I refuse to write it as '8ing.'[“Might Have Been” is a kinda bi-weekly column by Todd Ciolek that explores the ways in which promising games, characters, and concepts failed. This week’s edition looks at Eighting/Raizing's Kingdom Grandprix, released for the arcade in 1994 and for the Saturn in 1996.]

Shooters had it tough in the mid-‘90s. At the decade’s start, games like Raiden, Gradius, Gate of Thunder, R-Type, Axelay, M.U.S.H.A commanded so much attention that they actually helped sell systems, but the years that followed saw shoot-‘em-ups thoroughly humbled. By 1994, American publishers seldom bothered translating them, critics disdained them as uniform and repetitive anachronisms, and the Japanese shooter scene was already shrinking into the niche it is today. And within that niche, developers found the space to experiment.

The original Mahou Daisakusen was a standard enough arcade shooter, and one of the first created by Eighting/Raizing. The two-in-one development house had a history with the genre, though, being staffed in part by former programmers from Compile, the creators of Spriggan, M.U.S.H.A., Aleste and other acclaimed “shmups.” (How I hate that term, and how I wish I knew why.) Yet Mahou didn’t quite stand out as much as the Aleste series had. Eighting/Raizing decided that its 1994 sequel needed a gimmick, and it found one by becoming something rarely seen: a 2-D racing shooter.

A MOSQUITO, MY LIBIDOAttitude for Gains

Eighting/Raizing didn’t have to change much to make a racer. Kingdom Grandprix (or Shippu Mahou Daisakusen, as it was known in Japan) still resembles a standard vertically scrolling shooter. Yet instead of one or two fighter jets, eight characters take off from the starting line, jockeying for position while blasting pawn enemies, dodging bullets, and arriving at an end-of-level boss.

Like Mahou Daisakusen before it, Kingdom Grandprix presents a world heavy on fantasy trappings, with just enough steampunk technology so that cannons, gyrocopters, and skull-faced gunships can float alongside castles, dragons, and cloaked, wraithlike mages. The game’s shakily translated prologue explains how the eight-contestant race celebrates the end of a vicious “Goburigan” war, and how the winner earns whatever he or she might desire.

Those eight selectable entrants include a sorceress who dreams of pop-idol stardom, a gung-ho mercenary human, a samurai dragon called Miyamoto, a steam-powered robot in search of a girlfriend, a hideous rat-bastard wizard, a goblin overlord, a dimensionally displaced Earth kid, and a rather large pixie named Nirvana, who the game, showing a colloquial ignorance rarely found outside of SNK localizations, describes as a “Huge Fairy.” Each character has distinct projectiles and bombs, though anyone serious about winning should go straight for Miyamoto.

LET'S ASS KICK TOGETHER.Eighting/Raizing/Shooting/Racing

Promising as it may seem at first, the racing element is little more than a distraction. Characters gain speed by lingering near the uppermost third of the screen or by holding down the shot button (which prevents you from actually firing), and it's strategic only to a certain point. Winning a race is largely a matter of chance, and even if you try to speed through a level, it’s easy to get hung up fighting the obligatory stage boss, which all of the computer-controlled racers can zoom right past. It’s too easy to lose your place, and God help you if you’re shot down.

It’s much more fun to ignore the racing entirely and concentrate on the impressive shooter beneath it. Showing off the same inventive, detail-rich design that made Compile’s Aleste series so fun, Kingdom Grandprix’s an enjoyable twitch-fest, full of interesting stage layouts and backdrops.

It’s impossible to see everything in one go, as you’ll choose a different route after every stage, leading to several unique paths and game-closing bosses. Multiple trips are the best way to take in all the sights: lizards jut their heads out of swamp-alley walls, gigantic saw blades whirr inside castle passages, and a floating vampire boss refills his health by devouring one of his tiny sprite servants.

The obligatory nod to Giger.'Had' Indeed

Of course, ignoring the race cuts down your score and your chances of seeing a character’s decent ending (after which you'll be told "thank you very much it is had to play at this time"). Shooter fans are notorious for placing points above all else, but Kingdom Grandprix’s endings are amusing bonuses for those devoted enough not to credit-feed their way through the whole thing. The game’s English text, full of bizarre phrases and the occasional coherent line, almost makes it worth the trouble.

Perhaps the racing element didn't sit well with arcade goers. When Kingdom Grandprix got an only-in-Japan Saturn port in 1996, it actually offered a special mode that stripped away the racing theme. Eighting/Raizing clearly wasn’t interested in pursuing the idea, either. Their subsequent shooters, from the impressive Soukyugurentai to the routine Battle Garegga, weren’t so daring in their innovations.

When the company returned to the Mahou Daisakusen series with 2000’s Dimahoo (arguably their best work), there was no racing to be found. And there probably won't be any more racer-shooters from them. Eighting/Raizing has seemingly abandoned the genre completely at this point, busying themselves instead with licensed anime fighting games.

It's hard to imagine Kingdom Grandprix's ideas catching on and spawning a subset of racing shooters, but the game's an interesting footnote. In a genre often validly criticized for recycling the same concepts, it's a true curiosity, even if its one unique idea doesn’t quite work. And it’s still one to try, as both a solid twitch-game and a glimpse of one shooter developer’s attempt at something different, if not necessarily better.