Discovering WEC Le Mans on ZX Spectrum

Discovering WEC Le Mans on ZX Spectrum

WEC Le Mans was an arcade game by Konami in 1986 that I never saw in the wild – I guess there was just too much Out Run everywhere when we went on holiday that year! In fact, I think the first time I ever really paid attention to it was when glowing reviews started appearing everywhere in early 1989 for the home versions. Which is a shame because this thing would have been a real showstopper in the arcades, especially if you came across the bonkers Big Spin version that jumped, turned and span 180 degrees! For an arcade game it was very simulation focussed though, with both day and night driving in a condensed but accurate version of the Le Man 24 race and some very challenging track designs. And with some impressive sprite-scaling it looks the part too – probably more so than Out Run – but while the soundtrack is no Magical Sound Shower, it’s pretty outstanding all the same!

Those home conversions came at exactly the wrong time for me, and to my shame I think I was pretty much ignoring Spectrum reviews by then no matter how big the score, especially when multi-format magazines like Computer & Video Games told you that Atari ST and Amiga versions were imminent! Actually, not just that, but the back page of that particular issue also confirmed this, with price information and some screenshots that definitely weren’t 8-bit, but in retrospect were probably from the arcade version. Regardless, that’s just about the last we heard of those versions and as a result it would be a very long time before I came back to WEC Le Mans!

The years have been good to WEC Le Mans, and if it missed out on challenging Out Run in the arcades, it certainly didn’t in the memories of Spectrum enthusiasts… I still love you though, Spectrum Out Run! Actually, the only reason I’m here now is because I was playing Out Run on there the other day, and that reminded me that I really should have a serious go at WEC Le Mans, so here we are with some first and several hours’ worth of subsequent impressions!

When you fire up the game for the first time, long before you think of reading the instructions or work out what’s being asked of you, there’s immediately two things going for WEC Le Mans on the Spectrum – it moves at pace and the car feels good to control. I didn’t really get much more than that out of the instructions when I did return to them – mostly marketing blurb telling you it’s the most realistic and addictive racing game yet, featuring four dramatic laps of the most gruelling and challenging car race in the world, with three checkpoints to pass on each one. Also some useful tips, like change the gear to go around bends, don’t oversteer, keep off the grass, don’t change gear too soon and always start in low gear. Everything you need to know to be successful in any racing game!

It might not last 24 hours, but hitting those checkpoints with enough time left to carry over a bit for the next one is rough! You’ve got 66 seconds to hit the first one, and if you make any mistakes here you might as well start again, but don’t because this game is way too much fun for that kind of seriousness, and anyway, you clearly need the practice! If you crash off the road, the timer does stop for you, but you’ll take so long getting back up to race pace that it’s not massively helpful. Everything is against the clock, but there’s loads of competitor cars to not crash into as well, and even though they all look the same, it feels like you’re racing them because they aren’t going to let you pass easily, and if you whack one of them you’ll be catching up with them again for another go – which is great until you get five or six of them at it at once to keep catching up with! They’re devious too, and you’re going to be trying to out-think them with every overtake; and there’s some extra realism with your opponents the further you get, with them sometimes losing concentration and spinning out just like you! Patience is definitely key, despite the very demanding checkpoint times. That said, get a few stages under your belt without any problems and bonus time starts stacking up, and you could always take a gamble on some dodgy collision detection, which will benefit you as much as hinder you once you’ve worked it out.

The graphics aren’t quite up there with Enduro Racer, but it’s as good as Spectrum racing gets apart from that (including Chase HQ, in this humble opinion). The track curves and undulates beautifully, and with the signs, adverts and trees along its sides, it’s all moving at a very smooth and a very fast pace. The backgrounds aren’t anything you’ve not seen before, and the car sprites are a little boxy, but they’re big and detailed, though I’m still not convinced about the choice of blue for your car, which is most apparent when you go off-piste and the colours start fighting with each other. But given the sense of speed, and the sheer amount of stuff being thrown around at that speed, I’ll forgive it a bit of clash, especially when the car’s in full spin. Sound is non-existent on the 48K version and barely functional on 128K, though it does have a nice bouncy title tune.

