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Sunday, 12 June 2016

Test Drive (Accolade, 1987)

Developed by Distinctive Software, Inc.

Designed and programmed by Mike Benna, Donald A. Mattrick, Kevin P. Pickell, Brad Gour, Bruce Dawson, Amory Wong and Rick Friesen.

Graphics by John Boechler and Tony Lee.

Music and sound effects for the Commodore 64 by Patrick Payne, and for the 16-bit versions by Patrick Payne and Rick Millson.

Originally released by Accolade in North America for Commodore 64, Atari ST, Commodore Amiga and IBM-PC compatibles in 1987. Distributed in Europe by Electronic Arts.

Converted for the Apple ][ computers in 1988 by Distinctive Software, Inc. with additional coding by Allan Johanson and Esteban Ahn.

Conversion for the NEC PC-9801 published by Pony Canyon Inc. in 1989; further credits are unknown.

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OFF-TOPIC INTRODUCTION & GAME STATUS


In the light of attempting to keep my word on doing the comparisons teased in the teaser picture I posted in last August, I shall have to make a little confession. The last one missing from the picture is, of course, Broderbund's Wings of Fury, which has a couple of conversions made for machines that I wasn't aware of at the time of compiling the teaser picture, and these particular machines are such that I have had no luck so far in either finding, or getting to work through emulation, and purchasing them through eBay for this single purpose would be, frankly, a tad idiotic. But since the comparison of Wings of Fury was a pick from a small list of suggestions made some time ago by my bandmate Jaakko, I decided to pick one that I am only barely more able to do from his list.

Test Drive was, if I remember correctly, the first driving game I ever played, which was presented in proper first-person view. A real 3D driving game it is not, but the illusion of it was enough back then for us to consider it thus. It seems a bit odd that after so many sequels and reboots of diverse quality, the franchise has apparently been put to an end after the rather dismal success of the series' latest entry, Ferrari Racing Legends. Had Slightly Mad continued working on higher quality sequels for the Test Drive Unlimited series, the franchise might have lived on to be 30 years old next year. But as harsh as the truth is, even the original game wasn't as well received as it should have been at the time of release, and I think it's a bit of a miracle that the franchise was alive for as long as it was. But we're not going to focus on the series for any more than necessary, so let's stop right there and instead take a look at the current ratings of the original game at our favourite haunts.

At Lemon64, the game has been rated by 140 voters for a total score of 7.7, which is surprisingly good considering, for example, Zzap!64's original rating of 46%. Even more surprisingly, the Amiga version has an even lower score, with 6.87 from 109 voters at LemonAmiga. Even further down we go with the Atari ST version, which has a score of 6.7 from 21 votes at Atarimania. Although Abandonia has the DOS version featured, it comes in a triple-pack of all three Test Drive games of the original series, so I could not trust the scores given there. At MyAbandonware, though, the first Test Drive has been separated from the rest, and it has a score of 4.59 out of 5.00 from 66 votes. Neither the Apple ][ nor the NEC PC-9801 versions have any ratings to be found anywhere, as you might have come to expect.

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DESCRIPTION & REVIEW


Test Drive is, simply put, a first-person driving game, in which you must race through a series of checkpoints on a cliffside road with one of five choosable cars: Ferrari Testarossa, Porsche 911 Turbo, Lotus Turbo Esprit, Chevrolet Corvette and Lamborghini Countach. I'm not entirely sure if it should be called a simulator, but given the time of release, it has certain characteristics that would perhaps justify the label. The race is driven against time, traffic and police, which offer plenty enough of challenge, considering that you must also stay on the road - you have a cliff on the other side and a huge drop on the other, both of which are lethal. The goal is to complete the test drive, which consists of five increasingly difficult segments of mountainside road, within the given amount of lives, and reach the finish line at the top of the mountain.

In 1987, Test Drive was something out of the ordinary, an innovative game. As with most innovative games of that time, the execution might have been a bit lacking, even at the time, but this is exactly the type of game that would play on people's fantasies. I bet there were not too many young (likely male) gamers, who didn't think trying to outrun police cars on a dangerous mountainside road with some of the hottest super cars of the time was absolutely marvellous, even if the 3D aspect of it wasn't exactly superbly made. I could be wrong, though. But the following franchise speaks for itself, and the original game can only be considered as a classic in automotive gaming, however flawed and awkward it is now, and has always been, really.
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PLAYABILITY


So, you've got a burning in your wallet, and want to buy a spiffy little super car to drive around in and pick hot chicks with, right? Worry no more - Accolade's own star team of car dealers offer you five sweet rides to try out. If you survive the test, you can have the car for free! How's that for a deal! But of course, you will not be let off so easily: you have to drive a tricky mountain road from bottom, all the way to the top. Since this is supposed to be vaguely realistic, you have to deal with manual transmission, traffic, police cars on the lookout for speeders, bumps and holes in the road, as well as instant death surrounding the road. How's that for an advertisment?

Based on the advertisments and reviews in gaming magazines of the time, it would appear the AMIGA and ST versions were released first, but only a month or so prior to the others from the original set. So it would logically follow that those two versions were developed first, but I'm a bit hesitant to base the comparison on those two. In the lack of more conclusive evidence, let's just say all the 1987 versions by Accolade are equally original.


