Extreme-G 3 (Acclaim, 2001)

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This is a futuristic motorcycle racer developed and published by Acclaim. It was released for the Gamecube and Playstation 2 between 2001 and 2002.

I had this on the Gamecube when it was new. I played it quite a lot at the time but my decision to revisit it was more down to wanting to see what games I could run in Dolphin than any real desire to play it again. In spite of this I actually ended up playing for a few days and even completed it. This game has aged a lot better than I had expected.

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Extreme-G 3 is quite a typical game of this type and it doesn’t stray particularly far from the Wipeout template. You race through futuristic environments at breakneck speeds using a selection of weapons while balancing your shared shield and speed boost energy. Like the Wipeout series, Extreme-G 3 also features licensed music. All the artists featured are affiliated with The Ministry of Sound.

It got decent reviews at the time, quite a lot of 8s. It got a lot of praise for its sense of speed and the quality of its tracks. I would agree that those are definitely the game’s strong points. The tracks are like roller-coasters with banked corners that flow into one another, huge changes in elevation and exciting features such as jumps, loops, corkscrews and my personal favourite, the underwater tunnel. The other main area of praise, the sense of speed, is also a real selling point for this game. I’ve not played many games from this period that can match Extreme-G 3 for sheer speed and even fewer that let you visibly break the sound barrier.

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As well as these two strengths there are a few weaknesses in the game which the passage of time has done nothing to diminish. Firstly, a few of the environments look a bit bland. I think they always did actually and it really goes heavy on the motion blur. You can also find yourself racing alone for extended periods as the field stretches out along the track. If you’re lagging behind you can feel like you’re miles away from anyone and don’t have any indicator of the time gaps to the front or back.

These are only minor issues but I do have a couple of bigger gripes about the game. The first is the weapons system. Your weapons are permanent upgrades that you buy in a shop so both you and your opponents carry them throughout the game. The AI drivers seem to really like the micro-mine weapon in particular. These are little bouncing orbs that you scatter behind you and remain on the track for a few seconds. They’re not a long-term problem but every overtaking opportunity carries the risk of getting a face full of exploding jet balls that can bring you to a dead stop. The other larger problem I have with the game is the huge spike in the difficulty curve near the end of the single player mode. Most of the races are a fair challenge and they gradually become more difficult until the last two or three events which suddenly become incredibly frustrating. The difficulty isn’t insurmountable but it’s a brick wall in the middle of what was a steady challenge up to that point.

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The flaws I’ve outlined didn’t really spoil my enjoyment of the game, in fact Extreme-G 3 exceeded my expectations, but I know that for some they could be deal-breakers. The Extreme-G series produced some of the better Wipeout clones out there and this one in particular is definitely above average. I think I would still recommend this game on the strength of the tracks alone, at least in the short-term. I enjoyed it but I don’t think I’ll be playing it again in a hurry. It might be a good idea to look up some cheats so you can just jump in and try all the tracks without having to go through the full single player mode.

 

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Riptide GP Renegade (Vector Unit, 2016)

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Riptide GP Renegade is the latest entry in the Riptide GP series from Vector Unit. Like its predecessors it’s a futuristic watercraft racer with a mixed emphasis on racing and stunts. I enjoyed the previous game in the series when I played it earlier in this year. I think this instalment makes a lot of small improvements that add up to a significantly better game with a lot more personality.

The basic structure of the game is similar to the earlier games in the series. You race in a series of events consisting of a variety of race types and earn XP, cash and stars which let you unlock rider perks, vehicle upgrades and more races respectively. A major addition to Riptide GP Renegade is a story mode which acts as a framing device to link the different race events together. It’s a very simple story but it provides a framework for progression and unlocking more vehicles and riders.

Vector Unit have made a lot of cosmetic improvements since the previous game. The graphical style is very similar to Riptide GP 2 but with more detailed environments and better rider and vehicle animations. It still doesn’t look like a big budget game, because it isn’t, but it looks fine to me. It’s bold and colourful just like an arcade racer should be. The tracks, as well as looking nicer, are generally much better overall. There wasn’t anything particularly wrong with the tracks in the other games but they’ve taken things in a much more Hydro Thunder-like direction this time which can only be a good thing. There’s more alternate routes, more huge waves, more stuff happening in the background, just more of everything in general and it’s great. There’s maybe one track in the game that I’m not as fond of but even then it’s not bad.

The handling has changed a little bit since the last game. It’s much lighter now and feels a lot better. I didn’t dislike the way the last game handled but in comparison to this it feels very heavy.  Even though the handling is lighter than it was in Riptide GP 2, it’s still very easy to get to grips with and new players will be able to just jump right in and play without any problems. The stunts work the same way as previously, by hitting different analogue stick combinations, and they seem to be mostly the same. I think there might be more tricks added at the top end of the scale, there’s some pretty crazy ones that you can unlock later on and I don’t recall seeing them before.

Overall, Riptide GP Renegade is a good game at a good price. It’s easy to get into but becomes very challenging as you progress through the story. It’s a much better game than the already pretty decent Riptide GP 2 and it’s probably the best watercraft racing game since Hydro Thunder Hurricane, which Vector Unit also made. It looks pretty good for a game made by such a small team. It certainly looks professional even it probably didn’t have a huge amount of money behind it and in my opinion it looks the way a game like this should, simple and bold.

I’ve always been a fan of  budget games that punch way above their weight and this certainly fits the bill. I give it a firm recommendation. It’s available now for PC, PS4, Android and iOS with an Xbox One version on the way.

 

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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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.

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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 .

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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.

Indy 500 Season

The month of May is here and that means the Indianapolis 500 is approaching fast. This year is the 100th running of this monument of racing so to mark the occasion I’ll be spending this month talking about a few games that feature this event and the people who have won it. I won’t be able to cover every game featuring the Indy 500 but I’ve picked a selection of my personal favourites that also happen to tie in to key moments in the race’s history. I’ll also be tweeting about some of the honourable mentions that didn’t get their own post.

We’ll be starting with something quite serious but still a lot of fun, Indianapolis 500: The Simulation. That’s going to be posted immediately after this.