Thursday 21 October 2010

Super Skidmarks

A.k.a. Super Off Road II: Super Off Road Harder.

There were a lot of games like this in the 1990s because rendering racing games from any other perspective put huge strains on the hardware. This one, which by the way contains no skidmarks whatsoever, is a little-known game developed by Acid Software and published by Codemasters (of Micro Machines fame) for the Sega Mega Drive (and the Amiga... and once again the trainwreck that was the Amiga CD32) in 1995. It's not too shabby.

Micro Machines was a surprisingly good game (arguably more popular than the toys it was based on, even) and is now a classic in its own right. Codemasters were the big name behind the first few games, and for the Sega Mega Drive at least they were pretty crazy publishers. Rather than rely on Sega's standard shaped cartridges like everyone else (bar EA), Codemasters developed their own, eventually creating the masterpiece that is the "J-Cart".

The J-Cart is perhaps the most bizarre game cartridge ever made. As well as holding the all important ROM chip containing the game, it added two controller ports allowing for 4-player gameplay without the need for an expensive multi-tap. Yep, you plug controllers into a game cartridge. Debuting in Micro Machines 2: Turbo Tournament, it was used for most of Codemaster's products during the mid-90s, and Super Skidmarks was no exception. The only problem is the game never left Europe, and as it didn't have a toy franchise behind it, it wasn't a massive success.

On the surface, there doesn't appear to be a reason for Super Skidmarks to exist. Like Micro Machines and its many sequels, it's a racing game with a birds eye perspective, in which the player ends up driving a variety of vehicles (with identical physical properties) around tracks. It lacks the "micro" novelty (though many vehicles abnormally big when compared to the spectators), and as it decided to go for an isometric perspective, less freedom is available for track design without running out of VRAM space. As it's less varied and doesn't add anything "new" to gameplay, you might be wondering why it's worth bothering with.

But see, I've already highlighted the reason why - an isometric perspective. The pre-rendered 3D graphics, though perhaps less varied in appearance, look fantastic for Mega Drive hardware, and this new perspective allows for bumps in the track similar to Super Off Road. Furthermore, rather than being restricted to just having four cars on a track, Super Skidmarks manages to render six... and it doesn't struggle to do so either.

Like Micro Machines music is mostly absent when racing, and that tends to leave potentially annoying engine noises in its place. The Mega Drive version is also surpassed in most areas by its Amiga cousin, which doesn't suffer from the same graphical restrictions. However, it's still a well polished and well delivered product which despite its heavy difficulty, is generally good fun.

What's more impressive is that it's one of the few Mega Drive games to support a 4-player split screen view, again without much slowdown (if any). Also, as it was only distributed in PAL regions, it manages to render a full 320x240 display without resorting to borders (usually Mega Drive games run at 320x224 thanks to American and Japanese NTSC TV sets). It's truly a treat for Europe.

Cheats apparently let you play as cows on wheels, milk floats and double decker buses, but I'd be lying if I said it was as entertaining as Micro Machines. For one, you're always based on land, and there's only a handful of "land" settings to choose from. Though it's impossible to fall off the edge of a cliff, track designs do become a bit poor as the game progresses, as rather than extend the map the level designers thought it might be more fun to fill a small map full of crossroads and loops. So essentially, everything is road.

Also the game is insanely hard unless you're playing with friends. It won't let you progress through the grands prix unless you finish in a podium position (even though others get points for coming in fourth), and this becomes really difficult to achieve on more complicated levels because the computer always navigates the course perfectly. Unlike Super Off Road it's a lot harder to catch up to these players if you crash, because there's no way to beat perfection and the computer players will never invade each others' space or make mistakes unless prompted by a bump or two from the player. Also without any powerups, it's very easy to argue that the game is fairly basic in design and therefore not worth your money.

But I think it looks great and although it's got several hiccups, it's a very nice game. I suspect the Amiga versions are superior though, and there's bound to have been loads of people who have improved on this formula since Super Skidmarks was released.

Oh and another interesting thing. Acid Software apparently have made a Doom clone for the Amiga imaginatively called "Gloom". I might have to check that one out.

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