Ever so close to the "Mario On The Road To Nowhere"
Brace yourself for confusion: First there was Mario Brothers in the arcades. Then came Super Mario Brothers on the original Nintendo Entertainment System. SMB was followed by 2 other NES sequels. Then came Super Mario World on the Super Nintendo Entertainment System. Then came Mario Kart for the SNES, a Mario racing game. Then came Wacky Wheels, the uncannily similar animal-themed PC rip off of Mario Kart. Then came Mario 64 on the Nintendo 64. Then came Mario Kart 64. Now comes Ubi Soft's S.C.A.R.S., which is the only real "spiritual sequel" to Wacky Wheels, making it similar to Mario Kart 64. You all got that?
As S.C.A.R.S. is what it is (if you don't know what it is, read the above paragraph. If you still don't get it, eat a bag of toasted chestnuts and try again), what we have here is a highly cartoon-ish, arcade style racing game. It features 9 diverse off road tracks, 9 animal and insect themed cars, the ability to jump, and non-lethal combat.
There are 5 racing modes. Grand Prix (championship), Custom Circuit, Challenge, Time Attack, and Split Screen 2 player (sadly enough that's the only multiplayer).
In Grand Prix you progress through 4 "cups" (memories of Mario Kart 64 come flooding back like the Mississippi in 1995). Each one of these "cups" gets progressively more difficult and gives you access to more of S.C.A.R.S' 9 tracks, since you only start with 2. You gain points for your finishing position in every race, and if you were the most violent or had the best lap. In order to proceed to the next track you must have a cumulative minimum score. Of course, your point score also determines if you manage to get to the podium. In another similarity to Mario Kart, your starting position in each race is linked to your position in the championship. Custom Circuit is a racing season in which you pick which tracks you want and at which time of day (night racing is particularly manic).
In Challenge mode you go head to head with one of the 4 cars that you cannot choose at the beginning. Should you win a race against one of these superior cars, you gain access to it. Time Attack... well... I think that all of you critically huddled, squirming, squeaking, squirrel-like game playing masses out there know what Time Attack is.
Split Screen is the only multiplayer mode in the entire game, where two people may compete on the same PC, crowded at the keyboard. There is no modem, LAN or internet play! (Shock! Horror!). Although it is cool to have split screen, a feature that most racing games lack these days, in 1999 it seems a little late to be making games that do not have any kind of internet multiplayer.
The graphics in S.C.A.R.S. are a mixed bag. The racing environments are colorful, cartoon-ish, and refreshingly light and fun. The cars are somewhat bland though, with low polygon counts and design that does little to mimic the animal that they are supposedly representing. The weapons, wheels , and most of the scenery are bitmaps. The wheels, for instance, use the old Wing Commander 1 and 2 principal of simulating 3D by having a lot of different sprites for different camera angles. There aren't quite enough frames of 2D animation though, and the sprites in the game give a choppy felling to a game that runs at 60 FPS on a P133 with a first generation voodoo card.
The sound is fairly adequate. The music on the other hand is easily some of the best yet heard in a racing game. S.C.A.R.S. without music is a throwaway. With the music on, the creative and energetic tunes add a much needed feel of manic and high velocity fun. The best music is for the mountain track which practically tells the story of a 50's sci-fi alien movie.
Mario was a kids game, no question about it. Sure, us adults could get into it, but it was really meant for the young children whose parents had mystically bottomless pockets. S.C.A.R.S. is much in the same vein, and that is were almost all of its faults come from.
First of all, in an attempt to make S.C.A.R.S. more accessible to younger gamers, the racing speed is far below average on any difficulty setting below the highest. This makes the game uninteresting and boring unless you play on the highest difficulty level, which is really only about as fast as the Normal difficulty setting on competing racing games like Need For Speed 3 and DethKarz.
Second of all, while there are some tasty and creative weapons in the game, none of them do anything but slow the other cars down. You could come up right behind a lion-mobile with a charged bullet weapon, let fly, smack the sucker right up the tailpipe, and all that results is a nice looking explosion, a flip, and a minor slowdown. There is no death. Also, S.C.A.R.S. unfortunately doesn't go all the way with its premise of ripping off Mario Kart and therefore lacks a battle mode, which was the most compelling component of Mario Kart to begin with.
On top of that, S.C.A.R.S. treats almost all inclines like walls, meaning that you can't ride up the side of a slanted wall to take the hairpin turn without a powerslide slowdown. Also, hitting a wall makes the most annoying sound I've ever heard in a racing game.
There is also the issue of not being able to remap joystick or gamepad buttons to the user's preference. You can change the keyboard controls though.
However, if you set the difficulty to full (a requirement of Ubisoft's POD also, as S.C.A.R.S. uses an updated POD engine), turn the music volume to full, and are willing to be somewhat less than serious in your gaming, you might just find yourself enamored with S.C.A.R.S. for a while. It certainly fills a nice gap in the crowded racing market, one that can be appreciated by gamers of all ages.
S.C.A.R.S. is a game for those of us PC gamers who do not also have a Nintendo 64 (probably because we all couldn't justify the expense of a $150 gaming system like we can with a $2000 gaming system), but still secretly wish to pop in the old Mario Kart 64 cartridge and get down and funky with some light and fluffy gamin' goodness. It's not really worth it, but just remember: "It's-a-me-a, Mario!"