Slipstream (Capcom, 1995)

I feel like it’s been a while since I featured an honest-to-goodness arcade game on this blog, so here’s Slipstream by Capcom.

sstream01

Slipstream is a 2D grand prix themed racer that runs on Sega’s System32 platform. It’s one of the latest arcade-only 2D racers I can think of, being dated 1995. There isn’t a huge amount on information on the net about this game; MAME lists it as a prototype and only 150 boards were supposedly made. It’s listed as being a Brazilian release and the menus are in a mixture of Portuguese, English and Japanese. Despite the inconsistencies in the menus, it looks to be pretty much a finished product in terms of the actual content.

Slipstream features 3 game modes and 4 tracks based on real grand prix circuits in Germany (Hockenheim), Japan (Suzuka), Australia (Adelaide) and Monaco (Circuit de Monaco). It has 8 cars to choose from, each with different performance characteristics. Of these, 4 carry the liveries of prominent Formula 1 teams from 1993 and the remaining 4 are re-colours. For a game of this type, that’s quite a lot of content, particularly the car selection.

 

The graphics are bold, colourful and quite stylised, especially compared to Sega and Namco’s later 2D racers which went for a much more realistic style. For a company that doesn’t really make racing games, Capcom clearly put a lot of effort into the presentation of the tracks. Out of the many, many late 80’s and early 90’s grand prix racers I’ve played, Slipstream’s tracks are among the most faithfully recreated. They’re hardly realistic but they’re easily recognisable and packed with track-side details.

Slipstream looks good and has a lot of content compared to similar releases but the gameplay is mostly standard stuff. The main selling point of the game is the titular slipstream mechanic. Following other cars charges up a meter which is activated when you move out from behind them giving you a huge speed boost. This is a very common mechanic in 3D racers but for a 2D game like this it’s a little unusual. The slipstream boosting is a huge part of the way you play the game and creates situations where you’re constantly trading positions with the AI cars. Even though the position swapping can be fun, it can also lead to frustration when you get overtaken by a boosting car just before the finish line. The key to winning seems to be timing that final push for the line so your rivals don’t get a chance to respond in kind.

 

I think overall Slipstream is a decent game but I can see why it never got a full release. By 1995, a game like this just seems like an anachronism. Sega and Namco released their last 2D racers in 1993 and they’d both been making 3D racing games since before then even. I think this could have been a successful game had it been finished a few years earlier but by the time it was ready the days of the “super scalers” were long gone.

 

 

 

 

Mini Reviews 18/07/2016

I haven’t given you anything to read for a while, so here is a trio of mini reviews to look at while I work on some other things for the future. All three games are readily available through emulation, the second hand market or are just plain free. No steering wheels required either.

Racing Hero – Sega, 1990 (Arcade)

RHtitle

Racing Hero is one of Sega’s less well-known arcade games, it combines elements of Outrun and Hang-On.

You race your motorcycle between checkpoints against the clock through a series of internationally themed levels that are split into two halves. The first half of each level takes place on an open road amongst traffic and the second is a closed road with only your motorbike-riding rivals for company. At the end of each stage you then pick from one of two new stages to progress to. This is similar to Outrun‘s  branching route structure but with a menu between stages instead of a road junction.

Splitting the levels into two distinct halves feels quite odd to me. It doesn’t really impact how the game plays as such, you’re essentially doing the same thing in both halves, but it’s a little thematically jarring. This combined with not selecting your next stage while on the road means the game doesn’t flow quite as well as some of Sega’s other games, especially the Outrun series.

Racing Hero was developed for the X-board arcade hardware, the same platform as Super Monaco GP. It’s a good looking game but perhaps not as good as its more famous stablemate or some of Sega’s other work from the late 1980s and early 1990s. I think the lack of a tight thematic focus contributes to that. There are a lot of nice individual elements in the game but they don’t really fit together as much as you would normally expect from Sega. The music however, is up to Sega’s usual high standards. It’s very melodic and catchy, in fact I’ve got it stuck in my head while I’m writing this.

Despite my grumbling about this game’s thematic issues, Racing Hero is actually okay.  It isn’t terribly original but the actual mechanics of the game are fine. If you’re looking for an old racer that you’ve never played before then you’ll probably still enjoy it for a while. You can play it in MAME and the controls are easy to set up with an analogue joypad.

Screenshots

 

Pico Racer – kometbomb, 2016 (PICO-8/browser)

picotitle

Pico Racer is, in my opinion, the best racing game to date for the PICO-8 “fantasy console”.  It’s a checkpoint racing game very much like the sprite scaling racers of the 1980s and cites inspiration from games such as Pole Position and Buggy Boy.

