Believe it or not, I was quite partial to a bit of truck racing back in the late eighties and early nineties! As well as providing the most comprehensive farming news you could ever wish for, and the likes of Bygones, Survival, Tales of the Unexpected and Knightmare, Anglia Television (now ITV Anglia), our regional independent broadcaster, always had something good up its sleeves for 10.30 on a Thursday night! Before it got picked up nationally by Channel 4, we had Norwich’s finest (before Alan Partridge came along) John Wilson and Go Fishing, and when it started in 1986 he’d be all over the rivers of Norfolk and Suffolk. “What a lovely fish!” I loved Go Fishing, and it actually got me going fishing for quite a few years after! And if I ever get to Jack Charlton’s Match Fishing, you’ll hear all about that! When we were between fishing seasons though, we’d get Wheels instead, which never found national coverage, but did give us lucky East Anglians the very best of the region’s motorsports! Every week you’d get a different one, and there’d be a lot of speedway from exotic locations like Ipswich, and we’d have regular motorbikes, touring cars, stock cars, banger racing and, to finally get to the original point, trucks too! Great programme. And only in East Anglia. Literally!
A couple more years on and I’m now at university, and my best friend there at the time was a real car nut – one of those people who’d been driving since he was twelve and loved nothing more than his souped-up Ford Escort breaking down so he could get his hands dirty! Anyway, over the course of several bank holidays and a couple of years, he dragged a bunch of us along to what I seem to remember were mostly stock car racing events at places like Snetterton or Santa Pod, but there’d always be other more exciting stuff on the card too like the madcap lumbering of trucks either track racing or drag racing, or even better you might get the more destructive banger racing, and if you were really lucky, the absolute carnage of caravan racing! You haven’t lived if you haven’t seen the debris field in the aftermath of a caravan race, but I didn’t mind the truck racing if that wasn’t in the offing!
Despite my passing interest, at the time of its release in 1988 Supertrux completely passed me by. I’ve been pondering why, and I think it’s mainly because I just wasn’t massively into racing games back then. I’d played Chequered Flag to death at my best friend’s house and I absolutely adored the Spectrum ports of Out Run and Enduro Racer, and if we’re counting Super Sprint that would become one of my top ten games of all time, but apart from a few budget titles like Speed King 2, I didn’t really have a lot else to get into. Which was probably a lot to do with not having much money for games, and also coming to actually owning a Spectrum quite late, so most of what we bought or were given was compilations, and I don’t think racing games were that well represented on those either.
Driving lorries, on the other hand, was something I had a bit of form with on the Spectrum! Back in 1985 we’d had Juggernaut, where you could live out your dreams of being “behind the wheel of a 42 foot, 23 ton juggernaut thundering through an urban landscape.” This was a pretty unique part arcade, part simulation game, using icons to drive for different trucking companies in a variety of towns around the country, collecting and delivering heavy goods. It was still a while before I got a Spectrum, but I do remember Computer & Video Games magazine reviewing it because it appeared right under my beloved Spy vs Spy! It got a very average score, but although they really didn’t rate the graphics, something about its black, green and yellow vector art style – as well as its very functional but informative user interface – struck a chord, and I eventually bought it very cheap from a market stall in Hitchin if I remember right.
I’m not sure there was much else in the way of trucking on there until Supertrux (aka Elite Supertrux) came along, but by then we were slap-bang in the middle of prime time Spectrum racing. And unlike its nearest 8-bit neighbour, we’re talking some classics too, so even if you are into racing at that point I reckon Supertrux is going to have to be pretty special to get your attention! We’ve already mentioned that incredible conversion of Enduro Racer, with some of the best graphics ever seen on the system, and I don’t care what anyone says today, they loved that version of Out Run at the time! Now we’re also talking Buggy Boy, Roadblasters, Super Hang-On, Nigel Mansell’s Grand Prix, Overlander and, er, 4×4 Offroad Racing, and then Powerdrift, Continental Circus, Chase H.Q. and the mighty WEC Le Mans are right around the corner! Tough old ask even with that magical Elite logo and free Yorkie bar offer on the advert!
