Rider’s Spirits review

When browsing the Japanese libraries for consoles such as the Mega Drive and SNES, it’s clear why countless games remained in SEGA and Nintendo’s home turf. Things like romantic visual novels, horse racing-based gambling games, and sumo wrestling sims would have performed poorly commercially in Europe and the US. Then there are games that would have probably sold reasonably well had they been localised. 1994’s Rider’s Spirts is one example, being a Super Famicom motorbike racer with cartoony visuals. Amongst its character roster, it even has a soldier named after the US TV show MASH. You could even say it was partly localised already.

Rider’s Spirits both looks and sounds incredibly similar to Super Mario Kart, sporting Mode 7 graphics, a diverse character line-up, a permanent split screen with a rearview, and even a brightly coloured opening course resembling Donut Plains. Music, too, is similarly twee throwing a few squeaky car horns into the mix. The comparisons end there, pretty much. Rider’s Spirits is based around motorbike racing, and developer Genki really leaned into this aspect, trying to implement semi-realistic handling models onto then ageing 16-bit hardware. It’s vital to lean around corners and apply brakes when taking tight turns, while the terrane can wildly affect traction. Wheelies can be performed too, giving a minor boost. On that subject, each race begins with three boost tokens, and using these proficiently can help secure a podium place.

Rider’s Spirits review

Power-ups are present as well, three of which can be carried and cycled through. This isn’t a focal point, however. In fact, the ability to carry three at once is largely redundant as only a single power-up can be gained once per lap, requiring you to detour into a pitstop. The use of power-ups is also negligible, being a mixture of hand grenades, rockets and a gizmo that greatly reduces visibility by turning the screen black. Throwing grenades and rockets is a crapshoot, even with the mildly distracting rear view present. You’re best off hoping for a boost token.

Laps only last around 15 seconds (in fact, there’s one course with nine second laps) but due to the challenging difficulty, you’ll have to work hard to make your way through the pack. It’s possible to get a boost off the starting grid, which will help, and track memorisation also plays a part with a few courses having hazards and split paths. I’d even say there’s a slight learning curve, as every button on the controller is used – even RS and LS.

This re-release grants the ability to rewind up to thirty seconds, and you’ll certainly need to make use of this to secure first place, rewinding when colliding or going off course. See, the majority of content is locked initially – you’ll need to finish first in each GP to unlock the next, and this is no easy feat. You can’t even test courses in time trial without finishing first in their respective GPs.

Rider’s Spirits review

In addition to having eight characters with their own stats, there are a few other modes to explore. Two players can take on the GP mode, as well as go head-to-head in an Endurance race. There’s a novelty Chicken Run mode too, in which racers zoom off the starting grid and must come to a standstill before toppling over a ledge. The closest to the edge wins. While fun, this mode is pretty light – matches last mere seconds. Clearly, the bulk of your playtime is going to be spent in the GP mode, which will take 2-3 hours to beat – even with the rewind tool.  

This re-release is quite nicely presented, with scans of the box art and manual. It has also been given its first ever English translation, although this isn’t a huge deal considering how light on text it originally was. There’s nothing here in the way of a story or even character bios. Screen sizes can be altered and there’s a choice of filters. If you’ve played past Ratalaika Games re-releases (Shockman, Gleylancer, Moto Roader MC) you’ll know what to expect.

While Rider’s Spirits falls short of the standard set by Super Mario Kart, overlooking what made Nintendo’s classic fun to play in the first place, this is still quite a surprisingly in-depth and challenging racer. I expected something offering pleasingly chaotic races but was instead presented with a more methodical experience – and that isn’t necessarily a bad thing. Of course, it all depends on what you’re looking for in a 16-bit racer. The stakes are high as always, it’s just a shame it doesn’t have the energy to match.

Rider’s Spirits is published by Ratalaika Games/Shinyuden and out now on consoles.