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Wednesday, 14 August 2013

Stunt Car Racer (MicroStyle, 1989)

Original by Geoff Crammond. Released in the U.S. by Microplay as "Stunt Track Racer".

Commodore 64, Commodore Amiga and Atari ST graphics by John Cummins.

Converted for the ZX Spectrum (1989) and Amstrad CPC (1990) by Pete Cooke, and for the MS-DOS by Tim Ansell from The Creative Assembly.

GAME STATUS

Another proper classic under the looking glass here. A truly unique racer at the time, which only recently has gained some competition in the form of the TrackMania series, but the thirst for a new version or a sequel seems to remain unquenched forevermore.

Currently, the game is placed #49 at Lemon64 Top 100 (for games with at least 100 votes); was placed #85 on the YS readers Top 100 in 1993, is currently out of WOS Top 100 but rated 8.20 with 98 votes; CPC Game Reviews gave it a 9 out of 10; Lemon Amiga Top 100, with similar voting requirements as Lemon64, puts it on #43; Abandonia rates the DOS version 3.2 out of 5; and finally, Atarimania Top 100 of Atari ST games by rating places it at the #70 spot.


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DESCRIPTION & REVIEW

Stunt Car Racer is the first car racing game to take place on a rollercoaster-type environment, so not only is the racing done in glorious 3D, but for the first time, you could experience acrophobia in a racing game.

You will only drive versus battles against computer drivers (or if you're using an Amiga or ST equipped with null-modem cables, other people), and try to beat the two other drivers in your league through 4 races. The driver with the most points when the season is finished, wins and moves on to the next league. When you have won everything once, you'll move on to Super League. After that, I have no idea, since I've never beaten Super League.

Since there's only 8 tracks, you'll get to know them all thoroughly in less time than you spend watching cutscenes in the newest Battlefield game. Of course, they'll be somewhat harder to handle in the Super League, but it'll get wearisome after a while. Up to a point, Stunt Car Racer can be brutally addictive, even hypnotic. Once your skills run dry or the game is completed, you'll be hard-pressed to get back to it ever again. But once you do, you'll know exactly why you enjoyed it, and will enjoy for a while every now and again.

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LOADING

Having been released in the latter years in the commercial life of the 8-bit machines, you can see some development has happened in loading schemes.

AMI - 24 seconds from system boot
AST - 11 seconds from system boot
C64 - Released on tape, disk and cartridge ("Powerplay" compilation from Disc Company)
         Disk: PAL 55 seconds, NTSC 25 seconds
         Tape: ORIGINAL 5 minutes 50 seconds, KIXX 5 minutes 19 seconds
CPC - Disk: 17 seconds
          Tape: 6 minutes 53 seconds
DOS - HD, no loading time.
SPE - 48k: 4 minutes 52 seconds
        128k: 5 minutes 38 seconds

There's no real winner here, most of the versions are quick enough not to complain. Just for the sake of having some results to base the final score on, here goes:

1. C64 (cartridge)
2. MS-DOS (system boot + HD)
3. Atari ST (quickest disk)
4. Amstrad CPC
5. Amiga
6. Spectrum (the only tape-only release)

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PLAYABILITY

Most of you who are reading this, have probably played Stunt Car Racer before, but just in case you  haven't, I'll try to explain how the car handles. At first, it feels sluggish and slow to steer, but you'll  notice it's just right for this game, because the car responds quite a lot to every angle and bump in the  tracks. You will find the speed in the game by using the turbo boost, of which you will have a limited  amount, different in every track.

In a 3D racer such as this, it's very important to get the framerate as good as possible, in order to  actually be able to play it. A good example of how NOT to do it is any 8-bit conversion of Hard  Drivin'. Not that the 16-bit versions were brilliant.

The 8-bit versions all have a fairly good framerate at around 5-6 FPS (guesstimated), so it's  completely playable on any machine it was ever released on. Only the Amstrad version somehow  seems slightly more sluggish than the other 8-bits, but not by much. On the 16-bits, it's naturally a bit  better, somewhere around 12-15 FPS, I'd say. The MS-DOS version's framerate depends on what sort  of computer you have, but never gets too fast to play.

Not counting the framerate, every version feels pretty much as it's supposed to. Turning your vehicle is a bit sluggish, but just right for the game's roller coaster styled overall feel. The suspension works in a way you're really required to think all the tracks through, how to drive through corners, jumps and bumps.