The game is played either with a joystick or a keyboard, depending on your chosen version. The AMIGA, ST, C64 and APPLE versions are joystick-controlled, so pushing up will press the gas pedal, and down will hit the brakes. Pushing up and pressing the fire button will change the gear to the next above, and pushing down and fire will change to the next lower gear. Left and right obviously steer, but in most versions, the steering wheel turns gradually along with the steering cursor, and the cars will steer with according strength. Only the APPLE version has a more digital way of steering: pushing the joystick left or right will immediately make the steering cursor hit the chosen end of the steering wheel, and thus the car will also move into the chosen direction with more determination. The DOS version also has keyboard controls in addition to the optional joystick controls, but the NEC PC-9801 version only has keyboard controls. The way how the keyboard controls differ from the joystick controls is, simply put, that instead of just one fire button for changing gears, on keyboard you have two. Changing to a higher gear happens by pressing the 'A' key, and you change lower with 'Z'. For DOSbox users, though, I need to recommend getting a joystick or a joypad to play with, because the keyboard controls don't work well in emulation - you need to press any chosen key twice before they start working the way you want them to. Knowing how to change gears - and when to change them - is imperative, because if your revs are too high for too long, the engine will blow up, and you will lose a life. Of course, if you weren't expecting a more arcade-like experience, this shouldn't come as a surprise.


Test Drive is divided into five segments, each more difficult than the previous. If you want to drive as safely as possible, you need to obey the traffic rules as much as possible - keep an eye on the speed limit signs and adjust your speed accordingly, but that doesn't sound like much fun, now does it? Also, you have a beeping radar to inform you of any police cars in the vicinity. The radar also has red blinking lights, which tell you how close the nearest police car really is, and I've always supposed them to be parked on some unseen parking spot, which would explain why they are never shown ahead of you on the road as you approach them. If you go fast enough (about 110-120 mph should do it), you can lose the police car, but this way you will have a higher risk of crashing the car. If the police catches you, or you decide to stop for the sake of safety, you will be stopped for a brief time and given a speeding ticket. Crashing into things will add some slight penalty time to your overall time, but other than that, you should be pretty safe with five lives for each stage.

It might be helpful to know that each car really has its own personality, so to speak, and they have been programmed to perform close enough to their own specifications. This is something that hadn't been really explored to this extent in racing games prior to this. Anyway, you will notice each car's differences by their acceleration, deceleration, handling in curves and gear ratio, although to be fair, most of the differences between the cars are barely noticable.

It might also be helpful to know that you don't actually need to drive like a maniac to get through the game - it's just more fun, as well as frustratingly difficult that way. The less time you take between every gas station, the more points you will be getting in the end. Not that the points will be of much use, if you're playing either of the original C64 versions - neither the tape nor the disk version will save your high scores, so to get around that problem, you will need to get yourself a cracked version with a fix for that. I'm using the N0stalgia EasyFlash version for this comparison, because it features both tape and disk versions, with the high score fix. In any case, at least the tape version isn't particularly recommendable, since it's missing a few elements, and a bit on the slow side. Not exactly 15 minutes to set the game up, like Zzap!64 claimed, but the game features about 10 minutes worth of data combined.

Too bad for the old warhorse, loading the game isn't the only area where the C64 version is slow. The game runs at around 4 frames per second, which is definitely uncomfortable, but it's still a framerate you can work with, since it's surprisingly constant. While the C64's sprite scaling technique is awkward at best, at least it doesn't make the traffic move around on its lane in a seemingly uncontrolled manner, or make trucks appear in front of you out of thin air like it does on the PC-98. However, the speed of the PC-98 version depends entirely on the machine's processing power. Getting the game to play at a proper speed on an emulator like Neko Project II requires you to configure the machine to run on a 2.45MHz processor at 4x speed, or thereabouts, however you like it best. Adjusting the processor speed too high will make the game play too fast, and vice versa. But the sprite scaling technique is still superbly awkward on the PC-98.

Because of the C64 version's low framerate, it's difficult to say whether there is any sophisticated physics modelling done for it, but my guess would be not. The PC-98 version might have some, but the game plays very differently to other versions; it's difficult to steer any of the cars properly at any speeds, and cornering on higher speeds is practically impossible. As a rule, you either end up hugging the mountain, or down in the ditch, and I haven't been able to determine whether you can get the cars slide or not. But since you can't corner properly, I'd say the physics modeling is the worst on the PC-98 version. On the AMIGA and ST, though, you can get the car sliding noticably when cornering on higher speeds, and it's certainly easier to notice the sliding, because the framerate is somewhere around 5-7 FPS. The sprite scaling method still isn't much better than it is on the C64, but it's as good as it gets here. The APPLE version runs remarkably well, about as good as the previously mentioned two, although the 3D scrolling method is still a bit jerky. Probably due to having less restrictions with hardware, the DOS version can run the quickest and the smoothest of the lot with higher system specifications, but it never runs too fast, and rarely too slow.

