Thursday, 12 March 2015

TWOFER #10: Racing Special!

John Anderson's Rally Speedway

Written for the Atari 8-bits and Commodore 64 by John Anderson. Released for the Atari 8-bits through Adventure International in 1983, and for the Commodore 64 through Commodore International in 1984.

The Great American Cross-Country Road Race

Written for the Atari 8-bits by Alex DeMeo. Converted for the Commodore 64 by Alex DeMeo and Kevin Kalkut. Converted for the Apple ][ by Ivan Manley for Synergistic Software Inc. Published by Activision in 1985.



Because of the current controversies with Top Gear, I got myself in a bit of a racing mode, so decided to hurry up my work on this two-for-one entry, which is another thematic one, similarly to the last couple of twofers. Actually, my original idea was doing another Format Wars article for the RESET magazine about Rally Speedway, but I had already done a versus battle against the Atari too recently, so I took a long and hard thought about what should I lump to go with it. Another John Anderson game would have been a great choice, but since Arex was just barely available for the C64, and it could only be played with a lightpen of all things, I went for a more comfortable choice instead, and took another racing game, which I had at some point considered for Format Wars: The Great American Cross-Country Road Race (a bit of a mouthful, isn't it?) from Activision. Both games have something else in common to make it even more fitting for a twofer, but more on that later on.

Rally Speedway, of course, is well regarded in both Atari and C64 communities, and the current ratings for it are 7.4 from 453 votes at Atarimania, and 8.3 from 76 votes at Lemon64. TGACCRR is considered in a similar vein, with a score of 7.6 from 1230 Atarimania voters, and 7.8 from 78 Lemon64 voters. Naturally, the Apple version's scores could only be found at MobyGames, where it has been given a 3.5 by one single voter. Not very reliable, but there you go. Let's see if we can bring these scores any more credibility.



Both games were either heavily inspired by some other game from some other platform, or then re-written entirely to become a new and improved game. In the case of Rally Speedway, the source of inspiration was Auto Racing (1979) on the Mattel Intellivision, which was one of the most advanced two-player racing games of it's time, although it didn't have much more features than just a bunch of tracks and the ability to change each car's colour. The gameplay was essentially the same as it would be in Rally Speedway: an automatically accelerating car is viewed straight from above, and you would control it by turning left and right (counter-clockwise and clockwise), and a fire button would act as the break pedal. In Rally Speedway, the added features are three different road conditions, a God mode of sorts (you can pass through obstacles), optional top speeds for your cars, three different acceleration modes, and most importantly, a track editor. Naturally, playing the game against another human would provide the most fun, as you would race on the same screen, and if one of the cars was left too far behind or crashed, the driver would take a penalty. For these races, the single-player option would provide a good way to practice the tracks and improve lap times.

In the case of TGACCRR, the main influence was an earlier Activision game called Enduro (1983), designed by Larry Miller for the Atari 2600 (and later also released for the ZX Spectrum). While Enduro is a simple long-distance racing game where you need to pass a certain amount of cars in a variety of road conditions each day in order to move on, TGACCRR makes the concept more feature-rich and difficult with gear changes, fueling stations, traffic, police pursuits and the ability to plan individual routes. This, according to Wikipedia, comes from the designer Alex DeMeo having been inspired by the film The Gumball Rally, which happens to be my favourite car movie ever.

For me, Rally Speedway has always been one of the greatest head-to-head racing games ever, beating the likes of Micro Machines and Super Cars II. Although the concept is fairly simple, it's the execution of it which makes it so much better than so many others of the genre, and having such a capable track editor only helps. In contrast, TGACCRR is really a bit of an oddball in the ever-growing genre of racing games. It can be an interesting experience to play through, but it can be a bit consuming. For arcade racing fanatics particularly, it can easily feel too evolved for its own good, and doesn't really fit in with its age. But it offers an interesting glimpse into a point in time where games were being developed into something they would only become into properly a lot later on. Both games have their own strengths, and should be given an opportunity to grow on you, which might take a bit of time in both cases.



Since Rally Speedway was only released on disk and cartridge, we shall have to skip doing a proper Loading section. For the other game, I have included a brief loading section at the beginning of its sub-section here. Regarding other things here, I'd like to point out that measuring speed is too much dependant on the system you're playing on, more particularly whether it's PAL or NTSC, so I won't be digging more into that than absolutely necessary, regardless of how important it is for racing games in general. Besides, there are much more notable differences in these games that need to be adressed.

