Driving, shooting, and programming—all with Rush references, and a feminine secret to boot. Truly, a game of the future.

Mach Rider

Japanese title: マハライダー • Maha Raidaa
Developer: Nintendo/HAL
Publisher: Nintendo
U.S. release date: June 1986 [NES-MR]
Japanese release date: Nov. 1985 [HVC-MR]
European release date: March 1987 [NES-MR]
Genre: Racing/Shooting
Alternate versions: VS. Mach Rider [1985] Wii Virtual Console [2007] 3DS Virtual Console [2014] Wii U Virtual Console [2014]

Mach Rider, the second of Nintendo’s Black Box games of indeterminate release date, has always seemed an oddity. Of the roughly two dozen Black Box releases Nintendo pumped out over the first few years of the NES’s life, Mach Rider feels in many ways the least Nintendo-like.

A fairly straight-faced combat racing game, Mach Rider lacks the company’s usual whimsy. There are no cartoonish sprites here, no wacky creatures to avoid. Instead, it focuses entirely on a grim futuristic setting, a post-apocalyptic hell dotted by ruins of skyscrapers and dominated by violent biker gangs. The game’s combat mechanics are completely unvarnished by the metaphorical silliness of its peers. Where other Black Box titles may have involved crushing enemies into paste or crisping them with fireballs, the inherent brutality of those other games was mitigated by goofy animations or the fact that your deadly foes consisted of bushy-browed mushrooms or slack-jawed terrapins. Not so in Mach Rider: Your high-speed bike warrior fires a machine gun and blows enemy riders into vapor.

Nevertheless, Mach Rider does indeed constitute a first-party Nintendo creation, overseen directly by none other than legendary designer Gunpei Yokoi. In many senses, it’s the direct antecedent to Nintendo’s other uncharacteristically “hard” sci-fi creation, Metroid. Many of the sound effects that appear in Mach Rider bear a strong resemblance to Metroid’s effects, and your biker even explodes into fragments upon defeat, the same way Metroid protagonist Samus Aran does. On top of that, the arcade-based VS. Mach Rider overhaul of the game makes your reward for progress a celebratory strip-tease as your biker warrior slowly reveals herself to be a woman in a revealing sci-fi swimsuit — just like Metroid’s revelatory reward system, which disrobed Samus down to a bikini as acknowledgment of efficient play.

Mach Rider fits into Nintendo continuity in the other direction, too: The game had precedent in the company’s pre-video era. “Mach Rider” had been the name of a toy vehicle that Nintendo licensed for Japanese release from American toy giant Hasbro in the ’70s. That product involved a race car that kids could send tearing across the floor with the aid of a mechanical launcher. Unlike with Wild Gunman or Duck Hunt [see NES Works Vol. I], though, the Mach Rider game and toy have no real connection. The game involves combat driving on a futuristic motorcycle, while the toy was simply a self-propelled Formula One racer. 

Then again, maybe you could trace a connection between the two through a shared F1 race element. Former Nintendo president Satoru Iwata never had the chance to tackle Mach Rider in an Iwata Asks interview before his passing, so we’ll probably never know the real circumstances of the game’s conception, but Mach Rider feels for all the world like a retooling of an existing Famicom title to better appeal to the U.S. audience. Let’s consider the facts.

Mach Rider was a first-party Nintendo creation in the sense that Gunpei Yokoi oversaw its development as producer, and the box bears the Nintendo label. In truth, however, the bulk of the game’s development work was handled off-site by HAL Laboratories, another in the company’s multiple contributions to the NES cause in these early days. Among HAL’s first-party projects was the single most technically impressive release to hit the console in 1984: The Japan-exclusive F1 Race. With F1 Race, HAL managed to transplant the behind-the-car racing perspective pioneered by Namco’s Pole Position onto Famicom — no mean feat. Despite offering an incredible showcase of what the console could handle in its early days, F1 Race conspicuously didn’t make an appearance in the U.S. Even so, it surely would have been a shame to let HAL’s remarkable technical feat remain completely stranded in Japan, right?

Enter Mach Rider. While we can’t actually prove that Mach Rider came into existence as a means by which to retool F1 Race’s engine into something that would provide a better fit for the NES’s audience’s American tastes, that reading certainly would make sense. Americans generally have little interest in Formula One, but we love sci-fi and post-apocalyptic road combat and cool motorcycles. Back in 1985, you could still see the pop culture detritus of the ’70s bobbing about in the mainstream U.S. media… and that included motorcycle daredevil Evel Knievel, the television version of Captain America and his patriotic racing bike, as well as more recent works like The Road Warrior and Knight Rider.  Add those things together (along with the arcade game’s Farrah Fawcett-esque bikini heroine) and you have the makings of an incredibly zeitgeisty chunk of ’80s pop culture perfectly aimed at the American market. 

The game’s American connection is further reinforced by Nintendo’s official release dates, which peg Mach Rider as the first NES title to have been released in America (in October 1985) before Japan (where it shipped a month later, in November 1985). This isn’t quite accurate, as Mach Rider doesn’t seem to have arrived in the U.S. until sometime in 1986, but the fact that Nintendo lists its worldwide debut as having taken place in the U.S. seems meaningful in this particular context.