I noticed some slight variety in the number of cars on the road between some of the principal versions, but a vast majority of the game progresses very similarly in most versions - the roads are similarly mapped and all the traffic, police cars, puddles and other items are programmed to appear at their designated spots, or at least very close to them. From what I could tell, the DOS, AMIGA and ST versions have significantly more traffic in the last two levels compared to the C64 and APPLE versions, but only the AMIGA and ST versions feature seldomly appearing wider bits of road to help passing other cars. I haven't been able to pass the third stage in the NEC version, so it's difficult to tell how the difficulty curve compares there.

Finally, I will have to point out some emulation-related issues, which you might or might not come across, so these will not be counted in the final scores. The first, less predictable problem has to do with the ST version, which I noticed automatically activating the gear knob every now and then for no apparent reason. This is just about as much of a problem as the DOS version's problem with accepting keyboard commands, but I'm guessing this might have something to do with regional settings or something of that sort, because I've seen the ST version working perfectly elsewhere - I just haven't bothered to find out about it. The APPLE ][ version has a bit more problems, at least when it comes to the disk images found at VirtualApple.com; perhaps the original disk works perfectly, but I have no access to them. In any case, the APPLE version tends to crash often when loading gas stations or when you're trying to load the next section after a gas station, and I've only once been able to get past the second gas station - I met my end in the final stage, and haven't bothered to try it out again. But I'm going to have to base the scores on the assumption that the game actually works properly from the original disk(s).

Test Drive happens to be one of those games, where the number of gameplay elements is just as, if not more important than the smoothness and speed of gameplay, because it's supposed to be somewhat of a simulator. The more realism you get for your money, the higher the value of the gaming experience will be. Therefore, while the DOS and APPLE versions perhaps play quicker and more fluently than the AMIGA and ST versions, the latter two offer slightly more realistic handling and more variety in gameplay. And while the C64 version is impressive on its own accord, it just cannot keep up with the others. But it's still more playable than the NEC version.


1. COMMODORE AMIGA / ATARI ST
2. APPLE ][
3. IBM-PC COMPATIBLES
4. COMMODORE 64
5. NEC PC-9801

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GRAPHICS


The area where Test Drive was always destined to grow technically outdated the soonest of all is graphics. It all starts off nicely enough with a nice title sequence, and the car selection screens are some of the most fun things I had seen up to that point in any racing game, but the in-game graphics... well, we shall get there soon enough, but first things first.

Title sequences, top to bottom: Commodore Amiga, Atari ST, DOS.


Since there are no loading screens as such in any version, the first thing you will see after the game has loaded is the racing variation of the animated "Accolade Presents" screen. If I recall correctly, the original animation of the red "bullet" through the center of the logo was shown in Accolade's golf game called Mean 18 from the previous year. The reason why this is the racing variation is not because it looks like something racing-related, but because the same precise style of this screen is used only in all of Accolade's racing games.

If you haven't slammed the fire button or other designated key in a hurry to get to play the game, you should see a darkly coloured 911 Turbo at the bottom of the screen fade in next. What happens then, is that the driver's side window rolls down, the man wearing sunglasses on the driver's seat turns to smile at you and then turns to look ahead of him before zooming off to the left. Next, the Test Drive logo gradually drops to the bottom of the screen, and the car keys with Accolade logos fade in to the middle of the screen afterwards. Then, depending on the version you're playing, you will see the high scores table and the game's credits in some order; some versions don't show the high scores until you've played the game once. I'll get to the high scores at a more appropriate time.

Title sequences, top to bottom: Commodore 64, Apple ][, NEC PC-9801.


You might have noticed something vaguely unusual in the first lot of screenshots: the AMIGA and ST versions look slightly different. Well, they usually do, but the slight differences here are unusually noticable. The ST version has a trademark (tm) placed at the top right corner of both the Accolade logo and the game title logo. Also, there is no copyright information in the AMIGA version, and the credits are darker blue and written with a slightly different font on the ST (and Rick Friesen is missing). Oh yeah, and the hubcaps on the 911 are of a different colour.

In the DOS version, the copyright has been placed in the Accolade Presents screen; there's control options shown in the title screen (and below the high scores list), and there are some drastic design changes made into the credits screen. Also, the 911 is just about as green as it later appears in the PC-98 version. Speaking of which, since Accolade wasn't responsible for the PC-98 version, the first screen features both the company logo and the animated 911. The PC-98 version can boast of having the best-looking keychain in the title screen, but unfortunately, there's no credits screen. If you really want to know who are responsible for the NEC conversion, you're going to have to dig up the manual from somewhere... and I'm afraid you're also going to have to know how to read Japanese. Luckily, the game is entirely in English.

As you might have guessed, the C64 and APPLE ][ versions are the least impressive of the lot. Particularly the C64 tape version, which doesn't feature the screen with the 911 animation or the high scores table. But at least the disk version features both of these in all their glory. The APPLE version doesn't have the Porsche animated like it should be - it just fades in and out without anything happening in between. These two versions have very different looking credits screens, with the "Design and Programming" section almost entirely split into two columns, but even more so by having very different fonts. Curiously, neither version has the copyright featured anywhere.

Car brochure page example: Porsche 911 Turbo. Top row, left to right: Commodore Amiga, Atari ST, Commodore 64.
Bottom row, left to right: Apple ][, DOS, NEC PC-9801.


