Founded in 1986 by Christopher Weaver, Bethesda Softworks struck gold not once, but twice, with the incredibly successful Elder Scrolls and Fallout franchises. Mixing the hectic elements of first person shooters, with extremely deep role-playing and adventure elements, millions of PC and console owners all over the world have gotten lost in one of Bethesda’s worlds, and for good reason – Skyrim’s metacritic score is an astounding 96, whereas Fallout 3 managed to fetch an average of 93. If you don’t personally own a game from the Elder Scrolls or Fallout franchise, you most likely know somebody that does, and if you asked to borrow their copy for a weekend, they’ll let you, because there’s a chance they have a second copy.
But before wizards, dragons, and the nuclear apocalypse, Bethesda pushed out the complete opposite.
X-Car Experimental Racing was released in July of 1997 for the MS-DOS operating system. Centering around a futuristic racing series that drew a great deal of inspiration from FIA’s now-defunct GT1 category, the hardcore racing sim was years ahead of it’s time.
Mid-Ohio, Thunderhill, Putnam Park, and Lime Rock were placed on the schedule along with fictional stops in Mexico and Seattle. The cars resembled modern Daytona Prototypes aesthetically, but were much lighter and could be tweaked beyond what your average endurance racing rule book allows in 2015.
Did it drive well? As you can probably guess, nobody had any sort of quality wheel peripheral back in 1997, and brands like Thrustmaster were just getting started. While a demo of the game is indeed available on numerous MS-DOS based website applications, only the most dedicated of DOSBox users will figure out how to get this game working, and even fewer will spend a meaningful length of time with it.
But Bethesda wasn’t done yet. Less than a year after XCar’s launch, the team released Burnout Championship Drag Racing in 1998. Featuring a refined set of physics and even more garage menu options, the game is still held in high regard by real life drag racers for the sheer attention to detail Bethesda displayed given the primitive technology available. As Drag Racing is an incredibly simple sport by nature, Burnout was, and still is, the only game to dive into the monumental amount of engine tweaks required to remain competitive at the real race track. It was Kerbal Space Program, before people knew they wanted something like Kerbal Space Program.
Not only did the extremely obscure game serve as a engine builder, but the physics model powering the game wasn’t bad. Not only did the game offer a powerful replay feature that could be consulted after each pass, but Burnout was one of the few racing simulators of the 1990’s that featured a three dimensional physics model. While Papyrus’s own NASCAR Racing series glued your car to the surface, Burnout allowed for you to get crossed up after a loss of traction and helplessly barrel roll your vehicle.
Rudimentary graphics aside, virtually every professional and amateur class of drag racing was represented, and the already expansive list of vanilla content was multiplied with the release of a Collector’s Edition package. Adding native Windows 98 functionality, more cars and tracks, as well as a stand-alone expansion featuring the NIRA’s short lived Import Drag Racing Series, Bethesda built the game drag racing fans had always wanted, well before video games had even caught on in modern society.
In 2000, Bethesda managed to secure the license to the International Hot Rod Association, otherwise known as the IHRA. For those who (understandably) don’t follow drag racing, the IHRA is the straight line equivalent of ARCA – the same caliber of drivers, the same rules, the same technology, the same classes, and sometimes even the same tracks, but a different sanctioning body, one which lived comfortably in the shadows of a much bigger corporate entity.
The IHRA was new to the world of computer games, and forced Bethesda into a cycle of yearly releases. IHRA Motorsports, the unofficial sequel to the Burnout line of games, shipped with much-improved graphics, but suffered from bugs and physics oddities that weren’t present in the original game. While it still retained the robust engine building and tuning elements of the original title, the IHRA forcing Bethesda to push a title out for the holiday season left the first game of the new partnership largely incomplete. Requiring a host of patches to prevent constant crashes and annoying little quirks clearly the result of time constraints imposed on Bethesda, even the physics model was a step backwards and never exhibited the true potential of the title.
Bethesda never got a chance to fix these flaws, or improve on what was now becoming a relic of the MS-DOS era of gaming with Burnout Championship Drag Racing. In an effort to simply get a game onto the shelves and sell copies at souvenir trailers, the IHRA series was converted from a hardcore drag racing simulation into something requiring much less skill over a period of three or four years. The final entry, IHRA Drag Racing 2005, could pass as an iPhone game in 2015.
Two years later, Bethesda established themselves as one of the greatest developers of all time.