Cruis'n USA (Arcade) Review

The Cruis’n series—and its multitude of spiritual successors in the Fast and the Furious series—has meant a great deal to me for many years. My first taste of proper Cruis’n came from the Nintendo 64 port of Cruis’n USA. Since then, I’ve experienced almost everything up to Blast.

With that in mind, I’m sure you can imagine how delighted I am to have convenient access to a Cruis’n USA arcade cabinet at TJ’s Laundry in Hopkinsville. I played through the game once in high school and twice this summer, so I think I have a good feel for it by now.

Does this legacy hit hold up today? Or is it starting to show its age? Allow me to answer all these questions and more in the following review. (Fun fact: I reviewed Cruis’n World on my blog long before its predecessor. Oops.)

 

Cruis’n USA

Developer: Midway Games

Publisher: Midway Games

Release Date: November 1994

 

Gameplay

While not the first of its kind, Cruis’n USA more or less codified the arcade racer as we know it today. Your goal is to be the first of 10 contenders to cross the finish line, with timed checkpoints segmenting the way.

I’ve always been very fond of this style of racing, and I think that’s because it feels more organic than racing multiple laps around a closed circuit. Plus, in the case of Cruis’n, blazing a single path ahead is only natural when traversing from one coast to the other.

Don’t let the lack of laps fool you into thinking your path is straightforward, though. The courses comprising Cruis’n USA are ripe with jackknife turns. Veering through some the nastier courses—I’m looking at you, Redwood Forest—requires real skill.

And it’s not just the tracks themselves that’ll cause you issues. You’ll share these roads with dozens of dynamic CPU drivers who genuinely act on their accord. Witnessing a whole host of CPUs plow into each other was simultaneously hilarious and frustrating.

Speaking of crashes, the physics are downright brutal. What makes the aforementioned collisions so frustrating is the fact that recovering from them would often take literal seconds and dash my chances of claiming first place.

Coupled with the aggressive rubberbanding, Cruis’n USA can be a very difficult game. I didn’t have much trouble netting a good chunk of wins throughout my most recent playthrough, but I still felt like I was at the whim of the machine most of the time.

Funnily enough, I’m pretty sure the best strategy for surpassing competitors is to always drive in the wrong lane. Maybe I my perception was totally off, but I’m so convinced I was faster that way. It’s like the game rewards high-risk play.

Admittedly, Cruis’n doesn’t feel anywhere near as fast as modern racers, but that’s more than made up for by the sheer frenzy of it all. This is a gloriously goofy game, something you’ll undoubtedly recognize once you get behind the wheel.

Some of what I’ve said so far could be perceived negatively—but I promise you it shouldn’t. In my eyes, any potential criticisms are moot because they’re what make Cruis’n…well, Cruis’n. I play this series to scratch a very specific arcade racing itch.

Heck, I think you’ll enjoy it, too. Although I’ve never played with another person—a testament to how engaging this title really is—I’m completely confident assuming Cruis’n USA is that much more fun with a bud. Give it a shot sometime.

 

Content

When it comes to content, Cruis’n USA delivers more than what I’d expect from a game released in 1994 and just enough to satisfying my cravings in 2021. I certainly don’t think I’ll tire of the available offerings any time soon.

There are 14 tracks and 7 vehicles, and all are a delight to experience. The tracks range from relaxed to challenging, and the vehicles range from serious to comical. I mean, for goodness’ sakes, you can drive a school bus through the desert.

It’s important to note only 10 of the tracks can be played through the main menu. The remaining four are accessed through the “Cruise the USA” campaign, which took me a half-hour and $2.25 to complete (at $0.25 per credit).

You’ve also got a few options at your disposal. During gameplay, you can select from one of seven songs or three camera angles on the fly. I absolutely adore having this much control over the experience, since arcade games aren’t generally for customizability.

Beyond that, the most compelling ways to increase your total playtime is by shooting for “hot times” on each track or by racing your buddies in multiplayer. Since TJ’s Laundry only has one cabinet, I’ll be flying solo for the foreseeable future.

I’m more than happy with the content provided in Cruis’n USA. While it may not offer as much as 2010’s The Fast and the Furious: Super Cars, this 1994 gem still delivers vastly more than 2016’s Cruis’n Blast. Talk about embarrassing!

 

Controls

With a steering wheel, gas and brake pedals, four-way shifter, view buttons, and a tunes button, the control scheme of Cruis’n USA should be intimately familiar to arcade racing fans. This setup is still used to this day, give or take a few inputs.

The steering wheel is highly sensitive—in a good way. The most effective way to tackle tight turns, in my experience, is by cranking the steering wheel hard in the desired direction and following the curve. This is one input that most definitely works.

The brake pedal is similarly responsive, making it a gosh-send in tougher courses like Redwood Forest. What I didn’t enjoy was how close the brake is to the gas pedal. Rather than pivoting between the two pedals with one foot, I had to use my left and right feet simultaneously, which was highly uncomfortable.

Fortunately, I only needed the brake in select levels, and the gas pedal functioned very well. Acceleration was strong from the starting line but admittedly a touch sluggish when recovering from crashes. I suppose that was probably an intentional design choice.

I wish I could comment on the four-way shifter, but I’ve yet to try it. To be honest, I don’t know how to drive a manual transmission, so I’m afraid to waste quarters learning. I’ll, uh…I’ll let you review this part on my behalf.

The buttons for changing the viewpoint and music serve up some much-needed customizability. As you might imagine, I thoroughly enjoyed being able to alter fundamental aspects of the experience on the fly.

