Having followed the Need For Speed series from... well, just about day one, I can almost profess to be an expert on the subject of NFS, aside from some intermediary installment dismissals. I will say that Need For Speed has very consistently been a beacon of raw inspiration for the racing genre, right after the invention of cars in 3-D. Need For Speed Underground 2 (NFSU2) for the Game Boy Advance remains a part of the overall NFS parentage, carries with it those addictive upgrades from the latest Underground evolutions, and cuts away enough fat for the portable experience. It’s not mind-blowing or even revolutionary, but it is a fun little racer.
What the GBA version of NFSU2 does well is to present the handheld racer experience with enough depth to create an impetus to progress through the many challenges, while still making sure it is accessible to the pick-up-and-play medium of the GBA. Races are kept to decent lengths without feeling too short or inconsequential. Track designs are even pretty interesting, much more than the normal oval track, and is one of the reasons this NFS offspring can claim that its bloodline is truly from the dynamic trails of urban (and sometimes, not-so-urban) streets.
The selection of activities is actually pretty varied. From the menu screen, you’ll have the option to jump right into a relatively inconsequential racing area, or go directly to “Underground” which is where competition yields points (in lieu of cash money) used to upgrade your car. There is also a small assortment of occupying mini-games of the timed-button press variety, ostensibly to test your engine tuning abilities. The racing areas, whether engaged in for fun or the sport of tricking out your simple car model, have quite a bit to offer in the way of content, with tracks abound to unlock and conquer. Off the beaten path from Underground, there are also one-off events like Lap KO, Time Trial, and Free Run, the latter being especially useful for familiarizing yourself with the sometimes tricky maps.
Event selections mimic the model of the console versions of NFSU2. Aside from some decent street track designs and the oddly placed but still entertaining jump ramps, there are also the Drift tracks on which you must peel around a raceway with as little rear-end control as possible, maximizing points awarded for power sliding. The kitschy but nonetheless novel addition of Drag racing is also present, where gear shifting and vehicle control are key. This would all seem like flippant exercises to nowhere, were it not for the completion screens, showing progress and giving a real sense of moving forward. After all, if the player doesn’t feel like they’re going anywhere, the fun drops off; EA has harnessed the feeling of success very will with the new NFS evolution.
To say that something was lost in translation between the console versions and the GBA’s representation of the NFS universe would be somewhat unfair. NFSU2 for GBA should be its own beast, but it doesn’t necessarily get away with it so easily. Many of the defining schemas for NFS games past, like tight control and unwavering visuals, are stunted by the GBA’s limitations. The graphics, while well realized and quite clear for a game of this size, become a choppy blur of the variety that creates embolisms during intense driving concentration. This visual distortion only becomes more intrusive on the play experience during the Drag portions, where a natural screen shimmy (added in the console versions to enhance the sense of tremendous velocity) makes it nearly unpleasant to endure. Thankfully, the Drag portions are taken in very short segments, and it’s fairly easy to adjust to in the racing portions of the game.
Control starts off a bit skewed, but shows the colors of advancement early on. As races are completed and points garnered, the upgrades added to your car, including everything from chassis shaving to engine boost (and all the normal tire/brake/engine/exhaust staples), actually do increase the responsiveness of the vehicle. As with any racer, the controller setup is always the first hurdle to clear, and while the d-pad and button layout is a scalable issue, there’s nothing new about how everything’s configured – the average player should hit their stride with the controls after a few races. I’d advise keeping the car on automatic though; shifting with the shoulder buttons is very awkward and power breaking is a bit cumbersome with the manual transmission layout.
I would consider this to be a definitive version of Need For Speed Lite; fewer upgrade calories and less fatty visuals to chew on. What the game picks up on, though, is a key element of racing fun, with its unpretentious (if a bit ambitious) presentation of a glamorous racing sub-culture that fits in the palm of your hand. Control is sticky but forgiving, and upgrading your car really does make a difference. I gave the multiplayer aspect a bit more on the score scale, because although it would require the Game Boy link cable, I still think that two people could have a lot of fun duking it out in remote and uncharacteristic places, like an airport or the Andes mountain range. Setting aside the high expectations for sight and sound that certainly fall short of the big daddy versions on regular consoles, tearing through the cityscapes and industrial parks in order to upgrade your car is quite satisfying. NFSU2 for the GBA may not be wholly representative of the NFS series, but it is good for a hand-sized racer.