Your car takes damage, so depending on the severity of your driving errors, your car will take damage accordingly. The high horizontal bar indicates two types of damage, minor and major. The minor damage indicator looks like a crackling line, developing from left to right, and the major damage indicator punches holes from right to left. The holes stay there throughout your career, so best be careful, because the holes make your car take minor damage more easily, and once that line gets filled, you're finished.

Taking damage is sort of related to how easy the game is to play, which means, how fast your car is reacting to your commands - effectively, how bad is the framerate. I'd say the PC wins this round.

1. MS-DOS (depending on your setup)
2. Amiga / Atari ST
3. C64 / Spectrum
4. Amstrad CPC

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GRAPHICS

Let's start with the loading screens again. We've got two different pictures with a few different versions, and here's what you'll get:

Left to right: Amstrad, Spectrum, C64 PAL, C64 NTSC


Okay, here we've got three versions of the regular 8-bit loading screen, and the one from the NTSC C64 disk version, just for the contrast. Although the PAL C64 version looks the closest to what's on the box cover, I rather like the Spectrum version a bit more, because it's more detailed. The Amstrad loader is clearly copied from the Spectrum version, but there's just less colour.


Left: MS-DOS, Right: Amiga & Atari ST












And here's the other version. Amiga and Atari seemed have the same quality in graphics, so I didn't bother to take a screenshot for both of them. Tough to pick, isn't it? :-P Of course, like last time, the loading screen doesn't affect the final score on graphics.


Left to right: Amstrad, C64 and Spectrum.

Left: DOS, Right: Amiga/ST.


These track overview screens are important, because it's where you should be able to learn the track before you drive it. The only versions that are actually able to produce that good results are the Amiga and ST ones. Other than that, it's always in those small details you notice which ones aren't made by the original programmer. Just as often, it's in the amount of small details where you notice the difference between 8-bits and 16-bits. Surprisingly, the C64 and DOS versions look quite similar, apart from the screenshots here being from a different track. Spectrum and Amstrad couldn't handle shading in the chequered frames, I suppose... and drawing the skyline.

Left to right: Spectrum, DOS, Amstrad.

Starting from the bottom, you can see that, while the AMSTRAD version has slightly more colour than the Spectrum version, the action screen had to be squeezed into a much smaller box in the middle of the screen than on the other machines, in order to get more frames per second. Doesn't necessarily matter, if the gameplay is good, but it's still the worst of the bunch. Looking at the other stuff on the screen, the rollcage is simply a red frame that doesn't feel like it's a part of particularly anything. The meters, the wheel and the indicators are all there, but they're sorely lacking in any sort of design.

SPECTRUM has it sort of the other way around. The playing screen is larger than on the Amstrad, but it's plain yellow/black monochrome, which is painful to look at, but makes up for it in getting the same amount of FPS as the C64. Which is kind of strange, since Spectrum does have a more powerful processor, and should be more suited for this sort of stuff. Well, at least there's more detail in the control panel, and you can see more of the rollcage you're supposed to be in, which is nice.

The MS-DOS version is located in the middle there, and it still looks strangely close to the C64 version you can see below.. but it must be attributed to the EGA limitations. The only thing that's really different in the play area is the frame colour of the rival car. But at least the framerate gets higher as your machine gets better. Also, the fact that the control panel and the rollcage look closer to the Amiga/ST version has to gain this one more favour over the C64.

C64 and Amiga/ST


So here we have both the Commodore versions side by side - C64 and Amiga. And of course, the Atari ST version looks exactly like the Amiga version, so there's no point putting it separately on view.

When you take your time to pick out every detail, it starts to feel like the C64 version looks like a cross between the PC and the Amstrad versions. There's a lot less detail in the C64 car's control panel than on the PC, but the rollcage looks more like it. The screen size is somewhere between all the others. With the framerate being the same as on the Spectrum, I'd say all in all, the C64 is the best 8-bit compromise.

AMIGA and ATARI then, what's there to say? You just can't get a better looking version anywhere. It's not quite as quick as the PC version, when played on a powerful PC, but considering every other thing, you just can't beat the 16-bit version. Everything is clearly coloured to have its own character. But what ultimately separates the 16-bit and MS-DOS versions from the 8-bit versions, are the extra screens between races. Whether you've won, lost, crashed, promoted or demoted, you'll always get a nice screen to celebrate any occasion.

Left: Race won (Amiga). Center: Race lost (ST). Right: Wrecked your car (PC).


