I hadn’t actually intended on writing about today’s game, but the other day I had twenty minutes to while away so I turned to Sega’s super-scaler arcade games of the mid eighties. A pretty decent shout as a time-passer, I’m sure you’ll agree, and the game in question was the 1986 dirt-bike-em-up Enduro Racer. And, hey, I’ve played it now, so I might as well write an article about it. You know, after I’d gone back to it a bit later and put some practise in because it’s very unlikely I’d reach the end of any Sega arcade racer with only twenty minutes of practice.
Here is a dirt bike now, taking pride of place on the title screen. Having said that, motorcycle aficionados would probably tell me that “dirt bike” refers to a specific kind of off-road bike and the one pictured here doesn’t fall into that category, thus exposing my lack of motorcycle knowledge for all the world to see. I’m not worried about that, though. Not knowing what I’m talking about has never stopped me writing these articles before.
Also on the title screen is the titular racer themselves, currently attempting to bunny-hop over the game’s logo. What a great logo it is too, check out that colour palette. I believe it’s what the kids these days would call “aesthetic,” but which I would describe as “kinda like the logo from the old Visionaries toy line.” Oh, and “enduro” is a kind of mostly off-road motorcycle race. Well, I think that’s the title screen covered, I should probably play the actual game.
Vroom vroom, beep beep – in the biggest shock at VGJunk since Barbie and the Magic of Pegasus wasn’t terrible, it turns out that a game called Enduro Racer is a racing game. An against-the-clock checkpoint racer, to be precise, so very much in line with Sega’s other super-scaler racing games like OutRun and Hang-On. There are other motorcyclists on the track, but they’re just there to get in the way and to stop our racer from feeling too lonely: the goal is simply to pass each checkpoint before you run out of time.
When Enduro Racer came out, Sega had already released a much-loved arcade motorbike racing game in the form of the previously-mentioned Hang-On. So, what does Enduro Racer do differently to Hang-On? Well, for one thing you can perform wheelies. Pull back on the handlebars to pop a wheelie, as seen above. It has no practical use when you’re racing on flat ground, but then if practicality is at the forefront of your mind when pulling a wheelie then you’re doing it wrong.
The other thing Enduro Racer has is jumps. In fact, jumps are the games most prominent mechanic besides "driving fast" and the most frequent cause of crashes and accidents. You can see one coming up, it’s the ridge of dirt on the track’s horizon. When you hit it, your bike will fly into the air, but you have two options when it comes to getting airborne.
Option one is to drive straight into them. You’ll hop a reasonable height into the air, but this comes with downsides. The first is that if you don’t pull back on the handlebars to correct your flight, your racer will land heavily on their front wheel and fall arse-over-tit, coming off their bike, flopping at the side of the road and experiencing an unpleasant mix of pain, embarrassment and terror at the huge bike repair bills they’ve just accrued. The other downside is that, as you can see above, when they’re in the air your racer positions themselves in an extremely unflattering pose seemingly based on a splay-legged frog and designed to force the viewer to ponder the rider’s perineum.
The roadside signs promising delicious, refreshing beer serve only to further mock the rider as they lay sprawled on the ground. I have to say, the player character of Enduro Racer does come across as a very ungainly sort, their limbs flailing in the breeze as they make barely-controlled jumps, their mangled body tossed around by each crash and collision in the manner of a ragdoll filled with wet tissue. And here I thought the entire point of riding a motorbike was to look cool.
Alternatively, if you’re pulling a wheelie when you hit a jump, you jump. You launch, you soar, you become a goddamn one-man space program. You also give up any control over your bike for a long period of time, which makes landing tricky, to put it mildly. If you perform one of these huge jumps on a ramp just before a corner, tough luck. You’re going to fly off the side of the course and probably straight into something solid, because you can’t steer in mid-air. However, you can jump over a lot of obstacles this way, which is useful because Enduro Racer’s designers were very fond of placing sections packed with smaller obstacles such as rocks just after a jump. That means you’ve got two choices: do a short jump for greater aerial control but then you have to slalom though the obstacles, or risk the big jump, go right over all the obstacles and pray you don’t land in a roadside tree.
Jumping aside, Enduro Racer is very much what you’d expect from a Sega arcade racer of the time. It’s fast, the super-scaler sprite manipulation gives a great feeling of depth and while the handling on your bike is perhaps not quite as tight as it is in some of Enduro Racer's fellow arcade driving games, it’s still good and there’s a lot of fun to be had as you weave your way through the other riders and see your rider kick their leg out for balance as you scream around a tight corner.
After the gentle green countryside of the first zone, passing through the checkpoint takes our racer into a dusty desert scene of parched earth, boulders and hollow, dead trees that are still just as sturdy as their healthier counterparts in the last scene and will make your bike explode if you ride into them at two hundred kilometres an hour.
Disappointingly, there’s only one route through Enduro Racer, with neither the branching paths found in OutRun nor the different courses of Hang-On. This rather limits the replayability of the game, but what is there looks nice, at least.
Okay, “looks nice” might not be the perfect phrasing when we’re looking at the extreme wedgie suffered by the rider. He’s going to need a motorised winch to drag his leathers out of his arsecrack once this race is over, the poor bastard.
As well as other bikers, there are also jeeps patrolling the course and generally getting in your way. I’m not sure whether they’re supposed to be part of the same race as you or not. They’re definitely driving fast enough to suggest they're part of a race, so maybe there was a mix-up with the local 4X4 racer’s group and the track was double-booked.