Here’s the thing with the viewpoints: The two third-person perspectives were completely fine, but I couldn’t figure out first-person. Despite how cool it looked, I never felt like I had adequate spatial awareness. Hopefully, first-person works better for you.

My only other qualm lies in the physics, which can be horrendously punishing if you get caught up in a crazy collision. More often than I’d like to admit, I’d make one simple mistake and end up sabotaging my position. Recovering from that point on was a tall order.

Regardless, the controls are brilliant, and you should no problem picking them up. In my opinion, Cruis’n USA is one of the first video games to accurately capture the sensation of driving, even if it does take some liberties here and there.

 

Graphics/Presentation

Cruis’n USA is a masterclass in presentation. I’m routinely stunned by the level of detail the developers were able to achieve on Midway’s mid-‘90s hardware, from the polygon count to the texture fidelity and everything in between.

Although I can’t ascertain the exact numbers, I’m mighty impressed by the consistency of the framerate, which adds tremendously to the game’s already keen sense of speed. You won’t get bogged down by any dips during wacky CPU scenarios.

One minor concession I noticed was in the less-than-ideal draw distance. Huge chunks of the skyline will pop in fairly close to the camera without the aid of distance fog or masking effects, significantly hampering the realism.

However, seeing as how that’s the only issue with an otherwise stunning technical experience, I can’t really complain. The degree to which this game makes me feel like I’m actually traversing the United States is mind-boggling nonetheless.

On that note, I do wish the developers had represented a broader variety of locales. While I’m perfectly content with having only 14 tracks, I think far too many of them are situated on the west and east coasts. The “flyover states” got shafted hard.

I should also mention the vehicles aren’t officially licensed but rather copyright-friendly imitations. The “Italia P69” may be an actual Ferrari Testarossa, for instance, but at least it still looks cool. (We take what we can get around here.)

Even so, the overall presentation is phenomenal—and not just for its realism. I’m tickled pink by trophy girl Shyla Foxxx, the scripted events that occur that play out in some courses, and the ability to smash road-faring animals to literal pieces.

Silliest of all is the sequence concluding the campaign, which features Bill Clinton and his female compatriots chilling in a hot tub. Seeing good ol’ Bill warmed my heart, even if the ending sequences in Cruis’n World and Exotica are more polished.

All this kooky crud is wrapped in one heckuva bow. The menus and heads-up display all feel “just right” in terms of selling the road trip premise. My favorite element is the map you deck out in silver stars as you progress through the campaign.

What more can I say? Cruis’n USA looks spectacular, from both technical and artistic perspectives. It’s no Gran Turismo—I can promise you that—but I highly doubt that’s what anyone truly wants from Cruis’n.

 

Sound/Music

If there’s one regard in which Cruis’n USA undeniably succeeds, it’s sound design. Vince Pontarelli’s rockin’ soundtrack never fails to delight me, especially the main theme, “House Special,” “Roadkill Jam,” and “Redline Shuffle.”

My only problem with the soundtrack is there’s quite simply not enough of it. Too many songs are reused for multiple courses, even if when they don’t necessarily make that much sense in terms of context. Regardless, the songs are extremely excellent.

The sound effects aren’t half-bad either. The rumbling of engines and screeching of tires are just as about vivid as can be for 1994. I’m sure this crisp fidelity is due in no small part to the superb speakers through which the audio is disseminated.

By far the corniest—and therefore most fun—element of the audio is the female announcer who provides commentary as your cruise the country. She seems to be “audience surrogate,” reacting to the stunning sights as the player might in real life.

The combination of upbeat tunes, realistic foley, and engaging voiceover makes for a very rich audio experience. If you weren’t already sold on the gameplay and graphics…well, the sound design just might be the ticket.

 

Cabinet

Cruis’n USA was released in three distinct form factors: a standard upright, a standard sit-down, and a deluxe sit-down. I played on the standard sit-down, which seems to be the most common variant based on what I’ve encountered.

The standard sit-down is exactly what you’d expect from such a model. The cabinet initially felt a tad cramped, but I was able to mostly remedy this by sliding back the seat. Beyond that, I had no issues. I adore the modesty of the design.

Although I haven’t tried it myself, I imagine the standard upright feels much the same, only without the seat. I have a real soft spot for upright drivers—since they’re basically a dead art form in the year 2021—so I’d love to give this one a whirl someday.

Despite encountering the deluxe sit-down at the Galloping Ghost Arcade a few years ago, I neglected to experience it firsthand. I’ll be honest: This thing looks just plain ugly to me. Maybe the motion seat makes up for the janky body.

All in all, Cruis’n USA is housed in a pretty sweet lineup of cabinets, so I doubt you can go wrong no matter how you play. (Heck, some people might even enjoy the deluxe upright.) I can personally assure you the standard sit-down is a gem, though.

 

For many gamers, including myself, Cruis’n USA is the seminal arcade racer, providing a captivating illusion of realism without ever taking itself too seriously. As great as simulation racing can be, I enjoy “turning my brain off” for a game like this.

Now that I’m back in Hopkinsville for the summer, I may zoom my way through the campaign a few more times. Goodness knows Cruis’n USA is worth both my time and my money—and yours, too. I highly recommend checking it out.

That’s all I’ve got for today, folks. If you enjoyed this review, I strongly urge you to follow me on Twitter or join my Discord server. (The latter platform is where you’ll uncover my “hottest takes,” as the kids say.)

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