Thursday, June 12, 2014

The (Videogame) Car Tangent, part 2...

Game designers were often fans of the subjects they made games on. If they worked on a fighting game then chances are they also liked martial arts films, wrestling or boxing as well. If they worked on a space shooter then they probably liked science fiction movies and cartoons. Those that worked on racing games tended to love racing. The better the game was then chances were that the developers were also car fans. The racing game was a standard that all developers tried to master in the early days of the arcade. Those that did well with the genre tended to outlast their rivals. Sega was one of the first in the racing market, even developing electromechanical racing games before video arcade games really took off. They demonstrated that great racing games could take liberties with reality and make caricatures of tracks, scenery and vehicles and still become popular.

The developers at AM1, AM2 and AM3 at Sega each took turns pushing the genre to bold new heights. OutRunners, which was mentioned in the previous blog had demonstrated that even fictional cars could make for memorable main characters. I would take that concept one step further and argue that Sega was demonstrating the positive aspects of diversity in a videogame. The cars in OutRunners ran the gamut of design choices. From tiny to rotund, domestic and exotic, there was a car that represented the spectrum of the driving experience. Best of all was that each car had almost the same chance as winning the race as all the others.All too often in videogames the main character was a physically fit attractive male or female. Average looking or (heaven forbid) fat characters were avoided at all costs. Conventional thinking would have audiences believe that people did not want to play a videogame if the main character was an average looking shlub. In the case of racing games the main cars were often sporty and European. OutRunners broke the mold and gave the massive or under-powered cars a fair chance against the supercars. Sadly diversity was still an element lacking in games where humans were the main characters.

Well designed fictional or real cars could appear to have their own distinct personality. Who hadn't thought that the classic Volkswagen Beetle was not perpetually smiling or that ? When those cars were placed within imaginative games then they could really come into their own. The Choro-Q games by Atlus and other developers showed that cars could replace humans in an action-RPG. Gamers could be made to empathize with the tiny cars as the story progressed. Relationships were built with the other cars as players went on various missions. Players learned that their car was an important member of the community even though they primarily wanted to be a racer. Consider that these games were out way before the Pixar film had even been conceived! The racing element was not forgotten however and was actually quite challenging. Players learned that they had to compete against cars of their own class. There was no way and stock car was ready to race professionally after all. So players raised money by completing menial tasks and winning smaller events. Eventually they would work their way up to the big leagues. Every element of the cars could often be modified, from the paint schemes to the types of tires, body kits and engines that they used. In the Choro-Q universe it was akin to getting a makeover, or in extreme cases like getting a heart transplant.

The Choro-Q games had their own niche which they filled sublimely. They were like action oriented versions of Animal Crossing and Harvest Moon but for gearheads instead. Sadly they were overlooked when gaming editors were nominating the best racing titles of a generation. Sometimes cars were just a mode of transportation in a game and sometimes they shared the spotlight with the main characters. Some of the best cars in game history were never featured in a racing game.

The M12 LRV (Light Reconnaissance Vehicle) was better known to gamers as the Warthog. The first person shooter Halo had introduced all sorts of futuristic weapons to gaming, possibly none as awesome as the Warthog. It was a military vehicle designed for speed, one that could carry a few soldiers and run circles around tanks. Not many Hollywood films had been set with ground forces fighting on alien planets so the design was relatively new. The scope of all the designs featured in Halo was breathtaking in fact. Every piece of armor, every weapon, vehicle and location had tremendous forethought and execution. Those that assumed the best designers were working on films only had clearly not seen the work in most Triple-A blockbusters. The Warthog was akin to the Light Cycles in Tron. It not only looked great but it also looked very functional. It had four wheel drive and four wheel steering which would help it turn quickly despite its size. The large tires and dynamic suspension system could help it clear terrain that would have stopped normal vehicles and many off-road trucks. It had armor plating that followed the contours of the engine, protected the transmission and also provided clearance the rear mounted high caliber machine gun. It was nothing short of a perfect military atv and proof that game designers could make the transition to real-world production vehicles (if the military were interested).

Weaponized gaming vehicles had appeared appeared well before the Warthog. Many were more outlandish and a few became as iconic as any mascot character. The game Twisted Metal had a cast of vehicles as diverse as OutRunners. Actually to be fair the game had even more rides across the spectrum especially when they began inventing vehicle types and added in trucks, motorcycles and armored personnel carriers. Every vehicle was equipped with as much weaponry as the Interceptor from Spy Hunter except instead of taking down terrorists the drivers were trying to kill each other. This was all for the sake of a gruesome contest. The most memorable car in the series was an ice cream truck nicknamed Sweet Tooth. People often mistake the driver, a clown with a flaming head as Sweet Tooth but his name was actually Marcus "Needles" Kane. The psychopathic clown was a mass murderer and would lure victims out to the street with his truck. Normally when people think of ice cream trucks they think of soft colors and a catchy jingle playing on a loudspeaker. Sweet Tooth was armored, covered in rust and blood and could even transform into a robot. It was the stuff of nightmares and yet somehow gamers could never get enough of it. Twisted Metal was not the first vehicle combat game but it probably was the best.

The videogame industry evolved very rapidly from the '70s through the '80s. Graphics, controls, memory, storage and other issues were trial and error in the early days. The majority of titles were becoming more refined with studios splitting time between home consoles and arcade units. By the '90s cars could no longer be pinned to just one genre. Of course the most memorable car titles did involve racing of some sort. Through the arcade era no single studio could claim to have to have owned the racing genre better than Sega. Yet there was one studio that was perpetually challenging their status. The rivalry between Sega and Namco for arcade racing domination would become the stuff of legend. As patrons poured billions of dollars into the videogame industry both Sega and Namco were investing millions back into research and development. Some of the breakthrough technology in gaming came from a racing title. Color graphics, surround sound, analog versus digital steering and 3D modeling were technologies pioneered in many racing cabinets. No two studios did it better than Sega and Namco. The next blog will look at this rivalry and begin an entirely new chapter for this series.


  1. ah yes the truck from Twisted Metal the name escapes me at the moment though...

    1. Wayne, the truck was named Sweet Tooth. The driver was Needles Kane. A lot of people think the clown is named Sweet Tooth.