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Tiny Cars, Wonky Physics, and Building Cities: What Makes Road Trip Adventure Special

The PlayStation 2’s library was a behemoth of shovelware.

Every brand, every fairytale, anything anyone could make a buck off of, was likely to turn up somewhere on some store shelf. Oddly though, some shovelware, or at least, some games that were intended to be so, end up rising beyond that, and today’s mini car racer Road Trip (also known as Road Trip Adventure in Europe) is a prime example of this, and what we’re going to be talking about today.

For those of you who are only remotely familiar, Road Trip is actually a localization of one of the several dozen ChoroQ titles. ChoroQ is a brand of ‘penny racers’ by toymaker Takara Tomy in Japan; you put a penny in the top of a tiny slot car, pull it back and let it accelerate on the floor. There are hundreds of little things based on real-world and fantastical car designs (you can collect 150 of them in Road Trip).

The number of ChoroQ titles number in the double digits; there are half a dozen on PS1 and PS2 apiece; the GBA got four, the N64 two, and the Saturn, GameCube, and Wii all have one to their name. Most made it west under the names of Penny Racers, Gadget Racers, one made it under the original ChoroQ title, and of course, Road Trip. (For those of you curious, Road Trip is known as ChoroQ HG 2 in Japan.)

But enough about the history, what’s the game about?

Simple, it’s a world of sentient cars, long before that average-at-best movie. The president has had enough of his job and has decided to give the presidency to anyone who can master the World Grand Prix and beat him in a race. You start out in tiny little Peach Town, and you’re more or less free to either race or explore at your pleasure. You can hop straight into a race from Q’s Factory, or you can drive out the front door and head in any direction you like.

For you see, Road Trip is actually an open-world game.

There are multiple cities and towns to visit. It’s somewhat linear, with an obvious intended path of discovery, but your first time through it will be almost impossible to notice, thanks to landmarks dotted around that give you plenty of discoveries to make off the beaten path. It’s just as neat to discover the mushroom village as it is the Las Vegas-esque city sprawl. Buildings are everywhere, and if there’s a front door, you can enter it, whether for a quest or just a chat, or you can go paint your car, maybe even go for a completely new look.

Let’s take a moment to talk about the driving physics though…and it’s almost impossible to summarize it in a single word that isn’t “unique.” While you start off being a slow, hard-to-steer brick of a car, tons of upgrades are available from a shop that increase your capabilities like a traditional RPG; everything from better engines and steering, to horns, water skis, and jet turbines. You’ll eventually get much better at weaving your way around the game’s dozen courses; podium finishes earn plenty of money to get you upgrading. Winning the World Grand Prix is simple; win all of the races in rank C to unlock B then A; finish it up by racing the president.

Just be careful not to go too fast; the game’s physics are so wonky that one tire off the ground might result in you flying through the air like a five year old pretending that his cars are planes. It never outright breaks the game, and it’s hilarious to watch your car leave the ground on an angle, only to reorient straight and narrow like it hit the road while still in midair, followed immediately by the twelve cars behind you doing the exact same thing (for how simple Road Trip is graphically, the 24 racers at once is still impressive) but it’s easy to get used to. You can even exploit this during certain challenges; the rock climbing game is hilarious when you hit a rock at just the right angle to soar to the top.

Some of the speedruns available for this game take it to the absolute extreme.

Speaking of the rock climbing game, it’s not just racing.

You have a scrapbook from the very beginning that lists out 100 stamps, basically quests, for you to do across the world. The game has a ton of side content, and that’s where it really shines. The world is dotted with neat things to see and do. Collectibles are everywhere; there are 100 photo booths for memories of your adventure, and 100 ChoroQ coins lying around you can trade in for ridiculous parts and bodies. There are plenty of characters rolling around with things to do, from finding a lost child, to counting windmills, to a globe-spanning scavenger hunt. Each city has a good population of wanderers and houses, and there are plenty of minigames to play.