*Rally Speedway*

First things first, the game starts straight to the menu screen on the ATARI, although it will enter the title screen the instant you try to move the cursor, or if you just wait a couple of seconds. Only then, you will be able to enter the proper main menu, so the startup of the Atari version feels a bit buggy. The C64 version starts more naturally straight into the title screen, which can be quickly passed by pressing the fire button. The main menus themselves have only one thing that differ notably: the top speed option selector has four clearly displayed options on the ATARI (40, 60, 80 and 100 MPH) while the C64 version has only a single top speed selector line, where you can loop the five different top speed options (40, 60, 100, 150 and 200 MPH) by pressing the fire button on the line as many times as you wish to.

Before we get into the game itself, the track editor offers some interesting differences to ponder at. You can choose a track to race on from the track editor, but the number of in-built tracks is a bit of a surprise: the C64 version features 6 tracks, while the original Atari version has only two. You can change the tracks by pushing F3 on the C64 or SELECT on the ATARI (F3 on an emulator), but if you want to build your own track, just press F1 on the C64 or OPTION on the ATARI (F4 on an emulator) - preferably while the item selector is on the empty spot. The item selector is handled with the second joystick on the ATARI, while the C64 version requires you to keep the fire button of the joystick (in Port 1) pressed for a moment to toggle the control of the item selector and the editor cursor. The C64 version has an exclusive editor feature, which will allow you to view the full editor grid as dots, which makes fine-tuning a track easier for beginners - this can be accessed by pressing F5 any time while in the editor. The ATARI version, on the other hand, sort of allows you to edit the direction of the track by adding directional arrows on the track, so that when your car crashes, the arrows will make your car respawn onto a spot on the road, pointing into the direction where you  have programmed it to point. I suspect, that since the goal can only be placed in one way, which is pointing to the right, this feature was left out of the C64 for being a bit useless, since most of the time, your car would know, which direction it would need to go to in any case, because of the original direction it was pointed at. This is most likely also the reason why the Atari version didn't get any more than two in-built tracks. To exit the editor, press F7 on the C64 or START on the ATARI (F2 on an emulator).

In both versions, you can save your custom trax (that's how it's spelled in the game) on tape or disk, whichever you feel the most convenient choice. Based on the Atari manual and my personal experiences with the C64 version, the C64 trax seem to take less space on a tape than the Atari trax, but considering it's now 2015 already, you'll probably be using another media format entirely, so this is not much of an issue.

Well, let's get into the game, then. In single-player mode, you're just racing against time - in other words, trying to beat the best lap time in an endless loop. In two-player mode, you race a three-lap race against a human opponent by default, but you can choose the number of laps at the start line by pressing F5 on the C64 or the OPTION key on the Atari.

Once you have started a race, you need to push the fire button on the ATARI to get the car moving, but on the C64, you can choose to perform any sort of action on the joystick, and the car will begin to move. Strangely enough, from this point on, the differences begin to get even more serious. There are enough similarities to make both versions essentially the same game, though. You can steer the car in two settings: the regular setting handles as if played from the car's perspective, and the other setting is relative to the joystick itself. These settings can be toggled by pressing F1 on the C64 and the SELECT key on the Atari. In both versions, the steering happens in 10 degree angles, and if you steer while breaking, the steering becomes steeper, as it would in reality, when you're performing a handbreak turn. The differences, then, are found in how the car handles in different speeds, in different conditions and on different terrain.

In the original ATARI version, driving on grass will make you slow down slightly, and the water obstacles make your speed drop quickly almost to nil. On the C64, the water obstacles don't hinder your progress nearly as much as on the ATARI, and although driving on grass will also make you slow down a bit on the C64, the drop isn't quite as noticable as it is on the Atari. Accelerating and the sense of speed is very different on the two machines: using Fast Acceleration and Top Speed at 100 MPH on the C64 feels like 60 MPH on Normal Acceleration on the ATARI, but then again, taking the quickest and fastest settings on both versions feels surprisingly similar. Then, the road conditions feel a bit different as well. On the ATARI, a dry road is properly dry - there is very little sense of inertia whatsoever, whereas on the C64 you do get a slight sense of danger, as if your tires had worse grip than in the Atari car. Atari's "Icy Roads" setting doesn't even feel nearly as wet as the "Wet Roads" setting on the C64. So there has definitely been some development in getting some more realism to the game's overall feel for the C64 version.

Finally, both versions suffer from a similar, perhaps overlooked game design point, which can be considered a "Real Life" cheat mode: you can complete a lap just by staying on the finish line for 5 seconds. Even though you can place directional arrows in the Atari version's track editor for your car to proceed in the correct direction after crashing, they will not act as checkpoints, since you don't actually need to drive around the track in order to get a lap time. Another reason not to include them on the C64 version. I suspect this is the reason why Anderson decided to include the "Reset Best" option, so that you were allowed to nullify the results made by cheaters.

