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)

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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.

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

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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.

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

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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.

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Indianapolis 500 (Papyrus, 1989)

The first Indy 500 themed game we’ll be looking at this month is Indianapolis 500: The Simulation by Papyrus Design Group. This was released for the Amiga and DOS PCs in 1989. Papyrus were around for a long time and made some very popular and influential racing simulators, most notably NASCAR Racing 2003 Season. The source code of that game would later be used as the basis for the early builds of iRacing.com which was co-founded by Papyrus co-founder David Kaemmer.

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The game simulates the full race weekend of the Indy 500 from practice through to qualifying and then finally, the race itself. The field is made up of the real entries for the 1989 race including their qualifying order. You as the player take the number 17 car which was driven by Rich Vogler who qualified in 33rd and last place for the race.

The 1989 Indy 500 is remembered for its dramatic finish which saw Al Unser Jr and Emerson Fittipaldi fighting for the lead 6 laps ahead of their nearest rival, Paul Boessel in 3rd place. With 2 laps to go, Unser and Fittipaldi were running side by side until they collided in turn 3 sending Unser into the wall and Fittipaldi to the first of his two Indy 500 wins.

Indianapolis 500: The Simulation let’s you choose to race any of three cars; a March, a Lola or a Penske. In its baseline setup the March is the slowest and easiest to handle, the Penske is the fastest and the Lola is in the middle. You can tune all these cars to your liking though if that’s something you’re into. With the right setup, even the March can be a competitive car. There’s all the different setup options you’d see in a modern sim: tyre pressure, stagger, camber, toe-in, all that kind of stuff. If I’m being honest, I don’t really understand it myself. Luckily there are still some FAQs floating around on the internet that include some good  car setups.

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You’ve got a few options for the kind of race you’d like to have. You can choose to race 10, 30, 60 or the full 200 laps. Each increment gradually adds more realism to the race, you start off at 10 laps with no cautions or player damage then 30 with just no damage and then full realism for 60 and 200. This also includes the need to look after your engine and occasionally take on fresh tyres and fuel.

This game is old but for 1989 it looks excellent. The track is recognisable with all the major landmarks present. You can make out the famous pagoda and the yard of bricks on the start finish-straight and all the grandstands including  the distinctive VIP salon just outside of turn 2. It’s as accurate a depiction as you could get back then. With old 3D games you quite often get frame-rate issues but when you play it today in Dosbox, it’s pretty smooth. The same can’t be said for the Amiga version unfortunately.

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With the game being 27 years old, the graphics aren’t the big draw here. What still makes this game worth bothering with is how it plays. After all this time, it’s still a lot of fun. The handling can be a bit challenging but it’s supposed to be. With a joystick or a mouse it actually handles well but it’s certainly not a game to be playing with keys.

Although this is a good game and in general it’s aged very well, there are a few rough edges. The AI is a bit clumsy. They have a habit of running you off the road and lapped cars don’t yield to you, quite the opposite in fact. This is compounded by the vision you have in the car; it’s not always easy to tell if you’ve completely passed somebody. There are rear view mirrors but they’ve got a very narrow field of view and you don’t have a spotter feeding you information. Your most useful cue is the noise of the other car’s engine. I play with my own engine noise turned off to make that process a bit easier. Also  the DOS version’s engine sound is like a swarm of angry, metallic hornets so the less I hear of it the better.

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Indianapolis 500: The Simulation sets out to do one thing, recreate the experience of a single race. It does this very well and with an amazing amount of detail for the year it was made. Like all the best simulators, Indianapolis 500 balances accessibility and realism very well. For the skilled player it provides a detailed and challenging race that will reward dedication and practise. It lacks the driving aids that a modern game would have for newer players but with the base car setups and the shorter race formats anyone can get up and running, turn laps and have fun quite quickly.

Stunt Car Racer (Geoff Crammond, 1989)

A while ago I shared a few thoughts about some Amiga games that I had a hazy memory of. This time I’m going to talk about one that I recall very clearly. It’s Stunt Car Racer by Geoff Crammond.

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Stunt Car Racer is a one-on-one racer that came out in 1989 for the multitude of home computer systems around at the time. It features 8 elevated race tracks full of all sorts of lumps and bumps. You race from an in-car perspective with your forward view dominated by a huge flame-spitting V8 engine. The racing season in the game is split into 4 divisions. You race each opponent in your division twice and if you finish at the top of the table, you get promoted. If you finish at the bottom of the table, you go back down. You can keep playing and getting promoted and demoted as long as you want.

Even though it looks old and simple, Stunt Car Racer is quite a challenging game. As you progress through the divisions, the tracks and opponents become gradually more difficult. The division I tracks are tough to even finish, let alone race on. The key to success in Stunt Car Racer is balancing your speed and boost reserves while limiting damage. If you go too fast for too long you’ll run out of boost, you’ll also overshoot your jumps and land with an almighty crunch. Going too slow isn’t an option either. Over the course of the race, your damage really starts to add up so it pays to be consistent.  It’s important to practice each track before racing so you can work out the correct speed for each ramp. For some ramps, the margin of success is very narrow so you need to be precise in how approach them.CVPn3bzWUAA5woY

I mostly played the Amiga version as a kid but the disk we had was actually dual format and also worked on PC. A few years later when my dad brought home a borrowed Windows 3.1 machine I played it on that too. The Amiga version looks and sounds much nicer but the PC version runs a lot faster with its rather functional EGA graphics. I’m not the most framerate-sensitive of people but  even I find the Amiga version a bit cumbersome and slow.

Although the graphics are rudimentary by modern standards, the driving physics hold up remarkably well. The creator of the game, Geoff Crammond, is known for making games with detailed physics models. Stunt Car Racer isn’t as complex a game as some of his other creations but a lot of thought has gone in to how the car handles. Your car actually feels like it has mass and will happily throw you off the track if you handle it too roughly. You can also see the suspension reacting as you drive around, this is not only a nice graphical touch but it provides a bit of visual feedback too.

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Stunt Car Racer is clearly a very old game but I think it’s still worth playing. There aren’t many games like it, especially from around the same time. Hard Drivin’ and Stunts are probably the closest comparison and although they’re much more elaborate games they’re different in a lot of ways and their controls aren’t as good. The graphics are primitive but it’s simple to play and it provides a decent challenge. I still have to practice the more difficult tracks each time I come back to the game.

It came out for all the popular home computers of the day so it’s very easy to emulate on whichever platform you prefer. I’d suggest the Amiga or Atari ST versions if you’re going down that route. The PC version is also very simple to get running in DOSBox. Although it’s far from the best looking or sounding version, it’s the one I tend to go for these days because it feels quite smooth.

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.