Mini Reviews 22/04/2016

There’s a lot of games that I’d really like to talk about but I can’t always find enough words to give them their own post. Here’s 3 games that fit that description. They’re all good, you can easily play them in an emulator and they’ll all give you a  weekend’s worth of fun.

Eliminator Boat Duel (NES)

I’ve got to admit, I only started playing this because of the box art. It looks like somebody’s vaporwave mix-tape but there’s a decent game hiding behind it.

Eliminator Boat Duel is a one-on-one boat racer by Sculptured Software. It was quite a late release for the NES, it came out in North America in 1991 and Europe in 1993. You race across point to point courses that switch between top-down and chase perspectives against a cadre of larger than life weirdos. It looks quite good for an NES game although it recycles most of its graphics and environments. That’s easy to forgive considering the hardware and even though the tracks are made up of only a handful of art assets, they all have a unique route.

It’s not very boat-like in the way it handles, but it feels good otherwise. It has a nice, gradual difficulty curve and it’s got a lot of personality. I went in with low expectations and came out pleasantly surprised.

Screenshots

 

Mario Andretti Racing (Genesis/Megadrive)

This is an EA Sports published game that bears the name of racing legend Mario Andretti. There were a lot of real-world motor sport games on the SNES and Megadrive and most of them were very similar. This one stands out because of the variety of styles of racing it features; you can race either stock, indy or sprint cars. The last of those is interesting because I think sprint car racing is badly under-represented in games. You could probably count all the games featuring that style of racing and still have a couple of fingers left over. You could compare this game to Al Unser Jr’s Road to the Top as that’s also a celebrity endorsed game featuring multiple styles of racing but I think this is much better overall.

It’s not licensed by any real governing bodies but the tracks are all clearly based on real circuits with fake names. Hardware limitations mean that the tracks and environments are quite sparse but they make a good effort to follow the layout and manage to include some small elevation changes.

Mario Andretti Racing is a fairly standard but very well made motor sport game with all the level of polish you would expect from an EA Sports title. I play this game quite often so you’ll most likely hear about it again at some point.

Screenshots

 

bit Generations Dotstream (Gameboy Advance)

Let’s finish with something a little bit different.

Dotstream is an abstract racer for the Gameboy Advance. You race a coloured line around minimalist vector-graphic style courses while making use of traditional racing game mechanics such as drafting and pit-stops. It’s part racer, part maze game, part Snake. It has a few game modes including a particularly interesting ‘formation’ mode where you control multiple lines at once. You unlock extra levels in that mode by winning the Grand Prix events.

A combination of simple controls, stylish presentation and a great soundtrack really make it stand out from most of the Gameboy Advance’s sizeable library of racing games. It doesn’t have a very large selection of tracks but it’s quite a challenging game so it’ll still keep you occupied for a while.

There is also a Wiiware version of the game called Artstyle: Light Trax. I haven’t had a chance to play it yet but it looks to be different enough to require a separate write-up.

Screenshots

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Memory Leaks: Half-Forgotten Amiga Games

The Commodore Amiga had a lot of good racing games in its library. There were some decent arcade ports such as Super Hang-On and Continental Circus and many of the multi-platform favourites of the day like Road Rash and Micro Machines. There are a lot of others though that I don’t remember quite so well. This feature is a look at three games on the Amiga that I have very vague memories of playing in the 1990s but haven’t touched since. These may not all be obscure games, at least one is quite well known, but my own recollection of all of them is hazy at best.

Lombard RAC Rally (Red Rat, 1988)

Lombard RAC Rally is a straight-faced rallying game based on the British leg of the World Rally Championship as it was in the late 1980s. It was developed by Red Rat Software, the company behind Pushover; a puzzle game that British readers might recall for its brand tie-in with Quavers crisps.

The thing I remember about the game was the point of view. You drive from an in-car perspective as if you were sitting in the back seat. You’ve got the co-driver’s clipboard to the left and a partial view of the driver on the right. I thought this was pretty cool as a kid, especially being able to see the driver change gear, but it doesn’t leave an awful lot of screen left to display the road. The driver’s head in particular obscures part of the view out of the windscreen which can make passing traffic a bit troublesome as you can’t see the front-right corner of the car. The inside of the car looks good but sadly the outside world isn’t so great. Even by the Amiga’s standards the scenery is a little sparse and each stage looks identical to others of the same type.