I’m often a little bit sceptical of modern “retro” games but I really like this. The creator has really made the most of PICO-8’s limitations and given us something that not only looks and feels authentic but is genuinely fun to play. I especially like the night stages, I think they’re really effective and have a bit of a Rad Racer feel to them too.

You can play this in your browser using the keyboard for a cheeky bit of skiving at work (during your scheduled breaks of course) or download it to use with the PICO-8 fantasy console.  You can find it here.

Screenshots

 

Championship Pro-Am – Rare/Tradewest, 1992 (Megadrive)

CPAtitle

This is Rare’s classic and hugely influential RC Pro-Am remade for the Sega Megadrive.

For anyone who hasn’t played the original, RC Pro-Am is an isometric game where you race little remote-controlled trucks around a total of 24 tracks. You progress to the next race by finishing in the top 3 and along the way you can collect weapon pickups to destroy your rivals and vehicle upgrades to improve your acceleration, top speed and cornering ability.

This version of the game is virtually unchanged from the original NES classic. The only notable difference is the addition of extra AI trucks to race against. It also features a graphical upgrade that I’m quite a fan of. It improves the overall appearance of the game while remaining faithful to the style of the original.

At its core it’s a bare-bones isometric racer but it’s so well made that even to this day, it remains a great game. The handling is really slippery and lively and although the tracks are simple, the races are fast and challenging. It’s  so much fun to play that you’ll probably even forgive the aggressive AI rubber-banding.

I’ll have a closer look at the RC Pro-Am series as a whole some time in the future.

Screenshots

Indy 500 (Sega, 1995)

The last game in our Indy 500 season is one of Sega’s lesser-known arcade releases from the 1990s. Indy 500 is an open-wheel racing game with an official license from the Indianapolis Motor Speedway and the look and feel of mid 1990’s Indy car racing. It was released in 1995 and made use of the Model 2 arcade platform.

I500title

This game was released in the year of Jacques Villeneuve’s controversial win. On lap 190, the race leader, Scott Goodyear jumped the restart from a yellow flag period and overtook the pace car. Race officials handed him a stop and go penalty which he ignored on his team’s advice, thinking they could file a protest after the race. Although Villeneuve crossed the line in second, Goodyear’s refusal to stop for his penalty meant that his laps had ceased counting after 195. This put him in 14th place and handed the win to the future F1 world driver’s Champion.

This was the last Indy 500 before the open-wheel split which saw the formation of the Indy Racing League as a rival organisation to CART, the main sanctioning body of Indy car racing since the early 1980’s. This period of inter-organisational conflict spelled the end of the glory days of American open-wheel racing in the eyes of many fans.

There isn’t a clear lineage between this game and Sega’s previous open-wheel themed racer, Virtua Racing, but it’s tempting to draw a comparison between the two. On the surface, they’re similar games but Indy 500 has a few new mechanics that distinguish it from its forerunner. The first is drafting, running closely behind other cars to reduce drag and increase your speed. This is something that Daytona USA also made use of but Indy 500 emphasises it much more heavily. The other extra mechanic that this game has over Virtua Racing is tyre degradation. You will gradually lose grip over the course of a race, making the car more likely to slide while cornering. It could be my imagination, but rough handling appears to speed up this process .

I50001

There are three tracks to choose from. A licensed version of the Indianapolis Motor Speedway and two fictional tracks, Highland Raceway and Bayside Street. These appear to be based on 1990’s CART series staples, Leguna Seca and Surfer’s Paradise respectively. The track selection as a whole is reminiscent of Daytona USA which also offers an oval, a road course and a street circuit. The representation of the Indianapolis Motor Speedway in the game is easily recognisable. I suppose it would need to be if wanted to carry an official license.

The graphics are good and definitely comparable in quality to other big-name arcade games of the mid 1990’s. The overall style is as bold and colourful as you would expect from Sega. A nice blue sky, lots of track-side objects and bright primary colours everywhere. I would say that in terms of presentation, most games on the Model 2 platform have aged quite well, particularly the racing games. Although the graphics have held up very well, the music is maybe the weakest point of the game. There’s nothing especially wrong with it but it’s not really memorable and that’s something Sega normally excel at.  I have read that Indy 500 was originally intended as a Model 3 game but hardware delays led to it being released on the older hardware. I’ve not seen any sources on that however so I wouldn’t take it as gospel.

