Friday, July 25, 2014

The Racing Tangent, part 1...

The West had not been sitting idly by letting the Japanese developers create all of the great racing experiences. Atari and Kee Games had been putting the first racing titles into arcades in the '70s. Of course Atari and Midway went on to publish and distribute some of the early Namco hits in the USA through the '80s. Atari though never stopped developing its own memorable titles. The single-screen Super Sprint series, which began in 1986, was one of the oldest arcade releases that had been adapted from black and white to color. It featured up to three human drivers and one computer-controlled car competing on a challenging and tight course. Players were rewarded for picking up wrenches on the race track, which they could use to upgrade the performance of their car in between races. It was one of the first games to offer that feature. Although it lacked the third person camera of Pole Position it was nonetheless a beloved series. The game was ported to multiple consoles and computers and got a follow up upgrade package for arcade owners. The company knew that sprite-based titles were on the way out and by the end of the decade they had released their first 3D title. Hard Drivin' from 1989 was an interesting hybrid of simulator and arcade racer. It was one of the first game to feature a clutch and even a key ignition. Players actually had to start their car before they could start playing and the car could even stall during the course. In Hard Drivin' players chose which path they wanted to drive on, either a road course or a stunt track with a full 360˚ loop. On the way players had to avoid oncoming cars and traffic. The game had very stiff force feedback steering and was one of the most authentic driving experiences ever created. The studio followed up with Race Drivin' in 1990. The game had dramatically improved in the graphics department and the "Super Stunt Track" was a challenging course that few people could claim to have beaten. I practiced that course for a long while and could complete it and the follow-up race against the computer controlled rival "Helen Wheels." The game was completely unlike any of the Japanese-developed titles and that uniqueness drew me to it.. The company had a certifiable hit in the middle of the decade with San Francisco Rush in 1996. The game was ported to multiple consoles and was one of the first real 3D games to make the transition from arcade to home console. Its sequel Rush the Rock in 1997 was an even bigger hit. Proving that the US was in the running for memorable racing experiences. There was a trend that was developing from the West when it came to driving game. Developers did go through different racing genres and experiences, from sim to arcade. However the West seemed to infuse more action into their racers than the Japanese. It was as if decades of action movies and high speed pursuits and shootouts on TV shows had permanently changed the tastes of Western audiences. Going as far back as the Exidy game from 1976 named Death Race where players had to run over zombies in a graveyard. Of course I'm not a social studies major so it's just a random observation. Whatever the case studios in the US and the UK seemed to enjoy a bit more violence and action in their driving experiences. The original Playstation game Twisted Metal, released in 1995, pretty much set the bar for the vehicle combat sub-genre. There were vehicle combat games that came before and after and I might talk about those titles in some future blog. I want to focus on the non-weaponized racing experiences. There was another car-based hit from 1995 that was also on the Playstation. Destruction Derby was developed by Reflections and published by Psygnosis. The game was notable because it featured 3D cars that took damage and responded accordingly during the game. Too much damage to the body, frame or engine could result in overheating and slower performance. Of course too much damage would result in a complete breakdown. The game featured some spectacular crashes framed by a loud alternative rock soundtrack. By comparison the Japanese racing games featured pristine cars that no matter how much they slammed into each other or the course would take no damage. That school of design didn't change until Sega released Daytona USA in 1994. The stock cars would rarely finish a race intact. Fenders would be torn off, the door and trunk would be flapping in the wind. It was as if they were giving the West exactly the type of brutal racing that they wanted. Reflections would go on to create the Driver and Stuntman series. Their work in 3D vehicle handling and damage was groundbreaking. In Stuntman audiences drove an entire host of vehicles that all responded accordingly. Cars could actually be tossed end over end and flipped upside down based on the severity of a crash. In many 3D games, especially those from Japan, it was all but impossible to turn cars over. To many developers an overturned car killed the game playing experience. These things may seem inconsequential today but were important for the evolution of the racing combat genre. Reflections may not be an important name to most audiences but they had predated the frenetic car chase physics in the Grand Theft Auto series by Rockstar / Take Two. The contribution by Reflections to the genre and the rise in high speed action racing wouldn't develop for another decade. Realism rather than reality helped make the impossible seem plausible in 3D games. Cars could take tremendous damage and keep on rolling. Audiences would actually turn out to see the carnage in these fictional worlds. The developer Stainless Software would release the cult PC/Mac hit Carmageddon in 1997. That game took everything that made Destruction Derby fun and threw in violence and gore by the bucketful. Carmageddon was set in a dystopian future, like Twisted Metal, where a tournament was held allowing race cars to earn points for killing other drivers as well as pedestrians. The cars were heavily armored but also very powerful. They could survive a fall off of a skyscraper and keep on running. If the players managed to land on a human or wipe out an entire row of them in the process they would earn "Style Points." The content was so controversial that it was one of the games cited by the US Congress as the reason why video games needed to be censored. The gaming industry fought tooth and nail and developed a movie industry-like ratings system. Carmageddon went on to get a sequel which improved greatly in the 3D modeling arena. Drivers could smash through windows and their cars could fall apart and even split in half depending on how hard they crashed. Stainless lost the rights to publisher SCi. The following Carmageddon games were terrible and the series was pretty much over in the eyes of long-time fans. Almost 15 years later Stainless regained the rights and used Kickstarter to relaunch the franchise. This was celebrated in the community and considered a dark day for concerned parents everywhere. Aside from violence there was something else that the West looked for in videogames that wasn't exactly in tune with Japanese developers. The next blog will look at the shift in graphics once the world of gaming moved to 3D.

1 comment:

  1. Hard drivin' in the arcade I never found my footing with it, and it didn't help that it was a pricey game to play still I wished I played it more.