There is a mass of guff on the cassette box for one last attempt to beguile you though…. “Races have covered Europe by push-bike, car, plane and even hot-air balloon. Now it is the turn of the truck! Nine European cities have come together to award the Supertrux trophy, the most prestigious and coveted truck trophy ever devised.” I really appreciated them listing out their names at this point too, not because “their names call the roll of the great and ancient cities of the Old World” but because if you’re relying on playing the game to find out you’ll never be any the wiser!
We’ll come back to that though, as well as where we’re headed, but in the meantime, “…have you got the ability, have you got the raw nerve, have you got the guts to race 30 tons of solid truck across Europe, through hazardous conditions and along tortuous, twisting roads, beating all the other drivers to claim the Supertrux trophy?” Well, I can safely already say don’t look at me, but it goes on… “Only the most skilful and daring of drivers will be able to survive the perilous journey from city to city. The road signs will help you, but choose your path carefully; there are many routes to take, and while some may be shortcuts, others will lead to sections of road treacherous in the extreme, with viciously sharp bends, narrow single-lane carriageways and even major roadworks.” Okay, I’m going to stop for breath there because what’s with all the dungeon-master language? We’re racing trucks, not rolling a mage! And yeah, roadworks, we’ll come back to you in a minute too, but we’re still not done with the inlay’s call to arms yet!
“And beware of other drivers – they will not think twice about ramming you with their 30 tonners in a murderous attempt to send you skidding off the road.” Murder, no less! Didn’t get that at Santa Pod! It continues, “competition will be fierce and each leg must be completed in record time – so don’t hang around.” No kidding! Of everything we’ve heard so far, that is the literal truth! Okay, get ready for the last stretch, then we can get ready to actually start playing! “Put your foot flat down and give a blast on your air-horn to let them know you’re on the road and you mean business! Play as dirty as they do and maybe, just maybe you will win the Supertrux Trophy!
We’re going to gloss over the air-horn thing – in the control guide that follows, there’s no mention of air-horns. Just left and right, up to accelerate, down to “decelerate and stop” and fire to go when the lights change to green… No gear change as well as no air-horn then? Okay, keep things simple. I’m not glossing over the playing dirty bit though because I would love to know how that works! You might be in 30 tons of lorry, but get within a foot of so much as a blade of grass at the side of the road and you might as well be in 30 tons of tissue paper. Pink tissue paper! Leave playing dirty to the other drivers and concentrate on that record time every time instead!
We’re kind of on our way now, but there’s one final note at the bottom of the instructions that’s ringing alarm bells… “Roadworks and corners are indicated on the status bar before you reach them.” Bit strange, and reminds me of another Spectrum game, Slaine, and how it’s instructions say that you might find its Reflex control system confusing at first, before failing to explain it! A kind of admission of guilt added after the fact, and I wonder if we’re looking at something similar here? Let’s hit fire to go and find out!
Okay, one more pit-stop before we do – the most garish title screen you’ll ever see, which is actually a very loose representation of your course through Europe, starting in London then turning right to Paris or left to Brussels. As we’ll find out, there’s little point in planning our travels beyond that, but if your eyes can ever adjust to all that magenta on bright green, you’ll be picking out the sights of Rome, Madrid, Vosges, Pisa, Venice and Athens.
Back at the start line, we’re finally ready to hit fire to go when the lights go green and head off towards London. We know it’s London because in the distance, where the road never quite meets the horizon in Supertrux, there’s castles and skyscrapers, and a giant narrow duck with massive eyes staring straight into your soul. Or maybe it’s Big Ben! And apart from the big gap between stripey monochrome road and horizon, it’s all looking really nice so far! Big, super-detailed multi-angled sort of 3D sprites moving smoothly and at a decent whack past occasional roadside scenery, bridges, towers and lots and lots of Dunlop adverts. It never changes much, and you quickly realise that there’s actually not that many European cities with iconic landmarks that can be instantly recognised at speed and at distance, but there’s so much attention to detail in the little puffs of dust and logo stickers on the back of the cabs and the like that all of that is very forgivable. Very nice looking game, and definitely holds its own with the likes of WEC Le Mans.
