Still game? Stunt Car Racer

Stunt Car Racer loading screen

Sunday 9th of April 2017

Spurred by some recent encounters with old friends and finally finding spare time enough to install RetroPie on my Raspberry Pi, I'm having a bit of an old games nostalgia trip. That prompted a simple question: are the games I revered in my youth still worth playing? Have they stood the test of time, or should they be consigned to the archive of history?

Let's find out. To begin with, Stunt Car Racer on the C64.

Then

I remember reading about Stunt Car Racer in the late 80s in the same way as a child in a winter's scene would press their reddened nose against a frosted sweetshop window in drooling anticipation. I think it was the first game I'd seen with 3D graphics and certainly the first racing game I'd seen where the view was through the windscreen, and not behind the car. It may not look like much now, but this was a revolution in 1989.

The game was straightforward. The player raced around a series of rollercoaster-esque circuits in order to beat single opponents and advance up a leaderboard. The track had no barriers around the edge, so if you came off, or misjudged any of the many jumps, you crashed, after which your car was lifted back onto the circuit by a crane. Over time your car sustained damage, indicated by a crack that slowly grew across the rollbar at the top of the view, until the car was considered a wreck and it was game over.

Racing against the computer on the first track
Vrrroooom!

Bound by the limitations of pocket money (and some good sense drilled into me by my parents) I managed to wait until the game came out on budget, when I was at last able to pick it up for a mere few pounds and rush home, the tape box rattling in my pocket. It was as brilliant as I had imagined, but I was pretty feeble at playing it. Most of the time I'd just practice the circuits rather than seriously race, and I spent much of that time flying off the edge and being craned back up again. In fact, I don't remember ever advancing in the game's league or even winning a single race - but that didn't matter. The experience of simply driving around the circuits was the core of the game, and what an experience it was. The way the car moved, how it bounced as it landed after a jump, how the wheels in front moved on their suspension, and how all of this was orchestrated perfectly with the guttural roar of the engine, was superb. It felt so real I would even get a hollow, sinking feeling in my stomach as the car took to the air over a jump, a feeling that would only intensify as my all-too-often misjudged launches sent me sailing over the track and inevitably to the ground far below.

Overview of a race circuit
The second track was green! I'd forgotten that.

In summary: I thought it was great, and that was even without experiencing much of the complete game. But with so many much more detailed and realistic driving games since it was first published, is it still any good?

Now

As the game loaded my heart sank. Were the graphics on the C64 really this bad? The resolution so low? Sure the C64 only had a screen resolution of 320x200, and I was running it full screen, but the shock of seeing the game for the first time after so many years was still palpable - it had looked much better in my memory. Shamed by my own shallowness, I decided to skip practise and go straight for the racing season, a feature I'd previously neglected.

Car crashing off the track
This is what happens if you fall off the track. I did this deliberately to show what it looks like. Obviously. *cough*

My first race didn't go as well as I expected. I think I was lulled into a false sense of security by the low-res graphics - surely the AI would be equally primitive, but no, my opponent surged ahead off the start line and it took all my skill and a finger firmly on the boost key to even catch up to him. Somehow I managed to scrape a win, my car sustaining a worrying amount of damage in the process. Then it was on to the next race, where the wheels started to come off the wagon, as it were. Or rather, my car started to come off the track. Repeatedly. I didn't even get to finish - the other guy was way out in front and had crossed the line while I was still being craned back onto the track for the nth time.

Then something odd happened. I'd planned to continue my racing career the next evening, but somehow I never found the time or the urge to return to the game. Days and then weeks passed with various opportunities to continue, but somehow I never conjured up the enthusiasm. My write up languished unfinished on my hard drive, waiting to be completed. It was almost exactly as I remembered as a child - Stunt Car Racer was brilliant, but somehow not addictive enough to prompt continuous playing.

Stunt Car Racer menu screen
With a bit more playing, the graphics start to look better. I mean, come on, this is a pretty good menu screen.

I've been trying to understand why that is, but I've come up short. Graphical limitations aside, it's a solid racer. There's a variety of tracks, racing feels solid and challenging, and the AI is pretty good. There's even a little more depth than initially apparent - your car gets fixed between races apart from holes caused by heavy crashes, so it's important to not push too hard in the early levels if you want your car to last the championship. On top of all that, the physics works well - your car moves realistically, if sluggishly, and after a while it becomes apparent that simply going fast isn't the best strategy; some of the jumps and corners require a specific speed to maximise the amount of time your car is in contact with the track.

Yes, it feels a little sluggish these days. Yes, the graphics haven't stood the test of time (the draw distance in particular isn't very far; corners often appear unfinished ahead of you, filling in as you go round them). And yes, if you didn't grow up with this game then you're unlikely to find it appealling. But I still think I'll keep a copy handy so I can dig out again in a few years time, just for another couple of races.

More stuff

With a bit of digging, it turns out there are alternatives to the C64 version that may lack some of the limitations I've mentioned above. For example, the Amiga version of the game looks amazing (no draw distance problem, no sluggishness - in fact, it makes the C64 version look rubbish) and if you're prepared to google a bit, seems there's at least one remake out there as well. Enjoy!

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