The Nintendo 64 has a lot of great racing games, but most of them are kart racers or adapted from the arcade. Don’t get me wrong, I do love those types of games, but I’ve always wondered if the N64 ever birthed a competitor for Sony’s racing simulation Gran Turismo. After a bit of internet research I came up with a few candidates that may be able to answer that question. The one I decided to try first is World Driver Championship.
World Driver Championship isn’t exactly a racing simulator, but it does boast 15 world driving teams, 10 tracks throughout the world, 20 events spread across two different levels of competition and 30 highly detailed cars with realistic handling and physics. Starting off, the game allows the player to choose from only a few of those teams, race for them and earn points to rank up and unlock more team options and better cars to drive. Each team offers a different style of car with a few upgraded versions which become unlockable, but at first the car options are very lackluster, and kind of difficult to drive. Once you’ve chosen which team you’ll drive for you can start a series and do the best you possibly can. Each series has two different sets of points: the points you earn that determine where you place in the series, and points toward your overall rank. The player starts at rank 30 and will earn points to work their way up to 1st place from there.
In a way World Driver Championship can be looked at as a racing RPG, but only for the fact that you sometimes have to grind out the same series of races a few times to get enough points to gain better cars to be competitive in another series. Earning the gold trophy will unlock a new racing series, but if you didn’t earn enough points to unlock a car good enough to compete in that series you’ll just have to keep grinding. This can be a bit frustrating at first as, previously mentioned, the handling on the beginning cars can be a bit difficult. If you’re having a problem with any particular race the player is given the option to practice the track as well as qualify for a better starting position before actually taking part in the event. However, if you drive poorly during an event the AI are not very forgiving, and last place can sometimes be a very familiar finish.
Graphically World Driver Championship is very impressive for a Nintendo 64 game. There is even a high-res mode that doesn’t require the expansion pak, although it does crop it down into a letterbox shape on the screen. Draw distances are seemingly endless as I’ve never noticed any fog and minimal pop up, so I can focus on the horizon and where my next turn will be. Truthfully sometimes this game feels like a Playstation game with the graphics and way it renders everything. As if that wasn’t enough, entire races can be viewed as a replay and even saved to a memory pak.
However, all things have their dark side and this game has a few things that do annoy me. First there is a complete lack of ability to personally upgrade or modify your car, with only upgraded versions you unlock from ranking up being offered. Another gripe that I have is there seems to be an invisible margin on each AI car which, if hit while trying to overtake, will send the other car flying in the right direction, while slowing your car down by at least 70%. Sometimes you’ll be holding a line in a turn then, suddenly and mysteriously, find your car spinning out wildly, allowing you to watch all the cars pass you as you wonder what just happened. Lastly, this game doesn’t seem to fully understand drafting and its importance within racing games as a way to help pass and overtake opponent vehicles. Sometimes you may seem as if you’re drafting and gaining on the AI, while other times there seems to be no possible way to draft at all.
World Driver Championship isn’t perfect, but it does scratch that itch for a more realistic driving game on the N64. Oddly I both enjoy and detest the ranking system. I enjoy it because obviously every game needs a goal to accomplish, but the fact that you’re given cars that seemingly fight against you at the beginning, causing you to race the same races over and over to unlock better ones, robs the game of some enjoyment. Sticking to it, learning each track and its variants, and just doing your best is the only tactic I’ve found that works. World Driver Championship isn’t a terrible game, by far, but the beginning does feel needlessly complicated just to pad out a sense of accomplishment.