Can a good idea surface at the wrong time? That’s the question I’m looking to answer today. The most enjoyable part of going back and playing through older racing titles from two, three, even four console generations ago, is being able to appreciate how developers obviously knew the technology wasn’t quite ready for photo-realistic visual effects, so as a compromise they were forced to pump their software full of features in an effort to keep people coming back, day after day, week after week, and eventually release after release. NASCAR 2005: Chase for the Cup certainly didn’t boast the advanced lighting techniques seen in today’s NASCAR Heat Evolution, but what Chase for the Cup lacked in visual fidelity, it made up for with a robust set of features that gave gamers a reason to keep playing.
When we speak of games that were ahead of their time in terms of either visuals or gameplay mechanics, it’s very easy to rattle off names like Grand Prix Legends or Formula One ’97 as definitive moments in the history of racing games; offering a distinct then versus now paradigm shift in the landscape, marking a very direct milestone when all other developers on the scene need to be aware that anything less than these pieces of software wouldn’t cut it. I, however, don’t enjoy taking a look at these milestones that have since been ingrained into sim racing lore; I feel it’s low hanging fruit to celebrate what has already been celebrated several times over. Instead, I’d like to take a trip through five games that were ahead of their time, but don’t receive proper credit for what they managed to accomplish on inferior hardware, or before others had refined their ideas & concepts and somehow made them better.
Shox (EA Sports Big, 2002)
We start our journey with a very peculiar arcade racer most have never heard of, let alone played to completion. At the beginning of the 2000’s, right when Sony’s PlayStation 2 first hit the market, Electronic Arts quickly found themselves in a predicament they still have yet to completely solve; sports games were simply getting too complicated for their own good, with the likes of Madden, FIFA, and their NBA Live series all featuring a very difficult set of controls and gameplay mechanics for the waves of young children and casual gamers with a PlayStation 2 to master.
To ease this audience into their hardcore lineup, Electronic Arts came up with the EA Sports Big brand; serving as a loud, obnoxious, lighthearted off-shoot of their already established titles while retaining the core engine and basic controls seen in the more difficult games – NBA Live, FIFA, and Madden turned into NBA Street, FIFA Street, and NFL Street respectively, while Freekstyle explored the larger-than-life personalities of freestyle motocross, and a little snowboarding game by the name of SSX skyrocketed into the spotlight, warranting several sequels.
While almost everything under the EA Sports Big brand sold absurdly well and received rave reviews from gamers and critics alike, lost in the madness of EA Big’s lightning-quick rise to prominence was a rallycross game by the name of Shox.
Structurally, Shox is this weird hybrid between Sega Rally Revo and DiRT 2, offering a very liberal take on rallycross racing over a variety of modern and historic car classes in exotic locations. Like DiRT 2, players start with otherwise unexciting cars, and earn money through various events and championships to progress into faster cars, which obviously cost a bit more. The game also offers a cash incentive and temporary speed boost for running a certain pace over a highlighted sector of the track, a mix of DiRT 2’s Domination game mode, and Formula One’s DRS zones. So a lot of the ideas found in Shox eventually made their way into racing titles almost an entire decade later. And like Sega Rally Revo, the driving physics sat profoundly on the arcade side of the spectrum, never making much sense from a realism standpoint, but offering something you can sit down and get good at as you play through the game’s campaign mode.
Not only is Shox a fundamentally sound game, Electronic Arts were also in a position to acquire licenses from all major car manufacturers, and as a result the car list in Shox is surprisingly robust, with no major players missing in the lineup – allowing Porsche, Lancia, and Audi all to play ball within the same piece of software.
Yet with a recipe that would later find success in both DiRT 2 and Sega Rally Revo (to an extent), the game didn’t explode in the manner that SSX and NBA Street were able to under the EA Big brand. The reality is that Shox was released when the majority of PlayStation 2 owners had no idea rallycross as a sport existed, and the big rally games we all know and love – mainly the Colin McRae Rally series, RalliSport Challenge 2, and Richard Burns Rally – hadn’t been released yet either. There was simply no market at all for this game, as it would be seven more years before the outrageous rallycross stuff would catch on among racing game enthusiasts.
