Gentlemen, start your engines
Although is bears no relation to Sony's spectacular racing series, thanks to its rather ambiguous name GT Advance Championship Racing will probably confuse a number of punters into buying it on that basis. But for once this sort of shady brand piggy-backing isn't going to harm anybody, because GT Advance is a damned fine racing title. Also, in fairness to THQ the Japanese release was labelled Advanced GTA, which would have caused just as much confusion. It boasts 45 licensed vehicles although a number of those are indigenous to Japan, but the style is decidedly Western, with a sweet, arcade racer style of gameplay that relies on the mastering of powerslides. There are a good number of tracks (32) and support for two players via link cable, completing an impressive package, but one marred slightly elsewhere by sloppy cost-cutting. We'll get to that later though. GT Advance features several single player modes, but the Championship is where you'll spend most of your time. It's a race against seven other vehicles on increasingly tricky courses, and as the track and competition improves your mastery of powersliding will also have to as well. Maintaining speed into and out of corners is the most important factor, but so is avoiding unnecessary contact with the barriers. As you progress (by finishing in the top four) you receive a bounty of new vehicles and upgrades, which have to be applied through the car select and tuning menus. The car select is pretty obvious, but tuning is a little nondescript. You receive all these extras, like steel rods and other bits, and they have to be applied every time you switch car, but there is no indication of what they actually do, other than the way they "upgrade" your car. Still…
Powersliding isn't a difficult art to master, but the tracks are often narrow and unconventional so you have to keep your wits about you. The other cars put up a decent fight as well, and many races are decided on the final lap's powersliding more than anything else. Cars space out as the race goes on, so there's a real sense of adrenaline pumping as you pip your opponent past the chequered flag on the last corner. As you improve so does the game, and since you'll all start out on the Beginner setting (losers!) there are further difficult levels to explore. The hardest is positively devilish. We didn't get a chance to test the link up option, but we're led to believe that it's remarkably playable, as long as both drivers get a decent amount of light on their screens so they can see. We can imagine the competition being fairly nail-biting, especially on some of the more difficult tracks, like the tortuous figure of eight with the narrow gangways down the centre and the large oval-shaped map where one mis-timed powerslide is all it takes to win or lose.
The technology of GT Advance's visuals is similar to that of F-Zero, with a flat, painted road sprawled out in front of you scaling as you twist and turn. Although it's hardly 3D (it's more Outrun Advance than anything), it does feel suitably depthy. The only thing we'd have to take issue with is the way the track boundaries are so hard to distinguish from the rest of the course. Since they're painted on to the same scaling plane, telling them apart from things you can drive on is difficult - usually it's just a change of colour. Thanks to the map display in the upper left hand corner of the screen this isn't too much of an issue though, as turnings are easy to work out in advance, but with that said, in a game that relies so heavily on minute margins and perfect sliding, it's a bit short-sighted. Another issue that it's difficult not to mark GT Advance down on is its lack of variety in its locations. All right, others haven't been quite so critical of this, but for me, two or three different types of environment is a little less than I'd hoped for. Even F-Zero had more, and there isn't exactly much room for movement there… Ideally there would be the usual road and offroad gravel types, but also some gimmickery, like bridge races and such. The formula may be pretty conventional, but that doesn't mean you can't spice it up!
The biggest let down of all though is something that has been changed in the transition from Advanced GTA (Japan) to GT Advance Championship Racing. In fact, we didn't realise this until the first time we came back to the UK version of the game after turning off the console. The Japanese version features built-in battery backup RAM, which of course saves players' time by simply remembering everything - conquered tracks, cars, extra fittings etc. In the move from East to West though, this crucial feature has been discarded in favour of an utterly archaic password system. Lets be clear, we don't have a problem with password systems, but only as a last resort! There can be no other explanation for the absence of battery backup than pure laziness and cost-cutting. Having to remember a 16 character alphanumeric passcode is an absurdity I'm not acquainted with, but apparently it's the in thing for GT Advance players. Since I've started playing I have gone through a whole page of an A5 pad simply writing down passwords. And they're difficult to make out on the screen too, so you end up getting them wrong every once in a while, which is really tedious. We have no sympathy for THQ on this one - the absence of battery backup RAM is like a fatal blow to the heart of a noble hero. It mars an otherwise excellent racing game! So here are your prospects: either you buy the UK version and on the way home pop into your local stationers for a few trees' worth of paper to scribble down the codes, or you could figure out how to import the Japanese version for a few quid more. Most of the menus are in English and there's no laborious password system. Whatever your decision, you should definitely own GT Advance one way or another, as current gripe excepted; it's a sterling example of handheld racing done properly.