In the end, the C64 version has more balanced gameplay, and even has more in-built tracks (trax!) to keep you entertained until you decide to make some tracks of your own. For all you speed freaks out there, the ATARI version offers a better sense of speed overall with a more comfortable framerate for fast driving, but then the C64 version offers more extreme road conditions. I'd say the C64 version wins this round.


*The Great American Cross-Country Road Race*

Even if The Great American Cross-Country Road Race is perhaps only barely remembered by casual retrogamers, it might help to be reminded that this game, one of gaming history's most ridiculously long titles without a subtitle, was re-released as just "American Road Race" through Silverbird, Firebird's budget label. Besides, it's one of those games where you see the title for only a brief moment at the beginning of the game, so if you have managed to be away from the screen every time the game has started, you might not remember the title correctly. It's such an inconvenience having a long title for a game that I'll be using ARR as the abbreviation from now on. Anyway, here are the tape loading times as promised...

C64 Activision: 5 min 12 sec
C64 Silverbird: 5 min 38 sec
A8B Activision: 16 min 10 sec

The disk loading times are quite a bit closer to each other, but to be honest, I haven't really bothered to use a stopwatch on this one. Besides, I haven't found anything akin to original image files for the Apple version, so it's a bit useless to try to do a complete comparison anyway. Now, let's just get on with what this section is actually here for.

Rather annoyingly, the game starts with an intro bit where a car passes the screen from one side to the other, leaving the screen filled with smoke-like cloud of random black-and-white graphics, which gradually disappear and reveal the title screen first, and after the second time, the credits screen. All of this takes about 20 seconds to get through, and you cannot skip it. Kind of like modern cutscenes in games, which you just have to sit through, but this one's even more irritating, because it's a bit boring and useless. Once you have passed the intro bit, you get to see a demonstrational run of the game in action, from where you can proceed to choose your route.

Happily, we have now passed the most annoying bits of the whole game, unless of course you tend to hate these sorts of games anyway. Now, to choose your route, you need to get to the route selection screen, which is the same as the best times table screen. Although you can move on from the demo by pulling the joystick in any direction on the C64 and APPLE, the ATARI version requires you to push the SELECT key (F3 on an emulator). Next, you get to either load opposing field from tape or disk, depending on the version, but this does nothing more than load up a different top times list, if you happen to have one around, so it's not a particularly useful feature. Only then, you are allowed to choose your route from one of three main routes, plus a full U.S. tour. For this comparison, I have not concentrated on any single route, so my in-game results may vary radically. The final bit before getting to do some actual driving is the map screen, where you need to select your departure time and the next section to drive. The map screen will inform you of possible heavy traffic, bad weather, roadworks, the distances and your current position in the race, so you will need to do some heavy strategising in order to achieve the best possible results.

Driving the car is a bit tricky compared to most other driving games - only Hard Drivin' comes to mind from the old ones as an even trickier racing game to play. The game manual says that you have to know basically how a stick shift works, but I wouldn't go so far as to call it an accurate representation of one, but you do need to shift gears in this game, as there is no option for an automatic gearbox. You need to keep the fire button pressed for the car to accelerate, and when you want to change gears, you need to let go of the fire button and push the joystick up to change the gear. Make sure the rev counter doesn't go higher than 9000 rpm on the tach or the engine might blow. Pulling the joystick down will make the car brake.

If you manage to blow your engine or run out of fuel, you can push the car to the next station to fix it and fill the tank simultaneously, but you need to make sure you coast up to the pump at a low enough speed. The top of the screen will flash a message "GAS ON LEFT/RIGHT" a good number of miles before you see the pump on the pointed side of the road, so you can easily get ready for it. Once the message stops flashing, the station will come within about 200 meters. Other hazards in the game include traffic, patrolling police cars and bad road/weather conditions, including snow, rain, ice, fog, sleet, night time driving and roadworks. Hitting another car always slows you down almost to nil, and you will be unable to get back to the race for a few seconds after every hit. When the RADAR sign starts flashing, you will know there is a police car ahead, so you have four choices: speed up to 240 MPH (top speed) and leave the police car eating your dust; slow down to under 55 MPH (the speed limit), which will cost you valuable time; maintain your speed, and get stopped by the police, likely costing you even more valuable time; and hope that there is a service station coming up ahead so that you can pull there and make the radar go silent. When there are roadworks, there is no other traffic, so you can actually drive quite quickly, but you need to keep an eye on how the roadworks move from one side of the road to another, in order to have a better chance at avoiding collision. Bad weather will only make your car react slower to your controls, so it's not as much of a problem as the others, but there is still other traffic to worry about in bad weather.