The final impression isn’t going to be so different from the first – this is up there with the very best of the Spectrum racers (even if it should have been up there with the very best of the Atari ST racers), but a lack of nostalgia means it has some catching up to do before it’s one of my very favourites. The speed and the handling make it an absolute joy to play, and whilst it doesn’t have the variety of Enduro Racer or Out Run’s changing environments, it certainly has the longevity – for all the hours I’ve now put in, I still haven’t quite finished it, and usually count myself lucky if I see the third lap! But this is the guy who spent 40 hours not giving up on Bay Bridge on arcade Virtua Racing, so watch this space!

My Life With… V-Rally 3 – Game Boy Advance

My Life With… V-Rally 3 – Game Boy Advance

When the Game Boy Advance SP arrived in 2003, I was a couple of years into the job at a Japanese electronics mega-corp that I’m still to escape, which has had me travelling the world on a far too regular basis. Now I still owned the original Gameboy, and a Gameboy Advance, and a vast collection of games for both, but in reality, they weren’t that portable, and for the latter, playing in anything less than the equivalent of midday summer sunshine was a major challenge.

The SP, with its tiny, travel-friendly folding shell and it’s backlight, and not to mention its awesome battery life, was an absolute game changer for the nerdy regular flyer! Whilst we’re only talking 15 years or so ago at the time of writing, air travel wasn’t anything like what it is now – your limited electronics (giant Archos MP3 player for me!) were forbidden for the best part of an hour that seemed like an eternity wherever you were going; there wasn’t the huge selection of films on tap like you get now on every long-haul flight – you rented a pair of headphones with a customised adaptor and watched whatever crap they were showing; and unless you carried half a library with you (which I often did), you didn’t want to blow the whole of your book on the journey there!

And that’s why I’ll always think of the SP as the beginning of flying in relative comfort, although Nintendo still haven’t solved the problem of being six-feet one inch in economy class… And more than any other, I’ll think of V-Rally 3 as the game that saw me through thousands and thousands of miles.

I’d actually picked up V-Rally 3 on release a year or so before I got my SP, and even without a nice backlight, this thing was really special. For starters, it looked absolutely stunning, especially in my preferred cockpit view; actually, that was probably the biggest draw for me – ever since playing Chequered Flag on the Spectrum, I’ve never wanted to drive a car I’m ten metres behind and three metres above! Everything is in full 3D, with detailed textures flying past you everywhere you look with never a hint of slowdown. I’d even go so far as to say this wasn’t that far off what you’d have expected on a full console at the time.

Once you get past the breathtaking visuals, it’s all about the handling of the car, and I’d maintain that this is still one of the best feeling rally games there was before or has been since; as I write this, I’m dipping in and out of Dirt Rally 3 on the Playstation 4, and as much as I want to enjoy its ultra-realistic driving experience more than a 15-year old game on an ancient handheld, I simply don’t! Once you’re in cockpit mode, it just feels like you’re chucking a real car across dirt, snow, sand, gravel, tarmac, up and down hills or over jumps. Everything behaves like you think it should, which again, when you consider it’s on this old tiny handheld, is some achievement! And if I’m making it sound like some stony-faced simulation (also see Dirt Rally 3), it definitely isn’t – for all it’s great physics, this definitely feels like an arcade racer.

The meat of V-Rally 3 is a career mode, where you sign up with a real car manufacturer and compete in a championship that spans different countries, from miserable Great Britain to an incredible looking Kenyan Savannah. You race across five stages in each race, with a chance to repair damage after every other race – especially important if you’re in cockpit view and the windscreen is covered in a load of cracks that appear one at a time with every bump, and ends up looking like an inpenetrable mass of spider webs that often spell game over! You can, should you wish, also modify the car set up, but in all the racing games I’ve ever played this has never appealed to me! I’m not sure how much difference that would make, but I’ve never had a problem getting through the first championship fairly comfortably, at which point you’re given a bunch of better teams to sign up with, and a bigger engine. The challenge does pick up a lot here, and winning this one does take some delicate finger work!

There’s also a time trial mode that I don’t think I’ve ever really bothered with (and again, you could apply the same to pretty much any other racing game I’ve ever played), and there’s a really cool mode where you’re forsaking the lonely regular rally experience and going head to head against other cars in a more traditional car race. However, playing it again now you’ll notice that collision physics have come a long way in the last 15 years, and wonder how you ever put up with being slowed down regardless of where your car was in relation to the one that it’s just made contact with!

It’s a tough call to say whether I’d take this over Mario Kart Super Circuit as the best GBA racer, so let’s just say this is the best rally game on the Gameboy, and probably my favourite rally game ever!