Since we started with a Porsche, let's continue with it. After the title sequence, you are taken to the car retailer, and you are handed a very informative brochure. Indeed, the amount of information shown on the 16-bits haven't fitted into their 8-bit counterparts, but some rearrangement and squeezing does wonders - only the approximate price, lateral acceleration and compression ratio have been removed from the C64 and APPLE brochures. Also regarding the information bits, the acceleration curve looks a bit off on the C64 and APPLE versions, with the second gear change spot in the wrong place. Oh well, you can't have everything.

All the cars in the game as seen on their brochure pages, from all the versions.
Left to right: Commodore Amiga, Atari ST, Commodore 64, NEC PC-9801, Apple ][, DOS.


Here we have all the cars from all the versions, as they appear in the brochures, at least before you select a car. It's interesting to see, how most cars have the same (or similar) colouring in all versions, but then the 911 Turbo is red only on the C64, and the Corvette is otherwise red, but blue in the C64 and APPLE versions. The shading and lighting has also been dealt with in surprisingly different manners: while on the 8-bits, you can barely see any different shades, the AMIGA, ST and DOS versions have a showroomy sort of lighting, which reflects in the shades of the car's body. I don't know what sort of lighting they thought of using for the PC-98 version, but it's very different, as if the light was coming from a vastly different angle. As for the details, I'd say the AMIGA version tops it all with the dark blue background and the shadow under the car, giving a more solid feel to the tyres. In addition to that, the AMIGA version is the only one, in which you can see "turbo esprit" written below the small window on the Lotus. Otherwise, I'd have to say the ST and NEC versions look just as good, but different; the DOS version falls just under them, and the 8-bits are equally 8-bit.

Turning the car brochure page, left to right: Commodore 64, Apple ][, DOS, Amiga/ST, NEC PC-9801.


Turning the page isn't a particularly important part of the game in terms of graphics, but it's interesting enough to be included in the comparison. The C64 and APPLE versions fade the whole screen in and out when changing the page, while the rest of them just slide the car into your chosen direction (up or down) and bring the next car in from the other direction. The PC-98 version differs from the others by bringing in the new car simultaneously when pushing out the previous one; in the AMIGA, ST and DOS versions, the previous car has to be completely off the screen before the game starts to load the next car. Weirdly enough, none of Test Drive's versions actually make it look like you're turning pages, but that is of little consequence.

The Countach special animation, where available. Top left: Commodore Amiga. Top right: DOS.
Middle left: Atari ST. Middle right: Apple ][. Bottom left: NEC PC-9801. Bottom right: Commodore 64.


Once you have decided upon the car for your test drive, push the fire button and you get an animation of some sort. Only the APPLE version has just a regular fade-out no matter which car you pick up, but all the others show you open the window and smile at the camera, similarly to what happens in the title sequence, and then you drive out to the left of the screen - this applies to any other car but the Countach. In the case of that one, however, you open the wing-like door instead, and then close it before taking off.

Random in-game events in all cars: Commodore Amiga (top and middle) and Atari ST (bottom).


And then we're off to drive the seemingly endless winding mountainside road. Because the scenery doesn't change at all within the five stages, I admit having taken most of the screenshots for all versions from the first stage - a few rare shots are from stage 2. The screenshots include various kinds of traffic cars, left and right curves, a crash, changing gears and arriving at a gas station.

The AMIGA and ATARI ST versions look very similar to each other, the only real differences being the palette and some minor details like the steering cursor being blue on AMIGA and red on ST, and colouring differences in the badges in the middle of some of the steering wheels and the radar's basic colour (green vs yellow). That's all there is to it, really.

Random in-game events in all cars: Commodore 64.


On further examination, the 16-bit versions have some more to boast with compared to the 8-bits: the bumps and lifts in the road are less pronounced on the 8-bits, and the C64 version doesn't seem to have much of these features at all, nor does it have clouds in the sky or bugs getting splashed on your windscreen. The car interiors look quite messy for the most part, and the only car in which you can properly see your rev counts and speed is the least impressive car. Also, all the other cars on the road look very ugly and box-like, because it helps scaling the sprites. At least they went with proper badges for Porsche, Ferrari and Lotus, although the wide pixelation makes it difficult to make them out well. One more thing: you don't get an on-screen message for when you reach the gas station.

Random in-game events in all cars: Apple ][.


The APPLE version uses a predictably garish palette, but I have to say, the overall quality of the graphics is a bit better than on the C64. Perhaps some of the details have been left out (badges and such), but the other cars on the road look considerably better, and you can also read your RPM's and MPH's quite well, even when you're not driving the Corvette. Although you still don't get more pronounced slopes and bumps in the road, it's certainly a step up from the C64 graphics.

Random in-game events in all cars: NEC PC-9801. Top row, left to right: Lotus Esprit, Porsche 911, Ferrari Testarossa.
Bottom left: Chevrolet Corvette. Bottom right: Lamborghini Countach.


I decided to only take one screenshot for each car here, because the PC-98 version is such a drag to work with. And in any case, you will be able to see clearly enough, how the PC-98 version differs from the other versions with just one shot per each car. The most glaring difference is, that all the car interiors look much more colourful and detailed than in any other version, which makes it unique in an unexpected manner. Also, all the traffic cars look very good, which is why it is such a pity that the traffic sprites have no idea for most of the time, which lane they should be driving on - the programming has gone way off here, but I guess the NEC PC's architecture doesn't allow for very good 3D scrolling. In contrast to the amazing car interiors, there are no clouds in the sky, and when you crash, the window cracking isn't animated at all. A really confusing conversion, this one.

