What’s the best part of any car race? The mad crazy wrecks. Hockey game? When a 6’5” Czech man-beast levels a lesser player with a right hook. Ultimate fighting? The whole thing. We like seeing people destroy each other; it’s in our blood. Or maybe it’s in their blood, and the way it spills everywhere and inspires unanimous ‘YEAHs from stadiums full of adrenaline junkies who are too timid to risk their own vein juices.
Novels and films have been portraying death sports for decades. Before running for public office, Arnold Schwarzenegger was running from crazy-ass reality TV murderers in 1987’s The Running Man (based on a Stephen King novel published in 1982). Well before Jason Statham was practicing his slumped-shoulder-stern-faced action pose in the remake, David Carradine was swerving by punny tag lines in 1975’s Death Race 2000.
Above: It’s a cross-country road wreck, and the traffic is murder
The same goes for games, for which blood sports are a convenient premise. Arena-based combat works well in videogames, and justifying it with a bunch of gruff convicts and a scary futuristic reality TV show is only natural. So, for no reason other than to point out their delightful abundance (and overdependence on inspiration from The Running Man and Death Race 2000), we activated our nostalgia chips and constructed this concise history of our favorite blood sport landmarks, beginning with the plentiful vehicular combat sub-genre.
Death Race 2000 (1976)
Inspired by the film referenced above, Death Race 2000 was first game to be sucked into the mainstream media controversy machine. The object of the game was to score points by running over “gremlins” while avoiding the tombstones they left behind. Despite that the game’s victims were not technically people, 70s watchdogs drooled at the idea of a new medium to blame for society's ills. Granted, the game was originally titled “Pedestrian,” so it’s not as if developer Exidy had seriously intended for the doomed stick figures to be of a fantastical nature.
Protesters protested, whiners whined, 60 Minutes got scared, and people continued to drive just as poorly as they always had. Given the state of the graphics at the time, it isn’t as if it was very gory... or even recognizable as anything more than some white shapes. For those having trouble deciphering the screen above, I’ve created an annotated version:
Deathtrack is a rarely remembered 80s DOS game which has fallen into obscurity as a download on convoluted abandonware sites. It was your standard race, kill, buy new weapons, race, kill sort of thing, and had a certain charm, as well as explosions.
A remake titled Deathtrack: Resurrection is scheduled for PC release this year.
Above: It looks a little better, I guess
It’s the future. Game shows involve deadly car races. Television announcers are as snarky as ever. It’s MEGARACE! This game draws from both of the inspirations I mentioned - Death Race 2000 and The Running Man. The goal is to destroy your opponents (members of various vicious “speed gangs”) before three laps are through. That, and avoid being discouraged by announcer Lance Boyle’s annoying voice-over.
The gameplay of the original was on-rails, and the graphics were all prerendered, thus it could be released on DOS, Sega CD, and 3DO without requiring a lot of horsepower to run (while still looking pretty decent). Essentially, the player moved back and forth to collect (or avoid) power-ups and other symbols, while attempting to smash up or fire rockets at the other vehicles. It was followed by two sequels - the third game (released in 2001) was rendered in real-time, but wasn't released in North America. Check out the original’s incredulous opening:
Above: You better be ready to MEGA RACE!
Death Rally (1996)
Death Rally is another classic DOS game, largely notable for being developed by Remedy. Remedy, of course, went on to develop Max Payne and Max Payne 2, and is currently working on Alan Wake. Death Rally is a fairly addictive top-down combat racing game which became very popular in its time. Remedy is still offering the shareware version for download with a free patch for the full version, assuming you have DOS or a DOS emulator to run it.
Twisted Metal (1995)
Twisted Metal became one of the most popular and well-known vehicular combat series. It’s a demolition derby with guns, as most of these things are. The winner of the tournaments is granted a single wish by the psychotic Calypso (though Sweet Tooth – the madcap clown with an armored ice cream truck - takes the reins now and then). All of the games have been pretty well received, with Twisted Metal: Black (the PS2 incarnation) garnering very positive reviews, as well as getting that one Rolling Stones song stuck in our heads.
Above: I see a red door and I want it painted black
David Jaffe’s company, Eat Sleep Play, is supposedly developing the next game (a PS3 exclusive) as you read this.