(Review archived from April 24, 2018)
Looking at screen shots of Formula One: Built to Win, it would be easy to dismiss it as a clone of Rad Racer. And indeed F1:BtW does bear some striking similarities to Rad Racer which released three years prior on the NES. But these similarities quickly melt away as you begin to discover the hidden levels of depth within F1:BtW, a degree of depth that was all but non-existent in Rad Racer. In current parlance we’d likely refer to this as a ‘racing-sim’ with Rad Racer being more of an ‘arcade racer’. But at the time of release it was not uncommon to hear this game being referred to as a ‘racing RPG’ (or at least if you heard it referred to at all; this one definitely flew under the radar for the most part). And in some ways, a ‘racing RPG’ might be the more apt description in this case. As opposed to the sterile ‘hardcore’ racing sims that would follow it, F1:BtW injects some personality into the proceedings via RPG styled shops and trappings often personed by nicely drawn anime style girls.
But much like more modern racing sims, this game implements several flavors of progression system through which you’ll advance over the course of the game. First and foremost you’ll start the game with a low grade racing license that levels up by way of entering and winning races. All other progression paths in the game are tied to this racing license. In your quest to climb the ranking ladder you’ll earn money from winning races. The first aspect you’ll likely apply your winnings toward will be upgrading components on your car, and it’s here that the game really starts to differentiate itself as being more sim-like. Upgradable components for your vehicle include chassis, suspension, engine, turbo, brakes, tires, and of course a refillable nitro tank (naturally). All of these components have noticeable in-game effects on vehicle performance and each component has several variants of upgrade unlockable for purchase through higher ranks of license. As you progress through various racing licenses you’ll also unlock all-new vehicles for purchase. Although you start the game in a diminutive Mini Cooper, you’ll eventually be racing in a powerful F-1 car as indicated in the title of the game. In an incredibly nice touch, each model of car has its own distinctive graphics for dashboard, gauges and controls. In the event that racing alone doesn’t provide enough income for a steady string of upgrades, you can head to Las Vegas and gamble away your winnings on casino slot machines for a chance at a big payout (or a big washout depending on Lady Luck).
As I mentioned in the intro, the gameplay itself feels quite similar to Rad Racer when it comes down to the racing itself. All told this isn’t a knock against the game in the slightest, being as Rad Racer is often remembered as being one of the better racing titles on the NES. Hey, if you can’t beat ’em, join ’em! If there’s any downside here, it’s that F1:BtW exhibits the same degree of sprite flicker found in the earlier title. On the other hand the graphics in F1:BtW are much more detailed and varied than Rad Racer where it comes to the race courses themselves. Even before you enter the Formula-One Grand Prix circuit there are 30 unique race courses spread over 10 locations in the United States, and each track generally features landmarks identifiable to that location (although this connection can occasionally be a little tenuous). The Grand Prix circuit adds another 16 unique tracks in locations all over the world with similarly identifiable landmarks. So by the end of the game you’ve raced through 46 unique tracks, a rather Herculean feat for a humble NES title!
If there’s any knock against this game, it’s that there’s a rather intense difficulty spike towards the end of the game vis-à-vis the Grand Prix circuit. Whereas most upstart racers will be able to breeze through the early races in the U.S. (provided you keep your vehicles updated and upgraded), the late-game F-1 races are incredibly challenging, almost unfairly so. By the last few races your opponents default speed matches yours at full nitro boost, not to mention that most cars on the track seek to actively obstruct only you (opponents at this level tend to drive right through the other vehicles) In other words don’t plan on sweeping the Grand Prix series, it will likely be a fight to the finish.
It had been a long time since I played this game (I’d never beaten it), and it was every bit as good as I remembered it being. The fact that there’s some degree of late game frustration doesn’t change the fact that this was an incredibly forward thinking racing game for the time of its release. If you’re a fan of old-school racing games, I feel confident in giving this my highest recommendation. Truly a hidden gem for the NES.