Not for the first time in its lifetime, as I write this my Spectrum +2 has just had to make way for my Atari ST! I’ve got Spectrum emulators coming out of my ears, but the ST isn’t as straightforward, and a recent obsession over an old ST favourite on other platforms meant it had to come out to play again!
And there’s a sore point we’ll come back to shortly, but for now, my ST has sat in a plastic Selfridges carrier bag in my loft for the last two years, that was also its home in my Dad’s loft for the best part of thirty. (And that’s the same plastic bag it came home from London in when I bought it in Selfridges all those years ago). Apart from looking a bit dishevelled and grubby (which is probably how it looked when it went in the bag), everything just about worked fine. My Quickshot Python 1 joystick has seen better days, with left sticking a bit, and that stupid joystick port under the front next to the mouse port is still a right pain to get at, but otherwise it powered on and the possibly pirated disc containing Ghouls ‘n Ghosts and Kick Off which was still in the drive worked great! It was a little jarring going back to that ST homescreen and remembering how to boot up a game from the floppy disc though – too much Windows in the interim when all I needed to do was press the reset button!
Neighbouring the ST in its bag in the loft was a far more appropriate Lion bar cardboard board full of games, organized to completely fill every space in the box to perfection, with all the skill of the Tetris master that once packed it. Unfortunately he’s not been a Tetris master for a while now, and there’s no way they’re all going back in that box ever again! Not that we’ve got any more plans for the box any time soon – we have everything we need right here! Well, almost everything…
Apart from having a good idea what was in there, opening that box must have been like when Howard Carter opened Tutankhamun’s tomb! There was Pac-Land (more on that here) sitting on the top with another incredible arcade conversion, Star Wars. Poking out underneath was Starglider, glorious flight-sim Falcon and game creation language suite STOS, with two Spy vs Spy games and the Gunship manual padding out a gap on one of the sides. Then there were the boxes of “loose” floppy discs, not all of which were of dubious origin I might add! Actually, I think most of them are issues of short-lived disc-based magazine Stampede. There was probably a hundred games in there in all, and as much as I enjoyed browsing through every single one in turn for the first time, then carefully deciphering the faded pencil labels just to make sure the second time, I was less enthralled with the denial then realisation the third time around that Stunt Car Racer simply wasn’t there!
Yes, for a couple of months now I’ve been playing tons of this on the Spectrum, because I had no idea it was on the Spectrum until recently, then on the C64 because I had no idea that existed either for even longer! And as wonderful an achievement as the Spectrum version is, the C64 version isn’t far off Amiga quality, which isn’t far off my beloved old Atari ST game, and it was only a matter of time until I had to get everything out and get playing that version again!
I still can’t believe that as far as I can tell, absolutely everything except Stunt Car Racer – the one game I was prepared to sacrifice my Spectrum for the second time for – is in that box! I’ve no idea why it wouldn’t be in there. I mean, it was in one of the big style Atari ST boxes where you’d get the manual and a special insert to stop the precious disc bouncing around that vast cavern, and they do take up a lot of box space, but there’s some right old crap in there (what even is Kayden Garth and why do I own it???) that could have gone in another box! And I’ve got any boxes with old copies of 2000A.D. or Murder Casebook in that it might have been shoved into instead to fill a space, and that wouldn’t have been easy to miss when I sorted those out on re-arrival with me a couple of years ago too.
I won’t bore you with the rest of the stages of grief I tore through yesterday at the time of writing, but on reaching acceptance I was immediately on eBay looking at precisely two listings for Stunt Car Racer on the Atari ST. Oh dear, thinking I was going to be spoilt with choice and pick this up for a fiver plus about the same in postage for that huge box was turning out to be wishful thinking. I added them both, at £30 each, to my watch list. Within a couple of hours, there was an offer from the seller for one of them for £26. I ignored it for 18 hours then went back with what I’d decided was my maximum price whenever I was eventually going to buy it of £20; especially knowing perfectly well that my original copy is going to turn up as soon as I click pay on anything! And within minutes they went for it, and we are now back in business!
Buying Stunt Car Racer first time around came late in my Atari ST relationship – probably in 1991 – and excluding multiplayer games of Super Sprint and Rampage with my brothers, was definitely the only single-player game that ever got a look in once Kick Off – the game I’ve still played more than any other on any platform – got its hooks into the three of us! In fact, Kick Off would extend the lifetime of my ST beyond even that of the original PlayStation! But, as much as I loved Stunt Car Racer, it’s very much associated with a specific timeframe during my second year of university.