Mario Andretti Racing (EA Sports, 1994)
Another Electronic Arts product makes the list, this time for pioneering an entire career mode a decade ahead of schedule. Released for the last of the sixteen bit home gaming consoles, the racing sim bearing Mario Andretti’s namesake was just like every other racer from the previous two console generations; a generic 2D cockpit view with a basic ribbon of tarmac in front of the player that only vaguely represented the track it was supposed to depict. I know Dustin will shit on me for daring to say this game was objectively bad in some fashion, but I don’t think anyone can deny racing games from the early 1990’s just weren’t a smart investment in general from a consumer standpoint; the technology wasn’t ready for replicating what it’s like to drive a race car from the comfort of your own home, and a few more years were needed until something like NASCAR Racing by Papyrus could be executed on more than just high-end PC’s of the time.
But for what the technology failed to replicate in the on-track experience, EA Sports made damn sure there was at least a game built around Mario Andretti Racing for the Sega Genesis. Pushed out on store shelves at a time when IndyCar’s popularity in America was at an all-time high, EA Sports allowed users to progress from wingless USAC Sprint Cars – which was the proving grounds for many drivers of the early 1990’s – into the NASCAR Winston Cup Series, and eventually the 1994 PPG IndyCar World Series, complete with financial management and car upgrades. The driving experience obviously left a lot to be desired, but there was a purpose and progression not seen in other racing games at the time – and this was important, as every racer looked and drove the same.
An entire decade later, what we first saw in Mario Andretti Racing has now been carried across a wide variety of racing games, from mass market console releases, to obscure Brazilian simulators. Virtually all modern racing simulators now ship with a vast array of cars that allow gamers to start in comparatively simple entry level vehicles, before moving up at their own discretion into world championship rides that are far too much car for most sim racers to handle. The precise career mode featured in Mario Andretti Racing – a journey from dirt ovals into top level stock cars – was also yanked by Monster Games and placed into NASCAR: Dirt to Daytona for the PlayStation 2 and Nintendo GameCube, sprint cars being replaced with the much slower, newbie-friendly street stock class of the NASCAR Whelen All-American Series, though the equipment upgrading element still remained. EA Sports would also draw inspiration from Mario Andretti Racing a year later, shipping NASCAR 2005: Chase for the Cup with four of NASCAR’s most prominent classes, and a set of modern production cars from Ford, Chevy, and Dodge for good measure.
What held Mario Andretti Racing back, as mentioned above, was the technology. Racing games on eight and sixteen bit consoles just didn’t work, though the ideas pioneered by Electronic Arts in 1994 are seen as almost mandatory within the simulator genre as of today. Developers almost refuse to ship single-series games unless there’s a major auto racing series license on the table, instead offering a smorgasbord of content and as many tracks as the licensing budget will allow, with any NASCAR game that fails to include the Xfinity and Camping World support series instantly being panned by NASCAR fans for failing to do so.
Hot Wheels Crash (Prolific Publishing, 1999)
If the Nintendo 64 was the quintessential 1990’s gaming console, Hot Wheels were the quintessential 1990’s children’s toy. A match made in heaven, Mattel rightfully predicted video games would be the next big thing as family computers became more and more commonplace, and spent a few years during the final portion of everybody’s favorite awkward decade giving the Hot Wheels license to basically everyone who asked, leading to a whole bunch of quirky video games bearing the iconic die-cast car namesake. Some of them, such as Turbo Racing or Stunt Track Driver, went on to become legendary pieces of software that basically every kid with an interest in Hot Wheels owned a copy of, while others like Custom Car Designer confused the absolute shit out of children by featuring no racing whatsoever.
To understand just how deep Hot Wheels were willing to dive into the depths of obscure video game developers in an effort to get their brand out on store shelves in some kind of electronic format, look no further than Prolific Publishing, a team from the late 1990’s who specialized in shovelware and – as Wikipedia states – marine engineering. On paper, this is an astronomically disastrous combination, and it’s hard to imagine these guys were even the least bit capable of building a functioning racing game.