And now we get to find out the differences between the three versions. The APPLE ][ version is clearly the most notably different of the three, even though the differences are only notable in very few places. The first thing you will notice is that the rev counter doesn't work with the same precision as it does on the other two versions. Here, the rev counter will reach the top (9800 rpm) more quickly and unnoticably, while still accelerating the car for many MPH's before the top of the gear's range is reached, so basically, you cannot trust the information given to you by the rev counter. Also, having slightly worse scrolling, the speed feels very different on the APPLE - for instance, whenever you come into a curve, the scrolling slows down noticably while the curve entry is being built, but once the computer doesn't need to focus on building the curve, you get a more normal scrolling speed again. The car also moves slower sideways, which has been tried to keep out of focus by making the camera static, centered on the middle of the road, although I'm almost completely certain that the rather loose chase camera featured on the ATARI and C64 has been simplified just because the APPLE couldn't handle such awesomeness. Or perhaps it could, but the man responsible for the conversion (or adaptation) could not. This static camera thing also slightly affects your car's ability to take a few inches off-road, making it more difficult to pass cars on the wrong side. Speaking of passing cars, the collision detection in the APPLE version is not very well made, since the scaled sprites take more space than they actually look like, so you might easily collide into a blank space beside a motorcycle when trying to pass one.

There are some smaller things to mention that affect all three versions, but most of it is just nitpicking. For one, the traffic speed is just slightly different on all three versions, and also differs according to the road/weather conditions. If we take regular conditions as an example, which will always be such for the first section of any race: on the ATARI, you start to pass the traffic at 140 MPH, while on the C64, you can do that at 134 MPH already, and the APPLE version falls between the two with 136 MPH. Some sense of realism has been added to the game in that pedestrian drivers will be driving at slightly slower speeds in bad weather, but somehow I don't feel like they are driving slower enough. Here again, though, the APPLE version has been made a bit sloppily in that the non-racing drivers drive 136 MPH in most, if not all conditions. Another differing thing that I might also mention here is the way the sprites are scaled and appear on the screen, which doesn't really affect the gameplay that much in the cases of ATARI and C64, but I do have to say that the Atari version succeeds in this job more admirably, and the sprites are easier to follow, thus easier to avoid than they are on the C64. But the C64 still works like a dream compared to the APPLE version, which gives us less time to prepare for the traffic, as well as an unclearer view of where the on-coming traffic is coming, which makes passing cars in curves a real pain in the neck. The over-sized sprites help very little in the matter.

Finally, I found the map screen controls a bit problematic, if you haven't got a manual at hand. On the ATARI and C64, you can fairly easily find out the controls by yourselves by pressing the function keys, but I couldn't find the key for changing your departure time in the APPLE version, and if you don't have a joystick, the joystick-emulated numpad controls will make you automatically proceed into whichever section has been selected, which might be a bit irritating. On a real machine, this might not be such a problem, but when using an emulator, you might want to switch to emulating the joystick with the mouse instead, and change back to numpad once you get back into the race.

The main differences in the ATARI and C64 versions are mainly to be dealt with in the next two sections, but the only thing I could think of, where there is a notable, if not very important difference, is the scrolling. The ATARI version plays a bit faster than the C64, and the scrolling is slightly smoother. So, it's technically better, but I'm not sure if it could be called better in terms of playability. It's a hard decision to make, but I'm going to go with technical ability this time and say the ATARI wins.

3. APPLE ][



*Rally Speedway*

This section will be a bit short, but so it sometimes must. Seeing as the ATARI version is the original one, it has some advantages here, but let's go through the particulars just for clarity's sake.

Title screens and menus. Top left: Atari 8-bit. Top right: Commodore 64. Bottom: Atari demo disk.

Naturally, we start with the title screen, but since I can't show you it in action, you will just have to imagine it the way I narrate you through it, or better yet, just play it yourself. As it happens, the title screen is sort of animated, but not in any particularly impressive way. The screen is filled with vertical lines, with a thinner black line between every thick coloured line. Some of these coloured lines have some text in them, which feature the game title and the copyright information. The "animation" bit only consists of the coloured lines randomly changing colours to have at least some flashiness to it. Both the ATARI and C64 versions feature this effect, but the colourings look slightly different, and the text bits are quite a bit different. The ATARI version looks slightly more advanced in that the text colours are changing along with the line colours, so if it's more psychedelia you're after, the Atari version is your choice.

As for the menu... well, the style is similar to the title screen, and you can clearly see what are the differences between each version - which I already told thoroughly enough in the Playability section, so I don't think any further analysing is necessary. I did include the title screens from the original Atari demonstrational version of the game as a bonus to bring this some more interesting bits to show you. Apart from the title screens, the demo version has no differences in graphics to the final Atari release.

Tracks from each version with editor items and empty maps. Dark grey: Atari 8-bit. Light grey: Commodore 64.

Since I talked about the track editor before going into the actual racing in the previous section, why not do it again. In the above picture, I have included all the tracks from each version to show you what I was talking about earlier, as well as all the items you can use to create your own tracks in the game.