During my first year, we were offered a kind of year-long exchange with l’ecole d’ingenieurs de Tours in France, and being an unnaturally fluent French speaker – the background for which will forever be a mystery – I decided I’d give it a go. When September came, me and another guy on my course, Stuart, who I’d become as thick as thieves with when we eventually reunited in our final year, went off with the guys (it was an engineering degree in the early 90’s!) from the year above who were doing their sandwich year for an induction week… And what a holiday that week was with the guys from our own year when it was our turn proper the following year! Anyway, we were abandoned at the end of the week (but not as badly as happened the following year!) and eventually found our way to the campus and our halls and our new life in what is the perfect university city. We made some great friends and had a great time, including some of the craziest fresher’s week antics I’ve ever heard of, but over time the course wasn’t quite what I’d signed up to and when I was offered a get-out before the end of the year I decided to take it and get back to normal. Unfortunately everyone else was already back to normal, and I ended up renting a room with a family where I certainly wasn’t hanging around for the weekends, and for the rest of that term I remember two very specific things about those weekends. First, my insistence on having U2’s Achtung Baby album playing on the car journey back there with my parents every Sunday night, and second playing Stunt Car Racer until I couldn’t put that journey off any longer!
We’re now a few days removed from all of the above, and it’s turned up in the post, so we can finally talk about Stunt Car Racer! It had been out for a couple of years before I got it first time around, and given some of the rubbish my big Lion bar box suggests I bought (let alone copied!) in the intervening time, that gap from release to purchase is a complete mystery! I was certainly aware of it, from the very first time it graced the cover of Computer & Video Games magazine in August 1989, with the headline “The best race game ever?” And that’s a very good question!
Ignoring cars, because the question also does that, I’ve got to go with SSX 3 on PlayStation 2 as the best, but that was decades away in August 1989, so we’re then looking at Supersprint on formats such as arcade, Spectrum and Atari ST as the best race game ever, with the caveat that its top-down nature is maybe not in the spirit of the question. Does Out Run qualify as a race game? That’s next if it does; arcade and – always controversially – Spectrum (more here)! Then Destruction Derby 2 on Playstation, also a big while away, so doesn’t count yet either. Then Enduro Racer on Spectrum (see here this time). I reckon Stunt Car Racer can come next in my list, just before the arcade version of Virtua Racer (also three years away), making the answer to the question “No, but it’s maybe top three” when it was asked!
Back to C&VG, and in their gushing 93% August 1989 review they start by bemoaning that aside from Super Hang On – which would be next in my list – there’s not much going on in 16-bit racing. They’d clearly forgotten about the similar-scoring Test Drive II from a couple of months earlier. Anyway, they decided it was the best race game ever. Outside of the arcades. On a home computer. Just looking through my Lion bar box, apart from Super Hang On, there’s Hard Drivin (more on that here, but also recently positively reviewed by C&VG), RVF Honda (which C&VG has also just very postiviely reviewed), Lotus Esprit Turbo Challenge (I won’t labour the point) and Vroom (predictable now). Some serious quality there, so no complaints if that lot still all counts as not a lot to choose from, but I’m not disagreeing with much they say about Stunt Car Racer itself!
For all the race games we’ve just run through, Stunt Car Racer can undoubtely call itself the most unique. It’s a one-on-one car race in a first-person cockpit perspective, but on a raised 3D track that you not only have to stay on, but, as you might imagine, there’s stunts too, in the form of ramps, bumps, hurdles, gaps, massive ski jumps and all kinds of rollercoaster shennanigans. At the start of each race, you’re winched onto the track, held up by chains that let you loose when the man says go. Fall off the track, and after what seems like an agonising wait – especially for some of the more flamboyant crash scenarious you might find yourself in – and you’re going to be winched back onto the track again. The winch is genius, building up big anticipation with your car swinging all over the place before it finally settles in position for you to drop.
The races themselves are hugely strategic affairs of cat-and-mouse with your opponent, and it’s going to take some experience – especially on later tracks – for you to know when you should stay and when you should go. That said, there’s nothing like the thrill of firing boost and just going hell for leather out of the blocks (or being unchained), getting your nose in front and then just trying to defend your lead for the whole race! Even when your opponent is out of sight, a very simple mechanic of telling you how far away they are adds an amazing amount of tension when you can see how fast they’re catching, or how you’re running out of laps to catch them, or even worse, that big lead you had disappearing as you’re being winched back on after a crash! And aside from deciding when to sit back, when to overtake and when to fly with your limited supply of nitrous boost, depending on your specific track situation, you’re also constantly balancing speed for the different obstacles and even for the normal turns, just to make sure you stay on the track.