Random in-game events in all cars: DOS.


Quality-wise, the DOS version looks to cram itself somehow between the AMIGA/ST and APPLE ][ versions. Everything looks clear enough in the space allowed for everything, but the view through the windshield looks to have more in common with the APPLE ][ graphics than either the C64 or the two 16-bits. Since the DOS version was finished prior to the APPLE version, it would logically follow that the APPLE Test Drive's graphics were more based on the DOS version. Anyway, there are no clouds in this version either, nor are there those handy little road wideners, which makes the DOS version closer to the 8-bits than the 16-bits - it doesn't seem to be sure, what sort of a machine is the game being played on, so Accolade played it safe. However, the bumps on the road and bugs getting splashed on your windscreen are a clear pointer towards this being a 16-bit version. The logos on the steering wheels look like a mixture of the 16-bits and the C64 version, which would suggest that the logo wasn't supposed to be featured on the Lamborghini wheel in the first place, so perhaps the AMIGA and ST versions have this little design thing wrong. I can have no idea, since I've never sat inside a real Countach. 

DOS graphic modes, left to right: Hercules, CGA, EGA.


And here's the obligatory screen modes comparison from the DOS version. You've probably seen these done in earlier comparisons, which is why I have kept it so small this time. I have to say, the Hercules mode looks surprisingly good for being a strictly black-and-white mode, and it works well enough in action. CGA mode is as limited in colours as you would expect, and all the cars have similarly coloured interiors in the same manner they are in the Hercules mode. EGA is really the only good choice here, but without the handy cracked version which can be launched with start.bat, you will need to have the second diskette in the floppy drive at all times in order to get the EGA mode working.

Gas station with a random car. Top row, left to right: Commodore 64 tape, Apple ][, NEC PC-9801.
Bottom row, left to right: Commodore 64 disk, DOS, Atari ST.


Another good reason to check out the PC-98 version in action: the gas station screens are spectacularly detailed and pretty, compared to any other version, really. Whether they're realistically designed in consideration of their location is another matter entirely, but who cares. All the other versions have the mountain in the background and less decorations for the gas stations themselves. Of course, the cars look the same as they look in the brochure. The only version in which the gas station screens look completely different, is the C64 tape version, which the most eagle-eyed will have noticed, looks curiously similar to the gas station screens in the C64 version of Test Drive 2: The Duel. Also, while the AMIGA screen isn't included here, the only difference it has to the ATARI ST version is, that the text area only fits two lines of text at a time.

Getting ticketed. Top row, left to right: Commodore Amiga, Atari ST, Commodore 64.
Bottomrow, left to right: NEC PC-9801, DOS, Apple ][.


If you happen to get caught by the police at any point, you had better slow down and pull over, because otherwise you will crash into the police car. When you get ticketed, it will take the police a few seconds to actually get the ticket written, and you can only continue your race after the police car has driven out of sight. On the C64, though, the police car vanishes once they've given you the ticket, so once the ticket is gone, you can continue. The ticket itself also looks very different on the C64, and there's nothing else legible on it but "Speeding ticket", but it serves its purpose. Surprisingly, the other versions of the speeding tickets have quite a bit of variety to them, although the basic form is similar. The ATARI ST and APPLE ][ versions seem to have the best attempts at making the tickets as readable as possible.

Game Over screens. Top row, left to right: Atari ST, Apple ][, NEC PC-9801.
Bottom row, left to right: Commodore Amiga, DOS, Commodore 64 (disk).


In the likely chance that you manage to crash your car more often than necessary, you will get a Game Over screen, and are given the options to play again with the same car, or choose a new car. Since the latter item is just text with highlighting boxes on a black background, I chose not to include it here. The C64 version is the only one to have the GAME OVER sign shown on a black background, but at least you get your final score shown with it. What might be worth noting here, is that the tape version has the GAME OVER sign differently coloured. The APPLE version is the only one of the others that use a similarly designed GAME OVER sign in the crash screen, but it has no final score shown. The others have a big red GAME OVER text with a more conservative font over the crashed windshield, but only the ATARI ST version shows your final score below it.

Ending screens. Top row, left to right: Commodore Amiga, Atari ST, Commodore 64 disk.
Bottom row, left to right: NEC PC-9801, DOS, Commodore 64 tape.


Because Test Drive doesn't really offer that much in terms of graphics, and is such an easy game to finish, at least in most cases, I decided to include the ending screens from wherever I could get them. As I said, the APPLE version I found doesn't usually want to work that far, and the PC-98 version is too awkward for me to bother with, so I grabbed the PC-98 screen from a bad quality video I shall link further down in the article. The C64 version again has two different versions of the ending, the regular one and the tape version, which gives you no directions to look in the glove box. All the other versions do, and then show you the crumpled piece of paper, wherein it says, "Nice job. Keep the car. Go home." in a hand-written style. Interestingly enough, the handwriting looks a bit different in all versions, and even the paper has varying degrees of crumpledness.