The game itself is quite slow and hampered by rather cumbersome controls. Analogue joysticks were rare back then so the steering is digital and the throttle has a sort of “cruise control” feel to it. When you take your finger off the throttle, which is “up” on the joystick, you hold your current speed. It’s not the only game on the Amiga to do this but it feels quite awkward to me now. Changing gear complicates things further as you shift by pressing a button and then pushing the stick up or down. It’s a game that’s probably best played with keys so you don’t have steering, throttle, brake and gears all on the same joystick.

Overall Lombard RAC Rally is a bit dull and disappointing. It has some nice details to it but the driving is quite slow and doesn’t have any of the excitement you’d expect from a rallying game. There’s no jumping or power-sliding, you’re just driving carefully along an empty road. I don’t think this is a game I’d recommend to anyone and I don’t think I’ll be in any hurry to play it again myself.

ATR: All Terrain Racing (Team17, 1995)

ATR is a top-down racing game by Team17, developer of  Worms and an awful lot of popular Amiga games. It most closely resembles Micro Machines in the way it plays but with an added vehicle upgrade system. I think it was quite a well-known game at the time but my only memory of it is playing the Christmas demo that came with a copy of Amiga Format magazine. I remember playing that demo quite a lot so I expected it to be okay, and it was. That’s probably the word that would best describe ATR, “okay”.

The graphics are pretty good and comparable with similar games of the day. You can race on three types of track and choose from three vehicles. You upgrade your vehicle by earning money from finishing races and picking up money icons on the track. The upgrades you can choose from are the usual sort of thing (tyres, engine, gears, armour) and they all have a noticeable effect on your car. The handling is quite slippery but you get used to it quickly and although some of the courses are a little bit convoluted you’ll probably get the hang of the game after a few goes.

ATR is a very competent game, just not a particularly exciting one. I enjoyed playing it for a while but I soon became very aware that I was playing for a purpose rather than my own entertainment. I wasn’t as disappointed by this as I was by Lombard RAC Rally but it didn’t really grab me either. It’s not a bad game at all, you at least get to go over jumps and slide around corners in ATR unlike our previous game.

It looks fine, it controls reasonably and I suppose it’s fun but there are a lot of other overhead racing games I would rather play instead.  It’s hard to recommend but it’s also difficult to really criticise harshly. It’s just very middle of the road in every sense. If you’re a big fan of overhead racing games, go ahead and play it but I think you’ll probably just end up switching to Micro Machines or Skidmarks instead.

No Second Prize (Thalion, 1992)

For our final game we’re going from four wheels and two and from 2D into 3D. No Second Prize is a motorcycle game from Thalion that came out in 1992. I can’t remember if we had the demo or the full game but I vividly remember the graphics and the intro video.

It was the graphics that were the big draw for me at the time. Today the simple polygons are primitive but by the standards of the Amiga it looked very good. In contrast to a lot of other 3D games on the Amiga, No Second Prize is surprisingly fast. It chugs a bit on an A500 but when you run it on an A1200 (or an emulator pretending to be one) it’s actually very smooth. The graphics are quite sparse but that’s an acceptable trade-off for speed in this case.

Much like the Amiga port of Super Hang-On, No Second Prize uses the mouse for steering. This gives you very precise analogue controls. Even after 23 years, it still feels good which was another pleasant surprise. It’s rare to find a game this old with analogue controls, let alone one that still plays well. The adjustable mouse sensitivity is also a nice addition.

There are quite a lot of tracks in this game, 20 in all. They’re all based on real circuits but sadly they’re not terribly accurate at least as far as I could tell. The big problem is the lack of topographic detail. All the courses are totally flat aside from a couple of small humps here and there. This is probably the only bad thing I have to say about No Second Prize and it’s hardly a deal-breaker today. In 2015 you’re probably not playing this for the sake of its authenticity.

I loaded up this game with quite low expectations but ended up quite satisfied. I would recommend No Second Prize to anyone poking around their Amiga disk images folder. I’ll probably give it a few more goes myself at some point. This is by far the best game of the three.

Although the games weren’t all great, going back over some gaps in my memory was actually quite fun. We also had a Sinclair Spectrum in the early 90s so I’m sure I could try something similar with that. There’s maybe another three Amiga games I could dig out of my brain too. Perhaps I could even share something about the games I actually remember instead.

 

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.

No Wheel? No Problem: Arcade racing with a stick.

Arcade emulation has meant that decades of gaming heritage has been preserved for future generations. Unfortunately in the case of racing games, preserved does not necessarily mean playable unless you’re willing to invest in the appropriate hardware. Most driving games are naturally designed to be played with a steering wheel or set of plastic handlebars so in a lot of cases nothing else will really work. With a bit of fiddling you can set some games up to work with a control pad but this is often a frustrating experience with mixed results. There are however, a few games out there which were designed to be played in a standard arcade cabinet with a stick and buttons. Typically these are overhead or isometric games and for some reason most of them seem to be rallying games.

