With the benefit of hindsight, I’ve recently been putting together a really nicely curated collection of Atari ST racing games, which, during its hey-day back in the late eighties and early nineties, consisted of Lotus Esprit Turbo Challenge, Stunt Car Racer, Hard Drivin’ and Super Hang On, with a bit of R.V.F. Honda being mostly forgotten on the side. Actually, that’s not a bad collection given there was allsorts of other stuff to play on there and I was a skint student for most of that time! But the Atari ST had so much more, and over the last couple of years since it re-emerged from my Dad’s old loft, I’ve had a great time seeking out the likes of Formula One Grand Prix, Vroom, Buggy Boy, Chase HQ, Out Run, Turbo Out Run, Powerdrift, Toyota Celica GT Rally, Crazy Cars II and III, and, of course, that Lotus sequel! In fact, I just need Continental Circus at a decent price and my work there is just about done!
That’s not to say the ST didn’t have its fair share of racing stinkers too – the pitifully slow Days of Thunder possibly being the highlight, and I still can’t believe I spent all that money on that and then wasted all that time playing it to try and justify doing so! I had similar feelings about Drivin’ Force, which was visually a bit like Powerdrift, but if I remember right you could choose pretty much any vehicle under the sun to drive – I would load it up and check that last point, but I’m not sure my eyes can take that kind of high-speed mess anymore; I do remember that if you hit anything you’d bounce backwards about a hundred metres though!
Then there was Test Drive and its sequel, Test Drive II: The Duel, and until very recently when I was feeling a bit completionist, neither of them have ever interested me in the slightest! “My Life Without… Test Drive II” might have been a more appropriate title so far! Anyway, with the first one I’m not really sure why, apart from it looked a bit average in screenshots, and while reviews at the time were mostly positive, they were not £25 positive! I definitely had a reason for not splashing the cash on number two though – for whatever reason, in April 1991 Computer & Video Games magazine decided the ST was only getting a single page for five reviews and all of that month’s news (plus five screenshots), but in the little it did say about Test Drive II: The Duel, it said buy Lotus Esprit Challenge instead. And that’s what I did, although by “buy” I possibly mean acquire, but either way, no regrets!
Fast forward several decades, and I’m doing a similar collecting exercise with the Sega Mega Drive, albeit in a much less expensive way than my current ST odyssey, with emulation on a modded PlayStation Classic, and there’s a recommendation on one of those “information” sites for retro games enthusiasts that Nintendo doesn’t like – “If you liked Road Rash II, you might also like… Test Drive II: The Duel.” And for the princely sum of half a second of downloading, I thought why not, because for that price, I might also like! I didn’t that much. If you’d bought it you’d have found some fun in it for sure (unlike Days of Thunder!), but even the original Road Rash on the Master System looks way better than this does, and it just feels like a lazy port of what I imagine the ST version to play like! In this case I’m not going to recommend Lotus II instead because I’m not a massive fan of the Mega Drive version of that either, but instead switch machines and go for Kawasaki Superbikes or Road Rash II instead. Or you could, of course, switch machines completely…
One more fast forward, but only a couple of years this time, to the 4th of March 2021 when my friend and YouTube’s premier retro gamer, Nick Jenkin (do visit him here) reviewed a game called Test Drive II: The Duel on SNES. And that’s when the game that’s never interested me on a system mostly known for those small scale Mode 7 racers like the glorious F1 Race of Champions and that thing with go-karts started to get interesting! In fact, it looked like a whole different game to the one I wasn’t very familiar with, with speed and fluidity of movement, all sorts of sound effects and graphical flourishes that didn’t include rocky crags that looked like worms crawling up a lump of brown to create a cliff face! At the very least it was more than enough to encourage me to spend half a second downloading this version too, which I did immediately, and then spent several hours when I should have been in bed unable to tear myself away. Apart from the aforementioned Road Rash II and F1 ROC: Race of Champions, I’m not sure I’ve ever clicked so instantly with a racing game like I did this one. Then it was all I played for days, at the expense, no less, of the almost endless possibilities for fun in Forza Horizon 4 and the gloriously lit but ultimately tedious Dirt 5.0 on the new Xbox Series X that had arrived a week before! And a few months later it’s firmly established itself as one of my top ten racers ever, not that I’ve ever thought about that before, but this is as good a place as any so let’s see where it slots in!
