The manual to 1989’s Stunt Car Racer is an impressive forty-eight pages thick, and instead of opening with helpful tips on how to get this Amiga port of the game running (just so you know – it was an Atari ST game first) or a handy explanation of the controls it decides to go with a short story designed to set up the game’s charmingly superfluous near-future (also known as 2006) world, one where F1 racing was shut down for good only to be replaced with – yep, you guessed it – stunt car racing.
The book then immediately dives headlong into the entire history of motorsport, beginning all the way back in 1895 and not stopping for twenty-four pages. Half the manual is used to give readers factual and highly technical info covering everything from French street car racing to rallies to modern (for the time) professional racing, a sea of gear ratios, engine capacity discussion and countless names of famous racers from the past century. Only the last page and a bit is of any relevance to the game, a vague imagining the sort of future that would make stunt car racing a reality. It’s all a bit odd and there’s no getting away from the fact that, in the nicest possible way, it’s all completely pointless, really. It’s not boring – far from it – but it’s a bit like someone’s passionate essay got folded into the manual as temporary filler and nobody took it out before the pages were sent off to the printer.
This extraordinary dedication to extraneous detail isn’t all that surprising when you consider the person responsible for the game’s concept, design, and programming – Geoff Crammond, a man who dedicated his game-making career to creating deeply sim-y racing games, beginning with Revs on the BBC Micro and ending with the still impressive Grand Prix 4 on PC (not forgetting that little detour into brilliantly horror tinged puzzle game territory via The Sentinel along the way).
His trademark dedication to incorporating realistic physics simulations in his games gives Stunt Car Racer’s driving weight and energy, the lurches forward as you accelerate downhill and the way you come off the game’s numerous banked curves just better than they are elsewhere. Even the hands-off drop start segments at the beginning of each race, your car lifted up off the ground on chains before being dropped onto the elevated wooden track, are just that little bit more special thanks to that usually unwelcome addition – realism. You can feel the heft of your car as you’re slowly swung sideways onto the course, the contact with the track as your tyres lift slightly when they brush the track, before the slight bounce as you’re finally dropped. It’s just right.
Even with all of these calculations running on a 7(and a bit)MHz CPU the game is smooth, speedy, and boasts an impressive draw distance, your filled-polygon field of view encompassing not just the road directly ahead but all of the upcoming corners and big ramps off to the side too – even your opponent’s car can be seen zooming off into the distance if you’re unlucky enough to fall behind. The game only breaks the illusion under extreme circumstances, such as a collision that sends the car sky-high before crashing down at an odd angle, but such instances are rare even for the most accident-prone drivers and on the whole everything you can see is as solid and as a “realistic” representation of the world around you as anyone could hope for.
So there’s no doubt the game’s a technical marvel in every sense, but what makes Stunt Car Racer so timeless is the way it uses its maths-steeped framework to create some real physics-based fun.
There are eight courses to either play solo or engage with as part of a lengthy CPU-filled tournament (multi-Amiga/Atari ST link-up play was also possible over serial cable – “See the technical insert for details on how to make up the lead“, says the manual – and yes, that is a direct quote – ah, different times), every one created with the aim of squeezing as much entertainment out of its charmingly springy racing as possible. It’s thanks to this playfulness that each track looks and feels more like a rollercoaster ride than a place for professional motor racing, corners transformed into steep banking curves and strings of jumps that must be navigated with care and speed. The Drawbridge track even has moving parts, the titular feature’s polygons visibly raising and lowering in real time: on home computers. In the 80’s. The effect is so incredible it’s almost worth driving into it when it’s raised at full speed just to appreciate how clever this in-game deformation and the collision that goes with it is.
It won’t be your first accident anyway. The car hops and tilts all over the place simply as a matter of course, each reaction to the track not scripted in the slightest but based entirely on the speed and angles you choose in the moment. Blasting up a ramp at high speed can leave you soaring through the air… and flying straight over the track as it bends away far below. A bad exit from an inclined corner might send you scrabbling for control as the car bounces precariously towards to edge. Keeping your tyres on the track is more important than always pushing to go as fast as possible, the road ahead something to be observed carefully and reacted to in the moment.
Especially as you also have to consider the damage you’re inflicting upon your car as you race, the most common type shown by the creeping crack running across the top of the car’s roll bar: once that reaches the right hand side of the screen you’re out of the race. Rough landings and general bump-prone behaviour all negatively contribute to your car’s state, making that top-speed overtake on a straight as much of a risk as it could be a race-winning reward. There’s also major damage to consider as well, indicated by gaping holes appearing in the right hand side of the same bar. These tend to happen after huge off-the-track falls, and unlike standard scrapes these don’t disappear between tournament races. These holes reflect the increasing fragility of your vehicle, regular crack-type damage increasing at a faster rate if it touches one of these gaps in your armour.
Like Namco’s Ridge Racer, there’s a purity to Stunt Car Racer’s experience that transcends all the graphical improvements found in the years since or the increased quantities of that all-important “content”. To rehash an endlessly rehashed phrase, Stunt Car Racer’s easy to pick up and difficult to master, the simplicity of the experience – start a tournament or pick a track, off you go – making the intense challenges found within feel less intimidating, even if just getting around the course without falling off feels like a challenge in its own right on later stages. It still feels new in many regards, a fascinating combination of the realistic and the ridiculous that’s rarely been imitated and arguably never bettered.