Tuesday 8 June 2010

Wacky Wheels

A Mario Kart clone, run for the hills

Developed by a company known as "Beavis Soft" and published by the one and only Apogee Software for DOS computers in 1994, Wacky Wheels one of many kart racing games that strangely showed up not too long after Super Mario Kart on the Super Nintendo. What a coincidence that so many companies decided to release this style of kart racing game at the same time...

By 1994 DOS computers were starting to become very powerful and capable of 3D (see: Doom), but there were still some disadvantages of implementing 3D worlds. Not everyone had a computer that could handle Doom, so developers of the time were experimenting with features that were "in-between" such as copying the "Mode 7" effects from the Super Nintendo. And so exists Wacky Wheels, what could be considered a mode 7 racer... if it had been released on the Super Nintendo in this state. Rivals at Copysoft had already brought this genre to the DOS market in the form of Skunny Kart, but Skunny Kart isn't really all that fun and Copysoft weren't that widely known. Wacky Wheels set out to deliver a better experience.

And for the most part, it is indeed Super Mario Kart with a new coat of paint. Rather than starring as characters related to the Mario universe, you get a choice of various animals strapped to go-karts. Most of the formula is the same, bar obviously things related to Mario, but anyone looking at these screenshots will instantly make the connection between Wacky Wheels and its SNES rival. It's a fairly accurate conversion.

However there are a few obvious differences when playing the game. The camera angle is slightly different, so you can see less of the road ahead. The physics and controls aren't quite as smooth and the frame rate is a lot lower. And therein lies the biggest letdown (as is the case with Skunny Kart) - if you can't handle 50 or 60 frames per second, the game appears to be a bit jerkier than usual, and combination of the problems mentioned above can lead to you going off in the wrong direction, wasting ammo or missing items... and that's not great. It's something that you have to get used to, but it also means it never overtakes the works of Nintendo whose console could deal with this fairly easily.

As far as I'm concerned Mario Kart games have got steadily better over the years, but the SNES/GBA ones have a pointless coin system in place that can cause you to be damaged more than usual. There's none of that in Wacky Wheels, but there is now more of a reliance on ammo... because yes kids, Wacky Wheels puts more emphasis on shooting people. The item box equivalent is far less common, but each player is equipped with a specific amount of... erm... hedgehogs? that can be fired at other players. This can be replenished, meaning your kart is more likely to have firepower than not.

Which brings us onto why Wacky Wheels is so good. Though the one-player modes are always sitting in Mario Kart's shadow, the battle modes have been expanded a bit more. First of all there's six tracks to choose from, and death is paired with comments such as "PEGGLES HAS BEEN WAXED". There's also a mode where you go around shooting at ducks. Can't get that on Nintendo... aside from in Duck Hunt on the NES. Furthermore it's actually possible to die within a race.

One of the current letdowns with Wacky Wheels however is that despite the fact it was released sixteen years ago, the game still carries a shareware license, which forces you to hand out cash in order to play the full version. It's getting a bit stupid now... I mean nobody in the right mind would buy this game today for the price imposed a decade and a half ago. Plus you can get freebie games that are more impressive on a technical standpoint than this - I have one on my phone with really low quality textures and it would still age better. It just seems so pointless to assume there's still a market for flat racers when most commercial video games are fully 3D.

But even though you're limited to a few tracks and a few characters, Wacky Wheels is still a bit entertaining. It hasn't stood the test of time that well (though neither as Super Mario Kart) but it's worth a mention. Supposedly there's a cheat that brings out the Dopefish too.

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