Like most of Sega’s racing games from this period, it’s not too hard to reach the finish line in Indy 500 but winning is much more of a challenge. To produce good lap times you have to drive very smoothly and take advantage of the drafting mechanic as much as you can. On the Indianapolis course in particular, you’re absolutely not going to win unless you can move in and out of the slipstream effectively and take corners without scrubbing off too much speed.

I50005

Indy500 is a fast, challenging and stylish game that perhaps doesn’t sit alongside titles such as Daytona USA as an all-time great but it still deserves a lot more recognition. Sega made a lot of games around this period that seem to have drifted into obscurity. So many games on the Model 2 platform either never made it to home consoles or were just forgotten with the death of the Sega Saturn. Indy 500 is one of those that never made it into the living room. Currently, the only way to play it is in a particular emulator. This is a barrier to entry that not everyone will want to cross but those that do want to seek it out won’t be disappointed.

 

Danny Sullivan’s Indy Heat (Leland Corp, 1991)

We continue our selection of Indy 500 related games with Danny Sullivan’s Indy Heat.

indyheattitle

This Super Sprint style game was developed by the Leland Corporation, who also made Ivan ‘Ironman’ Stewart’s Super Off Road. It was released in 1991. This game carries the name of Danny Sullivan, 1985 Indy 500 winner and 1988 Cart PPG Indy Car Champion.

Sullivan’s 1985 win is one of the most famous victories in the race’s history. In what became known as ‘spin and win’ Sullivan lost control while attempting to take the lead from pre-race favourite Mario Andretti on lap 120. What would ordinarily have been a race-ending collision for most drivers was avoided by an instinctive evasive manoeuvre from Andretti and Sullivan managing to keep his car out of the wall and regain control. On lap 139 he attempted the same passing manoeuvre again but made it stick and led until the end of the race.

It would be unfair to Indy Heat to just call it a Super Sprint clone, in my opinion, it’s one of the best Super Sprint clones.

The controls are similar to Super Sprint, though I would say they’re a little bit more skittish. Super Sprint wasn’t the most serious of games but Indy Heat is much more cartoonish and exaggerated, the wild handling and lively car animations are all part of this over-the-top presentation.

0005

Indy Heat is a very hard game. After a few races it’ll just decide that it’s going to start winning; the car to watch for is the yellow one, that’s Danny Sullivan. This isn’t really a game to try and beat on one credit but I’m sure somebody out there can. It’ll be a tall order for most people though. The game takes you through a 15 round season featuring representations of all the popular indycar tracks of the day, both road and oval and of course you’ve got Indianapolis in there.

The version of Indy in this game isn’t exactly laser scanned for accuracy but it has all the landmarks, right down to a red start/finish line to represent the yard of bricks. All the tracks are quite easy to recognise if you’re familiar with the real circuits, and if you’re not, it usually has the name of the host city on a sign somewhere.

0002

Just like Super Sprint, you’ve got an upgrade system, you get prize money for winning races and bonus money for continuing. You’ve got all the usual sorts of upgrades plus a couple of slightly unusual ones, the fuel economy and pit crew. This is because Indy Heat features a re-fuelling mechanic. During each race you’ll normally have to make at least one pit-stop. A nice little extra feature is being able to disrupt other cars’ stops by knocking them out of their pit-box. As a child this is the feature that made the game stand out for me. It made the game seem a little bit edgier than most racers and in the early ’90s that was a important selling point.

0004

I was lucky enough to be able to play this in the arcades a few times but today you can play Indy Heat in MAME. The controls take a bit of fiddling with but that’s always the way with games like this which were meant for a free-spinning wheel. If arcade emulation isn’t your thing, there were a few home releases too. The best of these are the Atari ST and Commodore Amiga versions, they look pretty close to the original and they control quite well too.

There were ports for other platforms including the NES and Commodore 64. The NES version falls pretty far short of the mark in terms of presentation but it controls well and makes a good effort at replicating the music. There is also an unreleased prototype for the Genesis which is out there on the internet. It looks really good but I don’t think it feels very good to play. There’s something wrong with the controls that I can’t quite put my finger on. It’s worth checking out I suppose but your mileage may vary.

GP Rider (Sega, 1990)

GPRtitle

I played GP Rider over a weekend earlier this month. It’s a motorcycle themed game developed by Sega and released in 1990. It ran on the Sega  X board hardware, one of their famous line of ‘Super Scaler’ arcade boards. The original arcade machines were two player ride-on cabinets with tilting replica motorcycles.

It’s a short game consisting of 4 timed laps around the fictional Sega International Course, a track that would also feature in 1991’s F1 Exhaust Note. From my first credit to winning the race took less than two days so it isn’t a difficult game, even for an average player like me.

