What started out as a planned series of posts regarding the games that influenced me the most has dragged on for so long that it barely makes sense keep writing about them, or me. But trips down memory lane are always fascinating, even if just to understand how you’ve como to look at games and yourself. So here’s part 2 of Formative Gaming. You can still read part 1 here.
“Careful with what you wish – you just might get it”
That always seemed a weird adage to me until I started playing videogames seriously. Not seriously as in refrain from smiling when plonking down Goombas or stop from laughing as I kept hearing Ultrakills being announced, but playing them with determination. At some point, entertainment and personal investment got terribly close and I would spend days hunting for excitement in digital format. Secret stars, secret paths, secrets doors, secret techniques, secret places, secret thrills. They would all be mine.
I began to realize excitement is bankable. Some developers know this – they’ve been reinventing the webs of competition, success and peer pressure, from old arcade game score tables to achievements and online leaderboards. But excluding the occasional bragging rights when surviving – and scoring – longer than whoever played cooperatively with me in games like Contra, it was never something that I chased after. Some part of me wanted to find out why others enjoyed confrontation so much but having fun was a much more pressing concern than impressing or humbling adversaries.
Until the day my father picked up a gamepad and said “let’s win this”.
Virtua Racing probably stands as one of the finest arcade racers ever created. It was a slice of gaming pleasure most contemporary studios seem to have abandoned, unfortunately – a game about the fantasy of driving, not the reality of it. Simulation versus arcade is a tired old argument but here was a case study for the former. All you had to do was spend some quarters down at the local arcade and be sucked into a fast and furious arcade racer. The graphics were impressive at the time but what stood out the most for me were the Sega blue skies. They fostered a sense of peace while down below, the tarmac demanded sweat and blood. Or close enough.
At this point my father was no longer a dedicated gamer but the purchase of Sega’s ill-fated 32X add-on and of Virtua Racing Deluxe sparked his fascination. He could care less about blood and chainsaws in Doom or pummeling some blocky oriental types in Virtua Fighter. For him, this was the alpha and the omega of his relationship with games. The thrill, the intensity, the speed, the competition – even when it was just me instead of CPU drivers. “You can’t beat me, man”. Good old family values gone to hell.
For me, the game was all kinds of things. It was sort of an optimal lifestyle, primarily, the best choice I could make at the time between letting go of electric car racing games (too old for that) and going down into the arcades and waste time and money every single day (too young and poor for that). There was an arcade cabinet of Virtua Racing in a nearby shopping mall but my parents had to keep an eye out for security. And bring along pocketfuls of quarters to boot. The 32X version was the best I could get at, and also the best my father ever had – the only one where he asked me to play. And thoroughly beat me at it.
This kicked started a certain reaction in me, playing the game while he was away in order to improve myself, to beat scores, to learn new techniques with the three cars on offer – the original Formula One car and two additions, the “safe” Stock Car and the “wild” Prototype. In retrospect, Sega’s choice of not having the game save our best times was a terrible idea. At the time it comforted me that while my father could be a right down bastard playing the game against me, no physical proof of his victory would ever remain. One bastard to another, old man. And suddenly I had it in me – looking for competition instead of fun.
For all its virtues it’s certainly the kind of game that seems outdated nowadays, thanks to an industry still learning the ropes of polygonal and three-dimensional graphics on consoles. Of course, that didn’t matter to me. Virtua Racing Deluxe is one of the few games which take me into “the zone”, a term I use to describe the effect that games like Gridrunner, Wipeout, Rez and Audiosurf have on me – a sense of razor sharp gameplay, fined tuned to be nothing *but* game and play, visuals and sound subtly becoming one. You focus and it becomes a journey.
It also benefited tremendously from pioneering multiple perspectives in a racing game, another thing that’s collapsed into nervous ticks in the genre. Deluxe used four cams – front bumper, helmet cam, chase view, and a zoomed out view often called helicopter view. For an arcade racer to appeal to every kind of racing fan is tricky but there it was – all the perspectives were options searching for a frequency in your taste radar. Traditionalists would likely go for the chase view, getting a good view of the car. Front bumper and helmet cam wrestled a bit with gamers looking for a modicum of realism, but it sufficed. The helicopter view, though, was brilliant: halfway between perspective as function (you could see much further ahead along the track which reduced your chances of crashing) and entertainment (similar to aerial footage on broadcasted racing championships).
Years later I’m playing Outrun 2006: Coast to Coast and it’s about as close as a spiritual successor gets without actually being one. CtC does one better than Virtua Racing, not through graphics, sound, track or vehicle selection, but because its developers seemed to create something out of the same enthusiasm. Forget TrackMania‘s stunts. Forget Race Driver: GRID‘s rewind feature. This game has your virtual girlfriend on the passenger’s seat cheering you as you outrun other cars, go over speed limits and drive recklessly.
“How far are you going to take me?” she asks. Far, baby. Just sit back and enjoy the ride.
It’s a lot more honest in terms of pulling you in – making your girlfriend happy is something we can relate to, isn’t it? – but it’s also a higher ground for the fantasy tropes of arcade racing. Yet it is Deluxe I find myself going back to. Last Christmas I set up a Sega Genesis emulator on my father’s laptop, trying to rekindle some of that magic again. But the nostalgia trip only lasted a couple of moments. It’s like he wanted to return to make that journey back in time, mastering just about every car and winning each circuit, making me feel giddy that this grouch of a man was having fun with his son… But he just couldn’t. He lost his edge – slow reflexes, disorientation with and without a gamepad, the usual. After 30 minutes, nearly all of them smiling, he put the gamepad down and thanked me for the memories. Then he went back to his own world, the one where Peter Pan died.
Now that I could win, he no longer cared to.
Other games and gamers would have to do.