Here is a small selection of these stick controlled racing games and I promise they’re all good. If you don’t own an arcade stick you can just as easily use a control pad or even a keyboard to play. These aren’t the only games like this that you can play in MAME but for my money they’re the best of their kind and the ones that I suggest people play first before delving any deeper.

 

Neo Drift Out: New Technology (Visco, 1996)

NDO Title

This is the third game in the Drift Out series and is, in my opinion, the best. It’s quite a basic rally themed game with 3 licensed vehicles to choose from and 7 stages which you race in a fixed order. The real charm of this game is the handling which is quite easy to get the hang of and really encourages you to throw the car around the many bends on the twisting courses. It’s really satisfying when you manage to power slide around a corner and take out a line of cones with the back-end of your car. It isn’t an especially hard game to beat but it’s worth playing a few times over. A basic single credit run of the game still leaves scope for improving your stage times. Although it hasn’t exactly got a big scene surrounding it, I’ve seen runs of this game with quite a spread of times so all you e-sports maestros out there have something to aim for if you take a liking to this game.

 

1000 Miglia: Great 1000 Mile Rally (Kaneko, 1994)

MM title

Vintage racing is a theme that is rarely explored in games so 1000 Miglia sticks in my mind somewhat. It’s based on the Mille Miglia, an endurance race that originally ran from 1927 to 1957. You can pick from a variety of vintage sports cars but as far as I can tell the only difference between them is purely cosmetic. It’s a longer game than Neo Drift Out at 12 stages but is actually slightly easier as you don’t need to race them in order; rather than doing them all sequentially you can select your course. This makes it easier to practise troublesome stages without messing around setting up savestates. The handling isn’t quite as fast and loose as Neo Drift Out and the stages have very few shortcuts or alternate paths but it’s still a lot fun. The only thing it’s really missing is music during the stages, all you get is engine noise. Kaneko released a sequel to this game in 1995 but all it has going for it over the original is flashier graphics, I don’t think it’s actually as good a game overall.

 

Overtop (ADK, 1996)

OT title

Overtop is by far the easiest game on this list but probably the one with the most replay value. Rather than multiple stages it has one continuous track split into multiple segments that take you through a variety of terrain. It’s quite a short course but it has several alternate routes and shortcuts that are either beneficial or detrimental based on whichever vehicle you choose. The vehicle selection is quite extensive with each choice having its own terrain advantages and different handling characteristics. Out of all the games listed here, this is the one that I have played the most and I still revisit it from time to time. It’s not very demanding but sometimes I don’t want a challenge. Overtop is just a good simple game with a nice soundtrack that doesn’t take very long to play and that’s often good enough for me. I give this one a strong recommendation.

 

Extreme Downhill (Sammy, 1995)

EDH title

This is a bit of a wildcard. It’s a skiing game and some people would probably not consider it a racer because of that. But when you break it down to its bare bones, Extreme Downhill is really just a rallying game without an accelerator. It’s a checkpoint based isometric game that’s very similar to the games I’ve mentioned so far, the only difference is you only have directional controls and a brake. It’s quite a tricky game actually, the difficulty ramps up gradually but the final few courses have a very tight time limit so you have to be absolutely spot on with your turning to make it within the limit.  I don’t think it’s got the same staying power as Overtop or Neo Drift Out and the overlaid skiing theme is wafer thin but I think it’s unique enough to make it worth mentioning.

CannonBall: The Enhanced OutRun Engine

cannonballtitle

Cannonball is an enhanced version of Sega’s classic 1986 game Outrun available for Windows, Mac OS, Linux, Pandora and Android. Although it requires the same ROMs that popular arcade emulators use to play the game,  this is no mere emulator. Cannonball is a complete re-write of the game engine which adds a variety of enhancements such as true widescreen support, high-resolution graphics with improved sprite scaling, several bug fixes, additional view modes and support for both analog and digital gamepads.

This is of course an unofficial fan project and clearly a labour of love for its creator who has been working on this project since 2012. All of his hard work has definitely been worth it, Cannonball is a fantastic tribute to this classic game. Although there is a very good version of Outrun available for the 3DS, it isn’t available on any other current or previous generation platform. It would be very nice if Sega gave Outrun the same treatment it gave Super Hang-On when they included in the Sega Vintage Collection but with the current problems the company is having I don’t foresee that happening. If you want to play Outrun on a big screen with a wheel or control pad, this is your best option right now.

Cannonball’s github page is here

Screenshots