When you finally manage to get enough score to reach the high scores table (although in some versions, this is not such an onerous task), you get the chance to see your chosen car from behind, which is an angle not used anywhere else in the game. When you enter your name, the car is shown as big as possible, and once it's on the high scores table, the car's behind appears as a smaller version next to your score and name. Because it would require too much effort from me to play through every version, I shall leave this little bit for you to find out for yourselves - it's not as if this little thing would have any drastic effect on the scores for this section.

But I think regardless of the lack of attention I have given to some details, it's safe to say we can easily put the versions in some sort of an order. From a technical perspective, the AMIGA and ST versions are the clear winners here, but the DOS and NEC versions can beat them in speed, when you have powerful enough hardware. The NEC version also has the best looking interiors and otherwise most colourful and detailed graphics, but it has such big problems with the traffic sprites bouncing all around the road, that I cannot with all honesty give it a very high spot on the list. Sure, it looks pretty, but it's not functional. And I guess the C64 and APPLE graphics really speak for themselves.

1. COMMODORE AMIGA / ATARI ST
2. IBM-PC COMPATIBLES
3. APPLE ][
4. NEC PC-9801
5. COMMODORE 64

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SOUNDS


Even though there is not all that much to praise about in Test Drive's graphics, it's often the soundtrack that gets the most negative feedback. To be fair, I can understand why, because the music isn't particularly much to praise about. The intro tune is a pleasantly forward-moving rock tune simultaneously resembling 50's and 60's surf rock riffs and something a military band would play in jubilant events. The melody is such a catchy and familiar one, that I'm pretty sure I've heard it somewhere else, but I can't put my finger on it.

There are three other tunes in the game, none of which are particularly uplifting, and, I'm sorry to say, two of them are completely unmemorable. The brochure theme is probably the one that would stick to your head the most likely after the intro tune, because it will be the one you would spend the most amount of time on, trying to decide on which car to select. The gas station tune sounds a bit too similar, but has no real hook to catch onto. Last, and very likely the least, there's a tune playing when you reach The End Motors. I've never heard a more uncelebratory ending tune in my life. If they were trying to get even more realism into the game by attempting to compose an uninteresting tune that would likely play on the radio you just turned on, then I would get it, but it doesn't really sound like anything that would play on the radio in 1987 either.


As if all that wasn't bad enough, the DOS and APPLE versions only use beeper to play all the music and sound effects, which means that all the music has been reduced to their very basics. The intro tune is still recognizable, but in fact they've moved the brochure tune in its place to make that one the tune that most DOS gamers would recognize as the Test Drive theme tune. The brochure tune is just two notes in octaves played in a surf rock type of rhythm pattern. The gas station tune I'm not completely sure about, but it's just about as unrecognizable as the original gas station and ending tunes, so at least they got that one sort of right.

Apart from the NEC version, the other machines play the music as you would expect: the AMIGA version uses samples, so it automatically sounds best because of the drums; the C64 version sounds as darkly energetic as you would expect, and the SID chip beats the ATARI ST soundtrack rather easily. The NEC PC-9801 version has all the music played through some sort of a MIDI-standard thing, so all the music sounds very plastic and early 1990's DOS (or Sega Genesis/Megadrive) stuff - horrible, yet acceptable because it's multi-channeled. (Check cubamanuel's comment for bring this matter some more clarity.)

Working through the sound effects was more interesting. Starting with the AMIGA version, presuming it's the original one, you hear the theme tune start to play long before the "Accolade presents" screen has been presented, and the first sound effect is a sampled male voice saying "Accolade presents", after the red bullet has gone through the company name. The next screen features someone turning on the Porsche and revving it up - another sampled sound effect. Both of these are played on top of just slightly turned down music. The same revving sound effect is used in your chosen brochure page, after you have selected the car. The in-game sound effects are no less impressive, since all of them are sampled: proper engine noises, nice clunky shifting, a great bird-like whirring noise for the radar, tire squeal that almost sounds like tire squeal, and driving over the lane markings makes a nice bumpy noise. However, something seems to be missing, but it's not too much to make it less than the best one of the lot.

The C64 disk version is preferable to the tape version, as the tape version has no digitized samples in the intro sequence. In the disk version, you get the same "Accolade presents" as in the AMIGA version, only in a much lower sample rate, and the Porsche intro screen sample has been reduced to just revving - the starting up has been cut off. But still, samples included. The brochure section has the car's revving noises made with the same basic SID sounds that are used in the game, but for further interest regarding the disk version, the brochure music starts playing while loading the section, which is something rarely witnessed on C64 disk games. Getting back to the sound effects: in addition to the car's revving noises, more included in the game are really bad tire squeal, bumpy sounds when crossing the yellow lines, very high chirpy sound for the radar, and something that the AMIGA version doesn't have: a crash noise. Interesting, but then the C64 version doesn't have the clunk for changing gears. And of course, basic SID sounds can only rarely compete with samples.

In addition to the AMIGA and C64 versions, the APPLE ][ version is the only one that has any digitized sound samples. Curiously, the "Accolade presents" here is spoken by a woman, but it's there. I guess they thought to make the game more sexy that way. How they succeeded in that is not really for me to say. There's no sampled engine revving noise here, but the crash noises in the game sound like they are sampled of a window breaking. Curious, but certainly effective. All the other sound effects feel like they belong to the 48k Spectrum, particularly the engine noises. Some of the more subtle effects are missing, like the bumpy road marking noises and shifting clunks, but on the whole, it's a surprisingly enjoyable combo of noises.