Right, top ten favourite racers of all time! This is difficult, because what’s a racer? Okay, I’m not counting things without motors like SSX 3 or top-down stuff like Super Sprint, which negates what would have been my top two otherwise! I reckon anything else goes though…
1. Out Run (Arcade but I’ll make a case for ZX Spectrum version any day)
2. Destruction Derby 2 (PlayStation)
3. Enduro Racer (ZX Spectrum)
4. Stunt Car Racer (Atari ST)
5. Virtua Racing (Arcade)
6. Super Hang-On (Atari ST)
7. F1 ROC: Race of Champions (SNES)
8. Power Drift (Arcade)
9. V-Rally 3 (Game Boy Advance)
10. Test Drive 2: The Duel (SNES)
Can’t believe I’ve never done that before, and I know what you’re thinking, but what you didn’t see there was that behind the curtains I’d simply extracted racers in order from my big list of favourite games, and not just shoe-horned this game into number ten! That said, I’m a little disappointed that Victory Run on PC-Engine came out at number eleven and isn’t included there; far more so than Mario Kart Super Circuit, Hard Drivin’, Race Driver GRID and Super Cycle that would have rounded out a top fifteen. If we’re not counting SSX 3 and Supersprint and maybe Badlands, though I’m still toying with where that actually fits into my big list! Anyway, lucky it did come out at number ten or I’d have wasted almost as much time writing all of this as you have reading it!
We’ve already established a bit about Test Drive II, but Distinctive Software (later sucked into EA) released it at that moment of crossover when everything had to be on everything, so in 1989 we saw it on Atari ST and Amiga as well as the old guard of MSX, Amstrad CPC, Spectrum and Commodore 64, then we also got it on Apple II and MS-DOS, though I wouldn’t lay eyes on either of those systems until the following year when I went to university. Then in 1992 it appeared on Genesis or Mega Drive, depending on your location, and then either right at the end of 1992 or well into 1993 (also depending on your location) it finally appeared on SNES too, a full four years after we were told to buy something else instead! And it built on the lack of much at all that made the first game a bit average by expanding into a Cannonball Run kind of race between exotic cars whilst avoiding the police across varied American landscapes. Which is way better than seeing how fast you can drive around a single track!
When the console versions did eventually arrive, they’d mixed up those American landscapes a bit, taking the computer versions’ multi-stage course (and penchant for cliffs with worms running up them!) and turning them into four courses which offer different difficulty levels and race lengths, ranging from five to eight stages. Desert Blast is the easy course, traversing a southwestern-style desert with mostly straight roads, not many off-road objects and it’s all in daylight. City Bound (medium) has you tearing around a more winding road somewhere with Mount Rushmore in the background, with more to crash into and a night stage. East Coast is hard and takes in New England and its coastline if you get that far; half of this course is in the dark or in the rain, there’s more objects to hit and the roads are more complex to navigate. Hardest of all is West Coast, referencing some Seattle landmarks in the opening stages and chucking the full works at you – wind, rain, snow, night, crazy curves, loads of traffic and loads to collide with. As well as separate track difficulties, you’ve got four driving difficulties too, with the default Rookie (auto-shift) letting you focus on getting a feel for the road, then Auto-Shift with a tougher opponent. Manual-Shift gives you manual gears, but also introduces the tachometer, and if you’re working the engine too hard for too long you’re going to start seeing smoke in the rearview mirror as all your power gets blown out of the exhaust pipe! Finally, Pro (manual-shift) is going to chuck in far more aggressive cops and far tougher opponents.
You’ve got a choice of cars including Porsche 959, Ferrari F40 and Lamborghini Diablo. The Porsche has one less gear than the others, but being a complete car philistine I usually go for that because it means a click rather than a move and click of the controller! If you plug in a second controller and know what buttons to press, there’s a mass of customisation possible too, from car height to drag coeffient and scrub rate, none of which I understand in the slightest, let alone the effect of any of them on your game – what I do know is you can make your car jump by doing this though! Similarly, you have the same choice when it comes to choosing your opponent, and I’m not sure there’s any difference here, or you can choose to race the clock. As well as the usual car driving guff, your cockpit includes a radar detector, which is occasionally going to start flashing and beeping, meaning there’s a cop hanging about somewhere close and you need to slow to the speed limit or you’ll be pulled over and get a ticket, meaning a 20-second penalty.
