Out of all the genres that were active during the 16-bit era racing games are perhaps the hardest to revisit. Polygons finally allowed developers to create the kinds of engaging twists and turns they had always dreamed of, leaving scaling technology behind. That isn’t to say that all of those old racing games are terrible. Super Mario Kart, F-Zero and Sega’s super scaler games remain just as engaging as ever. But once you’ve played something like Ridge Racer or Wipeout….it’s hard to look back. One of the more interesting experiments during that phase was Super Off Road – The Baja, a console sequel to the popular arcade game that trades the stadium for dirt roads. Its use of Mode 7 was excellent but created gameplay issues but it is still a quality game overall.
The Baja in the title refers to the Baja 1000, a real life grueling race down 1000 miles of road between the border of Mexico and California. This rally style event is different from pretty much every racing game of that era in that it features rough terrain that is just as much of an obstacle as your rival drivers. Where the original Super Off Road was ported from the arcade to nearly every system available this was an SNES exclusive and it shows.
What is most immediately noticeable about the Baja is its presentation. To put it simply the game is a technical marvel. Titles like F-Zero and Super Mario Kart used Mode 7 to simulate a 3d field but were limited to a flat surface. Here the developers at Tradewest have recreated hills, valleys, and peaks in a way that few racing games of the time managed. Despite the off road setting there is a variety of terrain be it desert, gravel, or the sea side. There are also plenty of obstacles and rival drivers thrown in the mix without a hint of slowdown. The graphics are a bit pixelated however that does little to mar the overall presentation.
The soundtrack sadly is not that great. Generic butt rock is not my cup of tea and the music desperately tries its hardest to be intense but is largely forgettable. The sound effects on the other hand are great. I freely admit to occasionally running over people and animals just to hear their satisfying death screams. Twisted I know.
The Baja is separated into three categories with four, six, or eight legs on the total trip. The courses are longer than normal providing plenty of opportunities to jockey for first place. The cash earned is used to upgrade various attributes in preparation for the next leg of the tournament. It is imperative to constantly improve your vehicle lest you suffer poor performance and eventually have to tap out.
If I had to describe the driving experience in one word it would be intense. The dirt roads and varying terrain are a far cry from asphalt with a lower top speed than in similar titles. You’ll want to stick to the defined path however the numerous obstacles will force you to veer off and lose speed. These range from morons on ATVS, farm animals to hapless spectators. Hitting pedestrians incurs a damage and monetary penalty so it is best avoided. The tracks bend and twist constantly and literally throw the truck around. While it is impressive it leads to mounting damage that will end the match if you hit the limit. This is as much about trying to reach first place as it is surviving to the end. Unfortunately the game doesn’t properly strike that balance.
I’ll admit that was on purpose.
That is where Super Off Road – The Baja stumbles. I called the race grueling earlier and that is no exaggeration. The game really goes overboard with the number of obstacles. ATV riders and random animals are thrown in your path to the point of absurdity. For god’s sake one of the races even starts with three of them directly in front of you! The damage penalty for running them over is extremely high and primarily why you’ll likely lose. Trying to avoid them inevitably leads off track frequently. But you need to do it as each leg is long and soul crushing to lose in. I appreciate how they spice up the tracks but a balance needed to be struck and they missed the mark. If you place first early the massive $100,000 pot can nearly fully trick out your truck. But that’s only if you hit first place.
Super Off Road – The Baja is still one of the few 16-bit racing games I can occasionally return to, flaws and all. Although it has its issues they don’t completely ruin the game. It is also still fairly unique for its style of racing even today and remains a fun but frustrating experience.