Written by: Rik

Date posted: March 31, 2014

Extras:

Another genre staple – the incidental helicopter – is present and correct.

Another genre staple – the incidental helicopter – is present and correct.

Ridge Racer is generally considered a significant milestone in the history of the arcade racing genre, with its new-fangled textured polygons provoking gasps of awe and wonderment from slack-jawed arcade gamers across the world when it was first released. Though the dazzling uniqueness of its visuals soon faded, the announcement of a home version, as a launch title for the original PlayStation, was a significant draw.

Now, I can’t find a source to back me up on this, but I’m sure that somewhere along the line a PC version was on the cards, but for whatever reason (including the possibility that I, or whoever else told me, just made it up) it never materialised. Denied the real thing, the PC development community did what it was trained to do in such circumstances: deliver a technically competent, but significantly less cool, cover version of the game we all really wanted to play. (*Speaks into dictaphone* Idea for a feature: ‘Dorky PC versions of the cool console favourites.’ *Clicks stop button, then immediately starts recording again* Also: review Jazz Jackrabbit).

Sorry, where were we? Oh yes, well, all of that brings us to Screamer, the game at hand here. Screamer is an old-fashioned arcade racer in the classical tradition, which essentially means that there’s no career mode with a story about you being a young kid arriving on the racing circuit with a dream of earning respect on the streets (or whatever). Your only options are the slightly more mundane selection of a single race, a championship, or one of what the menu screen slightly-misleadingly represents as ‘special modes’, which are, essentially, a time trial and a sub-game that involves running over traffic cones.

Before starting a race you must choose your course from a selection of six, and your vehicle from a multicoloured gallery of unlicensed but familiar-looking cars which vary in top speed, grip and acceleration. Out on the track, you start at the back of a field of ten, and have three laps to edge your way to the front, a feat best achieved by avoiding collisions and taking corners at the maximum possible speed, using controlled power slides where necessary. A countdown ticks at the top of the screen, topped up by hitting checkpoints as you go, and all the while your ears are assaulted by a combination of twiddly hair rock and the frequent comments from a cheesy voiceover man who bellows encouragement or criticism with considerable gusto. I don’t know why he doesn’t announce the final lap by saying, oh, I don’t know, “final lap”, instead of “ONLY… ONE … MORE … TO GOOOOOOO” but he does, and I guess it’s all in the grand tradition of arcade racers – you can of course choose to turn it off though if you want to be a big spoilsport.

I never actually used this car, or the dashboard view. But you’ve got to mix it up for the screenies, don’t you?

I never actually used this car, or the dashboard view. But you’ve got to mix it up for the screenies, don’t you?

Speaking of which, initial impressions are coloured by the fact that the visuals have not aged well at all: the draw distance is poor, and the textures warp badly. At first I figured, wrongly as it turned out, that it was either the 320 x 200 version or that the detail needed to be turned up. The action itself is a bit all over the place, too, with collisions producing erratic results, and crashes flipping your car into the air in a frankly unconvincing manner. Cornering is case of sliding rather than skidding, but you’re never entirely sure what will result from a quick tap of the brakes, and early attempts at races are likely to involve more of the former than the latter.

Still, assuming you don’t bother with manual gears, the whole thing can be controlled with the four arrow keys, and it doesn’t take too long to get the hang of things – certainly not long enough for you to follow the manual’s comical suggestion that you up the lap count to 25 while you master the handling – and soon enough the championship mode will come calling. There are no mysteries here – you race around the six courses at three skill levels – Rookie, Amateur and Pro – earning points for top three finishes with the aim of meeting a set target to progress.

Memories are funny things, but I’m sure that when I last played this game, shortly after it was released, I became horribly stuck in the rookie league and gave up. If that’s true, then the teenage me must have been even more of a moron than I remember, because this time around, the older, slower of reflex and increasingly arthritic me blew through the first two leagues, winning every race at the first attempt.

The Pro league offered more of a challenge, although not much. In general, regardless of what vehicle you choose and the stats attributed to those of your opponents, you outpace them on straights and they catch you up on corners. If you collide, you normally come off worse, and because the field tends to cluster together, you can slide to the back with one slight misjudgement, although you can soon get to the front again as long as you aren’t on the last corner of the last lap.

Awesome drifting!!! (Sincere apologies)

Awesome drifting!!! (Sincere apologies)

Even in the ‘Bullet’ league, unlocked after victory in the others, where you’re placed in a one to one face off against an improbable rocket powered car, this remains the case. My initial choice of vehicle, which favoured grip and acceleration at the expense of top speed, was still able to catch up with it without me necessarily having done anything special to warrant doing so. In fact, I used the same car throughout, as there seemed no reason to change, even though you do have the option to switch in-between championship races.

The biggest obstacle to completion was Screamer‘s propensity for crashing, with the game frequently dropping back to desktop at rather inopportune moments. Moderate internet research suggests this is not, in fact, an issue with the GOG release, but more of a problem with the stability of the original SVGA build which probably wasn’t noted at the time because no computer could actually cope with it. Switching to VGA is necessary to finish the game, and after doing so the issues with the graphics start to make more sense, particularly if you employ one of the blurry TV-style filters provided in the GOG release, which masks the draw distance and general scrappiness that are made more obvious by the higher resolution version.

In any case, I found that it was all over rather quickly. I’m not opposed to the game’s structure in principle – God knows it’s better than some endless career mode with a thousand iterations of the same sneakily rehashed assets – but what’s lacking is the feeling that you ever have to really master a course: to really nail every corner, or pull off the perfect lap. You get away with mistakes a little too easily, making victory seem a little cheap. And while you can tinker with the difficulty and lap count, it only affects single races. You can try your hand against a field of bullet cars, or see what the mirrored versions of the tracks are like (my feeling: they’re strangely familiar) but for me that’s not enough to retain interest once you’ve been declared the greatest driver ever.

Unlocking the rocket car means you’re unlikely to ever lose a race again. We’re lapping this guy right now.

Unlocking the rocket car means you’re unlikely to ever lose a race again. We’re lapping this guy right now.

Having said all of that, despite its messy appearance and rough edges, Screamer retains some of the core elements of a good arcade racer: it’s fast, it’s fun, and during the latter stages when the level of challenge is more significant, it can produce those all important moments of near victory that have you cursing the gods and slapping your hands on the keyboard for another go (and speaking of which, credit must go to the developers for making restarts quick and painless). Plus it sort of feels wrong to be too critical of the graphics – such ambition rarely ages gracefully, and at the time, they were considered a successful blend of speed and splendour.

Overall, while you’d have to say that the visuals have dated, that it remains momentously uncool, and it just doesn’t have the requisite level of difficulty for a racer of this type, there are some thrills to be had, and for whatever reason – call it nostalgia, or a soft spot for the nerdy PC underdog, if you like, I just can’t be too harsh on it.