Tuesday, January 06, 2009

10 Racing Games That Changed My Perception of Gaming

I remember seeing a short interview segment with cartoonist Lynda Barry on either Prisoners of Gravity or the documentary Comic Book Confidential, where she mentioned something which in retrospect, is almost a proto-meme. She suggested as an exercise that a young writer try to document their life through ten pairs of shoes that they've owned.

Well, it led me to think about the theme of 10s and take the whole thing in a different direction... namely thinking about the 10 racing games that influenced how I thought about the genre. Here is that list:

Enduro - Atari: This was an old Activision title for the 2600 that, while not as graphically dazzling as Pole Position, the game did have a feature which was sort of revolutionary for its time: it was a racing game that didn't have a fixed timer, but rather it was as the title states, it is an endurance race that spanned a night and the object was to pass a set number of cars before daybreak. It was also one of the first driving related games that had rudimentary weather conditions, including fog, which was sort of stunning to me at ages 7-9. It wasn't pretty, but it certainly got the job done with a certain level of competence.

Outrun - Arcade: This game really influenced my view of not just racing games, but of gaming in general, because it introduced the element of choice, something that had been a foreign concept in console and arcade games to that point. If you've never played this game, at the end of each stage, you could turn left or right, and choose the next stage you would compete in seamlessly and in doing so, you also had control over the general difficulty of the game (as the left hand choices tended to be easier stages). And because you could make choices throughout the game, the game featured many endings as well. To get myself back into the right frame of mind for this particular entry, I played one of the sequels to this arcade classic on the PS2, and it made me realize that in essence, if you were great at this game, start to finish, you'd play through it in about 6 minutes. The fact that it doesn't get boring after that is a testament to how great the design and gameplay were for this game.

F-Zero - Super Nintendo: True, Hard Drivin' came out a few years before F-Zero, but those of us who played it in the arcade would probably all agree, it just didn't have a good flow to it. And then Nintendo dropped F-Zero on all of us early in the life of the SNES, and it was one of those defining moments in racing games for me and I am sure it was for a lot of other people. It was the first time I had ever seen a course with irregular corners or had the ability to essentially move the car in 360 degrees. Of course, it was a little bit of a con because Mode 7, the process that Nintendo used to create that effect was not true 3D. But the only thing that matters is the results. Knowing the secret doesn't diminish how fun this game truly was/is. It was a work of art and a game I judged future racing games by. In retrospect, it was the first game that I remember which had lap elimination (meaning that as you drove, competitors would be eliminated, so you had to keep with an ever diminishing field to finish the race... if you fell behind in a lap, well, your race could be over early).

Top Gear 2 - Super Nintendo: This was the first game that I remember car customization being a heavy part of the gameplay equation. Since your twenty competitors were driving cars that looked like yours (aside from the colors of course), the whole exercise came down to your skill as a driver and the various parts you were able to buy over the span of 64 courses across 16 countries. Your competitors were also able to buy parts which meant they got better at about the same rate as you did (you could find yourself falling behind if a few drivers got an upgrade before you). In addition, the game also kept track of in-race damage, though I can't remember if there was any performance penalty from it. Unfortunately, the Mode 7 magic of F-Zero was not replicated, but weather and fog were added, making for some interesting race conditions.

Super Mario Kart - Super Nintendo: I know, I know... there is combat in this game, but at its heart, it is still a fine racing game, and still one of the greatest two player racing experiences around. It was fun and colorful, and yet the driving physics and courses were designed for both amateurs and hardcore gamers in mind. It was also the first game that I remember that had ghost cars... an actual record of your best lap that you could compete against, which meant that doing the time trial mode became almost addictive by itself. And borrowing from the F-Zero model, it too was a Mode 7 game, so it had irregularly shaped corners and a lot of freedom to explore a course to find the best line. In SMK's case, the designers put in a number of short cuts which made going of the beaten path a little more rewarding.

Gran Turismo - PS1: When I first got my Playstation, I happened to get a demo disc with it, and the game I went nuts for was Gran Turismo. From someone who was accustomed to games like Daytona USA on the Saturn, GT was a breath of fresh air and innovative in so many ways. Tons of Licensed cars? Check. A variety of real and fictional courses? Check. An almost unheard of at that time level of customization of the cars on a console game. Check. To me, Gran Turismo was much like the earlier F-Zero in that it fundamentally changed the way I looked at racing games. It was a definitive move towards simulation in racing games (as the series has been subtitled "The Real Driving Simulator"), a move which included putting barriers to advancing through the games many, many cups/championships by way of a licensing system (you couldn't enter more lucrative/difficult events until you passed a grueling set of tests and received a license), and the increasing sophistication in the driving physics and individualized driving experience each car was capable of giving the player through modifications and customization. In short, Gran Turismo was a monumental title. However, it wasn't perfect. For instance, though it was a simulation-type game, there was no damage modeling, no weather conditions and the AI at times left something to be desired, but despite those flaws, it is still a really exceptional game.

