Across five releases over the last sixteen years Climax’s Runabout series has stuck to its own inexplicable genre. Wacky Mission-Based Arcade Racer? Multi-Objective Driving Adventure? Vaguely Open-World Pedestrian Criticism Simulator? Stylistically it embodies everything a boy could love about 90’s anime: absurd and thin plots that require lots of fast driving, ridiculous stunts and millions of dollars in property damage. Crash City Mayhem definitely holds true to the series style but it also sticks to its gameplay at the risk of completely confounding modern players.
Unrelated to anything in the previous games, you play as an ex-spy-turned-courier who gets mixed up in a plot to steal an outlandish spy car. Across six missions you find intel on the car, wind up stealing it, tail a female spy who’s after it herself and ultimately save the day and get the girl. The plotline is only slightly more nuanced than a “three guys walk into a bar” joke but it’s all the setup the game needs.
Once the mission starts you’re off on a high speed race to reach whatever objective markers the stage prescribes. All six missions are set in the same world with barricades and starting points that keep it feeling different but familiar. It’s a good thing, really, as there are loads of shortcuts and alternate routes that only make sense on certain missions. It’s far from an open world but there’s enough breadth to keep you wondering if each side street offers a faster path to your destination.
Many of the 15 vehicles you unlock are novelties like the tank and scooter but all handle uniquely enough to suit your driving/crashing style. In a particularly specific callback to the original game you can even fine tune handling, downforce and brakes to tailor each vehicle’s performance. You steer with the circle pad or D-pad and pretty much every button can be remapped for manual shifting, rear view, gas, brakes and handbrake. There’s a good sense of speed that sometimes hitches the framerate and physics as realistic as you’d like for a game where an F1 car can plow into a city bus and send the wreckage flying.
Playing all six missions in a row would take less than hour so the game abruptly reveals its dark secret to meter your progress: missions are unlocked as you complete old ones on harder difficulty levels. There are five difficulties for each mission, the first three giving you slightly less time or requiring more targets to be found. Finding hidden bonus icons and breaking jump, speed and property damage records help unlock new missions and difficulties. You’ll also unlock 20 items to equip that add goofy trinkets like a musical horn to your car or really useful things like a jump or nitro. The combination of vehicles and items add just enough variety to deaden the sting of grinding missions. Who wouldn’t crack up at the sight of a guy on an “H-David” motorcycle wearing a panda hat that conceals a smaller panda hat underneath? The engrish, the screams of overly-critical pedestrians and the unyielding surf rock tunes are hallmarks of the series and great at defusing your frustrations.
Those frustrations run highest on the Impossible and Legendary difficulties requiring you to complete the mission objectives while also causing $1,000,000 in damage or no damage whatsoever. Causing damage is like a vehicular Price is Right game; managing your damage versus dollars, looking for just the right things to hit without going over. Causing no damage at all is definitely the game’s most punishing challenge. The H-David bike is required for this one but even with its slimmer frame the 3DS’ tiny screen and the game’s draw-in cause some unfair failures. Sitting through a drawn out loading screen and mission intro every time you restart doesn’t help either.
Climax’s adherence to the Runabout style is appreciable as a fan but sixteen years on it isn’t making itself very approachable to anyone else. The peculiar genre is unlike anything in recent memory to draw comparisons to and the slapdash feel of the series — which was tolerable, even endearing in the 90’s — looks shoddy nowadays. Even I had a hard time getting back into the groove of things but I wound up having about sixteen hours of fun, frustration and nostalgia with Crash City Mayhem. I’d rather have played it on a console but the portable platform and $20 price (at retail or on the eShop) seems like the best way to dip a curious toe into this long-running and obscure series.