Throughout its lifetime, the limits of the ZX Spectrum were regularly tested and redefined by its racing games. Ironically, of course, that’s in stark contrast to its main 8-bit rival, whose limits were regularly defined by them… Buggy Boy, Super Cycle and maybe its interpretation of Power Drift excluded. Maybe.

Anyway, back on the Spectrum, we can go all the way back to the 1983-realism of Chequered Flag, with its lifelike cockpit and household name tracks; and it’s where my life with the Spectrum began! Not so much a racing game and more of a driving game, but no denying that the third-person 3D crime-fuelled cityscapes of 1986’s Turbo Esprit were a blueprint for Grand Theft Auto and more that followed. Things went nuts in 1987, with my number one (if we’re excluding Supersrint) Spectrum racing game ever Enduro Racer and its big thrill, big sprite off-road motorbiking; we also had another great arcade bike racer in Super Hang-On, and I’ll always maintain that the Spectrum’s conversion of Out Run was a stunner too! The superb arcade ports didn’t let up the following year, with WEC Le Mans’ super-smooth action coming very close to also being top of the pile. Then there was the depth of Nigel Mansell’s Grand Prix, and I’m also going to mention Super Trux for trying something new too, especially when it came to hills, and just being a really fun, under-appreciated racer!

Speaking of hills, 1989 saw a fantastic conversion of Power Drift which really nailed the gameplay of the original, and another game that’s often mentioned as one of the best (if not the best) of them all, Chase HQ, although as impressive as it runs, I’ve never really clicked with that on any system. I definitely clicked with Stunt Car Racer on another system (Atari ST), but the Spectrum also got a very impressive, albeit more bare bones version that really knows how to throw those big 3D shapes that make up those outrageous elevated tracks around. A couple of years later and we’re now really getting the most out the system’s 3D graphics capabilities – Chevy Chase is a beauty (especially the gorgeous sunset level); take your pick between Test Drive II or Toyota Celica GT Rally as the closest you’ll come to driving a car on the Spectrum (at least to look at…); and finally we approach the end of the Spectrum’s life with Super Monaco GP realising everything we thought we were looking at when we started our journey with Chequered Flag almost a decade earlier!

Super hang on a minute though! What’s all this talk about end of the Spectrum’s life? Okay, maybe briefly, but like another guy with a beard, it didn’t take Sir Clive’s little zombie long to rise from the grave with a bit of help from the insane homebrew scene that’s still thriving as we speak – no doubt whenever you’re reading this! We’ve had some absolute corkers when it comes to racing games especially over the last few years – all the way back in 2004 we had 4K Race, which was followed up with the sublime Pole Position-esque sequel 4K Race Refuelled, a super-smooth, super-fast arcade racer that fills a gap on the Spectrum I didn’t realise was there until I played it. Fast forward a few years to 2019 and we’ve got a couple of releases from developer Zosya Entertainment, who by this point were establishing themselves as a real sign of quality for modern ZX Spectrum gaming. The first game of theirs I remember wasn’t a racing game, but this really great looking fantasy (literally!) Amazon action adventure called Valley of Rains, complete with its raunchy cassette inlay! They’ve also produced the excellent platformer Bonnie and Clyde, in the vein of Bubble Bobble or Rodland, and the jaw-dropping first-person shooter The Dark: Redux, and you really need to be checking out anything with their name on… Including uber-stylised drift racer, Drift (which I’m rubbish at), and an arguably better take on the original Super Hang-On conversion by the name of Just a Gal, featuring the tale of a lady racer named Maureen!

And between the style and the storyline of these two games, we end our journey at the present day, with Zosya’s 2021 release, Travel Through Time Vol. 1: Northern Lights. Now, in getting here we’ve taken in the very best of ZX Spectrum racing (and sometimes ZX Spectrum gaming full-stop), but from the very outset it’s obvious that we’re also in the presence of something very, very special with this one!

We begin as you begin your amateur racing career in 1950’s Sweden, and what follows is a story-based racing game that spans four decades, six vehicles from those decades (up to the eighties in case you’re struggling to keep track) as the automotive industry develops in parallel, and follow the life of one family through that time. And all of this plays out through stylish cutscenes, and a variety of racing types, from challenge to time trial and duel to checkpoint chasing, and you’ll be racing at night and through different seasons and weather too.

We’re understandably in 128K-only territory here, so after a bright and breezy loading screen you’re getting a very bright and breezy AY theme tune, with meandering melodies skillfully layering over a familiar sounding Spectrum rhythm section that eventually end up in a quite moving crescendo. From there, as well as choosing your preferred control method, you’re also asked if you want OST CD or chip sound during gameplay, then you’re dumped into the 1950’s with a beautifully coloured, finely detailed and minimally animated cutscene.

