Life in the fast lane
Arcade games of the 80's and 90's offer up some of my favourite gaming experiences. Simple, fast and addictive, the truly great games are easy to pick up and play, yet hard to master. They keep you coming back time and time again in order to beat your high score, thanks to tight controls, exciting gameplay and that essential risk versus reward factor that puts your skills to the test, yet leaving you with the feeling that you can do better next time. Pac Man set the trend way back in the year of my own birth, 1980, with Ms. Pac Man improving on it further. After the yellow dot munchers came an absolute wealth of clones and wannabees, desperate for a slice of the action. Few were able to match Namco's seminal series, but games that tried something slightly different with the formula were often even better. Fast Lane by Konami is one such game.
Taking the top down maze approach, but employing a sunny California setting, vehicles instead of ghosts and sentient circles, and more complex and interesting maze layouts with paths that often crossed over another, Fast Lane was a far cry from the bleak simple mazes filled with dots that Pac Man offered, Of course, a vehicular maze game was nothing new, Namco had already released the excellent Rally-X the same year as Pac Man, but Fast Lane is far superior both in terms of visuals, sound and, most importantly, gameplay. It also beat Sega's attempt at something very similar, the extremely bland-by-comparison Counter Run, released in 1988.
Gameplay is as simple as they come. You control a red sports car that constantly moves in one direction, with the first button used to speed up your car. Along the paths are certain surface types, easily identifiable by their colour, such as grass, water or mud. Driving over these surfaces removes or 'eats' it, with your objective being to clear the stage of it all. There are regular gaps in the maze walls, and it is your job to move left or right as you pass them, switching to an adjacent path and continuing on. Danger comes in the form of an enemy vehicle, a blue monster truck, who drives around the stage, switching lanes in an attempt to invoke a head-on collision with you. Keeping an eye on his movements is essential to avoiding him, and is easily done for the initial levels, but as you progress through the 25 stages, the mazes get much larger - spanning several screens - and more complex in design, making it harder to predict where old monster truck will go next, this is doubly true when he is later joined by one or more companions, all equally Hell bent on crashing into you.
Thankfully, help is at hand in the form of rollerskating beach chicks who skate around the stage. Collecting them grants you powerups, which works much like the system used in Konami's Gradius / Parodius series - collecting one gives you the first ability, while collecting another will highlight the next powerup up the visible list, giving you the choice of when to keep the desired weapon. These can be unleashed with a simple tap of the second button, and include the ability to leap over an oncoming truck, blast him to smithereens with a rocket, or even a flash attack (read, smart bomb) that destroys every truck on the level. Using any of these powers initiates a cool Pinball table style animation showing the destruction of the truck, accompanied by a suitably explosive sound effect.
The sun drenched Californian beach setting really brings the game to life, and the colourful tracks, roller girls, monster trucks, 80's rock soundtrack and over-the-top sound effects create an incredibly appealing title. The levels are well designed and fun to drive around, and the 'eating away' of the coloured surfaces is just as satisfying as any of the dot munching, cherry collecting, soil digging or bomb defusing found in other classic arcade titles such as Pac Man, Mr. Do, Dig Dug or Bomb Jack. Most importantly, Fast Lane has that 'just one more go' factor that keeps you utterly hooked and playing for far longer sessions that you had originally anticipated.
Title : Fast Lane
Developer : Konami
Year : 1987
Genre : Driving / Maze