The problem with that is you’re not winning any supercar race by sticking to the speed limit, so having a go at outrunning them is probably the only option, and that ain’t easy once you’re on the harder courses! To help you with this balancing act, you’ve also got what the manual proudly refers to as “Dots at the Top of the Screen” which represent you, your opponent and any police about, and your position between the start and the finish, which will be a gas station providing end of stage information. Fuel plays a role as well, and if you overshoot the gas station you’ll suffer in the next stage, losing a life and getting a time penalty if you run dry; this is also the case if you crash or blow your engine, and running out of your five lives is by far more likely to be the cause of game over than winning or losing a race! There is a chance for redemption if you’ve done well in a stage on the higher driving difficulties though, for example, by keeping your average speed above 120mph you’ll get a bonus life.
For a game that was never interesting to me, it turns out there’s some serious depth here, and it’s not over yet! Regardless of winning or losing, there’s good and bad endings too, depending on whether or not you’ve avoided police pursuits by sticking to the speed limit. Which I’m still not convinced is in the spirit of a racing game, but it’s all very early nineties anarchy, with a saucy 16-bit female cop suggestively informing you of the outcome, one way or another, when you reach the end of a stage.
As we’ve already alluded to, being more Volvo than Ferrari, the SNES in general isn’t great at first-person 3D, but somehow what we have here is a real sense of speed as scenery flies by really smoothly, and with no Super Nintendo slowdown anywhere that I’m aware of, even when things get busy. Whilst other traffic, roadside objects and the various backgrounds are also more Volvo than Ferrari, they work fine, and are elevated by some really nice attention to detail, with the lights having form at night, or giving the rearview mirror a real sense of purpose as you try to keep some cars between you and your opponent, but also little touches like them using indicators as they peek out to overtake, or bugs hitting the windscreen, which I don’t think that even the likes of Dirt 5’s jaw-dropping next-gen graphical enhancements attempted! That said, Dirt 5 couldn’t match Atari ST’s Toyota Celica GT Rally for wiper effects either, but I’m sure we’ll come back to that one day… Top ten favourite racing game windscreen wipers? Anyway, each of the cars also has its own cockpit design with loads going on, and I love that my default behind the wheel view isn’t just the game’s default but also the only view you get! I know it’s asking a lot of the SNES to do any more than this, but the only thing I would have appreciated is a little more draw distance, especially for overtaking on a narrow stretch of road, or coming to a halt close to the gas station, but it’s not a big sacrifice for everything else! Not a huge amount to say about sound design – it’s also functional, with some nice engine effects, police car sirens and so on, but it’s a shame that the pan-pipe rock theme tune isn’t available during gameplay, which is something the Mega Drive version does offer! The volume of police car sirens coming and going depending on distance, and the very sultry “Test Drive Two” you get on the title screen now and again does make up for it though!
Now the tricky bit that as I write I’m not quite prepared to write about yet… We’ve got a fairly basic racing concept with added depth that I don’t really care about backed by mostly functional graphics and sound, so how has it jumped into the hallowed ground of my top ten racing games of all time in the space of a couple of months? Incidentally, I’ve also spent the last few weeks trying to rationalise the opposite side of the same coin with my game of 2021 so far at the time of writing, Resident Evil Village (more here), that for all its wonder still comes nowhere near its very much predecessor Resident Evil 4 (even more here) in that big list of favourite games. That said, Resident Evil 4 had a very similar jump into my top three games ever, having also been dismissed for various reasons until late 2019!
Anyway, in the case of Test Drive 2, it’s a bit easier. It’s just the gameplay, and specifically the gameplay of this SNES version! I felt absolutely in tune with controlling those cars from the second I loaded it up for the first time, in much the same way I did with Virtua Racing and V-Rally 3, as opposed to the absolute exhileration of something like Out Run or Super Hang-On. You can feel the point at which the car’s about to transition from smooth movement to skid, and from there, over time, the point of being in control versus out of control, and sitting right on the edge there as you make split second decisions on whether to overtake or not overtake, slow down or make a run for freedom. And I just love the resulting micro race strategy based on how your car feels in motion at any given moment of time, and how you’ll emerge into the next one based on how well you pulled off the last – as well as the frantic correction in-between if you didn’t do so good!
I will get the Atari ST version at some point, when the price is right, but I’m pretty sure that like the Mega Drive version, it’s a different game. And I’ve now got more than enough racing to do on there, if I can ever force myself to eject another recent buy, that marvellous Super Sprint follow-up Badlands I mentioned earlier! I’m still nowhere near done with this either – I’ve not even mentioned the high score table, which, again, much like Virtua Racing, is far more of a draw after extended play than you might expect for a racing game, and adds even more depth that I am actually interested in this time! I’m not sure that thirty years of disinterest in something really qualifies as love at first sight, but let’s just keep telling ourselves it’s a different game and I reckon that electric spark of instant attraction counts just fine!