So, why is it, that the ATARI ST version was left without the sampled bits? We have seen such being used in various other games, so incapability is not an excuse. Perhaps the lack of space on a single disk, when attempting to pack it all into 720kb, when an Amiga disk can hold up to 880kb? Surely not, when the C64 version would fit easily in 170kb. Well, I can't say for sure, because I'm no programmer, but I think it's just far below expectations to still hear no crash noises, and the engine noise is just irritating, constant pitch-changing beep, and the tire squeal sounds like a badly played flute. Only the police radar is notable enough, and not unpleasant, which is not a whole lot of positive. I admit, I might be a bit biased, but surely a sports car engine should sound a bit different from a constant beep? I think Test Drive is one of the most unpleasant sonic experiences on the ST, it's that simple.


The NEC version doesn't fare much better - in fact, the sound effects are even more annoying there than on the ST. The engine droning is again a constant beep that changes pitch by the revs, but here, the beep is constructed from three pitches: a very low one and a mid-range one - neither of which ever change, and a higher pitch, which does. Perhaps it sounds more like an engine than the ATARI ST's single-note beep, but it's still unbearable. From all the other sound effects presented in other versions of the game, the only one included here is tire squeal, which is just another long high-pitched beep. As I said, it's even more unpleasant than the ST version.

Compared to the previous two, the DOS version is surprisingly pleasant, even though all the sounds come from the single-channeled PC speaker. The engine sound is a repeating chopped beep noise, which actually sounds vaguely like an engine noise. Of course, the tire squeal is still just a high-pitched beep, but when mixed with the engine noise, it doesn't irritate you in the way the tire squeal on ST and PC-98 do. The police radar sound is similar to tire squeal, but from a higher pitch.

Deciding upon the order of the less impressive audio experiences is more difficult than the more impressive ones, because while the music can be considered adequately well made in the ST and PC-98 versions, the sound effects might be the epitome of horridness. By contrast, the DOS and APPLE versions' sound effects are much more acceptable, but then their music is single-channel beeping, which at least in these cases is not very recommendable. Keeping in mind, that you should be spending more time on the road than elsewhere, here's what I've come up with...

1. COMMODORE AMIGA
2. COMMODORE 64
3. APPLE ][
4. ATARI ST
5. IBM-PC COMPATIBLES
6. NEC PC-9801

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VIDEO LINKS


Wahey! Yet another video link segment. This time, in addition to having a video comparison from Gaming History Source's YouTube channel...




...I decided to include a video link of the NEC PC-9801 version, because you can't find footage of it from YouTube, and finding a video of this without using Japanese letters to find it is next to impossible. Unfortunately, I've noticed that this video doesn't always load properly, probably due to some server problems.

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OVERALL


So there you go, another classic driving game dealt with, and countless of others to go. Test Drive definitely has its own important role in the history of driving games, and even though the franchise has now ceased to continue, its legacy will live on in countless of future racing games. Being a pseudo-3D racer, it's only to be expected that the more modern machines would kick the more aged machines' imaginary butts, but it has to be commended, how well the game was made to run on the 8-bits, and still left with most of the game intact. Anyway, here are the unwaveringly mathematical overall results:

1. COMMODORE AMIGA: Playability 5, Graphics 5, Sounds 6 = TOTAL 16
2. ATARI ST: Playability 5, Graphics 5, Sounds 3 = TOTAL 13
3. APPLE ][: Playability 4, Graphics 3, Sounds 4 = TOTAL 11
4. IBM-PC COMPATIBLES: Playability 3, Graphics 4, Sounds 2 = TOTAL 9
5. COMMODORE 64: Playability 2, Graphics 1, Sounds 5 = TOTAL 8
6. NEC PC-9801: Playability 1, Graphics 2, Sounds 1 = TOTAL 4


Not too many surprises there, I assume. For a few final words about the first Test Drive, I guess it should be pointed out that the game was originally made for NTSC hardware, so it should be run as such. If not on real hardware, then adjust your emulators accordingly. It runs a bit faster, making a surprising amount of difference in both music and performance. Also, if you want to be more adventurous, you can try getting a SuperCPU to go with your Commodore 128, then run it in C64 mode. If you're not into getting new hardware, you can still see the results here.

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AFTERMATH


I'm very likely not going to do a comparison of TD2, so I might as well talk about the rest of the series a bit. It has its highs and lows - certainly more lows than highs, but for quite some time, the franchise had an unfair competitor in the Need For Speed series. Since TD3, there was no real winner in the series until much later, but they certainly tried different styles.

The Duel: Test Drive II, as the first sequel is officially called, featured a computer opponent, visible police cars parked on the side of the road, different looking areas to drive through, and most importantly, add-on packs to drive more cars through more different kinds of areas. Many retrogamers I know hail this as the definitive Test Drive game, which I can agree with wholeheartedly, when it comes to the original series at least. Test Drive III: The Passion featured new filled polygon graphics, completely open-world segmented racing with optional routes, a few interesting cars, and changing weather conditions. Of course, being of such an advanced design, it was only available on IBM-PC compatibles, but because it's so heavily a product of its time, it is awkward to play on any more modern computers than the kind it was released for.