Keen-eyed comparisonists will have noticed that the C64 tracks are slightly different from the Atari tracks in detail, so any times you drive on the other version aren't comparative to the times driven on the other. At least the map size is the same: 25 x 32. In addition to the C64's exclusive dot-based map feature, there are a couple of differences regarding the track items worth noting: The C64 version features an 'M' item for getting back to the main menu, even though you can just as easily (if not more easily) accomplish the same thing on keyboard. The C64 version also has one less House item on the list, but then it's replaced by a narrow bit of road, another fairly important exclusive thing for the C64. Also, the Lake item appears as 'L1' on the Atari, while the C64 has just a big 'L', which is more logical, since there are no other Lake items. Also, a minor difference in the order of the items probably worth noting, is that the Goal item and the vertical straight item have switched places for the C64 version. Not very important, but there you go. I could also mention the colouring of the item list, the cursor and the two shades of grey these versions are exhibiting together, but as it's really a matter of preference, I might as well move on.

Game mode screenshots. From left to right: Atari one-player, Atari two-player, C64 one-player, Commodore 64 two-player.

Playing in a single-player mode or a two-player mode looks very much the same, apart from having another car on the screen in the two-player mode and some slightly different text bits at the bottom. At least the two versions offer some nice differences to talk about. The biggest noticable difference that inhabits the screen constantly during play is the psychedelic greyscale line with the game title on it in the ATARI version, which the C64 doesn't have. Perhaps it's another one of those things that felt a bit useless in the original, so it was left out of the conversion, but truth be told, such an item wouldn't have been completely possible to do on the C64 due to the colour restrictions. The thing is, though, the ATARI screen is a bit bigger than the C64 screen, so it allows for a dedicated display line for the lap times and lap numbers and even the game title, in addition to some extra viewing space both vertically and horizontally. The colours, on the other hand, are quite a bit darker on the ATARI, and give a more autumny feel overall than the brighter C64 palette, and there are some notable differences in the details throughout the variety of track items. While the graphics are designed mostly in a very similar manner for both versions, both versions have enough of their own specific personality to render each version commendable for their own merits. And you really can't argue about artistic things in this instance.

Crashes, wins and penalties. Top half: Atari 8-bit. Bottom half: Commodore 64.

Apart from the other player's winning screen, I have compiled all the crashes, penalties and winning screens from both versions in the above collage to show every scene in the game in which a car doesn't occupy the screen. In both versions, there are two sorts of crash animations: one, in which your man hasn't caught fire, and the other, in which he has. In case of the less fiery crash, your man will just run quickly out from his burning wreck for a small distance and waves either his other hand or both of them, depending on the version. In the case of your man having caught fire, he runs a couple of steps away of the wreck before he starts rolling on the ground, putting off the fire surrounding him, and then proceeds to do as he does in the other version of the animation. The differences here are, apart from the obvious, that all of the crash animation (the fire and the man) in the ATARI version will be placed below the item above, such as a tree or a house, while all this will be placed on top of everything on the C64. I'd say the Atari handles this better.

The penalties and winning screens have a similar look on the machines the events occur - a big, sort of lifted text announcing the occasion, bearing the colour of the racer in question. Only the size, alignment and location differ, when you compare the two versions. Of course, getting these announcements shown in two different parts of the screen for each player is more interesting to look at, and offers more variety in a graphical sense, but then again, bigger is bigger, even if it's always in the center of the screen.

I'm actually quite happy that both versions offer their own slightly different sort of style to the game, and that they happen to be different yet similar enough to make each version just as singularly pleasing to each player's eyes. But there is still one thing I haven't made much of a mention yet, and that is scrolling. This is where the ATARI version wins by an inch, because it has a smoother and slightly faster scrolling, but only just. Also, a fair extra notch of advantage is given by the advanced use of colour and depth, even if I don't necessarily always agree with all the colour choices. If it's technically better, then it must be better, right?


*The Great American Cross-Country Road Race*

The spiritual sequel to Atari's Enduro features plenty enough of elements from the original, but the creators of ARR have certainly put a great deal of their own ideas into making the game a properly evolved version of Enduro, instead of just being a blatant copy of it. We can already start to count the differences from the start-up bits, as we get a nice 3D animation of the Activision logo flipping around, coming from back to front - a small luxury the A2600 couldn't afford.

Mid-loading screens, left to right: Atari 8-bit, Commodore 64, Apple ][.

Unfortunately, the only APPLE version I could find was a bit corrupted, so once the Activision logo was in its place, the logo would become almost completely screwed up, and I think it has some colouring problems as well. If someone can point out to me a fully working image file for the Apple ][, I'd be able to replace the screenshot, for which I would be thankful. Once we have gotten past that one, the actual game intro kicks in with a car passing by like a maniac, leaving a big cloud of dust behind, filling the screen. I already talked plenty enough about this bit in the previous section, so if you wish to remind yourself of what happens here, go back and read it again, or look at the screenshots below.

