Impact Racing (1996, Funcom for Sega Saturn)

Impact Racing is everything that I love about arcade videogames: color, flash, speed, dumb violence and lots of explosions. It’s pure digital sugar rush, like Jolt Cola and Pop Rocks shaken and stirred. It’s brash and loud and oh so very satisfying. This is the sort of thing that makes me miss Acclaim, who were videogames’ answer to trashy b-movies and were giants in the 1990s gaming scene. The business hasn’t been the same without them.

This game puts you behind the wheel of a series of classic muscle cars and then sets to race on a series of arcade courses against an endless army of rival cars and gangs, all of whom are gunning for you. Your cars are also armed with weapons, beginning with a machine gun and soon followed by a series of impressive weapons, including lasers, landmines, rockets, fire walls, and smart bombs. The setting is the standard dystopian future envisioned by 1980s science fiction and feels very much like a mashup of Mad Max and Steve Jackson’s Car Wars with maybe a little San Francisco Rush and Cruis’n USA just for kicks. This feels like something that Atari Games or Midway would have cooked up for the arcades.

Of course, the two arcade videogames that serve as the main inspirations are Midway’s Spy Hunter and Atari’s Roadblasters, two of the greatest car combat games ever made, with emphasis on the “combat” half of the equation. Your primary goal is simply to survive to the finish line before time runs out. The catch is that you will never have enough time to reach that finish unless you destroy rival cars, which may result in a time bonus power-up. By the third stage, the time limits become shorter and shorter, requiring you to destroy more cars just to survive.

In addition, you need to upgrade the weapons on your vehicle before the roads become far too rough to survive. To do that, you will need to destroy a set number of cars in a stage in order to reach one of many bonus stages, which are a series of long enclosed loops where you must destroy a set number of cars to receive the weapon upgrade. This was actually quite challenging for me, as these drivers suddenly become a lot smarter and craftier, trying their best to avoid you and burn out the clock. Once I finally succeeded the first time and received new laser cannons, it was very satisfying and helped make my life on the highways a lot easier. On my last play-through, I also received the rockets, which can destroy cars in a single fiery flash.

Impact Racing is blazingly fast and everything just screams at top speed. The first time I played, I was struck by how swift and smooth the game engine was running, without any notable hiccups or slowdowns. Much of this, I think, is due to the track designs which are very narrow and long, full of hills, curves and tunnels. The roads are roughly two car lengths wide, and this will cause you to bump into walls and railings until you get the hang of tap-tap-tapping the steering wheel and mastering those drifts on the heavy turns. The packaging boasts of 12 race tracks, but I also understand that the real number is far smaller, but boosted by mirror-reverse and nighttime variations. It is of no concern, as the roads play out like Cruis’n USA’s winding open roads rather than closed-circuit courses and contain enough surprises to keep you on your toes.

When it comes to third-party titles on Sega Saturn, there were two broad assumptions made by nearly everyone at the time: Saturn can’t do 3D graphics, and the Playstation version is always superior. I think this title challenges both assumptions. The 3D polygon engine in Impact Racing is extremely fast, detailed and varied, and can easily stand up to anything on the Fifth Generation systems. As for the Playstation version, I think the Saturn if equal if not a little better. Sony may have the better fire and smoke effects due to their much-loved transparency effects, but the graphics are constantly wobbly and bendy in that Playstation manner. Look, I love the PSX as much as anybody, but that machine couldn’t draw a straight line to save its life. Saturn’s environments look far more stable and solid, thanks to its use of quads instead of triangles.

As always, this is water under the bridge, and Nintendo 64 fans will be content to roll their eyes and boast about the powers of proper Z-buffering, then go back to playing Goldeneye while laughing at the rest of us. Fair enough.

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