TD4 still featured the cockpit camera, but the game was about circuit racing, just like its successors. TD5 and TD6 eventually dropped all of the simulation-like elements from the game, and went with a more arcade-like design. No interior cameras, no segmented roads, no escaping the police, nothing of any real value to a simulation race driver. There was also the surprisingly long-lived Test Drive Off-Road series, and a few spin-off games like TD Le Mans, along with a couple of unexpected titles for the Game Boy Color, featuring Test Drive Cycles, a racing game focusing on various types of motorcycles. Actually, there were plans to make TDC for PS1, Dreamcast and Windows, but the game was cancelled.

Left to right: Test Drive 4, Test Drive Off-Road 2, Test Drive Le Mans
Finally, after Accolade's move under Infogrames' wings, and even more lately, Infogrames having been bought by Atari, we get to the two fairly recent Test Drive Unlimited games. The first TDU, in particular, always seemed to me like the only true torch carrier of the original Test Drive series, because it focused on the cars and off-track speeding, rather than tracks and competition. Even that one is already three months left to being full 10 years old. While some would already consider that retro, but for me, being retro stops at the first PlayStation. Anyway, the first TDU brought back the open-world racing, the interior camera, the manual gears (optional), the police (with some thanks to Grand Theft Auto) and added some fairly interesting new features into the game, mostly thanks to games like Gran Turismo and Need For Speed. However, the simulation aspect remained very light, probably because Gran Turismo and Forza Motorsport were already leading the market there. But for me, TDU presented a near perfection of an open-world racing adventure, and apart from Gran Turismo 2 and 4, as well as the first few TrackMania games, I have never been as addicted to any driving game as much as I was addicted to Test Drive Unlimited. TDU2 offered some nice new online features, but the game wasn't as well built as its predecessor, and there was too much useless stuff in it. After TDU2, the franchise was killed off with a return to more arcadey form with Ferrari Racing Legends, which at least offers a nice history lesson of all sorts of Ferrari cars, but focuses on circuit racing. Too bad, I was hoping for a third installment in the Test Drive Unlimited series.

Screenshots from the Windows version of Test Drive Unlimited
Well, that's all I have to say about the series. I hope at least some of you got inspired to try out some of the later games in the series, and perhaps take another look at the original game with some new eyes. The NEC PC-9801 version, in particular, is worth a look, even if you know the rest of the versions, because it is a pretty one, but I can tell you: it can be unbelievably difficult to find. On that point, I'd like to give thanks to my colleague SJ for helping me find the said version, making writing this comparison at all possible. And that's it for now, hope that was worth the unusually long wait! Thanks for reading, see you next time with another Finnish Retro Game Review! And remember, drive safely!

7 comments:

  1. The PC-98 series of computers primarily use a YM2203 (OPN; used on the PC-9801-26 sound card) or a YM2608 (OPNA; used on the PC-9801-86 sound card). Your comparison of this version music to early 90's DOS music seems somewhat appropriate since these chips use FM-synthesis, the same process used by the YM3812 (OPL2) on the Adlib and Soundblaster for IBM PC-compatibles and also the YM2612 (OPN2) used by the Mega Drive/Genesis. However, these chips are more similar to the one used by the Mega Drive/Genesis since they are four-operator chips, which is an advantage over the 3812's two operators per channel, and that the 2612 is basically a stripped down version of the 2608.

    FYI, the C64 disk version is one of the few disk games for it that has loading music. The only other one I know is the disk version of Melbourne House's Hobbit.

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  2. Holy crap. That's more information than I ever would have willingly dug up on what I view as a single brand of sound chips/cards. You lost me on the first two type numbers. Don't get me wrong; I appreciate the amount of research and interest put into these, but frankly, I can't really tell the difference because of the types of sounds they put out. Which is why I ended up comparing the sounds to something else that sounded similar to me. =D Anyway, thanks for clearing this up to anyone who's interested. And also thanks for pointing out the loading music thing - I'll update it into the relevant section asap.

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  3. > which would suggest that the logo wasn't supposed to be featured on the Lamborghini wheel in the first place, so perhaps the AMIGA and ST versions have this little design thing wrong.[...]

    The steering wheel of a real Lamborghini Countach features a company logo (I just did a picture search on Google) - so the design of the AMIGA and ST versions is correct.

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  4. I wasn't aware of the fact, that the tape and disk version for the C64 show some differences.

    BTW, ATARI used a screenshot of "Test Drive" on the front page of the brochure for the ATARI STE - although the game didn't support any features of this (enchanced) model (http://krap.pl/mirrorz/atari/www.atari-computermuseum.de/archiv/archiv/werbung/st/1040ste/1040ste_13.jpg).

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  5. Try "SET SDL_VIDEODRIVER=DIRECTX" before running dosbox. Pinball Dreams/Fantasies/Illusions are totally unplayable without it, for example.

    Ja tattis mainiosta matskusta.

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  6. And to clarify it has an effect on keys and their "stickiness", even though on the surface it shouldn't affect that at all

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    Replies
    1. Thanks for the info! Never would have guessed DirectX might have something to do with the keys. =)

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