Super Sprint is without doubt one of the most influential racing games of all time. Top-down racers are to this day referred to as Super Sprint clones more often than not. It was far from the first game of its kind, not even the first by Atari, but it’s success cemented it as the definitive example of its genre.
There are actually quite a few titles in the “Sprint” series before Super Sprint but we’re going to start even further back in 1974 with Gran Trak 10, one of the very earliest racing games. It took place on a single screen with a twisting go-kart style track much like you would see in Super Sprint and even came with a gear shifter and separate accelerator and brake pedals. For all its innovation it was a very simple game. It was in black and white, there were no other cars on the track and you raced against the clock for points. A 2-player version of the game was released shortly afterwards under the name Gran Trak 20.
A few years later in 1976, Atari developed the idea a little further and gave us the first game with “Sprint” in the title, Sprint 2. That’s right, Sprint 2 came before Sprint One. This is because the number actually reflected the number of players the game could accommodate. There would also be a Sprint 4 and Sprint 8 in addition to One and 2. The first two versions of Sprint, 2 and 4, were released under the Kee Games label which was actually a wholly owned subsidiary of Atari that they used to sneakily circumvent the exclusivity clauses often imposed by distributors of the day. The Sprint games were quite similar to Gran Trak 10 in that the track was drawn in the same style and you raced against the clock with scoring in mind. The big difference was the addition of computer controlled cars. Sprint kept the gearstick of Gran Trak 10 but dispensed with the brake pedal, taking the hardware one step closer to Super Sprint which just had a wheel and an accelerator.
1978’s Sprint One was the last of the original Sprint games and it would be 8 years before the name surfaced again for Super Sprint. Atari designer and programmer Robert Weatherby was put in charge of designing the game. He took the basic elements of Sprint and updated them, adding a few extras here and there and removing a couple of other things. He also changed the visual theme of the game from sprint car racing to Indycar.
The most notable thing cut from Sprint was the gearstick which was seen as being too complicated but the free-spinning steering wheel was retained. This would be one of the defining features of Super Sprint and part of what made it so fun to control. You could just throw the car around the corners and then catch the wheel at the right moment to straighten out again. Sadly this is something you can’t really do with modern gaming wheels, they’re much too serious and uptight for that kind of thing.
The track layouts were in the same vein as Sprint but thanks to the great advances in graphics technology that had taken place by 1986 they looked considerably nicer. 8 tracks were included in all, with a variety of added hazards such as tornadoes, jumps, banked turns and automatic gates in addition to the oil slicks which had been present as far back as Gran Trak 10.
One of the other big changes from the previous entries in the series was the removal of the clock. Rather than giving the game a visible time limit it was the AI cars that now acted as the limiting factor to maintain a good turnover of players for the machine’s operators. To ensure that there was always this AI car on the course the game was set to a maximum of three human players with the drone taking the fourth slot.
Having three players meant having a very large dedicated cabinet for the game. Partly in response to this, Atari then released Championship Sprint later in the same year. It was essentially the same game on the same hardware with a different track selection but more importantly for arcade owners it was only a two player game. Cutting the number of players down meant it took up a lot less space and could even be installed in non-dedicated cabinets.
Although officially Championship Sprint is the end of the Sprint name, Atari released a spiritual successor in 1989, Badlands. This was a futuristic take on the formula with the Indy cars being replaced by armoured vans and the traditional motor racing motif making way for grey-brown industrial ruins. The game was basically the same except you could now shoot your opponents. It was a bit of a favourite of mine when I was younger. I think it was the free-spinning wheel that was the big draw once again.
The Sprint games are very barebones when you really look at them but their simplicity coupled with the fun controls made them a real winner. A lot of other companies have made very similar games over the years, most notably the Leland Corporation with Danny Sullivan’s Indy Heat and Ivan Ironman Stewart’s Super Off-Road but whenever people think of single screen racing games, it’s Super Sprint that is the first name that comes to mind and rightly so.
The earlier Sprint series came along a little bit too early to get home ports but Super Sprint, Championship Sprint and Badlands managed to make the leap to the living room. This was mostly on home microcomputers but Super Sprint also appeared on the NES. They’ve since been included on countless retro collections. One of the most recent versions is the Midway Arcade Origins collection for the Xbox360 and PS3. They’re supported in MAME but unless you have a free spinning wheel you won’t get the full experience. I suggest the 360/PS3 option because it works pretty well with a gamepad, although the same can’t be said for all the games on that compilation sadly.