Review: Namco Bandai Pole Position: Remix
Tedium. It's not a word often associated with games, even iPod games, which have ranged from great to downright bad on various occasions. But Namco's Pole Position: Remix ($5) fits that bill -- it's a vintage 1982 racing game that has received only the most modest gloss for re-release on the iPod, 26 years later. Though the original Pole Position was one of the most popular arcade games of the early 1980s, this sequel proves the maxim that racing titles never get better with age, and require more than small tune-ups to stay relevant to new audiences.
Back in 1982, the very idea of racing a Formula One car in a three-dimensional environment was exciting. Pole Position was housed in a cabinet with a steering wheel, enabling you to experience the then-novel joy of seeing roadside signs and other cars getting bigger as they came towards the screen. You were told to ‘prepare to qualify,’ given a stick shift, accelerator pedal, and a steering wheel, and offered one lap around a track to show your stuff. Beat the clock and you’d be allowed to run a real race against more numerous competitors. Fail and you’d need to insert another quarter. A deluxe version inside of a sit-down wooden cabinet made the driving experience even more compelling.
To its credit, Namco hasn’t just dumped the old game on the iPod. In fact, Pole Position: Remix draws more inspiration from the company’s 1983 sequel Pole Position II, as it lets you select from more than one track; there are now five (Namco/Fuji, Speedway/Test, Wonder/Suzuka, Seaside, and Misaki Point) to start, plus eight reversed or mirrored versions that are unlockable through good performance—though only fans would find it easy to distinguish the old tracks from the new ones. The graphics change only modestly from track to track, which are different only in their arrangements of turns. There are also six new unlockable ‘themes,’ which change the look of the car and art in the game assuming that you can unlock them. In recent Namco console racing game fashion, four of these themes are car- and dashboard-changers based on the company’s classic arcade games such as Dig Dug, Galaga, Pac-Man and Tekken, while Retro and Neopolis change both the cars and the other art to older or more futuristic themes; these features add a little flair to what is otherwise a very dated title.
That might be an understatement. Pole Position: Remix is another one of those games that feels too old and underoptimized for the iPod, with art that has barely progressed from 25-year-old standards and controls that don’t do justice to the original experience. Namco has tried to simplify the art of driving by creating a combination accelerator and steering wheel; you build speed just by holding your finger on the Click Wheel, and steer by rotating your finger left and right. In automatic mode, the gear shifts automatically into high mode from low whenever you’re in the 160mph range; in manual mode you hit the center Action button to do the same. Trivia fans may also note that there’s no brake, a control that was present in the sit-down versions of Pole Position and Pole Position II, but not in the standup ones.
Shifting gears, the key to passing other cars on the track, is relatively easy. But steering with the iPod is not. Pole Position is a game of fast turns and precise movements to avoid competing traffic. To say that this experience is completely wrecked by the Click Wheel is perhaps too harsh, but once again, this controller takes an experience anyone with a dollar and a dream could almost master two decades ago, and too often transforms it into an exercise in frustration. The turns are as sharp and sudden as they were back in 1982 and 1983, which is to say that they’re modestly telegraphed and sometimes hard to make even with a steering wheel controller. With the iPod’s Click Wheel, you’re at a disadvantage, and since all you are doing in this game is making turns, when that’s not fun or exciting, there’s a problem.
There are a few surprising parts of the Pole Position: Remix experience. The game sometimes pulls album artwork from your library to use as roadside signs—we were surprised to see the iLounge.com logo from our old podcast appear as we were driving on the Namco track. Water puddles on the track are small obstacles, joined now by oil slicks, which spin your car further out of control, not that such a thing is really needed. And the car explosion effect, which you’ll be seeing often, is the more impressive “wheels popping off” version from Pole Position II.
None of this helps Pole Position: Remix achieve greatness, or even goodness, as an iPod game. The features that save it from our “bad” rating are its audio, which isn’t great, but at least has some synthesizer music rather than dead air, and its variety of unlockables, which may keep you busy if you decide to make the investment. We wouldn’t; Pole Position: Remix quickly had us bored to tears, cursing the Click Wheel, and disinterested in playing further. But the side-of-road signs for Galaga gave us some hope that Namco’s more iPod-friendly classics might emerge one day—assuming titles like this don’t scare away all the company’s fans.