Intro sequence shots. Top row: Atari 8-bit. Middle row: Commodore 64. Bottom row: Apple ][.

Frankly, it's not much to look at as still shots, but then it's meant to be seen as an animation. None of the versions so far have much to recommend themselves over the other versions, apart from the ATARI version having nice fade-out effects for both the Activision screen and the intro bits, when they're finally over. The cars, the dust and the fonts look just as boring in every version, even if they're all slightly different. Only the fog is not animated to do any fog-like movement in the APPLE version, but I really don't count it as much of a problem in the light of everything else to come.

Final standings and options, left to right: Atari 8-bit, Commodore 64, Apple ][.

Urgh. That's not much better, is it? Well, I didn't want to get into the actual game yet, because there will be more to talk about later on. Before you get to choose your route in the screens above, there computer will play an attract mode of sorts, which basically means a demonstration of the action. The high score list features very little of interest, at least graphically, but it's still something completely new compared to Enduro, so it serves a purpose here. As you can see, in this screen you are given a choice of loading a saved high score list and choosing your route.

Map screens, left to right: Atari 8-bit, Commodore 64, Apple ][.

Okay, this is where things are finally getting a bit interesting. Of course you will have noticed any notable differences in the above sections, but I've gotten a bit bored lately of pointing out every little bit of difference in word, which you can clearly see in the screenshots by looking with your own eyes, and bits of framed text isn't particularly worthy to analyse. So, here we have the map screens from the three versions, which offer some interesting variety. As you make progress in the race, you will see your previous stops as colourful flashing dots on the map, your current location as a pulsing circular object, and every other unvisited location as solid little white spots (yellow on the C64), and the visited locations are green on the ATARI, red on the C64 and still white on the APPLE.

So far we're doing relatively okay, but the APPLE version lacks the lighting effect, or colouring effect to be more precise, to go with the time of day you choose to make your departure. On the ATARI and C64, the background colour of the map changes as you change the departure time - black for night, blue for dusk, green for daytime. The APPLE will only show a black background, although you do get the departure time displayed on the right side of the screen.

Screenshots of regular in-game events, left to right: Atari 8-bit, Commodore 64, Apple ][.

Since your playing area is supposed to represent the entire map of the United States of America, it is only fair that the graphics should somehow equally represent the areas in the country. Unfortunately, since this is an 8-bit game from 1985, and a bafflingly large one at that, you cannot really expect that the graphics should be much more than the bare necessities. So, in the tradition of Pole Position and the like, you get some basic ground colour to represent the basic idea of where you are driving in. However, the variety of colours seems to be brighter and more varied on the C64 than on either of the other two, although it also has to be said that the ATARI version has more shades used for less colours. The low-quality horizon scroller picture represents the locality in some form, which could be mountains, farms, cities or whatever, which is basically all the reference of location you will get in the APPLE version. The C64 horizons look woefully blocky, particularly when you reach the city limits, while the ATARI horizons are at least tolerable.

Rather remarkably, the traffic holds more than just cars for probably the first time in this sort of a racing game. There are now trucks and motorbikes also, all of which come in various different colours. In addition to this, you will also come across roadworks, which might force you to drive on one lane or zig-zag between the left, middle and right sides of the two-laned road. The other two regular occurrences are the police cars (white on the C64, orange on the APPLE, yellow on the ATARI) and the service stations, which just look like petrol/gas pumps. On the C64, the pumps are more noticable and have a better colouring and even a text saying GAS on them, while the ATARI pumps look like thoroughly pink rockets on a quick look, and the APPLE pumps look a bit like those white coffee thermos bottles that look like penguins.

Screenshots of special driving conditions. Top row and middle, left to right: icy roads and snow on Atari, Apple and C64.
Bottom left: fog on the Atari 8-bit. Bottom right: rain on the Commodore 64.

I spent literally some hours playing each version to get as much material for screenshots, but for some reason, I couldn't come across any foggy areas in the C64 version. Of course, it could be possible that the C64 version doesn't have foggy bits in it. If it is so, then it's no better than the APPLE version in this regard. Happily, though, that's not all that the game has to offer. There are some rainy areas in the game as well, but unfortunately, the only trace of rain you will be getting in any version is some small puddles of water appearing randomly on the road. I cannot say for sure whether the APPLE version has any rain in it, since I have been unable to come across any puddles so far.

From dusk till dawn, left to right: Atari 8-bit, Apple ][, Commodore 64.

