In this series, I plan to wax nostalgic about the more obscure games I played growing up and hopefully introduce some of you to new gaming experiences with old games.
Al Unser Jr’s Turbo Racing
Developed and published by Data East
When I was young, we had a next door neighbor named Russ who raced NASCAR stock cars at Elko speedway here in Minnesota. Russ convinced my dad to start racing too, and he did for many years. I have many memories as I grew up of going to the races to watch my dad and even falling asleep in the bleachers because the sounds of the race were so soothing. (I also used to climb into my dad’s race cars while they were parked at home or in his shop so I could strap myself in and pretend to race. I’m still disappointed my dad didn’t build me my own stock car when I turned 21.)
Al Unser Jr.’s Turbo Racing isn’t stock car racing, it’s actually CART champ cars, which puts it in Indy 500 territory and not Daytona 500 but I get the feeling most of you don’t know what any of that means and I should probably stop letting my pedantic racing nerd show. What’s important here is that Turbo Racing was… well… a racing game!
The game was released by Data East in 1990 and was a port of Famicom game World Grand Prix – Pole to Finish which was published in 1989. The Al Unser Jr. name was attached to only the North American release, as CART racing and Unser Jr himself weren’t really known outside of the region (and I’ll hazard a guess that even within the region, it wasn’t particularly well known by many of the people who had an NES in 1990.)
The Unser version of the game made some additions to the core World Grand Prix game it was based off — notably the number of laps, sound design and the addition of Unser Jr. himself as a racing coach.
Playing in season mode, you can choose to play the game as Unser Jr. himself, or as your own custom race team. In custom mode, you’re able to choose your car’s colors as well as lay out your stats similar to many racing games today. Starting your own custom team means, however, that you have to race to climb ranks and make improvements to your car. (If you play as Unser Jr., you get a great car right away that gives you the satisfaction of getting wins much quicker, but is that really any fun?)
Just like real racing, you have to qualify first before you can join the actual race. As you go into qualifying, advice from Unser Jr pops up on the screen to help guide you. The goal of qualifying is to get the fastest score you can so you can get a better place in the starting order for the actual race.
During the race, obstacles will pop up that can cause tire blowouts or engine damage, and once again, just like real racing, you can pull into the pit to get your car repaired before rejoining the race. Driving can be a bit of a challenge, however, as the turns sort of sneak up on you — level design was such that you couldn’t see a lot of the track ahead of you due to the POV being directly behind your race car, just barely above the spoiler.
This was a game I really enjoyed playing and I think my dad even played it with me a few times. You can feel the roots of modern racing games in this cartridge, and the element of customization that you find here in Al Unser Jr.’s Turbo Racing is what set my expectations for every racing game I played afterward. For so many reasons, it’s a game close to my heart, and I hope if you pick it up, you’ll find some joy in it, too.