Burnin’ Rubber: let’s bump and jump

Data East may be a slightly lesser-known company than the big hitters of the 8- and 16-bit era, but they still put out some cracking arcade games during this period, many of which got home ports.

One fine example is Burnin’ Rubber, which is also known, depending on where you are in the world and what platform you played it on, as either Bump ‘n’ Jump or Buggy Popper.

It’s a top down racer that predates Bally Midway’s better-known classic of the genre Spy Hunter by a full year, and you can play an official modern rerelease of the NES version right now on the Evercade retro gaming handheld as part of its third cartridge, Data East Collection 1. Let’s take a closer look!

The original arcade version of Burnin’ Rubber from 1982 (and Mattel’s subsequent ports to Atari 2600, Intellivision and ColecoVision over the next couple of years, where it was renamed Bump ‘n’ Jump) was a simplistic affair that didn’t make any real effort to contextualise what was going on: you have a car, you drive fast, you get points for destroying other cars, either by jumping on them or ramming into the sides of the road. (Also, pro-tip: you get 50,000 bonus points if you finish a level without destroying any other cars… not as easy as it might sound!)

This is all the context an early ’80s arcade game really needs, to be fair, but when Data East and Vic Tokai came to port the game to Famicom and NES in 1986 — renaming it Buggy Popper for its Japanese release, and returning to Mattel’s Bump ‘n’ Jump moniker for the Western NES version — it expanded on the original formula in quite a few ways. So much so that the NES version is perhaps more accurately considered a sequel to the arcade original.

Firstly, we now had a reason to drive fast and get points for destroying other cars, though it wasn’t an especially imaginative one: while out driving in your bouncy bouncy buggy (whose name is canonically “Popper”, hence the Japanese title), your girlfriend went and carelessly got herself kidnapped by a gang of nasty men called The Jackals. Being an early ’80s video game hero, you naturally aren’t going to stand for this, so you decide to rescue her with no real plan other than causing as much automotive destruction as possible along the way.

Secondly, we had some revamped presentation: the NES version actually features rather more varied visuals than the arcade original, which simply saw you speeding through variations on the same environments themed around the four seasons. In the NES version, however, you travel from the country roads of the original to the middle of a city and onwards to a tropical island — and there are some inordinately catchy new tunes to accompany your never-ending journey.

Thirdly, there are some additional mechanics to consider. While in the original Burnin’ Rubber for arcades, jumping was dependent on you going fast enough, in the NES version you also have a fuel level to worry about. Run out of fuel and you won’t immediately crash, but you won’t be able to jump any more — and that’s a major issue in Burnin’ Rubber.

You see, as well as having roads filled with maniac drivers, the courses you take on in Burnin’ Rubber are also full of seemingly impassable obstacles: gaps in the road where a bridge over the river should be in the original, while the NES version also adds other hazards such as tall viaducts in the city levels and pools of water on the tropical island. All of these can be safely bypassed by jumping over them… so you can likely imagine why running out of fuel and no longer being able to jump would be a problem.

The NES version adds some more subtle point-scoring mechanics to the mix, too. The 50,000 point bonus for clearing a level with no wrecked cars is still intact, but now there are also additional 5,000 point bonuses available for particularly dangerous and stylish clears of the major obstacles. While jumping a river, for example, if you time your jump so you land on a small island halfway across, that’s 5,000 points for you; likewise if you time your jump in the city to land on top of the viaduct and then immediately jump off again, that’s another 5,000 points for you. The end of each level also features some sort of special graphic: landing accurately on this after a jump to complete the stage also nets you some bonus points.

The Evercade version — which is Vic Tokai’s NES version with the name returned to its original Burnin’ Rubber — is excellent. The controls are responsive, movement is smooth and the physics of the game are enjoyable to engage with; each vehicle you bump into responds a little differently, and you’ll soon get into the rhythm of timing your jumps for those elusive 5,000 point stunt bonuses. The stages are varied and enjoyable, and the background music consists of a selection of tunes you’ll have stuck in your head for hours after playing.

Being based on an early ’80s arcade game, expect a stiff challenge, however. In your first few attempts you may find yourself struggling to even clear the first stage, but persist, practice and prioritise the things you want to achieve in each playthrough and you’ll find yourself gradually improving with each new attempt. Despite the premise of the protagonist’s girlfriend being kidnapped by a band of criminals, the game is relentlessly upbeat, cheerful and chipper, and it never feels like it’s mocking you or treating you unfairly.

This is a big part of what makes the game so addictive. A single playthrough doesn’t take very long, particularly when you’re starting out, so it’s very easy just to hit the Start button after a Game Over and have “just one more” go. This time you might get the 50,000 point bonus for not crashing any cars; this time you might nail that jump over the river; this time you might see what the next stage actually is!

It’s an extremely simple game, and one that doesn’t try to do anything especially ambitious. But in knowing its limits and not trying to overreach, it becomes enormously accessible for newcomers while offering plenty of long-term challenge for those who really want to test their skills and see how long they can survive. Definitely one you’ll find yourself coming back to repeatedly!

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