It’s been a while since there was a decent futuristic racer. You know, an F-Zero or a Wipeout – something to get the blood pumping as you race around physic-defying tracks at unbelievable speeds. James Paton is here to remind us of some of the best…
For those that don’t know, and that’s probably most of you out there, Scorcher was a rather strange combat racing game (it was essentially devoid of any combat whatsoever) that had originally been in development for Sega’s 32X before the abnormally talented team that were behind it moved production across to the Saturn. It was created by a studio known as Zyrinx who were part of the publisher Scavenger’s three core teams, which also included Lemon (members of both this team and Zyrinx would eventually go on to form IO Interactive) and Triton (some of whom would go on to establish Starbreeze). Zyrinx had already made a name for themselves as a developer with a phenomenal technical mastery, showcasing the true potential of both the Sega Mega Drive, with the likes of Zero Tolerance, and the much maligned 32X with a demo tape showcasing numerous hardware features including goraud shading and texture mapped polygons. And frankly, as one might expect, the technical performance that they coaxed out of a console that was so notoriously difficult to work with in just 1997, was itself something of a revelation.
Scorcher’s set in a rather bleak, dystopian future (the year 2021) where the world, well, it’s a bit of a mess, and masochistic race drivers ride strange new bikes powered by nuclear batteries across the austere terrain. The main obstacles, apart from the other riders are environmental ones, gaps in the road, or the rather narrow width of the track, both of which lead to infinite drops and with it, death. Well, until the game respawns you back on the course after a few moments. It can actually be intolerably frustrating to play – though the mighty WipEout can be equally maddening – but as a showcase for the power of the Saturn’s 3D capabilities, it’s an outstanding one. With its detailed models, particle effects, misting (to hide the pop-up), a strong sense of speed and gorgeous coloured lighting, Scorcher would likely be one those few titles, like Sonic R, that simply wouldn’t have translated onto Sony’s PS1, not without a major scale back on its visual effects anyway, it’s really that impressive. Oh, and the soundtrack isn’t too bad either!
Still, regardless of its audio and visual splendour, if there are any Saturn owners out there who love these types of games and haven’t had the pleasure of trying it out for themselves, well, then it’s one that you really need to track down and check out at least once.
Could there possibly be a list of top futuristic racers without an F-Zero game making an appearance? Probably not. In this, the franchise’s third installment, Nintendo’s EAD division created the very first 3D iteration to take advantage of the Nintendo 64’s advanced graphical power, though track detail though would suffer thanks to the developers desire to create the first game to run at 60fps with a whopping thirty vehicles on screen at the same time – which surprisingly, they achieved. The lack of graphical detail was a sticking point for many reviewers though who picked up the fact that polygon counts on the vehicles dropped as they came on screen, the tracks were so wide that they obscured the bulk of the milieu and that misting effects were used to disguise the weakest points of the visuals. Yet still, this all fades into relative inconsequentiality in the face of the game’s numerous strengths.
F-Zero X is a direct sequel to the original release, with its violent brand of interstellar racing having been banned and then brought back with new rules and a massive twenty-six new vehicles for players to use, each with their own unique strengths and weaknesses (the original game only had four). Tracks are inherently varied and come in a plentiful supply, as are the game modes which cover everything from Grand Prix to Time Attack and even Death Race where the player is simply tasked with annihilating the rest of the field as quickly as they possibly can. It’s all fast paced and utterly brilliant to play, the drop in graphical quality was a given seeing as how the team managed to coax a steady 60fps out of the machine, and for this feat alone, it might just pip the GameCube’s rather excellent, F-Zero GX.
It probably wouldn’t surprise me if there weren’t actually that many people out there who are even aware of Quantum Redshift’s existence, it remains one of Microsoft’s most overlooked console exclusives, and that’s a trend that looks like it will only continue. Back in 2002 though, Microsoft were gearing up for war with Sony, ensuring that their console had the goods to topple the PlayStation 2, and part of that involved a futuristic racer that would knock the stuffing out of the WipEout series. For the princely sum of $1 million they got their exclusive from Curly Monsters, which itself was comprised of former Psygnosis employees who had all worked on Sony’s exclusive racer. You’d think it was destined to succeed then, wouldn’t you?
