Wednesday, May 17, 2017

8-Bit Encyclopaedia: Motor City Patrol

There's no disappointment as bitter as potential unfulfilled. A game that starts out as a breath of fresh air only to quickly stagnate. To borrow a phrase, a crappy game will always be a crappy game. Ikari Warriors is steaming garbage from "Press Start" to "Game Over." With little expected, Ikari's failure means little.

Motor City Patrol, surprisingly enough, starts with promise. Its "drive around a city completing tasks" gameplay makes it a spiritual forerunner to Rockstar Games' Grand Theft Auto series. Developed by Source Research and Development and released in 1992 by Matchbox (yes, the toy car people), Motor City Patrol doesn't boast a stellar pedigree. Source R and D's only other games are the infamously bad Noah's Ark (also released by Matchbox) and a Gameboy puzzler called The Pyramids of Ra.

But once Motor City Patrol gets revving, we see a game with a decent handle of what the NES allows. The graphics, as exemplified by the title logo in the header, are surprisingly rich. The controls are responsive and tight. The plot is simple enough: the player controls a police car which must patrol the city, stopping speeders, thieves and criminals along the way. Pressing Select brings up a map of the city which shows where the criminals are. If a criminal gets too cheeky, pressing B fires your police sidearm out the car window. Nabbing criminals earns the player points which can be used to upgrade their patrol car.

Out patrolin'...
...and checkin' the map.
To "win," the player must patrol 7 days in each of the city's 5 precincts. However, accidentally arresting innocent citizens or letting too many law-breakers escape earns the player a warning. 5 warnings, or accidentally shooting innocent motorists, ends the game. Crashing the car into too many obstacles (but strangely enough, not cars) will also end the game. To neutralize any warnings and damage to your car, 16 "stolen items," aka flashing chotchkies, are scattered through the player's patrol route. Collecting them all will reset the player's "warnings" and car damage to zero. These are vital in the later stages of the game.

That is, of course, assuming you can play to the later stages without dying of boredom first. Because Motor City Patrol is a high-priced sportscar without a road to drive.

Precinct 1 - The Financial District

Day 1

The first day in the Financial District eases players into a cops' life. The map is simplistic, marked with buildings around which the car must patrol. Speeders and thieves occasionally pop up on the city map (in red and yellow, respectively). It's a joy to flash the cherries and chase truants. Once found, obstructing criminals with the lights flashing will bring them to justice. At the end of the "day" (here 2 minutes of real time) the chief assesses points and warnings depending on your performance.

The day done, you pull into the police garage. Here you can spend any points on tricked-out steering, top speed, etc, as well as repair any (inevitable) damage to you cruiser.

Day 2

Okay, so it's more patrolling, more speeders, more thieves, and more time. There's still a strange joy in speeding around the map, flashing the police lights. But, dang, do you have to press select a lot to bring up the map. It's starting to feel like you spend more time looking at the map than actually playing the game.

Day 3

Uh... more speeders? How many truants live in the financial district? Day 3 changes game mechanics slightly by interrupting your patrol with an APB for a big-time criminal. Except the game mechanic of catching a "big-time criminal" is the same as catching petty thieves: put the lights on and obstruct the offending car. A special screen congratulates you collar, but then it's back to the (literally) endless parade of speeders. Did I mention day three is a minute longer than day 2, which was a minute longer than day 1? And damn, my thumb is sore from constantly having to press select and check the map.

And I hope you didn't fully upgrade your patrol car's speed and handling, because past the first upgrade, it becomes an uncontrollable death missile.

Day 4

Oh my god, please, no more speeders! No more speeders! But that's it. By day 3 of Precinct 1, Motor City Patrol has played all its cards. The maps (generally) become more complex from precinct to precinct and each day requires a longer patrol, but otherwise, the game doesn't deviate one damn bit. Worse, the maps for Precincts 3 and 4 are exactly the same! Constantly pressing select to check the map becomes a chore, a constant reminder of time's ceaseless march and the meaninglessness of everything.

Finishing 7 days in all 5 precincts would require over 3 hours of real time, all without saves or continues. Motor City Patrol's endless repetition quickly becomes a lesser form of torture. Look at a successful game like Super Mario Bros. 3. SMB3 uses its first world to establish gameplay tropes (running, jumping, power-ups) and then spends the next 7 worlds subverting those rules to create challenge and fun. Motor City Patrol, on the other hand, sets expectations in the first three levels and then keeps to its pattern without deviation.

Motor City Patrol plays more like a demo or proof of concept than an actual, finished NES title. It seems like the devs came up with a novel (for the time) mechanic, and then, instead of asking "how can we push this to its limits?" they simply slapped Matchbox's name on it and called it day.

Similar "drive-around-accomplishing-missions" NES titles such as Rare's Who Framed Roger Rabbit, Bandai's Dick Tracy and Mindscape's Mad Max, find similar shortcomings. Roger Rabbit and Dick Tracy compensate by favoring side-scrolling missions over driving. Perhaps the NES's limitations made a Grand Theft Auto-styled game impossible.

...But perhaps not.

ROM City Rampage

In June of 2015 indie game devs Vblank Entertainment released a faux 8-bit GTA homage for PC and WiiWare entitled Retro City Rampage.  Retro City's mechanics mirror GTA: a ne'er-do-well wanders tough streets, making cash by performing tasks of questionable legality. Rival criminals, cops and pedestrians are all fair game. Retro City started its development life as a NES homebrew. Even after switching to more powerful hardware, those 8-bit roots show in the game's pixelated graphics and sprite-based animations. Not to mention the many NES easter eggs hidden among its graphical assets.

Normally, referencing the NES on a WiiWare/Steam game wouldn't merit mention. However, hidden in Retro City Rampage's code is a fully-functioning NES ROM. An arcade within Retro City Rampage allows players to play this 100% NES version of the game, called, ROM City Rampage. In fact, the ROM Data can even be extracted from the game and plugged into any NES emulator.

Even in its prototype version, without any "mission" functionality, ROM City Rampage is 1000 times more fun than Motor City Patrol could ever hope to be. ROM City is bright and colorful in a way Motor City Patrol's precise grey tones don't even approach. The ability to enter and exit cars and the presence of pedestrians in ROM City add layers upon layers of depth. ROM City is a NES sandbox to explore and play in. Motor City Patrol is, comparatively and functionally, a minecart on rails. Playing Motor City and ROM City back-to-back makes you ache for what Source Research and Development could have achieved if only they'd put in the time and money. Armed with an MM5 memory chip--the Rolls Royce of NES chipsets--and another year of development, Motor City Patrol could have been a late-cycle NES gem. Like Esper Dream 2 to Secret of Mana, Motor City Patrol could have pioneered a new genre of game as predecessor to GTA.

Coulda, shoulda, woulda.

Instead, Motor City Patrol is all style and no substance. It is a great game wasted, a wonderful gameplay mechanic wandering repetitive, empty streets without any real  purpose.

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