Seeing Commodore 64 screenshots on the back of a ZX Spectrum box for a bit more colour than might otherwise be available was nothing new in 1987, but exclusively using arcade screenshots was a whole new level of scum and villainy! “Screen shots from arcade version – home micro versions may differ” is how the back of the Shao-Lin’s Road box put it. Okay, in that case it got a pass because it was also my favourite arcade game, and just having a sniff of it at home was all I needed, but in the case of Road Runner, I didn’t even know it was an arcade game, and, as it turned out, quite rightly didn’t trust what I was seeing on that box!
I don’t think I was massively offended at the time though! As much as I’d loved the outrageously slapstick Looney Tunes cartoons as a kid, I really didn’t need a Spectrum game of it aged fifteen. I did like the look of the advert though, and if I ever get around to going through my top ten favourite game adverts, it’s definitely going to be somewhere around the number eight slot, sandwiched between Ghosts ‘n Goblins and Athena! I also liked the look of the Atari ST version, which was so good that it got its own screenshots on the back of the box, and scored an impressive 9 out of 10 in its September 1987 Computer & Video Games magazine review.
And I’d go on liking the look of that Atari ST version, from the minute I got an ST a couple of years later right up to the present day, when I still haven’t played it despite having an active eBay search alert for over two years since I set my old machine up again. Always the same version appearing, always precisely £70 more than I want to spend on it, and the Arcade Force compilation it’s also on isn’t a lot better! I did eventually play the Spectrum version though, and in retrospect, maybe those arcade screenshots were for the best! We’ll come back to that later, but let’s get a quick lowdown on where this exciting tale originated…
It’s 1985 and this is prime-time Atari, with the likes of Paperboy, Gauntlet, Indiana Jones, The Empire Strikes Back and, er, Peter Pack Rat also doing the rounds in the arcades, although Road Runner had been actually been planned for release the year before. The original idea was to do a Dragon’s Lair, using laserdiscs to create the backgrounds and throw up scenes from the actual cartoons when you took out your nemesis, Wile E. Coyote, giving you a replay of the on-screen action. For whatever reason, that got canned (just like Atari’s laserdisc Knight Rider – one of gaming’s great tragedies!), and what we got instead was pretty much the same game, but it was all computer graphics.
Unsurprisingly, just like the cartoons, that game would involve you as Road Runner, running from right to left to escape Wile E. Coyote and his madcap contraptions, collecting bird seed, avoiding oncoming traffic and other typical obstacles, and making your way through various mazes. The arcade machine did have a few tricks up its sleeve though, and I’m not just talking about – for the first time ever – its hall-effect joystick and hop button! No indeed, because arcade operators could also offer players a prize redemption feature, using Atari’s patented Vend-a-Ticket option kit. Sounds more like one of Wile E. Coyote’s fiendish Acme devices, but it allowed players to collect special on-screen yellow “win” tickets, which would then dispense an actual ticket from the machine! And it was all built of Atari’s System 1 upgradable arcade hardware platform, so if you had an old Marble Madness machine just collecting dust, or decided that Peter Pack Rat just wasn’t cutting it, you could just get the conversion kit rather than the dedicated cabinet.
The conversions started coming in 1987, on Commodore 64, Amstrad CPC, ZX Spectrum, Atari ST and MS-DOS no less – pioneering stuff here! I have spent a bit of time over the years with the Spectrum version, or at least done my best to, because never have I come across a game that takes so long to get from pressing 0 to start to actually starting, thanks to a not offensive but way too long Looney Tunes intro tune – and just when you think it’s finally about to end, it does the next bit. Then again! Every time! Once you eventually get going though, it starts out fun. It all looks very simple, with some wonderfully detailed monochrome sprites on a white road and all the colours of the Spectrum’s rainbow making up the desert in the background. There’s a nice border with big versions of our two characters propping up each side. It’s a fairly floaty control, but Road Runner moves around okay at first, until you miss your first seed. Then you might decide to have another go at grabbing it, which is allowed, except the hit box for touching the seed is so unpredictable that most likely you’ll have to abandon all hope because Wile E. is on your back. Things get even worse when you get into the canyon, where you need to follow the road up and down, but it’s almost impossible when things get narrow, and you’re constantly sticking to the backgrounds; this bit is colour-clash hell too, which doesn’t really help this unintentional predicament.
