Mike S reviews the Japanese import Advance GTA which is almost exactly the same as its US counterpart, GT Advance Championship Racing.
Racing games are one of the most popular genres out there, and they’re often split into 2 sub-genres. There are the cart-racers (which Mario Kart started) and there are the realistic racers which take their inspiration from real-life driving. For the most part, I have been a fan of the cart racers much more often. I usually don't enjoy the realistic sim-like experience of a real life racer.
The most important thing to mention in this review is that I am reviewing the Japanese version of the game, Advance GTA, not the American version, GT Advance Championship Racing. The two games are 99% exactly the same. Both are in English (except for the copyright screen on the Japanese version), and both play exactly the same. There is one difference though. The Japanese version uses a battery to save progress and the US version uses a long password system. This is most likely due to the fact that THQ is publishing the game in the US and probably got rid of the battery to cut costs and increase profits.
GT Advance is the closest you are ever going to get to Gran Turismo on a handheld system, for now at least. The game features a total 46 cars and 2 bonus cars. The meat of the game lies in the Championship mode. There are a total of 4 circuits to compete in: Beginner, Middle, High Speed, and Professional. If you place well in a race (3rd place or up), you will be rewarded with either a new car or new parts to put on your cars. The game also features Quick Race, Time Attack, Practice, and two secret "???" modes. Quick Race lets you race any track you've unlocked with any car you've unlocked, without all the hassle of championship mode. Time attack is the same as Quick Race, except that you are trying to race the courses as fast as possible for a record, and you can record a ghost to race against later, which is quite a big feature for a handheld racer. Practice mode sets you loose in a parking lot and you can practice turning around islands of grass and such. I'll talk about the two Extra modes later.
One word can pretty much sum up the graphics in this game, and that word is "slick." One can really get a sense of speed while playing this game, which was something I was worried about before I played it. The car models are fantastic. All of them look exactly like their real life counterparts. They were modeled in 3D and then converted to sprite animation, much like the characters in Donkey Kong Country for the SNES. The backgrounds are crisp, and they fit with the locations of the different tracks in the game. The animation is smooth, though you can see the sprites shift view when you turn, and it looks a bit weird.
The audio is the game is good. The menu music is quite good, and the in-game music pretty much stays in the background while you play. The music is a fresh mix of rock-like tunes that most certainly fit the feel of the game. I'm a little disappointed with the sounds of the cars though. All the cars sound exactly the same. The big giant van-like cars sound exactly the same as the small sporty roadsters. Adding a muffler or other part to your car does not change the sound the car makes either. But, the squealing sounds of the tires is quite good. The rest of the sound effects are also high quality. If you're using headphones, you will hear the other cars passing you on the side of the car, which is really cool. It also helps alot when trying to block passing cars. I really like the menu confirmation tone.
GT Advance's controls are tight. Based on their handling ratings, each of the cars handles differently. If a car is supposed to be loose and slippery, it will be. Other cars have extremely tight handling and steer very well. There is also the option to drive each car with either an automatic or manual transmission. This may seem common place, but not so much in handheld racers. With automatic, the car shifts gears for you and with manual, you shift the gears with the L and R buttons. Automatic allows you to more easily concentrate on your driving while manual gives you greater control over the vehicle. In both modes, the A button is the gas while B is the break.
The thing about GT Advance that sets it apart from other handheld racers is that it's not just a "slam on the gas and bolt to the finish line" racer. The game requires you to actually know how to control the vehicle. You can't gun it around a turn. If you do, you will either end up in the grass or totally spin out. Steering requires finesse, which is a great thing. The Beginner circuit is easy enough, and most people should have no trouble. After the Beginner circuit the game turns on the challenge and once you get to the Professional circuit, it gets really hard and the other cars start almost an entire lap ahead of you. This game is packed full of extras. There are 9 different types of upgrades you can apply to your cars, and 3 of those have 3 different levels. So, in total there are 15 way to modify your car. Plus there are those 2 bonus modes I mentioned before. Well, they're listed as modes on the main menu but they are really bonus vehicles. You can earn a go-cart and a Formula 1 racer that you can use on all the tracks that you have unlocked.
GT Advance has a ton of modes and features. That alone should keep it in your GBA for a long time. On top of that, the game is pretty damn addictive; you can lose track of time and realize you've been playing for hours. Sadly, multiplayer is only supported for 2 people, and they both need the cartridge. I fear that the password save in the American version would detract from the longevity of this title, as well as the gameplay.