It starts out pretty fun too, and driving quickly feels good as you edge your way around your initial opponents and work out taking racing lines in something bigger and therefore more unwieldy than you might be used to driving in. Just remember that comment about record time though (and also remember that you’ve now forgotten that comment about driving dirty) because while the London stage isn’t massively challenging and you probably won’t crash, if you do then you might as well reset and start again. And don’t even think about taking it easy to make sure you don’t! This might be the first stage, but that timer isn’t hanging around, and it’s a perfect warning for what’s to come when you reach the Out Run-style route choice at the end of it. Crashing isn’t going to win you record time, and like the instructions alluded to, if you don’t get record time that’s the last time you’ll be making a choice!
I saw Rome once in my whole play time with Supertrux; by the way, I should say that I eventually came to the game in 2018, on a PlayStation Classic no less, and based on a couple of goes I thought it was pretty cool and made a note to come back to it sometime. And four years later here I am! Anyway, Rome is stage three, and when I say I saw Rome, I saw the checkpoint at the start of the stage in the distance… Beating London is fine, beating Brussels is ridiculous, beating Paris is just about possible if you drive relentlessly fast and relentlessly perfectly in the right direction, which I clearly didn’t quite do!
Let’s quickly take a closer look at Paris. Before too long, you’re offered another choice of routes, assuming you haven’t crashed anywhere yet. Make the wrong choice there, and you’ll quickly find there’s pools of oil everywhere. Hit one of them and you’ll skid, usually until you hit something at the side of the road or another bit of oil, and the second time you’ll just stop dead. Either way, under constant time pressure, you realise just how cumbersome these trucks are as you not only crawl back up to speed, but also try to avoid the next obstacle, which more often than not is impossible. And again, none of this is leading to our record times! Let’s say we chose the other route instead then… it’s better, and there’s no oil, but suddenly it’s getting busy and there’s scenery all over the road, and now it’s pure luck if the dodgy collision detection is going to see you through, time allowing again.
Things get worse when you head to Brussels though, where your choice is either painfully dodging left and right between a parade of roadworks one way or piles of tyres literally everywhere the other. There’s no fun to be had in Belgium! In fact, much like in real life, there’s no fun to be had anywhere in Europe once you’re out of London! The timer at play in Supertrux is all-ruining. It’s just way too harsh. If we look at Out Run, you can get away with taking it easy around traffic now and again, or even suffer a minor prang or two, but the merest sniff of physical contact with absolutely anything here is game over, and sooner rather than later. Play dirty indeed… It stinks!
And I’ve mentioned it a couple of times already, but that’s not all that stinks. The collision detection is awful! Occasionally it works to your favour, but mostly you’ll be crashing without ever knowing why, although presumably because there was something in your general vicinity at the side of the road somewhere behind you now, taking with it too many precious seconds for that record-breaking timer. There’s plenty of opportunity to take in your demise elsewhere though – the roadworks, the piles of tyres and the like are just stupid, and no amount of sign-posting them in your status bar and in the instructions is changing that. What would change that is getting rid of half of them, or even better, maybe not having them there in the first place, positioned like some kind of impossible slalom on your officially sanctioned pan-European raceway!
I’m too annoyed to go into what sound there is now, except to say the 128K version has a nice tune and alright engine sounds, but anything else has nothing at all. Apart from that, I’ll conclude by saying that the first level and a half is alright, but everything beyond that is completely let down by stupid timers and stupid obstacles all made even more stupid by stupid collision detection. And that’s a real shame because Supertrux is not only so nearly the best truck racing game on the Spectrum despite the lack of competition, but also one of its very best racing games full-stop.