No matter how successful you are, you’ll always have to start again from square one. That’s how things work in Cruis’n USA. You could be the king of your hill, winning races like you’re the Drizzt Do’Urden of driving, and still, no matter what, you always start the next event in last place.
And what if you aren’t the king of your hill? What if you’re placing in second, or third, or—dear God—last? Why, in that case you have to just keep on trying until you reach perfection. It doesn’t matter that you ranked on the high score list; if you’ve been anything less than flawless, you’re not worthy of moving on. It’s nearly enough to make a person want to queue up Dashboard Confessional, turn out all the lights, and cry his little heart out into a Dead or Alive Xtreme Beach Volleyball body pillow.
Midway must have known this would happen. To outwit depression they developed a racing sim that, although deeply rooted in a perfectionist’s philosophy, is whimsical enough to placate even the most emo of ludologists.
Take, for example, the gameplay itself. If you set Cruis’n USA to Easy Mode (which, stunningly, makes the game easy—Konami, take note!), you’ll be having such a good time beating the waste out of your opponents that you’ll hardly notice the game’s dark undertones. Driving down American highways at speeds reaching 150 MPH and seeing (all within the span of about thirty minutes) The Grand Canyon, Mt. Rushmore, and the White House whiz by certainly lacks something in realism, but this condensed version of the United States makes for a thrilling ride.
The game’s visuals also serve to distract you from Cruis’n USA‘s bleak inner core. Scenery is made entirely of cardboard cutouts, which gives the game a movie set-like feel, as though Vin Diesel is about to come peeling around the bend and do whatever it is that he does. This may seem to be a graphical gaffe, but I think it’s commendable that Midway embraced the N64’s technical limits instead of trying to hide them, and in doing so gave Cruis’n USA a unique look. Some may not like that you can have a head-on collision with another car, send that car spiraling off into the distance while your own does a barrel roll across the highway, and show no damage for it, but I say that it just adds to the game’s appealing superficial lack of taking itself seriously.
Cruis’n USA‘s soundtrack is one of the best I’ve ever heard in a video game. You can tell it’s rad because it doesn’t make you want to put on your own music—you’ll actually enjoy the game’s own tunes, which is something I don’t often find. The musical score ranges from rock to bluegrass to a Beach Boysian number; there are only seven or eight songs in total, but hey, the game’s only a half-hour long, if that.
This game has a lot of onlys attached to it: You can only play with one other gamer, there is only one course available from the get-go (you unlock more as you complete them in arcade mode), there are only seven cars to choose from, etc. However, some of these onlys are pretty cool: You can control the game with only one hand, and…well…I guess that’s the only one. Being an N64 launch title, this game has its limitations, but it works well with the bits it’s got.
The goofy gameplay, amusing artistry, and spiffy soundtrack more than compensate for the game’s cynical and depressing principles. Taken at face value, Cruis’n USA is a great little racer that, although short-lived, you’ll keep coming back to time and time again. If you spend far too many hours thinking about and playing this title, you may discover the secret of life, or at least a headache. Just don’t play the game on Hard Mode if your will-to-live meter is running low.