The stuff racing dreams are made of

Racing games have come a long way since I was a youngster. My first experience of gaming in any form was a variation on ‘Pong’. I’m not sure who made it, but it was almost certainly possibly nearly identical to this.

By the time I experienced my first racing game, things had developed a little, but only a little. My first console (I say mine, I didn’t buy it myself as I was five) was the Acorn Electron. What a machine. Connected to a cassette deck, this baby had 32 KB of ram and could load games in well under an hour.

Bugatti Veyron - my dream car by bikracer

Bugatti Veyron – my dream car by bikracer on Flickr (CC Licence)

My first racing game was developed by a British company called Micro Power and was called ‘Stock Car’ – here it is. To drive the car you didn’t have an ‘accelerate’ and ‘brake’ but instead a choice of four gears which gradually increased and decreased your speed. There were six tracks to choose from, and four cars in each race. You could turn the sound on and off, decide whether you wanted ‘oil slicks’ to appear on the track (out of nowhere obviously) and set your ‘skidding percentage’ to determine how much grip the circuit surface had. Set it any higher than 20% and it seemed less like skidding and more like all forms of gravity had disappeared. At 99% you floated off into the wall as soon as you attempted to get off the line. Yet despite the game’s primitive nature I loved it deeply, completed all the tracks many times and dreamed that one day computer games would resemble something like real life.

There have been some landmark moments for me in terms of the development of racing games, for example I remember when Grand Prix 2 was released, although I don’t remember this advert. I pestered my dad to take me to PC World (for it was the only place I knew that sold PC-things) and threatened a tantrum unless he bought it for me. I was a lovely child. When we returned home I disappeared into my room to lap Silverstone for weeks on end, only re-entering real life for food and bathroom breaks.

I wrote this article a couple of weeks ago about my affection for the Toca series, the appearance of which was another watershed for me as these were first games to recreate the British circuits that I had spent my childhood visiting – Oulton Park, Donnington and Knockhill were all faithfully recreated and I loved it. It was another step forward, and I once again envisioned the day when games would make the next leap forward. My boyhood dreams were really threatening to turn into reality, although sadly not the ones about Pamela Anderson.

The most recent landmark for me was Gran Turismo. A friend of mine had it on the PlayStation but I thought it had a ridiculous name and was probably one of those rubbish arcadey-type racers that were all the rage. How wrong I was. After resisting his efforts to get me to play it for a few weeks I finally gave in and popped over for a quick race, fully expecting we would end up playing something far more interesting, like Vib Ribbon. I must have only left his house when his mother insisted I leave. The graphics felt real for the first time. The cars certainly looked real. The lighting effects were amazing – and despite the dodgy soundtrack I played it for weeks on end, and ended up buying each of the series through the PS2 incarnations and most recently GT: Prologue on the PS3.

Prologue is an endlessly irritating game – not because of flaws in its design or the fact it only has a few tracks, but that it pointed towards what was coming – providing a sweet-tasting sample of what racing games were on the verge of becoming, and letting us finally see what would be possible when developers finally get to grips with this current generation of consoles, which are now entering their prime. The slim versions are out and there have been a string of brilliant ‘new generation’ games – Modern Warfare 2, Heavy Rain and Red Dead Redemption have all been ball-bustingly brilliant, but there has not yet been a racer to blow the socks off everything that has gone before.

But the next landmark is coming – F1 2010, GT5, and Colin McRae Dirt 3 are all heading to my living room before long and they will define this generation. After a long time in development they appear to have harnessed the power of the current consoles and will be the first proper ‘sim’ racers released since developers truly got to grips with the hardware. The upcoming games are the stuff I dreamed about when I was a kid, and those dreams are about to come true.

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