There are many things that I’m always fascinated by, and one of them is portable versions of big console games. It’s surprising to see studios small and large try to squeeze as much power out of handhelds and hopefully make a good game out of it. I collect these on a rare occasion, and thought I’d dig one out of mothballs I bought awhile back and give it a spin.

Let's OWN THE CITY! As opposed to what, Own the Parking Lot?

Let’s OWN THE CITY! As opposed to what, Own the Parking Lot?

Let’s hop in a ride and drive the mean streets, because we’re checking out Need for Speed: Carbon – Own the City for the Game Boy Advance. I mentioned buying this in an old “I bought stuff!” post from a year ago, and I wanted to see what a racing game looks on the ol’ GBA. This is an EA Canada joint, and came out on the GBA, PSP, and DS as the spinoff portable title alongside the main game. Usually the portable version is different in some ways than its console brother, so let’s check it out.

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The story’s fairly silly: You were in a race alongside your brother Mick, and a multi-car pile up by some unknown assailant caused the death of your brother and made you get amnesia.. What follows is a typical revenge plot as you work with Mick’s former crewmembers, Sara and Carter, as you climb your way to the top and dominate districts and solve the mystery.

So let’s take a look at how this looks on the Game Boy Advance…

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If you think it looks bad on a screenshot, imagine this in motion!

Oh. Oh dear. I’m not a graphics snob by any means, but wow this game looks pretty bad, even by GBA standards. Feel the thrill of going 100 mph while it looks like a casual stroll through a city road. The game runs pretty slow for a racing game. Now I know the Game Boy Advance is not a 3D powerhouse, but something is really wrong when this runs at a snail’s pace. It doesn’t help that I can barely see anything. It’s hard sometimes to see what’s ahead of you, and most of the roads are made at 90 degree angles that make it hard to make good turns. Doesn’t help that this perspective also makes swerving past traffic and other racers difficult.

One of the few modes where being in first isn't guaranteed a win.

It’s impressive how the 3D looks, but it looks like a pixely mess where I can’t see crap.

But enough about how it looks, here’s how it plays. A accelerates, B brakes, L activates Nitrous – provided the car has it unlocked, and R is the handbrake. There are four race types: Circuit, Sprint, Elimination, and Hunter. Circuit and Sprint are simple races. Elimination removes the last place driver at each lap. Hunter is a strange one: Every skill or trick you do fills up a health bar, but hitting anything or stopping loses health. It’s less about finishing first and more about finishing skillfully.

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This is the silliest crew I’ve ever seen.

During the game, the player acquires Wingmen – just like in Carbon – which you can use by hitting L and R. This works fine considering the GBA’s limited control scheme, but it can be annoying at times when you accidentally handbrake after you activate a Wingman. There’s only two types: One that hits other drivers, and the other slips behind you so you can slipstream for a nitrous refill. As you get further along, you get more wingmen, but the only differences between them and the previous ones is that you can use them more often in a race, with no other statistical differences.

By the way, you want to have Wingmen at all times so you can have only two opponents to race against, otherwise you’re facing off against three other racers. This also makes Elimination easier as you only need to do two laps rather than three.

Our journey starts here... with a poor racing crew name.

Our journey starts here… with a poor racing crew name.

There’s six districts to go through, with each of these races. Winning or hitting second place earns points that can be put towards improving a car, pimping an existing car, or buying new cars. After finishing a set number of races, the first boss for an area is available. Beat that boss, and you go after the second boss. Defeating both bosses allow you to move on to the next area, with a little backstory of the characters, before they decide to tag along with your crew. Despite being a street racer, this is one of the few games in the current Need for Speed franchise that has no cop chases of any sort, which is pretty damn lame.

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It’s almost like I’m putting points into my driver just to make him work better.

Improving cars works almost like the system used in old Tony Hawk games: Where upgrading to a new level with each purchase, making it so the car accelerates faster or turns smoother. It’s simple enough that the game even does an “autobuy” feature to automatically give the best features.