Note that the car in the game doesn't look exactly like the one on the box cover. Maybe that is why they decided not to use it in the loading screen?

All things considered, you have to say the 8-bit versions are impressive in their own way. Hell, the C64 version is impressive even when compared to the 16-bit versions, but I suppose it's because the same team handled the 16-bit versions. I'd love to give it more credit than is due, but it's time to play it by numbers.

1. Amiga/ST
2. MS-DOS
3. C64
4. Spectrum
5. Amstrad CPC

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SOUNDS

The soundtrack on the 48k SPECTRUM consist mostly of sounds conserning damage. Even then, it's mostly some little ticking sounds and a bit more noisy ones. The 128k version takes the time to load up some sounds to go with the rest of the game. The AY chip lets you hear the motor roaring nicely. The rest of the sound effects are there as well, but they somehow lack in drama.

The second worst is the MS-DOS version, which just blasts everything from the PC beeper with the same loud volume whatever happens. The engine doesn't sound anything like an engine, it's more like a pitch-bending vuvuzela or something, but not that rich in texture. Of course when you're taking damage, it's just even more random pitched sounds in the same beep noise that the engine makes. Still, any sound is better than no sound.

AMSTRAD takes a step in a different direction. The engine sounds are a bit lower on volume than on the other versions, creating a different idea of how the car is built. Not bad, but makes the other sounds feel a bit too loud, especially when crashing.

C64's SID takes the midground with the 128k Speccy's AY. The SID sounds feel a bit more fitting to this particular game, but even the C64 version's engine droning starts to wear on you after a while, even it's how it should be when the engine sits right in front of you, blasting your ears off. All the other sound effects are more fitting than in the big Speccy version, so I'll call it a tie.

It's not exactly a wonder that the 16-bits take the lead here, but there you go. As in the graphical department, Amiga and ST versions are pretty much identical. At least, I couldn't notice any difference whatsoever between the two versions. The engine sounds roar slightly muffled around your rollcage, and it creates a dangerously comfortable racing environment. All the other sound effects play over the engine sounds just loud enough not to disturb you, and they sound pretty much what I imagine they're supposed to sound like. Sometimes, the advantage is just unfair. :-P

1. Amiga / ST
2. C64 / 128k SPE
3. Amstrad CPC
4. MS-DOS
5. 48k SPE

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OVERALL

There is no perfect version of Stunt Car Racer. There are only very good compromises, and two other versions you might consider trying. When you compare this game to other early 3D racers on any platform, this is probably your best choice. Certainly most interesting and fun for a good period of time.

Here are the end results, based firmly on the ever-trustworthy world of mathematics:

1. ATARI ST - Playability 3 , Graphics 5 , Sounds 5, Loading 4 = TOTAL 13/17
2. AMIGA - Playability 3 , Graphics 5 , Sounds 5, Loading 2 = TOTAL 13/15
3. MS-DOS - Playability 4 , Graphics 4 , Sounds 2, Loading 5 = TOTAL 10/15
4. C64 - Playability 2 , Graphics 3 , Sounds 4, Loading 6 = TOTAL 9/15
5. SPE 128k - Playability 2 , Graphics 2 , Sounds 4, Loading 1 = TOTAL 8/9
6. AMSTRAD - Playability 1 , Graphics 1 , Sounds 3, Loading 3 = TOTAL 5/8
7. SPE 48k - Playability 2 , Graphics 2 , Sounds 1, Loading 1 = TOTAL 5/6

But the score just doesn't tell everything, as it rarely does in these cases. It's just as easy to pick on every machine I have it on: C64, Amiga, Spectrum 128k and PC. The only time I ever got to Super League was on the C64, but it was only because I had it first. Amiga version is my favourite, but only because I don't have an Atari ST and probably never will have. Only the 48k Spectrum version is completely unnecessary, when the 128k version exists.

The 25th anniversary is coming up next year, so isn't it about time Sir Geoff finally remake this classic racer? Perhaps now, in the heyday of Kickstarter and Steam's own Greenlight project, we'd be able to make this finally happen...

Until next time, thanks for reading!
Comments and suggestions are welcome!

2 comments:

  1. Great review. It feels nice to know that there are other people that are obsessed, radical, extreme and fanatic about retro gaming.
    Played SCR a lot on my ST. Great game (ST best platform with this game).
    I look forward to your review of Samantha Fox Strip Poker, Sex Games and Stroker.
    Greetings from Monkey She Pängsh Island

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