There are many things that I’m always fascinated by, and one of them is portable versions of big console games. It’s surprising to see studios small and large try to squeeze as much power out of handhelds and hopefully make a good game out of it. I collect these on a rare occasion, and thought I’d dig one out of mothballs I bought awhile back and give it a spin.
Let’s hop in a ride and drive the mean streets, because we’re checking out Need for Speed: Carbon – Own the City for the Game Boy Advance. I mentioned buying this in an old “I Bought Stuff!” post from a year ago, and I wanted to see what a racing game looks on the ol’ GBA.
This is an EA Canada product, and came out on the GBA, PSP, and DS as the spinoff portable title alongside the main game on the bigger consoles. Usually the portable version is different in some ways than its console brethren, so let’s check it out.
The story’s fairly silly: You were in a race alongside your brother Mick, and a multi-car pile up by some unknown assailant caused the death of your brother and caused amnesia in you. What follows is a typical revenge plot as you work with Sara and Carter, Mick’s former crew members, as you climb your way back to the top and dominate districts and “Own the City,” as it were.
So let’s take a look at how this looks on the Game Boy Advance…
Oh. Oh dear. I’m not a graphics snob by any means, but this game looks pretty bad, even by GBA standards. Screenshots really do not do this justice, it looks like a blocky mess of a world on a platform that shouldn’t be running stuff like this. Feel the thrill of going 100 mph while feeling like you’re going half that speed!
Now I know the Game Boy Advance is not a 3D powerhouse, but something is really wrong when even playing it at top speed feels like a casual drive through a city than an actual racing game.
It doesn’t help that I can barely see anything. It’s very hard to see what’s ahead of you, and most of the roads are made of 90 degree angles that make it difficult to make good turns with slamming into the buildings. It doesn’t help that this perspective also makes swerving past traffic and opponent racers difficult.
But enough about how it looks, here’s how it plays. A accelerates, B brakes, L activates Nitrous – provided you’ve unlocked it, and R is handbrake. There are four race types: Circuit, Sprint, Elimination, and Hunter. Circuit and Sprint are your standard races. Elimination removes the last place driver at each lap. Hunter is a strange one: Every skill or trick you do fills up a health bar, but hitting anything or stopping loses health. It’s less about finishing first and more about finishing with style.
During the game, the player acquires Wingmen – just like in Need for Speed: Carbon – which you can use by hitting L and R together. This works fine considering the GBA’s limited control scheme, but it can be annoying at times when I accidentally hit the handbrake after activating a Wingman. There’s only two types of Wingman in this game: One that will hit rival drivers to make it easier to pass and take the lead, and the other acts as a slipstream for a quick nitrous refill. As you get further along, you get more wingmen, but the only differences between them and the previous ones is that you can use them more often in a race, with no other statistical differences. Basically once you unlock a new wingman, there’s no reason to stick with an old one except for challenge purposes.
Wingmen are not only essential to winning the game, but it also gives you a tactical advantage: The Wingman takes the place of a fourth opponent, thus racing against only two opponents. This also makes Elimination easier and faster as there’s only two laps per race rather than three.
There’s six districts to go through, with each of these races. Winning or hitting second place earns points that can be put towards improving a car, pimping an existing car, or buying new cars. After finishing a set number of races, the first boss for an area is available. Beat that boss, and you go after the second boss.
Defeating both bosses in an area will allow access to the next area, with a cutscene backstory of the characters in game, which allows the aforementioned bosses to tag along with the crew. Despite being a street racer, this is one of the few games in the current Need for Speed franchise that has no cop chases of any sort, which is pretty damn weak.
Improving cars works almost like the system used in old Tony Hawk games: Where upgrading to a new level with each purchase, making it so the car accelerates faster or turns smoother. It’s simple enough that the game even does an “autobuy” feature to automatically purchase what it considers the best features, making it quicker to get back into the race without having to think about what stats to buy. It’s helpful.