Of course, it wouldn't be a Need for Speed game without ridiculous looking customization features....

Of course, it wouldn’t be a Need for Speed game without ridiculous looking customization features….

As I went through each area, the previous boss would reveal a bit more of the back story. We later find out that a racer named Buddy was the cause of the deadly car crash that killed Mick, but he didn’t know about it at the time.

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I have to pause for a moment just to talk a bit about the cutscenes. They’re simple shots of characters in the game, full of dialogue, with an occasional head in a box for good measure. I know this is the GBA we’re talking about here, but these character designs look like something an intern drew up in a hurry. They look like rejects from Urbz: Sims in the City. Oh, and let’s talk about the music. I totally love hearing a sample of Ekstrak’s Hard Drivers on loop through the GBA’s tinny speaker while cycling through the menus. On the bright side, the game has some good arrangements of Trevor Morris’ score from Need for Speed: Carbon converted to chiptune by Allister Brimble, so there’s that.

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Back to the story. Eventually, I get some help from MK, a police officer posing as a racer, to get more info on the killer. This is one of the few times the police are even mentioned in this game. I find out Ex was the one who offered Buddy the money, and he reveals himself as the game’s villain. Even after holding Carter hostage and destroying Sara’s car, our hero vows for revenge.

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After all that, I finally get to go through “The Gauntlet.” As opposed to before, where I could just choose any race until I was allowed to fight the boss racers, I had to do each race, one at a time, before I could get to Ex. It’s not particularly difficult, especially since even getting second place earns me points, so I would eventually get points for a race and immediately dump it into upgrades for my car.

Though they're all branded after notable cars, but they look so generic.

Though they’re all branded after notable cars, but they look so generic.

I went through most of the game with a Chevy Cobalt, then a Audi TT 3.2 quattro, and finally the Toyota Supra. Once I couldn’t buy any more upgrades for my car, I took the excess points and bought the most expensive car I could afford and started upgrading that. It’s not particularly impossible, since you can even redo previous races for a reduced reward, or go back and finish races you never played for more points than normal.

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So after fighting the gauntlet, I let Ex breathe exhaust as I kicked his ass in the final race. He gets arrested, but then Sara comes back with a big twist: In reality, you were Mick’s killer. The player hired Ex to bump off Mick because he was an asshole, and abusive to Sara. While Ex bribed Buddy to help knock him off the road, the race was between Mick and your character. But that’s okay says Sara, since I’m not like Mick, and I put a crook behind bars. Oh, and I got my bro’s pocketwatch back, because that was totally a plot point mentioned very briefly. Yeah, it’s a crappy twist ending where “YOU WERE THE REAL KILLER” and it’s just dumb.

Honestly, I don’t expect a good story out of Need for Speed. after all, this is the series that brought us that snarky opponent from the original 3DO game, to Razor “FIVE GRAND” Callahan in 2005’s Most Wanted. I’m aware EA has their tongue firmly planted in their cheek with this series. Then again, racing games either have this or dull, realistic driving. If I had to choose between silly street racing and serious driving, I’d definitely pick the former every time.

The color lighting really doesn't help this game.

Sometimes the game does this color lighting thing and it looks real strange and awful.

I’ll admit, I’m baffled this game was even made. By 2006 everybody was into DS fever and the GBA was all but dead in America. I guess this was made for the kids who were still clutching onto that little purple device, but I wouldn’t say this was a good racing game. Then again, my experience with GBA racing games is fairly minimal, so maybe this is par for the course when it comes to GBA Need for Speed.

There are better racing games on the GBA, so only get this out of curiosity, and preferably at a real cheap price. Hell, I paid $1 for this and I got my buck’s worth out of this.

This probably only means anything to me, but this is the 100th post I’ve made to You Found a Secret Area!. I thank the readers for reading this darn thing for so long. Here’s to 100 more!

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