A pleasantly playable top-down racer that almost makes up for Monster Truck.

Roadster, a creation of our friends at TOSE and Tonkin House, takes that dark nemesis known as the top-down Game Boy racer, and completely acquits it. A lot of really great design decisions at work here add up to make Roadster genuinely pleasant to play. It helps that it has a legitimately sensible difficulty curve, and that it controls and handles well without getting overly complicated.

Yes, Roadster may be another top-down handheld racer, but it plays vastly better than something like Dead Heat Scramble. It’s another example of the fact that TOSE could do some good development work when given the freedom by a publisher.

Races in Roadster come in at four different degrees of difficulty determined by length. You can choose five, 10, 15, or 20 tracks — the shortest races taking about 20 minutes to complete, the longest set spanning an hour or longer. Roadster could use a password system for those 20-course races, but that’s about all the criticism I can come up with here.

You and five other cars speed about a series of courses, vying for first place — you know, standard fare for the genre. Unlike some other top-down racers we’ve seen, Roadster doesn’t flatten out the track. Instead, you race along roads that operate through a full 360 degrees of orientation, and the D-pad controls remain fixed relative to your car’s orientation rather than to the screen. Right turns your car to its right, left to its left. It takes a little getting used to, but if you’ve played R.C. Pro-Am or the like, it should be a familiar control setup.

Roadster may not seem that impressive at first glance, since regardless of which the half-dozen drivers you select, you all drive the same car (a Miata, as it turns out). But what it lacks in visual polish, Roadster makes up for with the quality of its play experience. Each of the six drivers here possess a handful of stats that actually make a substantial difference in how well they race. It almost feels like a dry run for Super Mario Kart, since these elements work largely the same way in both games.

Each racer has his or her own weight stat, which determines how easily you’re jostled by run-ins with other cars, how quickly you can accelerate, and your max speed on straightaways. Your body stat determines how much banging up your car can stand. The tire stat affects how durable your tires are — they tend to wear down on rough roads or if you take tight turns at high speeds. And finally, there’s the “guts” stat, whose nature I’m not 100% clear on; I think, however, that it determines how likely your racer is to bail out of their car when getting bumped around by other racers. Occasionally, if you take too much damage or get pinned in a cluster of cars, your racer will hop out of their car — evidently in a panic — and you’ll have to pump the A button to force them to return to their vehicle.

There are a few other impediments to slow you down as well, including the need to hit the pit stop mid-race. You won’t need a pit stop in the early races, but once the tracks become more treacherous and the other racers more aggressive, the pit becomes essential in order to prevent your vehicle from breaking down. The pit replenishes your car’s body and tire stats, allowing you to get back into the race.

One thing I appreciate about Roadster is that it doesn’t have the impossible rubber-band A.I. you see in many other racers. In other racing games, a trip to the pit or even a simple mistake would probably amount to an instant loss, but here you can easily pull back into the lead if you race well even after a wipeout or pit stop. Another user-friendly feature: Your finishing rank in each race nets you a certain number of points that accumulate over the course of the campaign. Again, like we’d see a few years later in Mario Kart.

Unlike other racers that use a system like this, Roadster doesn’t always put the same racers in the lead for each round. Whereas Mario Kart’s systems always puts you up against a rival who wins first place if you don’t and sets the score you have to overcome, here the end results appear genuinely random. This makes it incredibly easy to pull way out ahead in the early races, so if you do a five-race competition you’ll finish the competition ahead by a long shot. But in the more extended competitions, the padding of points you build up early on — and the fact that one other racer isn’t always earning top marks — gives you a little bit of latitude to deal with complicated or challenging tracks. If you screw up and come in last in one race, earning zero points, you haven’t necessarily blown the entire competition. It’s a welcome touch that makes this one of the friendliest and least-punitive racers I’ve ever played.

On the other hand, if you do exceptionally well in on round, you’ll earn bonus points that can be applied to your body or tire stats, increasing your car’s durability for subsequent races. Roadster feels like a racer that wants to reward you for playing, and given the limitations of the platform, it’s a welcome touch compared to so many games that expect console-level performance without providing players with a console-level experience.

Another great touch here is that the game goes out of its way to compensate for the limited viewpoint of the Game Boy screen. Not only do you get to scan the race track in advance of each round to get a sense of its geography, every turn is broadcast for you by a set of arrows on the track. Again, this tilts the game toward being a bit on the easy side, but I’m fine with that. For someone who doesn’t play a ton of racing games, Roadster’s accessibility makes it far more enjoyable than a more brutal and punishing game like Dead Heat Scramble.

Plus, the arrows don’t account for every kind of track hazard. Once you complete the first heat, you move on to dirt tracks dotted with rocks that can mess up your car unless you downshift. There are also oil slicks to contend with, as well as the sometimes aggressive driving of other racers. Roadster has some challenging moments, and the longer you play the more difficult the courses become.

Yet another thing to like about Roadster is that the tracks aren’t all the same. Besides different surfaces, you also get different layout types. Some tracks are closed circuits that require you to complete several laps, but others are extended roads that comprise more of a start-to-finish rally race type. These rally tracks often feel like they consist of sections of the closed circuits that have been opened up into alternate paths, and it’s kind of an impressive vibe to get from a Game Boy racer of this vintage. 

All told, there’s really a great deal to like about Roadster. It’s a thoughtfully designed game with excellent controls and a balance that slightly favors the player. With so much going for it, I honestly couldn’t say why Roadster never made its way to the U.S. It’s a damn sight better than the other Game Boy racers we’ve seen, and while I can understand Monster Truck remaining stranded in Japan, Roadster deserved to make its way west. At the very least to Europe, where they love racing! Instead, this has gone down in history as another anonymous, forgotten Game Boy creation.

Well, sort of. In researching this episode, I learned that French publisher Titus produced a Nintendo 64 and Game Boy Color game in 2000 by the name of Roadsters. While it’s of no relation to this game, with a behind-the-car perspective even on Game Boy Color, there was another Titus Roadster project before it that never saw the light of day. Called Roadsters ’98, this appears to have been a Game Boy Color reworking of Tonkin House’s game. They’re not 100% identical, but the two games have a lot in common, including their controls, track layouts, and even on-track power-up icons. 

The developer on Roadster ’98 was a firm by the name of Genetic Fantasia, whose name shows up attached to a few other games that apparently were killed by publishers, including an extremely intriguing Bomberman conversion for Jaguar.

As it turns out, Other Ocean creative director Mike Mika was part of Genetic Fantasia. According to Mika, Roadsters ’98 actually began life as a behind-the-car Out Run style game, similar to the game that did eventually make it out as Roadsters. But Titus pushed to make ’98 a top-down game, then cancelled it. So it seems like it might just be one of those strange coincidences. In any case, Roadsters ’98 makes an interesting footnote for a Game Boy racer that deserves better than the abject obscurity to which it’s been relegated by history. Roadster is relatively expensive among Game Boy releases, commanding about $25 for a bare cart these days, but if you’re looking for a quality racing experience on a crusty old handheld console, you could certainly do a lot worse.