And the strategy goes on. Winning a race gets you two points, which contributes towards your league position against two computer opponents. But getting the fastest lap nets you a bonus point, so what you’re going to have to consider on top of everything else is making sure that second lap is an absolute corker, because if the computer is in the lead on the last lap then you might not be scoring a time before the race ends, and if you’re in the lead you’re likely to be concentrating on staying in front and not getting a record lap time! With two tracks in each of four increasingly tough divisions, each with two different computer opponents (which the computer works out the results for), and two races each per track per season, those fastest lap points become all important towards deciding whether you’re promoted, relagated or stay where you are.
We need to come back to crashing, and one final tension-building strategic mechanic, which is the big crack that gradually spreads across your roll cage as you sustain damage! Take a corner too fast, small crack; come off the track, bigger (and bigger) crack; hit the opponent or they hit you, devastating crack if you hang around too long! If your crack gets too big, you’re wrecked and it’s race over (so make sure you got a decent lap time in before that happens)! To compound this, once you get past Division 4, there’s going to be permanent serious impact damage in the form of holes in the roll cage that the crack just jumps across, accelerating your doom!
Winning Division 1 is going to take you ages, not just from learning the nuances of each track and each opponent, but also puzzling out how the hell you’re going over some of those obstacles in the first place! And there’s some really fiendishly designed tracks on offer here! But do it, and it’s not game over yet – you’re going into the Super League with a hugely overpowered new car! Don’t worry about that for now though. First you’ve got to get over the thrill of the race on a crazy track, then you’ve got to get to know the tracks in every division, then you’ve got to get your racing strategy down. And that’s going to take some time and you’re going to love every second of it!
By chance when I was looking through my ST floppies, I found my brother Phil’s old Division 2 save on one, under the name of Bern Rubba. I sent him a pic and he replied saying how much fun it was, but he bets it looks like a dog now. I’d say it’s a little primitive by today’s standards, but the 16-bit versions at least run like a dream, even if the backgrounds are sparse, and the opponent’s car is only marginally less sparse, being made up a less 3D polygons than you could count on one hand! The lovely detailing of your cockpit and front of the car – especially the flames coming out of the exposed engine when you boost – take a lot of the graphical pressure off what’s going on outside though. But all the same, the raised 3D tracks do exactly what they need to, and all of this combined was more than enough to blow anyone away at the time! There’s some lovely between race, very 16-bit cartoon-like scenes too, celebrating your victory or having you dejectly looking on at someone else doing it. Sound isn’t spectacular, but is more than functional, and I reckon any more than that would be a distraction in a game like this.
I’ll quickly mention the 8-bit versions, as, like I said, that’s actually where this recent story begins. I was well beyond the Spectrum when I was playing this on the Atari ST, and although C&VG really bigged that version up, saying it was identical to the ST apart from being monochrome, it was only very recently that I came across it again and actually paid attention. I would say that it runs like my brother imagined the ST version to run like now, but the gameplay is all still there! And I very quickly got very addicted to it all over again! C&VG said it promised to be one of the most amazing games yet seen on the Spectrum, and I can’t disagree on that point!
Even more amazing is the Commodore 64 version. Yes, it’s got more colour (even if a lot of it is C64 brown), and the cockpit really isn’t far off looking like the 16-bit versions, but it also runs at a slightly more comparable pace. And so my addiction jumped to that platform, until I finally thought why not go to the effort of opening the loft hatch right above where I was playing and getting the ST out, because I had a nagging feeling that despite being technically close to the experience I remembered now, there was something still missing…
Playing them all in tandem now, there’s one subtle but massive difference for me between these 8-bit versions and both the Atari ST and Amiga (which I’ve also played a bit, emulated on a MacBook Pro) counterparts, which is what makes the game stand out over everything else, and that’s exhileration. Yes, if you’d never played on 16-bit, you’d never miss it and you’d have a wonderful time, but there’s something about the extra fidelity, the longer draw distances, the speed and something about the car physics that makes driving feel more tactile. You’re going to feel every bump, and that’s going to make you also brace yourself for every bump, whether just going into a curve a bit too sharply, or landing a huge jump and bouncing around from the impact. And as a result, your stomach will often be in your mouth and you’re going to be leaning all over the place as you try not to wrestle your joystick too hard because you remember just how easily they can snap by pushing a bit too far in one direction!
This game on the Atari ST is just so immersive, and has so much going for it that you’ll be coming back forever. Eventually, when you’ve admitted to yourself you aren’t going to find it again and need to splash some cash! I still question C&VG’s complaint about the lack of racing games on the platform, but if there is a lack, then no problem because this is the only racing game you need on there. It might not be the best race game ever anymore, but it’s still not far off, and there’s no question in my mind that it is still one of the most exhilerating too!
Finally, next month in C&VG… Xenon II – the most amazing shoot ‘em up ever? Yeah, maybe!