R.C. Pro-Am is one of the most acclaimed Rareware games on the Nintendo Entertainment System, as well as one that I have a personal history with. It was one of the first games that I bought for the console myself. The first game after the OG Super Mario Bros. that I played on it, even. Even so, it’s not a title that I was particularly excited to replay.
Its concept is very cute. R.C. Pro-Am is an isometric racing game based on little, remote-controlled cars. The tiny courses, adorable vehicles, and sideways perspective really evoke the feeling of playing with toy cars as a kid. And in true Rareware fashion, the game has innovative systems to back up its novelty.
The game features a campaign that takes you through a number of tracks in linear succession. Many of these reuse the same basic track layout, but with all the hazards moved around a bit. Pools of water that slow you down, oil to slip on, walls that rise up from the ground unexpectedly. On the flipside, there are also power-ups, weapons, and booster pads that can help you out. These too get moved around each time a layout is recycled.
An interesting detail here is that your RC car is—initially—pretty rubbish. It’s slow and unwieldy to control, but you can fix that. In each stage there are parts scattered around that you can collect, which become permanent upgrades for your car. You keep these in subsequent levels, though that also means missing one is a permanent handicap going forward. The other 3 racers are going to keep getting better and faster, even if you missed an upgrade or two.
I have to be honest here: this campaign is what makes the game difficult for me to enjoy. It’s not a racing game you can just fire up and have some fun in. You can’t select a track you want and just do a fun race; you always have to commit to an entire session. You have to focus on getting the upgrades every time and that makes the novelty of it wear out quickly.
I also don’t like how you still get to progress, even if you lose the race. So long as you’re not dead last, the game counts it as a victory and hands you a prize regardless. It felt like I should have been made to retry these stages until I could manage to win, at least. This participation award approach felt denigrating and hampered my growth as a player. I kept fumbling my way to unearned third places without really improving. Until I started resetting the game of my own volition until I could beat levels first or second place.
The game does have interesting controls that quickly began to feel intuitive. Adjusting the angle of your car makes sense and—with some skill—it became satisfying to get good at rounding corners. The fact that the game keeps recycling the same stage layouts does make it feel like you’re constantly driving the same laps race after race, but the tricky traps keep them fresh enough.
My only complaint with the controls is that items don’t work terribly well. You can find stuff like rockets or bombs to temporarily disable enemies with, but the hit detection feels off and using them doesn’t flow too well into normal gameplay. Even if you do hit, the enemy springs back into action a second later. It helps a little bit, but unless you get a free hit it’s not worth the hassle. Enemies also can’t use items themselves, outside of boosters and invulnerability which activate on pick-up.
R.C. Pro-Am is very fun and unique, there is no denying that. It controls well and the novelty of racing R.C. cars made it an enjoyable game when I first played it. However, little frustrations like the items being rubbish and the recycled layouts hamper that fun somewhat. Topped off by the annoyance of always having to play through an entire campaign each time you want to race. It’s fun to play through once or try out at a friend. But if I’d want to play a racing game on the NES, I’d pick something else 99% of the time.