At the opposite end of the spectrum (not Spectrum), it would take another two full years for the already creaking Atari 2600’s version to emerge, making it one of Atari’s very last games for the system, although I think that honour might belong to it’s fantastically playable version of multicoloured arcade tile dropper Klax! Speaking of fantastically playable, Road Runner isn’t bad at all on there! From the “That’s All Folks” ditty as the game starts (we can forgive that!), you’ve got an instantly recognisable Road Runner with Wile E. Coyote in tow on a great rendition of the arcade version’s first level road. It’s very much simplified (and I’m sure they could have managed yellow instead of blue bird seed), but they more than make up for that by ramping up the difficulty about half way through its eight levels! It’s crazy addictive all the same, and I’d say this is a bit of a hidden gem on that wonderful old console, and definitely recommend giving it a go.
Alongside that Atari 2600 swansong, 1989 also saw the release of the NES version, and it wasn’t without a bit of controversy… Back in 1984, Atari had split into Atari Corporation, holding the rights to the Atari brand for home computer and console hardware and games, while Atari Games was formed to take care of Atari business in the arcades. Before long, Atari Games wanted a slice of home pie though, and formed Tengen (which, like “Atari” comes from Japanese board game speak) as a non-Atari subsiduary. Meanwhile, over at Nintendo, they had their licensees over several barrels that only allowed them to release five games a year that could only be released in Nintendo-manufactured cartridges that were NES-exclusive for two years. Atari didn’t like this, but despite all their protestations, Nintendo wouldn’t back down, and at the end of 1987, Atari Games backed down instead and Tengen would go on to release R.B.I. Baseball, Pac-Man and Gauntlet on the NES in 1988. However, in the background they had a cunning plan to bypass the evil Nintendo 10NES lock-out chip in every cartridge that ensured compliance. Ironically, that chip’s very existence was all a reaction to the 1983 video games crash that Nintendo president Yamauchi had laid on Atari and their lack of control over third-party developers that had ended up swamping the market with “rubbish games” in his own words!
Anyway, their plan didn’t work. They tried reverse engineering Nintendo’s security, but no good, so they went legal instead, claiming that they needed a copy of Nintendo’s lock-out program from the US Copyright Office in order to prepare potential court action against Nintendo. Then they used it to make their own NES-unlock chip! Nintendo obviously didn’t take this lying down, and started half a decade’s worth of lawsuits backwards and forwards, as well as a second one involving Tetris that resulted in the recall of hundreds of thousands of unsold cartridges. But despite all of this, the floodgates were now open, and Tengen would go on to release another seventeen unlicensed NES games, nearly all of which were huge arcade hits, including Super Sprint, Rolling Thunder, Alien Syndrome, Ms. Pac-Man, Shinobi, After Burner… And Road Runner! Which, despite now having a fairly well (and sometimes not so well) curated NES collection, I didn’t actually realise even existed until shortly before I started writing here! And that was simply triggered by seeing that glorious old advert again, thinking about the ST game I’d still never played again, and wondering if there were any other decent versions I’d missed. And at the very least it looked more decent than the Spectrum one!
We’ll embark on our NES odyssey by jumping into the game’s instruction manual, which recaps the arcade game’s simple premise – run around your desert playground, eating birdseed along the way and racking up big points as you find your way out of mazes, zip down roads and jump over cliffs. Which sounds marginally safer than jumping off them like they suggest, but let’s give them their moment of drama! Speaking of which, it then tells us to be on the lookout for the crafty Wile E. Coyote, who’ll stop at nothing to get his paws on you, including jumping onto some fancy hardware, such as his rocket, jet skates, pogo stick and helicopter.
