[Herr M.] Almost everybody must have started their motorised career with toy cars, i.e. bigger or smaller models of the real ones. Names like Matchbox, Majorette or Hot Wheels will sound familiar to most. All of these cars come approximately at the same size, approximately that of a matchbox, but still, there are a couple of exceptions, like the: Cars specialising in extreme miniaturisation.
[Mr Creosote] Those toys were quite popular for some time. My brother had some as well. The great thing was that you could basically carry a complete city, ready for instant use, with all its roads, in a small briefcase when you wanted to visit friends and play with both collections together, for example.
[Herr M.] Unfortunately I didn't own any, but what always fascinated me was the huge selection of such mini vehicles: from conventional cars to helicopters and even aircraft carriers. And even the latter was not much larger than a shoe box. Maybe it's more handy rather than compact, but the concept of speeding along with these mini runabouts has its charme.
[Mr Creosote] This very special charme also translates into the computer game which we're going to talk about: It has been made in the visual style of toys.
[Herr M.] That's right, you're speeding your vehicles along typical play areas, like for example the good old kitchen table, the sandbox or also the bathtub.
[Mr Creosote] Just where kids would play. Instead of setting the game in places where kids would imagine their games would take place. So this is exactly the opposite of the Hot Wheels computer game, even if the origin is similar.
[Herr M.] The only thing ‘missing’ are the hands pushing the vehicles along, and then you would be right back in the days of your childhood. Still, the game is not only made for children, because as colourful the graphics and the presentation might be, the game also manages to entertain grown-ups.
[Mr Creosote] I would even claim that its primary target audience is a little older than that of the toys themselves. Maybe it's not necessarily grown-ups, but I would assume it's more geared towards teenagers who already have a certain amount of nostalgia for their own childhood.
[Herr M.] Which would be in line with the difficulty level which should not be underestimated. The races are fast, chaotic and sometimes a little dirty.
[Mr Creosote] ‘Dirty’ is just the right word for what really makes the core of the game. This becomes particularly important in the very original primary racing mode. Apart from the ‘regular’ races against three other drivers which always lets you proceed as long as you reach second place at least, there is the head-to-head mode which is what everybody remembers when talking about this game.
[Herr M.] This addresses the problem of getting two players on the same screen instead of splitting it up in an unusual, but very effective way: Both players move their vehicles on the same part of the course and they both try to outrun their opponent far enough to get out of the visible viewport. Basically very simple, but quite ingenious, because it makes for a completely different kind of hecticness.
[Mr Creosote] It just prevents the usual problem of not really driving against each other, but only being on the same course, though completely different parts of it.guarantees permanent interaction between the players which makes the whole thing much more thrilling: One little mistake at the beginning will only cost you one point which you can very well catch up again instead of the whole race. And, of course, it seduces you to try some ‘dirty’ tricks…
[Herr M.] Because it is just too tempting to literally knock your opponent off the edge. The elastic collision model comes to benefit, because one small hit can already catapult you quite far. Just blindly ramming into your opponent will, however, not get you where you want to go: You have to show some skill, because otherwise, you'll just bounce backwards yourself.
[Mr Creosote] You just knock your opponent off the table or against one of the many small obstacles (like a billiard ball or a pencil sharpener) – but you also run the risk of falling down or hitting something yourself. Which happens all the more often, the less detailed your knowledge about the courses is; though it still happens to experts fortunately.
Ups and Downs
[Mr Creosote] In this respect, the courses are very well designed, and also as far as the fairness of the relative positioning of the drivers (meaning that not everybody always has to drive on the dangerous edge) is concerned.
[Herr M.] What does not work quite as well about the positioning is the detection of who is in the lead, i.e. when it comes to awarding points. It happens all too often that you work yourself up to the front, but then, when you think you reach the point, your opponent gets it, because he was supposedly in the lead. In some cases, this might still make sense, for example if you drove too far off the actual course, but sometimes, the allocation seems quite arbitrary.
[Mr Creosote] Yes, now this concerns the collision detection of the screen edges and the following scoring. This certainly doesn't work perfectly. To name just one obvious example: You can still be awarded a point, although you're in the middle of falling down into an abyss.
[Herr M.] What, on the other hand, works brilliantly, is how this system challenges the leading driver and supports the one trailing him. Unless you know every single nook of the course, it is damn hard (but also exquisitely thrilling) to drive right there at the front and to guess where the course will go. Sometimes, it might even seem advisable to let the opponent catch up a little bit and wait for a better opportunity to score.