Need for Speed: V-Rally - PS1: While not as ground breaking as the two games that bookmark it on this list, V-Rally occupies a place in my heart because it was one of the first dedicated rally games I ever played. It allowed the player to drive circuits and special stages in 8 different countries across variable weather conditions and in a first for me, driving at night with your headlights providing somewhat realistic illumination of the course. There were better racing games on the PSX I admit, but just something about this game that has made it stand the test of time in my mind.

Burnout 3 - PS2: There is a mantra in Talladega Nights: The Ballad of Ricky Bobby, which is simple, yet effectively says everything about the Burnout series: I want to go fast. That is exactly the experience Burnout gave me and so many other gamers. Vehicles in other games like Gran Turismo may have reached and maintained speeds over 200 miles an hour, but I never felt like I was going that fast. But Criterion did everything right to make this game the very definition of a white knuckled ride by not only creating a game with a great sense of speed through blurring and a menagerie of sound but by also tying dangerous behavior to going faster. You are encouraged to pass close to other cars, drift and drive on the wrong side of the road. And contact with your competitors is not only allowed, it is encouraged (the subtitle of this game is Takedown). Not to mention the crashes, which are exceptional and spectacular... so much so that they comprise a separate mode in the game, which has the goal of causing the biggest, most costly accident you can.

ATV Offroad Fury 4 - PS2: You remember I mentioned choice in when discussing Outrun? There is a specific mode of racing in ATVOF4 called P2P (point to point) which exemplifies that whole aesthetic to me. P2P racing is a multistage rally event across the 5 continents in the game that allows for great freedom by design and execution. For starters, the game featured 4 types of vehicles, which in most events race in segregated events (ATV against other ATV's for example), but in P2P racing, they are all on the track competing against each other, so it is just a free for all out there. And the courses themselves, taking this into account, are made up of a lot of detours, paths and jumps which suit one type of vehicle or another, meaning that there is a lot of different ways you can approach each stage of the rally. And did I happen to mention that P2P mode is really just the icing on the cake and the game itself features over 70 different offroad tracks with some solid mildly arcadey physics, the ability to build your own courses (which can turn out pretty sweet) and a barebones but decent story mode, something I didn't even think a racing game could use until I played this game.

ToCA Race Driver 3 - PS2: You can get away with a lot in Gran Turismo that really doesn't make the races feel real, (well, that and the lack of the feeling of speed) and it sort of put me off the series and simulation racing in general. Then I played Codemasters' ToCA Race Driver 3, which took the concept in a different direction which I think makes sim racing work again. Gran Turismo was subtitled The Real Driving Simulator, and Codemasters seemed to have looked at that and seen it as a challenge, as they have dubbed ToCA 3 The Ultimate Driving Simulator... and you know what? I think they can actually back that up. What does this game bring to the table? Real cars. Yep. Real racing disciplines from a wide variety of disciplines. Check. Authentic courses. For the most part. And for me, most importantly to me, realistic damage modeling. I remember the first time I was driving an open wheel car in this game and I clipped a wall and the wheel came off, I was very impressed. And discovering that I actually had to be somewhat competent when it comes to driving to win a race instead of bumping and grinding my way through traffic was refreshing. This feels like motorsports to me, and it is fun going from driving monster trucks to Indy cars to Touring Cars in a sitting. The fact that you race for teams rather than owning the cars yourself (and money isn't involved) also makes things a little more realistic as the matchups are more level (you can tweak the cars and adjust parts to a certain extent, but not to the extreme levels GT allows you to so there is generally parity between the cars involved). The minimap in the lefthand corner also doesn't show the whole track, but rather a closeup view of the section of the track you are on, so you can make decisions on when to brake and pass without having to memorize the track, which is also a nice touch. Put it this way... I think of Gran Turismo as the game you want to play if you want to see if you can beat a bunch of sports cars with a souped up Honda Civic... and ToCA 3 is the game you want to play if you want a taste of a lot of different real racing disciplines done right.


Now I know that there are lots of games that I haven't played in the racing genre, so there might be other games that broke some of the barriers I discussed above, but the list is based on my experiences with these kinds of games, so I am willing to accept some kibitzing about such matters. In fact, I would take it as a learning experience. There may be more lists like this (from various media) to follow.


Brandon said...

I wasn't much of a racing game fan myself, but I loved F-Zero. I still play it on occasion. I even owned a lap record in Nintendo Power for one issue.

MC said...

For me, it was something that sort of built over time. I like most genres of gaming now (except console role playing games... I think I grew out of those).

Anonymous said...

I recently came accross your blog and have been reading along. I thought I would leave my first comment. I dont know what to say except that I have enjoyed reading. Nice blog. I will keep visiting this blog very often.