for filling in the holes, Dan

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  9. Memories of you and a go-kart came flooding back to me as I read this...

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  10. I don't know what's wrong with you..maybe you just suck at the game. My brother and me had countless hours of fun beating the entire game, but especially doing the stunt arena. One of the best racing games I can remember from my youth.

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