Rail Chase 2
Another shooter, to go with the last two. This Sega classic is a really polished experience — even with its 1994 tech — and it’s perhaps the most perfectly true-to-type rail shooter there is. It also achieves an unusually close identification of player action, onscreen presentation, and underlying system.
But is there any better way to put it than on the front of the cabinet? “RAIL CHASE 2 IS AN ACTION PACKED MOTION RIDE WITH GUN SHOOTING PLAY GAME.”
The quintessential rail shooter
The core tenet of a rail shooter is that your movement through the game is not under your control — it’s on rails, as it were. Well in this case, it were: Rail Chase 2 looks at the rail shooter genre and milks every last drop out of the “rail” and the “shooter”.
In analysing games I like to look at system and metaphor, where system is the underlying, abstract mechanics of the game and metaphor is what’s overtly presented to the player. One tool for artistic expression in a game is the deliberate alignment or misalignment those two things. That was the gist of my first post on this blog.
Rail Chase 2 is unequivocally a case where system and metaphor are aligned: this is the most literal and unabashed expression of rail shooting you could imagine.
Let’s start with the rail. In Starfox, why is your control of your ship only partial? There’s no reason at the level of the metaphor — in the story — only at the level of the system: you can’t change course just because it’s a rail shooter. That’s fine, we accept it as players, but in Rail Chase, there’s no acceptance required: the metaphor is that you’re in a runaway mine cart, so you have no control over your movement. You’re going where the cart goes.
Another thing about the abstract “rail” of the game’s system is that it branches. The possible routes are made clear on a paper map in the hands of the riders, and the junctions are literal branch lines accessed by switching the points from inside the cart, Indy-Jones-style.
After matching system and metaphor so directly, the last, brilliant ingredient in this cab is that it’s a ride-on. There’s a flat bench seat for two, no more comfortable than a mine cart, and it shakes around like crazy in coordination with the action. The whole game matches this perspective, with the cart front visible on the screen. It makes a lot more sense than the gratuitous ride-on implementation of Space Harrier.
This physicality of the cabinet is the final piece, connecting the player’s actual actions and experiences with the metaphor, which is itself an expression of the classic rail shooter system. Player action matches metaphor matches system. Playing Rail Chase 2 is like climbing right inside the very concept of a whole genre of videogames.
The only thing this cabinet is missing, to complete that literal identification of player action, on-screen metaphor, and underlying system, is an actual gun for the shooting. The only reason I can imagine for Sega to have configured this with standard joysticks instead of gun-shaped ones is concern for kid-friendliness, which doesn’t seem like a very likely reason. It’s a shame because it would really complete the essence of this most direct depiction of shooting while on rails. At least you get to pull a trigger on the joystick, I suppose.
End of the line
Apart from the design being so neat on paper, Rail Chase 2 is a riot to play. The shooting is fast and silly, with enemies queuing up and dropping like flies. The story is about an Indiana Jones lookalike’s 1938 escape from the secret base of some off-brand Nazis. He thunders along an improbable sequence of railways, chutes, and cart tracks for what must be about five miles, before tumbling off a cliff and catching onto the bottom of a passing plane. Fantastic.
(I hereby enter my bid to become Google’s only English-language search result for this derivative, mostly unseen, but brilliantly named protagonist: Flint Ricman.)
This cab still deserves a place in any modern game centre, but I suppose it’s something of a museum piece now, 21 years after release. Fortunately, I know where this one is and I can give it a run every summer. Highly recommended.
Next week, something that really, definitely, is not a videogame.
(See all postcards from the game centre here.)