I went through most of the game with a Chevy Cobalt, then a Audi TT 3.2 quattro, and finally the Toyota Supra through the rest of the game. Once I couldn’t buy any more upgrades for my car, I took the excess points and bought the most expensive car I could afford and started upgrading that. Thankfully there’s no major grind to the game, and it’s not even necessary to complete everything to get to the next boss and story beat.
As I went through each area, the previous boss would reveal a bit more of the back story. We later find out that a racer named Buddy was the cause of the deadly car crash that killed Mick, but he didn’t know about it at the time.
I have to pause for a moment just to talk a bit about Own the City‘s cutscenes. They’re simple shots of characters in the game, full of dialogue, with an occasional head in a box for good measure. I know this is the GBA we’re talking about here, but these characters look like rejects from Urbz: Sims in the City. They look like something an intern at EA Canada drew up in a hurry so the game could come out.
Oh, and let’s talk about the music. Hope you love hearing a sample of Ekstrak’s Hard Drivers on loop through the GBA’s tinny speaker while cycling through the game menus, because outside of some good arrangements of Trevor Morris’ score from Need for Speed: Carbon converted to the GBA soundchip by Allister Brimble, that’s all the music you get out of this game.
Eventually, I get some help from MK, a police officer posing as a racer, to get more info on the killer. This is one of the few times the police are even mentioned in this game. I find out a racer named Ex was the one who offered Buddy the money, and reveals himself as the game’s true villain. Even after holding our friend Carter hostage and destroying Sara’s car, our hero vows for revenge.
After all that, I finally get to go through “The Gauntlet.” As opposed to before, where I could just choose any race until I was allowed to fight the boss racers, I had to do each race, one at a time, before I could get to Ex. These aren’t particularly difficult races, especially since getting second place earned me points, so I would eventually get points for a race and immediately dump it into upgrades for my car and keep trying until I won the race to make progress
(Warning: Ending spoilers begin here. Scroll past if you don’t want the ending to a portable version of a racing game spoiled for you.)
After fighting the gauntlet, I let Ex breathe exhaust as I kicked his ass in the final race. He gets arrested, but then Sara comes back with a big twist: In reality, you were Mick’s killer. The player hired Ex to bump off Mick because he was a grade-A asshole who was abusive to Sara. While Ex bribed Buddy to help knock him off the road, the race was between Mick and you. But “that’s okay” says Sara, since I’m not like Mick, and I put those “bad” racers behind bars. Oh, and I got my brother’s pocketwatch back, because that was totally a plot point mentioned very briefly then immediately forgotten. It’s a crappy twist ending where “YOU WERE THE REAL KILLER” and it’s just dumb.
(Spoilers end here.)
Honestly, I don’t expect a good story out of Need for Speed. after all, this is the series that brought us that snarky opponent from the original 3DO game, to Razor “FIVE GRAND” Callahan in 2005’s Most Wanted. I’m aware EA has their tongue firmly planted in their cheek with this series. Then again, racing games either have this or boring, realistic driving physics like Gran Turismo. If I had to choose between silly street racing and serious driving, I definitely would pick the former every time. It’s more fun.
I’ll admit, I’m baffled this game was even made. By 2006, everybody was hardcore into Nintendo DS fever and the Game Boy Advance was all but dead in America. I guess this was made for the kids who were still clutching onto that little purple device.
I wouldn’t say this was a good racing game, it felt slow, the story’s goofy and hackneyed, and the sound is the common GBA tinny speaker. Granted, my experience with GBA racing games is fairly minimal, so maybe this is par for the course when it comes to GBA Need for Speed. But I can’t really recommend this one. I paid $1 for this and I got my buck’s worth out of this, and I think that’s about as much as it’s worth.
I bet there were some good GBA racing games on the system. They can’t be any worse than this.
This only means something to me, but this is the 100th published post I’ve made on You Found a Secret Area. I thank the readers for keeping me at this damn thing for so long. Here’s to 100 more!