The instructions say you start the game with three lives, but it’s actually five; either way though, get caught and you lose one, lose all of them and you’re doomed to begin again, or resume play on the last completed level, which is a nice touch for a game of this vintage. You’ll pick up points by jumping over stuff and picking up birdseed (and lemonade later on), though for big points you want to guide Wile E. Coyote into an oncoming truck or under some falling rocks! The more seeds you pick up, the more points they’re worth, and getting all of them gives you a huge bonus, but they’re for more than points and great taste though! A Seed Meter at the top of the screen keeps track of your strength, and if you miss a pile it starts decreasing, until you’re too weak to escape, so as well as outrunning the coyote and avoiding obstacles and trucks and so on, you’ll also be going out of your way for seed while making sure you’ve got just enough time to get back on the run again before you’re caught!
There are a few things to help you out on the way though. You’ll sometimes see invisible paint, and picking that up makes you harder to see, though if you miss it and Wile E. grabs it, he’ll then become harder to avoid. There’s shortcuts, which not only take you further along the 21 levels, but will also give you an extra life. You’ll quickly pick up some useful techniques for to keeping Wile E. at bay too. For example, don’t run too far ahead of him or else he’ll be trying to catch up on his jet skates, and once he’s got his skates on, it’s then about outmanouevring him rather than outrunning him until he’s had enough and takes them off. Or when he’s on his pogo stick, you want to move in circles rather than zig-zagging, which you’ll want to save that for when he’s chucking dynamite about!
Unlike the Atari 2600 version, the music that greets you from the second you begin is decidely un-Looney Tunes! You’ve got the William Tell Overture, The Nutcracker Suite and The Flight of the Bumblebee that I recognised, all given the most shrill chip-tune treatment that will probably have all the neighbourhood dogs paying you a visit if the TV’s turned up too loud! On the other hand, it’s pretty well put together and complements the game’s frenetic pace; just don’t expect Mega Man 4’s Skull Man stage levels of NES sonic beauty!
It’s knows how to get the looks out of the NES though, and some of the more vibrant desert landscapes – in the third level in particular – are as good as anything you’ll see in the cartoon. No worries about colour clash or blue bird seed here either! The Road Runner and Wile E. Coyote sprites are exactly what you remember from the cartoon too, and while the animation isn’t quite on par, the speeding wheel leg motion when they’re in full chase mode is fantastic, as is the forlorn stance taken by Wile E. as he’s turned into ash for one reason or another!
Also unlike the Spectrum version, this one is perfectly playable! There’s not a lot to the controls, but what’s there feels good, and it needs to when things get intense once Wile E. Coyote is on his rocket and you need to move out of the way sharpish, or when he’s on his helicopter thing chucking explosives all over the place while you’re trying really hard not to miss any seeds, which I found became far more of an obsession than was really necessary for my survival in reality! The only place where things got a bit unpredictable were some of the canyon jumping sections, where you might be able to handle how frantic it was getting, but the game was struggling to keep the action running smoothly.
No major concerns about difficulty here either – it gets rough eventually, but in a mid-eighties arcade kind of way, and at nowhere near the rate of that 2600 version! Having played a fair bit of it now, though, I’m just not convinced you’d spend the time taking on the challenge of the later levels. Firstly, the level designs start looping after level four, and even though what’s going on in them might change, the novelty of the limited cartoon settings is properly wearing off well before you’re good enough to see the third time around, and then it’s down to the gameplay.
Unfortunately that’s veering on the repetitive after a while too, and my overriding feeling is that this is the kind of game you’d have loved your mate owning for the odd five minutes of definite fun, but you wouldn’t want it to be the only game you were getting until your birthday or Christmas! I guess the same could be said of the source material though, so now it’s probably not the only game you’re getting until your birthday or Christmas, don’t try and finish it, but imagine you’re shoving the occasional 10p in and just enjoy the thrill of the chase for a few minutes. Even if you are on the wrong end of it!