Stage three is a watery landscape of bushes and ancient ruins. And, you know, water. It’s also where Enduro Racer’s difficulty starts to pick up, and make no mistake – beating the timer and reaching the final goal is no easy task, even when you fiddle with the game’s dipswitches and lower the difficulty level. Time limits are extremely tight, and collisions – which Enduro Racer seems much more keen about foisting on you than in other Sega racers – eat up a lot of precious seconds. This shouldn’t be too surprising, though. All of Sega’s other super-scaler racers are bloody hard, too. I think it’s fair to say I’ve played a lot of OutRun and I’m nowhere near able to consistently reach the goal on the default difficulty.
It doesn’t help that there’s no clear definition about which bits of the water you can ride on. You can get away with going off the course a little bit, but stray too far out and you’ll sink to the briny depths, ruing the decision to hold a motorcycle race on The Fens.
There are also a few sections where you have to use the wheelie-powered mega jump to clear long stretches of water, and if you don’t make the jump then you’ll slowly trundle through the shallow water as the other bikers sail over your head.
Enduro Racer’s relationship with its own jumping mechanics is a strange one. For one thing, they turn large segments of the game into almost a memory test – can you remember which jumps have enough straight road beyond them to make a big jump worthwhile and which ones have a curve viciously placed straight afterwards that will make you crash if you don’t use the small jump? Sometimes you can make a decision based on the track you can see coming up, but because Enduro Racer’s courses are full of hills and dips it’s not always possible to see what’s coming up. Then there’s the issue of fun. You’re including the ability to perform ridiculously huge jumps in your racing game, but then asking me not to make ridiculous jumps every time the opportunity presents itself? C’mon, man, that’s not right. If there’s one thing I don’t associate with Sega’s eighties arcade games, it’s the concept of restraint.
The next stage goes back to the desert, but there’s a twist: your bike skids a lot more when turning corners, presumably because you’re racing on loose sand. Hey, I didn’t say it was an exciting twist. Okay, that’s a bit unfair, I did actually enjoy the lowered traction in this stage, it mixed up the gameplay a bit in a way that felt appropriate.
Is there anything else to add about this stage? Erm, no, not really. You race, you slide around, you consider a new career as a crash test dummy because at least that way some useful scientific data might come out of you embedding your ribcage into a tree trunk.
Lastly we’re at the beach, that classic staple of Sega’s racing games. The sea is blue, the sand is white, the palm trees sway in the breeze and it all looks rather nice. Enduro Racer is a nice-looking game, especially in motion, and when you combine that with the possibility of playing it on an arcade cabinet shaped like an actual motorbike and mix in a catchy musical theme by OutRun composer Hiroshi Kawaguchi, it’s easy to overlook Enduro Racer’s gameplay failings and enjoy it as a spectacle.
I don’t think this spectator is going to being enjoying the spectacle in about half a second, when I wedge my front tyre right up against his uvula. I was trying to avoid the jeeps, you see, and I may have gone a little off-piste.
There’s the finish line, and happily there’s a jump right before the goal so you can hit it and leap right over the entire thing, clearing the advertising hoardings completely and ending the game as I played most of it: in mid-air.
Rather than ending the game with some special artwork or a brief animation in the vein of OutRun’s endings, Enduro Racer takes a different tack and goes with a heartfelt speech that boils down to “it’s not the winning, it’s the taking part.” Here it is in full:
“Enduro” is a symbolic journey through life via the media of a race. The results are insignificant and what really counts is competing. Of particular importance are the lessons to be learned concerning one’s self from the various encounters you experience along the way. There is no victor or loser in this test of endurance. The only thing that really matters is that you make a commitment to begin the long and trying trek. This game is dedicated to all of the “life riders” who have started out on the solitary trip to find their own individual limits.
Last but not least may we sincerely congratulate you on a perfect run.
I’m surprised it didn’t end with “love and kisses, Sega,” frankly. Maybe it’s just because I’m getting soppier in my old age, but I genuinely found this message heartwarming, because it’s true – who gives a shit whether you’re “good” at videogames? Play ‘em, have fun, find your own individual limits. I found my own individual limit for Enduro Racer, that’s for sure – about half-an-hour’s play at a time, on the lowest difficulty setting.
So, Enduro Racer isn’t quite an enduring classic. It’s a good game, a solid game, a game with issues but one that still provides high-speed racing action in Sega’s trademark vibrant style… but it can’t quite keep up with its contemporaries. Part of that is that familiarity breeds contempt, and if you’ve already played Hang-On then you’ll probably feel that Enduro Racer is more of the same but with the occasionally frustrating jumping mechanics bolted on. Beyond that, though, Enduro Racer is just lacking that certain spark that so many other Sega super-scaler games possessed. It doesn’t have the intensity of Afterburner, the bonkers-ness of Space Harrier or the sheer cool of OutRun – but if that’s the level of game you’re falling just short of, then you’re not doing bad. Speaking of OutRun, according to Wikipedia (so take it with a pinch of salt) both OutRun and Enduro Racer were released on the same day, and if that’s the case and they were being developed concurrently then I can imagine OutRun being prioritised over Enduro Racer.
To return to the beginning of the article: when I was looking for a fun, simple game to fill twenty minutes and decided on Enduro Racer, did I make a good choice? I think I did. It’s not the greatest, but then it didn’t have to be. Did you learn nothing from that ending text?
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