The suggestion to start rounding up my favourite suspects of each particular genre was made nearly two years ago and since then I’ve been playing at it. A look at Interactive Fiction was basically a proof-of-concept and then, over a year later, came the rhythm games, more a test for things to come than a storming-out-the-gate feature declaration. Well it’s time to stop pussyfooting around and make some TOUGH DECISIONS.
Of course the problem with such a feature is that not only have I not played every game in existence, but I’m limiting myself to three main entries (plus a selection of interesting notable mentions.) There will be games that don’t make it because I’ve not played them, don’t remember them, don’t know them or simply don’t like them. But lists are meant to start a discussion and so by all means jump in and start arguing wildly.
Let me explain what I mean by arcade racers, because I’m being quite specific in my definition. I’m using it to mean racing games that are less about racing as they are about fucking your opponents up. Prime comparison in the form of two of EA’s franchises: Burnout would make it, Need For Speed wouldn’t as, however forgiving its handling may be, most iterations actually want you to overtake your rival not obliterate them. This list, then, is for those obliterators.
Rollcage: Stage 2
Rollcage was always the forgotten futuristic arcade racing series, seemingly similar enough to Wipeout to be dismissed as just another clone. That’s both fair enough and a complete fucking travesty. Wipeout 2097 was instrumental (although not alone) in transforming the image of consoles. For that reason it’s one of the most important games out there. That doesn’t mean Rollcage and its sequel weren’t better. Because they were. Significantly.
While the series may have featured boost pads and power-ups the core concept centred on vehicles with wheels bigger than the cars themselves going so fast they could drive up walls and ceilings. As a result it did away with thin circuits requiring careful airbraking; Rollcage eased the emphasis on technical navigation – for instance, if you flipped your car you just carried on regardless – in favour of scrapping with opponents. In essence it was as much Twisted Metal as Wipeout, complete with destructible scenery, interesting weapons and an array of two player arena modes (Rubble Soccer being a pretty stunning example of understanding how to do arcade racing competitive multiplayer that doesn’t fall apart if there’s a big skill gap between players.)
It was those multiplayer modes that propelled Stage 2 into the list over it’s prequel. Despite the original having arguably more interesting tracks, the lack of multiplayer and other extra modes meant it spent far less time in my console.
To this day it’s my stock answer for the game I’d most like to see get an HD remake. Not so much for the updated graphics, but the chance to fly round vertical surfaces and burst triumphantly from tunnel ceilings with the sense of raw speed modern hardware allows, darting through debris as buildings explode around is a dream worth salivating over. Sadly it’s also an unlikely one.
Does it feature a bastard ‘blue shell’ equivalent? Yes. Yes it fucking does.
The PS2 was the last console that was actually about having friends.
Which is a handy attention-grabbing controversial sentence to open on. Of course the console had its share of solo pursuits, usually accompanied by hour-long goddamn cutscenes but, with no online infrastructure, developers who wanted to give their game a good multiplayer component had to assume actual human beings would collect together from time to time. It’s that kind of assumption that leads to games like Mashed existing.*
*Despite Mashed being a multiplatform game… Still, you get the point.
Mashed’s single-player mode may as well have not existed – essentially being a dull training session for the multiplayer section – and while the game would technically work online, somehow it would lose something in not having the option of turning to your mate and screaming “FUCK YOU, YOU FUCKING FUCK!” before nudging his car off a skyscraper.
The game followed the Micro Machines style of up to 4 players on a single camera – fall behind the scope of the camera and you’d crash out, losing points in the process. It’s such a perfect system for party gaming, without any of the squint-or-you’ll-miss-it problems of 4-player splitscreen, that it’s amazing so few games use it.
But Mashed had more to it than simply being an excellent Micro Machines-esque romp. The game contains, in its Polar Wharf level, genuinely the greatest piece of track design of any racing game – arcade or not. It’s nothing more than two long straights bookended by brutally tight hairpins and covered in ice and yet it’s also the absolute high point of local competitive multiplayer. With 4 people attempting to race in such a confined and slippery environment – just one bump or nudge away from being knocked off into watery oblivion – there is no game that better demonstrates the mix of anger, scheming, betrayal, shame, gloating, sulking and exquisite joy that gaming can provide.
Does it feature a bastard ‘blue shell’ equivalent? No, but eliminated players can call in airstrikes on those still battling it out. Whatever you do, turn this option off if you actually like your friends and want them to continue talking to yourself and each other.
No games quite capture the pant-wetting terror of pure speed like Burnout. Driving along a road weaving through cities and highways, always driving into traffic to keep your boost topped up is exhilarating until – oh fuck – a lorry reduces your speed to zero mph in a millisecond. It’s all the more effective by being set on tarmac with familiar (yet oddly named) cars instead of hovering ships from the distant future.
Speed aside though, the Burnout series didn’t truly hit its stride until Burnout: Takedown – the third game of the franchise – introduced the eponymous takedown mechanic. At last gamers were being rewarded for the natural impulse to shunt AI drivers off the road that so many games felt the need to penalise. Not only did it give the series the focus it was previously lacking but it proved how to do arcade racing without the use of power-ups. It reminded us all that cars can be there own weapon and using one to slam a particularly annoying opponent into a bus is far more satisfying than sending some homing missile off into the distance and desperately hoping its target doesn’t have a shield.
And then there’s the crash mode. Half puzzle, half explosive toybox – like the Angry Birds of multiple car highway pile-ups… only fun. I can’t think of anything else that offers such a perfect blend of arcade high-score chasing and wanton joyous destruction.
So why pick Revenge, arguably the series most token “more-stuff-than-the-last” update? Two words: Traffic. Checking. Being able to ram any same-way traffic and actually increase your boost – and therefore speed – took the ridiculosity (shut up, it should be a word) to new and joyous levels, and in an arcade racing title that’s exactly how things should be. Burnout: Paradise, the latest of the series, offered many changes and innovations but while it did a lot very well, it’s also simply less pure than it’s PS2 ancestors. Revenge remains the series’ dumb-fun high-point – exactly why it’s in this list.
Does it feature a bastard ‘blue shell’ equivalent? No. It’s not a dick.
Next post: The arcade racer ‘notable mentions’ post.