A competent racing game for its time, which means nothing you’d want to bother with these days.

The localization of games from Japan to other regions tended to be very uneven during the 8- and 16-bit games. Even if a game did make its way West, it didn’t always hit every territory. Europeans (especially role-playing fans) well remember the agony of missing out on great games that made it to the U.S. but were never localized for Europe’s PAL broadcast standards. It sometimes happened the other way, too, though more rarely: Some games hit Europe but not the U.S. On Game Boy, roughly 16 Japanese games hit Europe but never made their way to the U.S. With SunSoft Grand Prix—following on from Othello and Boulder Dash—the count is already up to three.

These games’ absence from American retail makes perfect sense. Well, Othello is a little hard to explain—the original board game has long been available in the States, and the NES version of the same release made its way over. Boulder Dash, on the other hand,was always bigger in Europe than the U.S. And SunSoft Grand Prix continues the pattern already established on NES of publishers preferring not to publish their Formula One racing games in the U.S. Americans have simply never been all that crazy about F1 racing, for some reason.

Of course, someone who doesn’t follow racing might be hard-pressed to explain the distinctions between F1 and, say, NASCAR, beyond the different vehicles involved. Where it’s easy to see the unique nature of rally races like the Paris-Dakar Rally, which involves driving across multiple continents on actual roads, F1 is your classic closed-circuit race that sees cars speeding around and around a rounded, elongated track against seemingly identical cars. At a glance, it’s basically just NASCAR or Indy 500 with weirder cars. F1 racing specifically involves the use of open-wheel cars. In a sense, it’s kind of like the ultimate evolution of go-karting. You start out karting, get serious about it, and put your foot in the professional door by racing in Formula 4, steadily working your way through the ranks until you get to Formula 1 and find a sponsor who will pay for your wheeled rocket and potentially share in the millions of dollars F1 victors take home. So you can look at F1 games as the buttoned-down, serious adult form of Mario Kart. No shell-tossing, no Ghost Houses, just endless loops around an oval.

The biggest difference between F1 racing and something like NASCAR stock car racing is that F1 vehicles are purpose-built to be fast, light, and demonstrate razor-sharp handling and performance. Stock cars, as the name suggests, are more like standard road-legal vehicles modified for speed and handling, and as such can’t reach the insane top speeds of F1 cars.

Anyway, the point is, Europe loves F1. You might assume that Europe also loves SunSoft Grand Prix, but in point of fact, I’ve been unable to find a single substantial review or retrospective on the game under its localized name—or even its original Japanese title, F1 Boy. Despite its localized release into the European market, this game seems to have slipped beneath the waves of anonymity. Like most sports and racing games that don’t involve Mario—people play them, enjoy them, then move along without the need to dwell overlong on their memories.

SunSoft Grand Prix does have the distinction of being the Game Boy’s first good racing game. I suppose Motocross Maniacs might qualify, but it wasn’t really your typical racer—whereas this is very much your traditional top-down F1 racing game. It doesn’t try to be a platformer like Motocross Maniacs, and it doesn’t involve any misguided attempts at goofy half-pipe tricks and cheap track hazards the way Dead Heat Scramble did. It’s simply a race for the pole position around convoluted tracks against seven other competitors, with the prize going to the car that manages to place first at the end of three laps.

SunSoft Grand Prix allows you to challenge more than a dozen different courses set around the world, and it offers players the opportunity to use a huge variety of different cars. You can select automatic or manual transmission, the size of your engine, and more. Automatic transmission cars tend to handle and accelerate better, while manual cars generally have higher top speeds. Realistically, it’s pretty pointless to use the automatic cars, as trying to rank in any vehicle with a top speed below 370 kilometers per hour is going to be a struggle. 

The game’s fastest car starts up like a station wagon and slides around corners with all the grace of a cow on ice, but once you manage to build up some momentum it’s essentially unstoppable. You can select the number of laps you want for each race—anything between 3 and 30—and the cars with higher speed caps excel when you allow each race to go on long enough to work through their glacial acceleration speeds.

Once the race begins, there are no surprises. If you choose a car that prioritizes fast acceleration versus a high top speed, you’ll pull ahead of the pack right away but struggle to maintain the lead. A slower-starting car with a higher top speed will begin sluggishly but reward players who can avoid driving over the track edges. Again, no surprises for anyone who’s ever played any racing game ever, but sometimes all you want is a good, steady example of a genre executed well. And that describes SunSoft Grand Prix to a T.

Its respectability shouldn’t come as too much of a surprise, given its pedigree… even if the name SunSoft Grand Prix is slightly misleading. SunSoft’s only real role in this game was to publish it in Europe. In Japan, ASK published F-1 Boy, and Lenar handled the actual development work. Of course, you’ll remember Lenar from the weird and wonderful Mercenary Force, and perhaps Deadly Towers for NES before that. The same technical skill the studio demonstrated for Mercenary Force—a kooky blend of Gradius and Bokosuka Wars—shines through here. The game moves smoothly, handles well, and feels quite fair. It even includes a few minor exploits for the canny player, namely the ability to drive over narrow portions of track dividers in order to take a shortcut and cut your race time. On top of that, it includes a number of different, jaunty chiptunes to accompany your drive.

All in all, a perfectly enjoyable racer… completely lost to history due to its close proximity to Nintendo’s F1 Race and that game’s stunning four-person link capabilities. Oh well. SunSoft Grand Prix may have vanished into obscurity due to circumstance, but it’s a well-crafted little racer, a real rarity on Game Boy. I don’t imagine much of anyone is hunting for single-player racing games for Game Boy in this day and age… but if the urge should ever strike, there are certainly worse racers.