So they didn’t.
Hot Wheels Crash features no driving whatsoever; the game instead tasks you with launching a vehicle at a destructible environment in an effort to cause as much damage as possible from what begins a single car accident; though people have obviously found the optimal route through the game over the past fifteen years, at the time it was a pretty unique concept to put some sort of strategy behind a car crash. Of course, if you’ve gotten this far into the description of Hot Wheels Crash, you’ve already started to figure out where you might have played this before. The iconic crash mode found in Criterion’s Burnout series was not their creation, but merely a different development team bringing the idea pioneered by Hot Wheels Crash into an era of gaming where the level of destruction originally on the drawing board in 1999 was technologically feasible. Clearly, we couldn’t achieve this level of deformation, lighting, and special effects in a virtual environment with Windows 98 being the dominant operating system.
But what Hot Wheels Crash has shown, is that it’s important for developers to branch out and explore the diverse back catalog of racing games as much as possible, as a genius idea that could give the franchise new life may be lurking inside Hot Wheels shovelware of all places. Burnout was already regarded as an extremely competent arcade racer upon release of the debut game in the franchise, but crash mode pushed it into the spotlight, giving Criterion the exposure and critical acclaim needed to eventually partner with Electronic Arts and produce one of the greatest arcade racers ever conceived… as well as a couple of not-quite-perfect entries later on down the line.
RaceCraft (Vae Victis, 2016)
How does a game released in 2016 land on this list? Easy; the genre moves that bloody fast. Originally pushing out Victory: The Age of Racing in 2013 to lukewarm reviews and a sparse player base, the Italians at Vae Victis went back to the drawing board armed with little else than the stellar netKar Pro engine created by fellow countrymen Kunos Simulazioni, and hell-bent on creating an innovative racing game that would ensure they were able to grab a foothold in what is a very demanding and aggressive community. With seemingly every facet of the motorsports world covered by multiple different simulation developers, Vae Victis went full-on avant garde and created a piece of software that was more of a technology showcase than a racing game people would want to play.
The result of their efforts was RaceCraft, a procedurally generated open wheel simulator in which tracks were automatically composed by the software itself, only asking users to adjust a few sliders before churning out a complete racing circuit across a multitude of environments. I was lucky enough to be handed a beta key by Vae Victis themselves, and to be completely honest, the game wasn’t all that bad. The netKar Pro engine performed well, the fictional Formula car available in the game was far more aesthetically pleasing than anything we’ve seen in Bernie’s Bash over the past several years, and it drove relatively well for a simcade title that looked to reel in gamers from multiple landscapes. I had fun with RaceCraft, but the problem was that it isn’t a very good shared experience.
Part of this issue lies within the subject matter itself; when people sit down and want to invest themselves in open wheel racing, most of the time they want the official Formula One experience – or at least something close to it; part of the fun comes in taking Lewis Hamilton’s Mercedes to the very same Monaco Grand Prix circuit they watched on Sunday, and mastering the very iconic corners that served to punish the real world drivers, lap after lap. By comparison, RaceCraft gave you generic cars on tracks you’d never seen before, and wouldn’t see again unless you’d save them to the game’s archive. People already struggle with learning Circuit of the America’s or Silverstone’s new-ish layout; they would rather put time into learning and mastering those circuits – as they’ll appear in several other racing games – than constantly being handed a completely new race track.
However, those who tried RaceCraft out of curiosity – myself included – agreed that the technology powering it was impressive, and maybe it would be of a better use in a motorsports discipline where it was impossible for developers to create tracks by hand due to the enormous amount of time needed to do so. I specifically recall stating in my preview of RaceCraft that I would rather see procedural track generation in a rally game, as it would allow for extremely long, unpredictable stages and greatly increase the lifespan of the title, as we wouldn’t be memorizing stages anytime soon – a common complaint of all rally games to date. A year after RaceCraft’s release, and the primary selling point of DiRT 4 is procedural stage generation.