[Mr Creosote] That's true, it improves the balance immensely to penalise the leading player this way. On the downside, I can add the starting positions of the cars, though: It lies in the nature of the game mode that both cars will be re-placed on the course repeatedly as the race goes on. In curvy parts, this happens in quite an asymmetric way, though, i.e. the starting positions can be far apart.
[Herr M.] What works well, though, is how the players are placed on the course at the same time. This leads to very amusing situations, like for example in the boat races, where there are vortexes which can only be passed in very narrow corridors. If both players are caught in the swirl, they reappear simultaneously and then you have to try and maneuver carefully to avoid both the other player and the vortex.
[Mr Creosote] And what you just have to remind yourself of is that even when the game really treats you badly (i.e. unfair), it will balance out in the end: Sometimes, the game will make a random decision against you, but sometimes, also in your favour. You could almost say that this could fuel the competitive atmosphere on the couch even more!
[Herr M.] In the worst case, if it was all too obvious that the computer referee has utterly failed, you can still redistribute the point yourself. Taking a little cooperation and fairness for granted. What we should also mention in this context is the option of a handicap: If the players' level of experience is very unequal, the more accomplished driver can tune back his car a bit so that it's a little slower. This usually balances out the difference in training quite well.
From the Workbench to the Garden and Back
[Mr Creosote] Now that we've mentioned the vehicles quite a lot already, let's get back to them: The nice thing about the toywas also that they covered a large range of different ones. This can also be found in the game. The different cars are mostly defined by their velocity and grip. It gets more complicated when it comes to boarts, choppers and tanks (!).
[Herr M.] The latter can actually shoot, though this turns into just a nice gadget, because it is usually too inaccurate and it takes an excellent shot to actually land a hit. What's more relevant is their lack of maneuverability which requires very anticipatory driving.
[Mr Creosote] Experienced tank commanders drive their vehicle backwards, by the way, to keep the opponent at distance The spongy control is mainly an issue with the speedboats, of course, which I find quite funny. On the other hand, I really hate the choppers: I always get stuck on scrubs or hedges!
[Herr M.] This impression probably comes from scrubs and hedges being almost the only obstacles there. On all other courses, there are at least one or two jumps, you drive along dangerous edges or you get stuck on glue spots. The choppers are more like a railroad track: There is just one fixed route which you have to follow exactly. Although this makes them kind of unique, it also makes them uniquely boring.
[Mr Creosote] Well, it's obvious that there can't be only hits. At least there is more than enough variety potential through the different vehicles and courses. It is just a bit of a pity that this is not used adequately: In single player mode, you always have to play the courses in the given order. This can get quite tiresome.
[Herr M.] The endless amount of courses, the increasing difficulty and the ever-faster computer opponents along with the missing save or password function make it impossible to beat in my book. At the latest when you have to start over after umpteen races, you just lose your motivation to try again to reach the end.
[Mr Creosote] It is really a pity that the single players have not been cared for. Even if it had just meant to give them a better opportunity to train for multiplayer races.
[Herr M.] Well, just to memorise a couple of courses, it is probably not all wrong, at least for the first couple of courses which you can try very often until you know them by heart so that you can reach the later ones. But make no mistake: The races are a lot of fun and motivation is certainly not lacking. On the contrary, you really want to drive all the courses. It's just sad that this is virtually impossible due to sheer size.
[Mr Creosote] This will just make you a perfect expert for the first couple of courses, but for those which are more exciting, you stay an amateur, because you will have to reach them again first. This is still fun without a doubt, but it's not nearly as well defined as the two-player mode.
[Herr M.] There is one thing I really like about the single player mode, though: It is a race against the clock instead of the computer. Because these particular courses have been designed quite trickily, they are huge fun. But they also suffer from only being accessible in the given order.
[Mr Creosote] It is basically the opposite situation compared to the concept: For the latter, they had an excellent idea (the head to head racing), and it has been implemented with (only few) technical quirks. As far as the variety of options for single players are concerned, they were too lazy and unimaginative, although there can be absolutely no complaints about the technical implementation.
[Herr M.] This sums it up very well. As good as the individual parts are, the overall picture still falls a little short. The final finish, some polishing of rough edges, is missing. Certainly, the game still succeeds well without it, because nothing absolutely essential is missing. It's just that the impression remains, that things could have been improved even more.
[Mr Creosote] This improved version was then delivered to the fans in the form of the second part (which we probably should also cover some day). Though even for its own sake,is still quite an achievement. It does away with many stale racing game clichés and thereby easily overtakes the larget part of the competition.
[Herr M.] You could almost say it skillfully pushes the competition over the edge. Just because the scenario is fairly fresh and it virtually founded its own genre aside from the fairly trite arcade racers.