South Park Rally does try to tackle the kart racing gameplay style with a unique approach; sadly, all the efforts that it makes in that regard end up being not only disastrous but also incredibly frustrating
During the turn of the century, when the South Park cartoon found itself in the beginning of its journey of bringing, depending on the target, horror, disgust, and amusement to the homes of millions of families worldwide, game developer Acclaim struck a deal with the show’s producers to bring the still young franchise into the gaming world. And, perhaps as a quiet statement on how much thought went into that transition, the studio went on to – through the course of three years – produce three efforts that fell into the industry’s most popular and, therefore, mercilessly explored genres. The simply titled South Park armed Cartman, Kyle, Stan, and Kenny with ridiculous weapons to deliver a generally unpleasant first-person-shooting experience; South Park: Chef’s Luv Shack, meanwhile, threw the four children in a bizarre game show – hosted by the titular cook – that served as the background to a collection of mini-games; and, as the final product of that trio, South Park Rally went for the most obvious of all exploitations by placing dozens of the universe’s characters in personalized vehicles and making them take part in wild races visibly inspired by those of the Mario Kart series.
Although quite different in nature, those games shared two characteristics. Firstly, they were all permeated by lousy gameplay, which makes it quite obvious Acclaim’s goal was to cash in on the success of the excellent television show. Secondly, they do, surprisingly, succeed in making good use of the cartoon’s assets from a thematic standpoint. In the case of South Park Rally, that applies to both its cast of drivers – which is made up of a whopping twenty-seven characters, each with a usually unique and creative vehicle – and to a set of items that is equally varied. There is indeed a degree of fun to be found in controlling Jesus in his wheeled cloud, Visitor aboard a flying saucer, or Grandpa speeding across tracks while sitting in a wheelchair. Likewise, one has to admire how it is possible to mess with opponents by covering their screens with Saddam Hussein’s face or herpes, making them slip on puddles of vomit, launching them into the air thanks to explosive diarrhea, stealing their items via underpants gnomes, mixing up their controls by giving them pink-eye, or boosting by letting out a major smelly fart.
However, it is awfully hard to feel sheer fun when those interesting elements are supported by gameplay that contains an astounding number of design issues. To be fair, South Park Rally does try to shake up the usual format of games of its kind in a number of ways; sadly, those attempts come off as if they were either put together quite haphazardly or not executed with the appropriate amount of dedication. Case in point, its single-player mode consists not of distinct championships formed by a set number of tracks, but by fourteen sequential races that take place across the year on special dates, some of which are real (like Valentine’s Day) and others which are entirely made up (such as Cow Day). Consequently, those races must be cleared in order. Players start the year with five lives, failing to win a rally will cause them to lose one of those and have to retry the course, and running out of continues means starting the whole process from scratch.
Although the setup is not inherently bad, the life system it uses is positively harmful. Succeeding on fourteen straight races, with the right to fail just five times, feels less like a challenge and more like pushing one’s luck, especially because in a game where items are abundant and races sometimes unpredictable, chance often comes into play. South Park Rally tries to alleviate that by hiding, in each race, a silver coin that will grant gamers an extra life if tracked down; nonetheless, the location of those is frequently so obscure and hard to reach that going after them and still finding a way not to lose the competition, which would render its discovery useless, will take an absurd amount of skill, one that is only held by those who are so experienced in the game they do not need a helping hand of the sort. The implementation of a life system, though, has a reason: it is obviously trying to cover for a rampant lack of content.
Fourteen races are, after all, not much, and by kicking players back to the beginning of the year South Park Rally is desperately looking for a way to extend its life. To make matters worse, most of the tracks used in these races appear more than once, as there are only seven of them: the city, a farm, a forest, a volcano, a mountain, a sewer, and Big Gay Al’s animal sanctuary. That repetition can occur because rather than giving each race the same basic goal of taking three laps around the course to see who is the fastest, South Park Rally shuns that standard completely. Once more, it is a very fair shot at an alternative for the genre’s mold of competing in cups and earning trophies; in spite of that, again, the game’s good intentions fail to materialize consistently.
The first offense is that there is not a whole lot of diversity to the goals; they are all variations on a restrict set of themes. Rally Days #1 and Independence Day are absolutely the same, albeit in different settings, as both concentrate on driving, in order, through four numbered checkpoints scattered around the track three times. That also applies to Cow Day and Millennium New Year’s Eve, which entail grabbing a unique object and holding onto it (as it is lost whenever one is hit by an item or touched by a rival) for two cumulative minutes; as well as to Rally Days #2, Christmas, and Memorial Day, where it is necessary to drive through four numbered checkpoints, but the twist is that it only counts if one does so while carrying, respectively, a trophy, a present, and a gun. Meanwhile, Read-a-Book Day, Easter, Halloween, and Thanksgiving involve collecting specific items around the track. The difference is that on Read-a-Book Day and Halloween the gathered chickens and candy can be lost or stolen by others, and therefore need to be stored at a checkpoint; while on Easter and Thanksgiving the eggs and turkeys cannot be taken away from the one who has caught them.