Mach Rider wouldn’t have been the only NES release created for the sake of the overseas market, but it suggests a fundamentally different philosophical approach than its predecessors. Stack-Up and Gyromite came into existence in order to justify the R.O.B. peripheral. Nintendo aimed the R.O.B. gambit at American retailers; Mach Rider seems aimed instead at American consumers.

It’s therefore not too much of a stretch to imagine that Mach Rider’s ultimate purpose was to give HAL an opportunity to rework their F1 Race tech into something a bit more appealing to the U.S. market. And we do know that HAL did perform the bulk of production work on Mach Rider: Not only do HAL employees’ initials and aliases appear in the high-score table of VS. Mach Rider, the Videogame Music Preservation Foundation [vgmpf.com] has confirmed directly with an unnamed source at HAL that Hideki Kanazashi — who also worked on F1 Race — composed some of Mach Rider’s music.

By no means should you take this to mean that Mach Rider was little more than a sprite-swap of F1 Race. While the scrolling effect shared by the two games looks to be largely the same, this is by far the more complex work. Mach Rider doesn’t simply involve racing; it also introduces an element of combat, allowing players to shoot enemy racers or push them off the road into hazards. You have to avoid obstacles, manage fuel and ammunition, and deal with multiple objectives. 

Even the simple act of driving in Mach Rider is more involved than in F1 Race. Where the older game offered two gears — high and low — Mach Rider forces you to toggle between four different gears. The game pushes you to avoid muddling in low gear, not only due to the strict time limits on each course, but also by making slow driving as dangerous as going all-out. While screaming along in fourth gear introduces the extremely likely prospect of smashing into an obstacle, puttering around in first or second means that enemy racers are likely to come up from behind you and destroy you. Colliding with an opponent at similar speeds causes you to nudge one another in the opposite direction, but a collision at mismatched speeds will cause you to explode and lose precious time or lives. So you’re constantly adjusting your throttle, balancing the need for speed against the fact that Mach Rider’s top speed is incredibly fast and leaves little time for avoiding oncoming hazards.

After completing a few tracks, you’ll also begin to encounter icy zones where the road becomes dangerously slick. While you can recover from basic road hazards like oil slicks and water puddles easily enough by simply counter-steering, iced-over roads require you to down-shift as you head into turns. Between aggressive enemy bikers, slick surfaces, road obstacles, and the need to build up score chains by destroying foes by any means possible — all at high speeds — Mach Rider proves to be an extremely complicated game for a work of its vintage. 

The game offers three different play modes to further mix things up. The Fighting Course is the most traditional arcade-style experience, offering 20 different courses and reflex-driven combat racing. It consists of 10 stages, each offering two different paths that you select at the beginning of the level. The first stage is pretty much a gimme, allowing you infinite lives as long as you have sufficient energy. Once you reach stage two, however, you have to complete the rest of the game with just a few lives, similar to Williams’s Spy Hunter. 

The other two modes, the Endurance and Solo courses, abandon the lives mechanic and simply demand you travel a certain distance within a fixed time limit. You can die as many times as you like in these modes, though the time it takes you to respawn and get back up from first to fourth gear after an accident cuts into your precious time allowance. After about the fifth or sixth stage, that limit becomes incredibly strict, meaning you can no longer afford to make mistakes. That’s a harsh expectation, because those later levels are absolutely riddled with hazards; once you reach the point at which you have 450 time units to travel 480 kilometers on an icy, obstacle-strewn stretch of highway, Mach Rider becomes an experts-only proposition.

If the demands of the game become too overwhelming, you can always pamper yourself with the fourth option: Design. Yes, Mach Rider would be the third and final entry in the NES Programmable Series. You can lay down a course design and tackle it. As with Wrecking Crew and Excitebike [see NES Works Vol. I], the American release lacks support for the Save and Load features, which worked exclusively with the Famicom Data Recorder peripheral that never left Japan. Unlike the other programmable titles, Nintendo never remade or reissued Mach Rider for the Famicom Disk System, so there’s no option for recording your genius track layouts without the original Data Recorder hardware… outside of Virtual Console suspend states, for whatever that’s worth.

It should be said that Mach Rider’s requirement for a Japan-only peripheral does throw the notion that the game was crafted to appeal to American tastes somewhat into doubt. So, too does the fact of the game’s actual U.S. release date. While Nintendo lists it as having debuted in the U.S. first, there’s ample reason to doubt their officially stated Oct. 1985 release date. Again, Computer Entertainer magazine has it pegged as having arrived in August 1986, well after both the Japanese launch and the second, nationwide wave of U.S. Black Box releases.

Whatever the truth, Mach Rider feels like a tremendous oddity in the NES line-up. Perhaps its greatest legacy is that, in reworking HAL’s racing graphics technology, Nintendo first dallied with the sci-fi vibe and tough lady protagonist that would become fan-favorite elements of R&D1’s seminal Metroid project.