Monaco GP is the first arcade game I ever played. I was so young at the time I didn’t even know it by name. It was simply the racing game right inside the entrance to the arcade that was right inside the entrance to the mall. It was loud and fast and simple, an ideal game for a 5 year old. Whenever we went to that mall, I would ask my parents for a quarter to play and they would almost always oblige. Then one day it wasn’t there anymore and I moved on to other games without thinking too much about it.
When I finally did think about it again, it was as an adult who really wanted to play that one racing game I liked as a kid in MAME. Not actually knowing the name of that one racing game I liked as a kid made it tricky, but with some perseverance I was able to track it down. Unfortunately, what I wasn’t able to track down was a MAME-friendly zip file to drop into my ROMS folder. None of the many websites of ill-repute I visited had it.* It turns out that, as one of the last arcade games to use discrete logic circuits rather than a CPU, Monaco GP isn’t emulated in MAME.
It was ported to home consoles. First to the Japan-only Sega SG-1000. Then to the Playstation 2 as part of the Japan-only Sega Ages series. But since I don’t collect import games those are both worthless to me. I didn’t get to play Monaco GP again until the day after my fortieth birthday. To celebrate reaching middle age, I was taken on a trip east to visit the Baseball Hall of Fame and see a game at Fenway Park. In between, we stopped at the Funspot arcade in Laconia, New Hampshire, where I found a beautiful Monaco GP cockpit game to pour my tokens into.
It was every bit as glorious as I remembered. Maybe even more so thanks to playing in a cockpit cabinet rather than on a dinky cabaret. The ridiculously loud speakers positioned directly behind my ears funneled the roar of the engine straight into my brain.
Monaco GP is a bird’s-eye view racing game with the simple goal of driving as fast as possible for as long as possible, crashing into as few things as possible along the way. The computer controlled cars move predictably, so the challenge comes from mastering various types of terrain, from slippery ice-covered roads to dark tunnels with limited visibility to narrow bridges that offer little room to maneuver.
Rather than requiring players to reach a set goal before time expires to continue playing, typical of arcade racing games, Monaco GP uses a hybrid of time and lives. The game begins with a ninety second timer. During this time, crashes only slow the player down. If the player has at least 2,000 points when the timer hits zero, “Extended Play” mode begins. In this mode, each crash costs the player a life with one extra life awarded every 2,000 points.
There’s a reason this game gnawed at the back of my brain for all those years, even as it was superseded by games like Turbo and Out Run and Sega Rally and Crazy Taxi. The simple gameplay combined with super tight controls, a downright mesmerizing feeling of speed and the sudden death urgency of the Extended Play mode make Monaco GP one of the most satisfying racing games out there and worth every single one of the 3,000 miles I had to travel to play it again.
* Don’t pirate games kids.