Over Top (Neo Geo AES) 03.26.2023
Five years after the release of Thrash Rally, ADK released another racing game (a genre that was quite underrepresented on the Neo Geo), this time in isometric 3D. Over Top was released in the middle of 1996 (in April on MVS, May on AES, and July on Neo CD) and remained exclusive to the Japanese market.
Over Top was created by most of the same team who had previously worked on several projects at ADK, including Takashi Egashira (the designer of Magician Lord), producer Kazuo Arai, and chief programmer Yukinori Nishikata.
The CGI intro (animated synthetic images) typical of the mid-90s shows its age. It features the main vehicles that players will have the pleasure of driving in an urban environment, on a bridge at night. The game's insert more or less reproduces the intro, featuring the two supercars of the game: a yellow Lamborghini Diablo and a red Ferrari F-50 racing each other.
The menu, at least on AES, is very basic. It allows you to set the difficulty, choose the number of laps (from one to eight), enjoy the sound test, and save/load your lap times via memory card. This is followed by a fairly basic "How to Play" section that plays its role fully. A is used for acceleration, B for braking. By pressing B twice, you perform an emergency stop. When stopped, holding down B allows you to go in reverse. Buttons C and D are used to honk and flash the headlights, respectively... Totally useless and yet indispensable! 😊 As expected from an arcade game, the heart of the gameplay (and the key to success) lies in the ability to master drifts: decelerate or brake at the entry of the turn and then start turning to initiate a drift. A whole art that requires a certain finesse!
The available vehicles stand out for their eclecticism. ADK did not have official licenses, but it did not let any moral or legal considerations get in its way! Thus, you will find 8 vehicles strongly inspired by reality: a Peugeot 106, an F-50, a truck, a Hummer, a 4x4 (probably a Mitsubishi Pajero), an amphibious vehicle, a motorcycle, and finally a Lamborghini Diablo. All vehicles (available in 8 colors) differ in terms of top speed, acceleration, and maneuverability. But above all, their handling varies greatly depending on the surface you are driving on: asphalt, dirt, snow, and sand.
Over Top offers you the opportunity to take part in a unique race against 3 AI-controlled opponents, with the goal of completing the circuit (within a limited time) and if possible, reaching the top of the podium! The circuit is divided into 7 different sections: urban environment, picturesque village, lake, mountain, desert, seaside, and city park. And the loop is closed!
At the end of each completed section, the car briefly switches to autopilot mode, giving you a time bonus (40 seconds, regardless of the difficulty level), displaying your time for the previous section (and congratulating you if you set a new record), and allowing you to catch your breath and mentally prepare for the next section!
The screen is relatively busy, with a rev counter (specific to each car, as ADK pays attention to detail!) located in the bottom right corner, as well as the current time for the section and the record time for that same section (located on the left side). In the top part of the screen, you will find your position, the time remaining before the timer reaches 0, the weather (sunny, rainy or snowy, which has an impact on the grip of the road) but most importantly a radar that allows you to anticipate the course, with arrows on the screen indicating the turns, chicanes, and hairpin bends that you need to take, which have a nasty tendency to appear at the last moment!
Many shortcuts line the circuits. Whether to take them or not depends directly on the chosen vehicle: opting for the flooded section makes sense if you are driving the amphibious vehicle, for example! On the other hand, if you are driving one of the two supercars, there is no reason not to stay on the asphalt unless the track requires it!
The technical and visual gap with Thrash Rally is obvious, aided by the 210 Mbits of the cartridge (compared to 46 Mbits for Thrash Rally). The pseudo 3D modeled vehicles look great, and the sides of the road are full of animated details and teeming with life: crowds of onlookers gathered at the side of the road, a group of Bedouins accompanied by a camel in the middle of the desert, zebras in the savannah, flocks of birds that follow you for a few moments... Jumps enhance the fun side of the game, and they have almost no impact on your cruising speed. Finally, various destructible elements litter the track: traffic cones, various signs, snowmen, explosive barrels, and even animal skeletons! The environments offer polished graphics and diversity. Undoubtedly, you will see the world! The scenery whizzes by, the animation is very fast, and suffers from no slowdowns (except during the intermediate phases, strangely).
The soundtrack by Keiichiro Segawa and Takao Oshima alternates between the good (jazzy melodies) and the less good (frantic techno). On AES, a theme will be imposed on you (among 7) throughout the race, completely randomly... So it's a bit of a lottery! On Neo CD, each section has its own musical theme. The sound effects hit the mark, especially the engine revving and tire screeching. ADK pushed the realism to the point of customizing the horn for each vehicle.
The gameplay is overall very precise. The only drawback is that the view is also very limited: it's difficult to anticipate turns! To progress, you have to memorize the track and the location of the main shortcuts. Naturally, I first focused on the 2 supercars (with a maximum speed of around 320km/h), but these lose far too much time on the intermediate sections (mostly made up of bumpy, muddy and snowy paths) due to very pronounced oversteer. Finally, after a few hours of play, I opted for the motorcycle, with a much smaller hitbox and which performs well on most surfaces, despite a slower top speed (250km/h). Similarly, the Peugeot 106 is not bad either!
In MVS difficulty mode, I can barely get under the 4-minute mark (3 minutes and 55 seconds to be precise). Considering that the world record is apparently around 3 minutes and 13 seconds, I have a lot of room for improvement! In fact, by scouring the Neo-Geo.com forum, it seems that the Hummer is the reference vehicle for beating lap times: it performs wonders in intermediate sections (4 and 5) and there is a glitch in the first section that allows you to not lose too much speed on the asphalt by colliding with competitors...
As you may have understood, Over Top greatly suffers from its ridiculously short lifespan, especially since the game can only be played in single-player mode. While the experience varies greatly depending on the vehicle chosen and the shortcuts you take, it may offer the lowest lifespan-to-price ratio of all retro video games, as its current value approaches (or even exceeds in some cases) five figures... So you can expect to pay around 2 to 3,000 euros per minute played... An absurdity!
Anyway, I'm very happy to have gotten my hands on an original copy in very good condition overall, despite some slight sunfading on the spine (visible on the Neo Geo logo in particular). Thanks again to my friend Jassim for this sale, which brings me closer to completing the Japanese AES full set (only Metal Slug 1 and Big Tournament Golf left to find). Over Top was still around €3-4k five years ago, but its value has skyrocketed since then, like many Neo Geo games in AES version... Produced in very small quantities, it is one of the rarest titles in Japanese version, alongside Chibi, BTG, U11 and Metal Slug 1 (the latter being slightly less rare but much more coveted and sought after by collectors, being considered a Grail by many). It rarely appears for sale, and usually in sunfaded condition... So I'm very happy with my acquisition! 😊
In conclusion, unless you are an avid collector, have a very high budget, or are a bit crazy (or all three at once!), you can settle for testing it on emulation or getting the digital version on Switch (it is starting to have a certain value on Neo CD as well). It clearly suffers from its weak lifespan, the absence of a 2-player mode, a lack of originality and madness in the design of the tracks and ultimately innovates very little compared to Trash Rally. However, the gaming sessions follow each other at a frantic pace and it has this addictive little side: you always want to come back to try to beat your own record!
My score: 12/20