Vae Victis had the right idea in regards to bringing procedural generation to a racing simulator, they simply didn’t think things through apply it in a fashion that would be appropriate for the type of racing at hand. People want to memorize Formula One tracks and go sight-seeing in rally games where no two stages are the same, not the other way round.
GeneRally (Hannu & Jukka Räbinä, 2001)
Long before My Summer Car invaded sim racing forums with it’s unique brand of humor and surprisingly competent gameplay, those crazy Finnish bastards were blessing the community with a different kind of four-wheeled addiction.
A modders paradise featuring cars built from just forty polygons and tracks constructed with little more than Microsoft Paint and a built-in track editor, GeneRally is absolute freeware bliss. Full 3D physics that control superbly with an Xbox 360 or PlayStation 4 pad are complimented by adjustable fuel consumption & tire wear which allows users to accurately replicate many different brands of motorsport, a seemingly dynamic racing surface that acquires rubber over the course of an event, and a fixed isometric viewpoint that was a flashback to Ivan Stewart’s Super Off-Road and Danny Sullivan’s Indy Heat. There are some things GeneRally manages to do better than most modern racing simulators, an absolutely incredible feat considering this whole thing is completely free and came out sixteen years ago, receiving updates only when absolutely necessary.
Yes, there are several active mod communities and online leagues still going strong today, but the dark cloud surrounding GeneRally is akin to the metaphorical college football star who never declared himself eligible for the NFL draft; despite how great GeneRally is, the title could have been so much bigger and so much better if only it had come out a little later.
The first, and by far the most prominent problem with GeneRally, comes down to the game’s complete lack of online play. First released in 2001, the average internet connection quality and the relative inexperience in game development on the part of the Rabina brothers meant online play never seemed like it would need to be implemented into the software; kids were basically downloading this on shitty laptops or family computers and playing it with their friends on a clunky keyboard, one guy working the WASD key combination while another piloted their car with the arrow keys. However, as the modding community promptly exploded due to it’s simplicity, and online leagues that scored entrants by total race time against a field of AI cars drew upwards of fifty, maybe even one hundred participants, the underlying desire to have a field of six human cars grew stronger with each passing month. Unfortunately, this has never been rectified; GeneRally now boasts a literal library of add-on content – I would say the closest thing to a complete virtual encyclopedia of auto racing in 40 polygons – but we have been stuck racing five other AI cars for sixteen years.
With internet speed now measured in gigabytes, and gamers finding hacks to play Nintendo 64 emulators online with their friends, GeneRally could have been a smash hit had it been released on Steam with support for online racing.
And in being released on Steam in 2017, it would also help the title’s popularity, and therefore increase the number of people making content for the game. Previously, message boards for GeneRally used to be buried on the old RaceSimCentral forums, but once that website finally kicked the bucket for good, GeneRally turned into this highly obscure indie game that absolutely nobody knew about unless you’d heard about it via word-of-mouth from a friend of a friend. There are barely any videos on YouTube (which is understandable given the fixed vantage point, you can’t really see a lot), no mentions of it on major sim racing sites, and screenshots consist of links back to the GeneRally international forum. This isn’t BATRacer, where the team had paid for advertisements here and there which enticed people to give it a shot, ultimately leading to a revival in the popularity of Grand Prix Manager 2 and eventually Motorsport Manager – once RSC died, that was it.
So instead of GeneRally turning into this amazing indie racer that everyone’s playing and modding in their spare time because creating (and editing) content is so easy – a Minecraft for car guys, if you will – GeneRally’s reach was about ten percent of what it could have been. After the initial fanbase heard about it through RaceSimCentral, those were the people that stuck with it for the long haul.
This game had, and most certainly still has all the potential in the world to be an indie smash hit, but the problem was it came before Steam allowed people to go on impulse buying sprees and wind up discovering a game they’d never heard about until that day, before online play was so seamless it’s pretty much a required feature in modern video games, before SlapTrain could shout at the camera for 150,000 YouTube views, and before racing games received their gigantic boost in popularity from excellent releases such as the Forza Motorsport series. Because of this, it has sat in relative obscurity.
I guess good ideas really can come at the wrong time.