Despite being quite easy, it has a lot going for it. For a start, the one track featured in the game is very good. Some of the corners and the overpass in particular make me think it was perhaps based on the real-life Suzuka circuit. There is a good series of S-bends that requires a precise line to navigate quickly and a hairpin that feels great to traverse when you get it right. As far as I know this track was only in one another game but I would love to be proven wrong.

You get a choice of automatic or manual gears at the start of the game. I suggest learning to play with the manual option as it makes it so much easier to control your speed in some of the more difficult sections of the track. It sounds like it might be more difficult  to use manual gears at first but it’s easy to learn how as the cabinet artwork features a map of the circuit with the suggested gear changes printed on it. With the help of the circuit map you’ll quickly get into the swing of changing gears.

The graphics in GP Rider are excellent, among the best you’ll see on that particular platform. The sprites are detailed and you get a good sense of 3D movement despite the game being entirely 2D. The 3D effect is actually better than some of the more established Sega titles of that period.

This is a short game that doesn’t seem to have much background information about it printed online anywhere but it’s very good and well worth playing. There were home versions for the Master System and Game Gear but they don’t really resemble the arcade in either look or feel. The original works just fine in MAME and can be played with a control pad quite easily.

Bonus Video: I haven’t given you a video in a while so here is one of my 1st place runs of GP Rider. Played in MAME and recorded with Shadowplay.

18 Wheeler: American Pro Trucker (Sega, 2000)

18_Wheeler_Logo_1_a

18 Wheeler: American Pro Trucker by Sega is a game that’s always been seen as a bit of a joke, it certainly doesn’t appear to take itself terribly seriously in any case. Sadly it gets lumped in with games like Big Rigs and those awful jokes you see on Steam Early Access.  Don’t be fooled though, it’s a proper arcade game with all the bells and whistles that Sega would put into one of their more straight-faced titles.

18W01

18 Wheeler is, as you might guess from the name, a game about driving a truck. It’s a checkpoint based driving game that has you hauling a trailer through four stages set in various parts of the USA. As well as a time limit there is a scoring element based on how much damage your cargo takes along the way and there is an evil rival trucker to beat to the finish line. Beating your rival gives you access to a bonus stage which unlocks upgrades for your truck such as a better horn that makes traffic move out of your way quicker and a bigger engine for more torque. It’s a fairly standard arcade racing format but with the twist of a slightly offbeat theme.

18W02

The original arcade version was built for the Sega NAOMI platform and was released in 2000. Operators had a choice of cabinets from a basic upright with a bench for players to perch on through to a giant, deluxe sit-down affair. It was also ported to the Dreamcast, Playstation 2 and Gamecube where it was met with middle to low review scores. The main criticism levelled at it was the length. 18 Wheeler is a short, pure arcade game and it was a full-price release in a time when consumers and reviewers were growing accustomed to longer and more complex games. Although the home versions had a few extra game modes besides the basic arcade port, the general consensus was that it was a good rental title and nothing more.

18W03

Even though I really like 18 Wheeler, I have to admit that for most people it’s a little lacking in longevity. The difficulty curve is initially quite steep but once you grasp the basics you’ll be able to beat the arcade mode with every truck within a few hours. The scoring element keeps things going for a while but it’s probably not a game you’re going to make a long-term time investment in. For me this is something that I’ll play for an evening and then put it back on the shelf for a few months before coming returning to it.

18W04

So what exactly does keep me coming back to it? It’s a quirky game by a company that knows more than most about making a solid arcade racer so it’s got that going for it but it’s more than just that. I’m a big fan of Sega, the Dreamcast and the arcade games of that era in  general and I have a bit of a weakness for goofy low to mid budget games so 18 Wheeler ticks a lot of boxes for me. Even though I know that most of my enthusiasm is based on nostalgia, I still feel that it’s a good enough game to give a recommendation to. You certainly won’t be paying full price for it these days, if you pay for it at all, and the gimmick alone will guarantee that most people will have at least a couple of hours of fun with it. It may not have the lasting appeal of more established classics or Euro Truck Simulator 2’s appeal to truck enthusiasts but for arcade fans and people looking for something a little offbeat, 18 Wheeler is a solid choice.

Bonus video: Because this write-up is a little short, here’s a slightly longer video than usual. It’s a basic all-clear run of the game, including all bonus stages. I captured it from the Gamecube version, played on the Wii.

 

A Very Short History of Super Sprint

SStitle

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.