The most unique of the bunch are Valentine’s Day, Spring Cleaning, and the Pink Lemonade Race. In the first, South Park Rally takes on the battle mode of Mario Kart by asking that drivers collect the bow and the arrow hidden in Big Gay Al’s place in order to shoot a certain number of competitors. In the second, three pairs of underwear are scattered around the sewer and players have to grab at least one of them and complete three laps through the track’s four checkpoints. Finally, in the third, all racers carry four glasses of lemonade that must be handed out at one of the checkpoints; however, at any time, only one of them is active and every time a cup of lemonade is delivered, the target checkpoint randomly changes.
The second, and gravest offense, is how it sometimes feels that while trying to come up with clever goals for the races, rarely did developers stop to think whether or not they would be fun at all. The rallies that center on collecting, for example, usually force players to rely on sheer luck or to go out of the tracks, since items can appear pretty much anywhere and move according to their own will. Furthermore, reaching them will from time to time require driving into obscure corners of the scenario, which are rather problematic because sometimes getting out of them is a major struggle, as the standard kart controls are not made for such tight situations, hence testing not only the game’s clunky camera – which will fail that evaluation at an astonishing rate – as well as gamers’ patience. Equally infuriating are Rally Days #2 and Christmas, where the winner is whoever carries the item to the final fourth checkpoint, which means that it is always possible to take it through the first three-fourths of the race only to lose because a CPU stole it on the final stretch leading to the end and crossed the finish line with it. Additionally, that design allows frustrated gamers to simply stand by that last checkpoint, armed with a mighty item, waiting to take down the one who is trying to bring it home, as a consequence having a shot at winning despite skipping most of the race.
Absurd problems such as those also stem from the course design. Independence Day, for instance, which is a three-lap race through checkpoints, takes place on the mountain track, which is an absurd maze of roads so confusing that it is almost impossible to learn, and trying to use the map as a guide is a tough task. As such, players tackling it for the first time have no option but to follow the CPUs around the track in order to try to memorize the roads they use. The volcano course, in turn, is hit by punctual earthquakes that come out of nowhere. It is not uncommon, as a result, for players to be taken by surprise by them, which causes a countless amount of frustrating occurrences: falling into the lava and losing the object they are carrying, failing to bump into a competitor or hit them with a weapon in order to take away the race’s mcguffin, or just being suddenly thrown out of the track into the emptiness or onto a wall with such brutality that the lead is lost.
In the end, truth be told, none of the tracks present in South Park Rally are entirely suitable for what they are used. Maps that are a puzzling assembly of roads are good neither for the game’s most straightforward races nor for goals that have different natures, such as collecting or battling. In the former case, their extra paths – rather than serving as alternatives or shortcuts – are there just for the sake of confusing gamers; in the latter, arenas would have been far more appropriate. On the other hand, courses that are open spaces – more specifically, the farm and Big Gay Al’s animal sanctuary – have a design that makes racing seem stupid and are filled with irritating obstacles that turn battles and collection into cumbersome activities.
To top it all off, South Park Rally is gifted with an AI that is absurdly simple-minded. Although many of the goals featured in the races offer a myriad of possible strategies, the CPU – save for a major anomaly or a random happening – will always take the same course of action: chasing players mindlessly. Due to that, for instance, on Valentine’s Day, once one has acquired the bow and the arrow, all they have to do is drive forward and turn around quickly to find a line of rivals that are chasing them down orderly, just like ducklings trail their mother. Similarly, on Cow Day, when everyone has Mad Cow Disease, all that it takes to win is grabbing the antidote and going in circles around the farm for two minutes, because none of the other characters will ever consider driving in the opposite direction or taking a shortcut to surprise the leader and hit them. That does not mean, however, the CPU is incurably dumb; on the contrary, when they succeed in getting a hold of an item, they are able to run away with it in such an efficient manner that trying to go faster than them is almost futile. As such, players have to bet on alternative strategies like waiting for them at specific parts of the track to try to shoot them or bump into them.
In addition to the clearing of its single-player mode, South Park Rally offers a couple of other gameplay alternatives. In Arcade Mode, it is possible to mix any of the unlocked goals with any of the unlocked tracks. The same goes for the game’s multiplayer mode, which for some reason is limited to two players, and where it is also possible to engage in battles inspired by Mario Kart, but with floating asses replacing the balloons. However, given the poor design of the tracks, the frustrating nature of most of the objectives, the clunky camera that occasionally comes into play, the weird floaty physics that has vehicles flipping due to the silliest of jumps, and graphics and music that are serviceable at best, it is highly questionable one will be able to extract much value out of any of them. Likewise, the roster of twenty-seven characters, out of which only eight are available at the beginning, is likely to be left mostly unexplored, despite the charm of the South Park universe and the variety in looks and stats that those drivers offer, because most gamers will not have the patience to clear the goals that are necessary to unlock them.
As such, South Park Rally, differently from most games that jump into the kart racing genre with the goal of dressing it up with a famous franchise and quickly extracting a good deal of money out of it, does try to tackle the gameplay style with a unique approach. Sadly, all the efforts that it makes in that regard end up being not only disastrous but also incredibly frustrating. Perhaps, if handled by a company that wanted something other than to get it out into the market as fast as possible in order to cash in, those ideas could have flourished into a likable experience. As it stands, though, playing South Park Rally is a miserable journey through thematic races that seem to have been designed to generate anger rather than joy. At least, however, its presence in the Nintendo 64 library serves the useful purpose of proving that good intentions can be smothered quite brutally by sheer greed; so much, in fact, that one has to look really hard to find traces of their existence amidst the mess.