When the day turns into night and back into day, the game goes through several different stages of lighting and colouring. Well, the APPLE version doesn't, but the other two do. There are at least four levels of light on each ATARI and C64, but to be honest, I cannot help being much too concentrated on playing the game to focus on taking screenshots of every single variation of lighting in the game, so you will only see one screenshot for dusk, one for night, and one for dawn. That said, the ATARI version has been made to look better with a more natural idea in the change of sky colour and everything, but I also like how the change of light also affects the dashboard on the C64.

Driving at night makes all the other cars greyscale (except for the tail lights) apart from yours, which remains blue, but in the APPLE version, all the cars are blue at night. On the C64, though, your car appears to have some low light emanating from the inside. Also at night, the sky is dark grey on the ATARI and black on the APPLE and C64, and when it's dawning, it will turn to a lighter shade of grey, and the other cars on the road regain their colour. In addition to all this, the C64 version changes the lighting of the dashboard according to the time of day.

Screenshots of finishing a section and not finishing a section, left to right: Atari 8-bit, Commodore 64, Apple ][.

Finishing a section will end in the city welcoming you, which is a simple WELCOME message at the top of the screen. Also, if you somehow fail to finish, the game will throw a similarly ungraphical SORRY sign at you. It's all quite underwhelming but it's not much of a surprise, since all the details and embellishments have been left relatively low due to the amount of other data in the game. Remember, there are 25 locations in the game, which are situated cunningly enough to result in a total of 40 sections of road to drive, although you never actually have to drive all the sections in a single game, even in the complete U.S. Tour mode.

Keeping that in mind, it is a great pity that the APPLE version offers relatively little of variety in terms of colour, and perhaps even horizon graphics. But then again, this is APPLE ][, and I have never seen more than six colours in use on the machine. So in a sense, it's nice that it has all that it has to offer, because it could still be worse. From the two others, it's a bit difficult to decide which one offers more interesting graphics. In the C64 version, you get much brighter colours, more detailed vehicle sprites and even an exclusive dashboard lighting feature. In the ATARI version, there are more naturally conceived shading effects and better scrolling. I might as well recommend each version for their own merits, but the fact is, that the ATARI version wins because it's more technically advanced.

3. APPLE ][



Probably the most important thing that most modern driving games have it wrong is that they might have a soundtrack, but the focus is often taken away from getting the car noises just right. In the 80's, you had no way to get the car sounds even close to being real due to having no possibility of digitising (in other words, sampling) car noises to give the racing that extra notch of realism that most serious racing simulation fanatics require. But here we have two early racing games that have very little in them, or in the case of Rally Speedway, none at all, and the focus is entirely on getting the cars sound as good as possible.

*Rally Speedway*

In this game, you will only be hearing sounds when racing. Depending on the game mode, you can hear either one or two cars making noise, but the other sounds are more easily described, so I shall do them first.

Braking and turning will cause your tires to screech. On the ATARI, the sound is a high-pitched reverberating noise that sounds almost like two bells ringing very fast in tandem. On the C64, the sound feels more like.. I don't really know. Perhaps three birds chirping simultaneously in a different pitch. The reverb effect is still there, though, but there is also a bit of delay effect noticable.

Penalty and winning sounds are either four high-pitched or low-pitched "ping" tones, which depends entirely on who is receiving the penalty or who has won the race. Player one gets the high-pitched pings, and player two gets the low ones.

Apart from the engine noises, the most interesting sound effect in the game is played when you crash the car. On the ATARI, the crash noise is a very short "tchwap"-like noise that ends almost as quickly as it started. On the C64, you get a much longer and dramatic, almost lightning-like noise that feels like you've really done something bad. A proper explosion, then.

And so we get to the engine noise... what a pity, I was just getting started. The thing is, we actually have three different sounds here. One for the 6581 SID, one for the 8580 SID and one for the ATARI. The 6581 uses some filters that aren't used in the 8580, making the 6581 sound more muddled and far-away rather than powerful, noisy and slightly uneven - basically engine-like as it does on the 8580. Strangely enough, none of the other sound effects sound any different. Compared to the 8580, then, the ATARI engine sounds a bit simplistic, sort of like your neighbour was drilling a hole in the wall in the flat above yours, but with more clarity and less annoyance. The sound effect is made from two simultaneous "drill" pitches, which makes it sound less like a proper engine than the one on the 8580, but more balanced than the muddled sound on the 6581. But on the whole, the C64 performs better here.


*The Great American Cross-Country Road Race*

Some people have made a good point of comparing this game to Enduro even as far as getting the sounds under inspection. Personally, I don't really think comparing this game to Enduro any further than it already has been done so far will prove any point, because this truly is such a vastly evolved version of it. But since I touched the topic, I'll say this much: comparing the sounds from the Atari 2600 version of Enduro to the Atari 800 version of The Great American Cross Country Road Race only shows that Enduro makes more noise, but both games feature a very similar style in sounds. I'm not sure if this information is of any use to anyone, so I suppose I shall have to elaborate.