The first stage is the simplest of all the different race modes – just drive with no time limits, get used to the controls and enjoy the scenery as you make your way to the first checkpoint. The first thing that hits you is the absolutely unique art style. It’s a kind of textured cartoon-noir that uses shadows to not only provide atmosphere, but somehow restrict the actual screen size without you really noticing, and this no doubt contributes to the immediate visual miracle in detail, speed and smoothness of movement. I’m a complete philistine when it comes to stuff like frame rate, and could not care less about 60 frames per second, 30 frames per second, performance mode, whatever. As long as doesn’t look like stop motion, I’ll take tons of graphics over the rest any time. And that’s the great thing about Spectrums and the like – no one cares! But when you’re hitting 25 FPS on there, even I know that’s pretty impressive. Especially when there’s tons of graphics going on in parallel!

From the outset, there’s so much detail everywhere you look that isn’t sky or shadow, which again, is such a clever performance enabler in this type of game! The first time it really hits you is something as simple as a pedestrian crossing you go over at the start of the first stage, and you think “that’s impressive” before you start noticing the dynamic shadows coming off the telegraph poles or trees or top of your car as it goes under a bridge, or the skidmarks when you brake hard, or just the difference in texture as land becomes water beneath the bridge you’re on. There’s so much attention to detail here that I’ve already said more than I should – it’s a racer but I really don’t want to spoil anything beyond a taster of the first few minutes! All that road decoration is more than eye-candy too, and you’ll soon be paying extreme attention to road signs that warn of upcoming hazards like sharp turns, narrowing roads and other regular racing game stuff, but also things like railway crossings – the first one you can ignore, but go through the next barrier without stopping and you’re in trouble… By the way, you’ll be thinking “that’s seriously impressive” by now and we’re still mere seconds into the first stage! The car sprites have an air of Buggy Boy about them – big and chunky, and what that lack in colour is more than made up for in detail – just check out the glimpse of side of the car when you’re turning! Although there’s not massive variety in them during individual events or even time periods, as a whole you are getting plenty to drive and even more to avoid, with the other cars’ AI apparently always having an eye on the rear-view mirror to make sure it’s always just in the way enough for a time-sapping clip as you pass by!

You should breeze through the first few stages despite the other cars, the trains and the introduction of various timers, and each brings new and varied scenery, new colours to complement the deep shadows (with only the slightest of occasional bleeding), and you’ll also progress the story through cutscenes. I have the say that the story isn’t the game’s strongest point, and while it’s a nice way to mix up the racing action, when you have a racer this good I can live without it! I reckon the developers had an idea this might be the case for many of us because a long hold on the gear change button will skip it and get you straight back into the action!

It was the first part of stage four where the challenge spiked a bit; this one is a checkpoint race, and the first checkpoint must have taken me about fifteen goes to get to. It’s all about setting expectations though, because from here onwards you’re going to have your work cut out, and the very next stage – a one-on-one duel – took forever, watching our opponent disappear at the start and then get further and further away on your little in-car distance meter as the race went on, over and over! By now it’s clear that the game is demanding perfection, and on many stages (but not all) that means learning every bend, every gear change and every beautiful undulation! Again, because it’s as good as it is, it just about gets away with it, because we’re still only starting out here!

Which is a good time to remind myself that this isn’t a text-based walkthrough, and I’ve already said I don’t want to spoil things, so after about 18 different stages and a brief vehicle change, you’re going to be doing that time travelling thing the game name talks about, and heading into the 1960’s to do it all over again, in a smart modern car and in all kinds of new environments and conditions. And then the 1970’s, and finally the 1980’s. I have to admit that getting there is going to be a push. As good as it feels to play, and for all the variety of race types, I honestly can’t see many people even getting half way, especially with the more brutal time limits on some of the stages. And certainly not in one session because your hand will have cramped into a claw long before that, although there is a password around 1970 if you’re not using save states between levels! That’s about as far as I’ve got so far too, but I reckon you’re looking at 5-6 hours of story at least.

But for all the difficulty spikes, it’s always wonderful racing! Behind the graphical (and some nice dynamic audio) frills, which genuinely never stop being a joy to behold (except, if I’m being a bit harsh, maybe in the snow stages where you lose the impact of all that missing black shadowing), this feels a lot like WEC Le Mans to play. And there’s not really a greater compliment I can pay any Spectrum racer’s gameplay; or at least none that doesn’t involve the words “Enduro” and “Racer” but for as good as it appears to be, I’m not quite ready to go there with this yet! Anyway, the car is very responsive, and you’ll find yourself constantly making decisions on accelerator position versus gear change versus brake as you seek the perfect runs often demanded, and with time, so far at least, these are always achievable with persistence. And as someone who just finished WEC Le Mans for the first time, I reckon I have that persistence, and I definitely have no problem with playing this for many more hours!

For anyone with any interest in the ZX Spectrum, you have to check this out! It’s up there with the machine’s very best racing games, whether from its original incarnation or any of the wonderful homebrews since. The ingenuinity, the creativity and the sheer craftsmanship on display here will simply blow you away. Oh yeah, while there is a cassette release for you purists, the digital version is completely free. No excuse. And volume one had better mean there’s a volume two on the way… Incredible!

Grab it here.