Well, sadly, that was not to be the case. Was it Microsoft’s incessant fiddling with the project that did the damage? Who knows, but they certainly tampered with the original opening, dumbing it down to tie in with a comic book that they were planning, and that cover art! The team were notoriously displeased with the box art that Microsoft created for Quantum Redshift, though thankfully the publisher realised this and allowed Curly Monsters to create their own one and distribute it online so that gamers could print it off and replace the original. Inside the box, everything seemed to be in place though…
Quantum Redshift featured stunning visuals, a soundtrack by Junkie XL, a cast of sixteen characters (they all had individual rivalries, much like Capcom’s Street Fighter), nine varied courses and a substantial amount of replay value thanks to a character upgrade system. It was by no means a perfect game, but personally, I think it was vastly superior to WipEout Fusion, yet sadly, despite a fairly strong critical showing, Quantum Redshift didn’t sell very well, and the developer was forced to close its doors for the last time. Of course, now that we’re in an age of digital distribution, perhaps it’s about time that Microsoft gave this exclusive another chance?
These days, everyone knows who Criterion Games are after they struck gold with the ever popular Burnout series, but way back in 1999, they weren’t quite so famous, but they certainly made some damn good games, and this one was arguably the tip of the iceberg.
Released as a launch game on the Sega Dreamcast in both US and PAL territories, Trickstyle was not only effortlessly cool, but it showed off the leap that Sega’s new console represented, and it was huge. The framerate may have been slightly inconsistent, dipping below the 30fps mark when the screen gets crowded, but otherwise it was astonishingly beautiful, with an art direction that recalls Unreal, backed up by superbly realised locales, high resolution textures, solid animation and gorgeous lighting. Thankfully though, Trickstyle has much more to it than that.
Ultimately, the game is a futuristic skateboarding experience really, with the player competing against AI riders on hover boards across tracks that take in a variety of locations across the globe, from the London Underground to the streets of a futuristic New York. The most forward thinking aspect here though is that the game features a hub world, an arena where the player can hone their skills, play through the numerous training levels and teleport to races. The tracks themselves are brilliantly designed with many shortcuts to be found, the AI is rather good – which typically means that races become highly taut affairs – and the whole thing, despite its future setting, feels altogether grounded, which is itself quite an achievement.
Trickstyle is enormously fun to play, and, in all honesty, its biggest flaw is simply that there’s nothing to unlock after finally besting it, now how many games can you truly say that about?
WipEout is undoubtedly the most iconic example of the genre, and for good reason. Yet out of the franchise’s many iterations it is always Psygnosis’ sophomore effort with it that reigns supreme, yet why is this the case? Is it simply that successive releases failed to capture the magic of the originals? Is it an issue with when it was released, capturing the essence of time so succinctly? In truth, it is perhaps both of these things. There can certainly be no doubt that following the demise of the PS1, the series began to flounder somewhat, but there were undoubtedly several high points along the way, particularly on the PSP, yet 2097 remains as something rather special.
Released one year after the original had won over a generation of people previously “too cool” to play videogames with its blend of stylish aesthetics and high-octane action, the sequel followed suit by upping the ante. The Sheffield based Designers Republic were drafted in again to help with fonts and motifs, and the soundtrack consisted of such electronica greats as Future Sound of London (in fact, this game is responsible for me buying their album Dead Souls), The Prodigy and Fluke, meaning that whilst it didn’t really deviate from the formula established by the first game, it certainly made up for it with sheer style.
Sure, there may not be a lot of content, but WipEout 2097 kept gamers hooked with its fluidity and the eternal search for the perfect run, even back in 1996 when we didn’t have the entire world as our potential audience. What kept us playing it was the simple joy of doing so, of shaving tenths of seconds off of previous best lap times, it was the way that the courses were so well designed that they themselves presented the difficulty curve to the game, not the AI. It was, for want of a better word, a masterpiece, and whilst Wip3out and WipEout Pulse came very close to matching it, 2097 remains the pinnacle of the genre in my opinion, and whilst I admit that I may be wrong, it’s been twenty years (as of September), and WipEout 2097 still feels ahead of the game, and if that’s not an endorsement, I don’t know what is.
Did James miss your favourite, or is he spot on? Let us know! We’re shocked Star Wars: Podracer isn’t on there, to be honest!