On the ATARI version of ARR, your car's engine sounds kind of clunky and metallic, and the basic sound structure is a bit too close to any other old Atari game: noisy and a tad uncivilized. Braking causes the car to emit a high-pitched and tinny ringing noise, and bumping into other vehicles and roadsigns will cause a curiously faint crash noise. The map screen has its own share of sounds - or sound, to be precise: there's only a single "bip" sound to mark any action you happen to make. The only bits of music in the game are played when you either finish a section or are disqualified from not making it through a section, and both are very brief and simple melodies, quite fitting for the game and not overly intrusive.

The C64 sounds aren't nearly as noisy, and although your engine noise doesn't sound nearly as powerful and clunky as the one on the ATARI, you can rely on your ears more easily here to perform the gear changes, because the pitch is so much clearer. All the other sound effects are more powerful and notable here than on the ATARI, even if they are essentially very similar, but they don't get drowned behind the noisy engine sounds on the C64. The small bits of music, however, have not been really improved over the ATARI tunes, but then they're not really in an all too important role in this game, so it's all the same.

As you might have guessed, the APPLE sounds are very beeperish, and are almost painful to listen to. When you're driving, all the sounds during your journey are high-pitched, very fast "bip-bip-bip" sounds, as if this was the only way to simulate an engine sound with the beeper. Well, it works to a certain extent, but compared to the other two, it's nearly unbearable. There is no music of any kind either, so it's practically useless compared to the other two.

Trying to decide which one of the two proper versions makes the better noise is as hard as trying to decide which sort of water I like better: sparkling or soda. For those of you, who grew up with Enduro, and Atari machines in general, will very likely enjoy the Atari sounds more. Besides, proper racing cars are supposed to make an epic sound, right? Well, I grew up with the C64 version, and while I do like it better because it's easier to listen to, I'm truly not sure if it's any better. Potayto, potahto. Play them yourselves and make your own decisions.

2. APPLE ][



We have reached the end of yet another two-for-one entry, and what a twofer it has been. Racing games is one of the most popular genres in gaming; if not all over the world, at least here in Finland. Everybody wants to try their hand at being the next virtual Mika Häkkinen or Tommi Mäkinen or whoever happens to be the biggest Finnish name in racing at any point. When home gaming was still young, these two racing games were among the best of them, and at least in my case, easily beat such hit games as Pitstop II, Rad Racer, Out Run and Racing Destruction Set. So, while my hat goes off to those who are responsible for these two games, I also have to announce the winners - if not in our hearts, at least mathematically.

*Rally Speedway*

1. COMMODORE 64: Playability 2, Graphics 1, Sounds 2 = TOTAL 5
2. ATARI 8-BIT: Playability 1, Graphics 2, Sounds 1 = TOTAL 4

Although that might look a bit unfair for each concerned party, there is really no way to put it better. While the Atari version is the original and looks better, it doesn't have as much to offer as the C64 conversion, and it sounds a bit worse too. But I still say, both versions are very much worth playing, and if you're lucky enough to get either version into your collection as an original, you should definitely do so.

*The Great American Cross-Country Road Race*

1. ATARI 8-BIT: Playability 3, Graphics 3, Sounds 2 = TOTAL 8
2. COMMODORE 64: Playability 2, Graphics 2, Sounds 2 = TOTAL 6
3. APPLE ][: Playability 1, Graphics 1, Sounds 1 = TOTAL 3

Again, it is what it is. A score doesn't always tell the whole truth, if ever, but like now, it does often give a good idea where to start if you got interested in checking out a game you hadn't played before. The Great American Cross Country Road Race was clearly developed for the Atari, but the C64 version offers a very good alternative with a less noisy set of sounds and some brighter graphics, so I recommend them both. Meanwhile, the Apple version should practically be avoided.

To end this entry with some measure of tradition, I shall type in a few words about the predecessors of both games. I already mentioned Auto Racing on the Intellvision as the inspiration for Rally Speedway, but I found this John Anderson interview from 2008, which might be of some interest to the fans of the newer game. As for the other game, it might come as a bit of a shock to some gamers that Enduro wasn't necessarily the first one of its kind. There was also a Japanese arcade game called Driving Force, which utilised similar gameplay elements to those of Enduro and TGACCRR, but I haven't been able to find out specific release dates for either Enduro or Driving Force. It might be worth the bother to do some research, but I'm not the one for the job.

Left: Enduro (Atari 2600) - Middle: Driving Force (arcade) - Right: Auto Racing (Intellivision)
Well, that's it for now, hope you enjoyed it! Comments, suggestions and corrections are still welcome!

No comments:

Post a Comment