The dozens of included minigames are absolutely some of the best parts of the trip. You can gamble on a giant roulette wheel, play Rocket League before Rocket League was a twinkle in the eye of Psyonix, go fishing on a Hawaii-esque beach, get lost in an underground maze, play chicken in a Japanese temple, go highway racing, and even weirder concepts. Some of them are even playable in multiplayer, alongside the usual racing. It’s always fun when you stumble across one, and thankfully, if you like one in particular, you have a quick way to access them in My City.

The major game-spanning side quest in Road Trip is building up My City, and yes, they literally call it “My City.”

After your first visit to Sandpolis you’ll discover an empty lot on the way out; talking to the real estate agent will end with you finding people to build on it. Over the course of the game, you can convince a lot of wandering citizens to head to My City, which unlocks tons of extra content from minigames to a round-the-world endurance race. It eventually turns into your headquarters: you get your own house, complete with shelf for trophies and in-game items, a quick warp to the minigame list, an email address with nary a Viagra spam email in sight (but still plenty of well-intentioned weirdos), and the best upgrade shop and factory on the continent. Watching the buildings pop up over time and eventually getting to see all your effort from the top of a giant tower on the edge of the block is immensely satisfying.

This is all held up by an almost overwhelmingly cheery atmosphere. Everything in the game is so colorful, from the cities, to the tracks, to the adorably tiny cars. There’s barely a bad word in the in-game dialogue, the two in-game radio stations are endless upbeat rock from indie bands, and the instrumental music for things like challenges has nothing but a legitimately bright mood behind it.

The game is far from the most visually impressive title on the PS2, but the focus on such an upbeat and happy world helps to offset this in the majority of your playtime. It’s absolutely great for kids, thanks to an overall low difficulty level and assists, like being able to warp to any town you’ve visited from anywhere if you get lost, but I still pick it up again every couple of years to stroll through the countryside.

There’s an absolute sense of discovery in Road Trip that’s really easy to fall into. In-between racing in the World Grand Prix, discovering new places, and meeting fun characters, partaking in a round of car soccer or giant golf, taking your picture at the top of White Mountain, putting together a racing team with advertisements from the local bar and coffee shops, upgrading your car from weird and slow to practically unstoppable, and filling out your stamp book along the way, absolutely feels like what they promise in the title. Even more than a dozen years after it’s release and the absolute saturation of open world driving games, not one gets close to the feeling of adventure and atmosphere that Road Trip had in spades on the PS2.

Speaking of which, how do you get it?

Outside of sourcing the original hardware, if you still have a PlayStation 3 lying around, the European-region PlayStation Store has the game for stupid cheap, something like five Euros. If you don’t, the PC emulator PCSX2 can emulate this game on potatoes; the game is so graphically simple I had the game running on a 2010 era notebook at full speed. It’s actually kind of nuts, now that I think about it.

The rest of the series is not as interesting, if I’m being honest. Developers E-Game only ever did one ChoroQ game as far as I know. There are absolutely some interesting titles in the series; the GameBoy Advance entries are actually fun kart racers that retain the RPG systems and general style, if nothing else.

The janky tank spinoff Combat Choro-Q made it west under the title Seek and Destroy if you like that sort of thing. The other PS2 titles aren’t as interesting, whether it be in minigames, races, or world design (Road Trip’s open world was the first and last of its kind in the series). They aren’t horrible, don’t get me wrong, and I do plan on playing them more in depth someday, but none of them truly hold a candle to Road Trip. There hasn’t been a proper ChoroQ game since the Wii (a couple of mobile games have popped up and disappeared just as quickly in Japan), and that’s a real shame; today’s powerhouses of hardware, weirdo projects from odd places, and general indie-friendly atmosphere could absolutely give the concept a great spiritual successor. Until someone crazy enough takes up that mantle though, Road Trip still remains one of the most memorable open-world car RPGs out there, and it’s an easy recommend to anyone who enjoys a real adventure.