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volume 1, issue 23

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Pad Happy:
Mirror, Signal, Maneuver

By Nick Ferguson


Course layouts have become far more adventurous since the comparatively dull pseudo-3D perspective of Pole Position. Sega produced the stunning Outrun, which made excellent use of the scaling and sprite-handling System 16 board, creating a breathtaking sense of speed. The dawn of true 3D made for some stunning scenery and track design in a number of games, most strikingly Virtua Racing‘s fairground level and the glorious suspension bridges of Ridge Racer. Now that tracks will probably be played again and again at home (rather than as 5 minute arcade thrills), developers have more incentive to tweak the designs until they are as near-perfect as possible: companies like Namco and Sega have made track design into an art form.

Even the most social of us sometimes find ourselves playing racing games tout seul. The solo experience of a racing game will never live up to the thrill of playing ‘live’ opposition, but well-coded AI can go a good way towards making up for a living, breathing opponent. Early driving games presented you, usually, with two sorts of opponent – the slow, dumb ‘obstacle’ and the impossibly freakish ‘perfect’ driver. It never felt like you were racing against anything approaching another human when the CPU-controlled cars replicated identical lap after lap. These days, such simple tactics are frowned on; Nintendo’s 1080 Snowboarding received a lot of criticism for its unimaginative AI (your opponents follow the same racing line EVERY race, even falling down at identical places)! Improvements in AI don’t necessarily correlate with next-generation software, either: Mario Kart 64 had the most cheap AI I’ve ever seen (unfair to the extent that single-player was almost unplayable) - the balanced, fair-but-challenging system in SNES Mario Kart (where CPU characters made mistakes just like the rest of us) was infinitely more enjoyable. However, titles like Gran Turismo provide an effective demonstration of how racing with just 5 opposing cars can be exciting, as long as the AI is thoughtfully constructed.

Presentation has also become an integral part of a title’s success. To my mind, the first racing game to take the concept of "racing" and dress it up with a seriously noticeable image and attitude was Outrun. That famous music and the outstanding graphics (for the time) combined to create something great. The whole concept of seeing your character in the driver’s seat (with the blonde sitting next to you) was pure genius, as was the car radio music system. Since Outrun, a racing game oozing attitude isn’t so unusual, and it takes something pretty special to catch my attention these days.

Namco’s Ridge Racer series has always exuded a certain daffy charm, with the enthusiastic announcers and speedy time-of-day lighting change particularly favorite touches. The last PlayStation incarnation, Rage Racer, was a stylish title but the newest game in the series takes the presentation to a level beyond the superficial. Ridge Racer Type 4 develops a narrative with your team’s engineer between each race (unfortunately, it’s all in Japanese) against a mesmerizing backdrop of subliminal logos, ambient music and flashing icons. This doesn’t make the slightest bit of difference to the core basics of the racing game, but it does make the solo play experience deeper and more satisfying than most racing games out there. The overall effect of R4 (with its gorgeous FMV intro, sharp menu screens and suitably moody techno-funk ambience) is to create an utterly compulsive and beautiful gaming universe. It’s one of the most entrancing racing games I’ve ever played. This sense of atmosphere is a significant trump card, and one of the main reasons I prefer R4 to Gran Turismo (an excellent game in itself). As a solo gamer, R4’s attempts to draw me into the experience is richly rewarded by a greater sense of personal investment in each race.

Finally, realistic physics have made a big impact in recent years. As dedicated 3D hardware has taken a load off the CPU, developers have begun to experiment with vaguely realistic physics models in games. The handling of Pole Position and Super Sprint looks ridiculously cartoonish in comparison to the near-sims of today’s consoles. The Dreamcast version of Sega Rally 2 probably uses more processing power calculating the grip of your car’s tires than existed in the entire Pole Position series! Many games are sold on the strength of this realism – Gran Turismo won deserved praise as ‘The Real Driving Simulator’ - but an obsession with realism can go too far. Racing games and simulators are entirely different breeds – a simulator should aim to replicate an experience as accurately as possible, whereas a racer should aim to be as much fun to play as possible, realism or no. This isn’t to say that realism has no place in racing games (who can deny the appeal of racing actual production cars that handle in a believable fashion?), but the quest for realism is not the same thing as the quest for balanced gameplay. The level of realism in Codemasters’ Touring Car simulation TOCA was toned down for the sequel, TOCA 2. The games’ producer admitted in a recent interview with Britain’s EDGE magazine that "exaggerating certain areas of the physics is necessary if you are to match the expectation of what the user remembers or believes the driving experience is actually like". Most reviews have concluded that TOCA 2 is a better game for it.


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Credits: Pad Happy logo illustrated and is © 1999 Dan Zalkus. Pad Happy is © 1999 Nick Ferguson. All other content is © 1999 loonyboi productions. Unauthorized reproduction is strictly prohibited, so don't try it, or you'll get some real force feedback.