[Retro] Retrospective: Carmageddon

It was a simpler, and in some ways, happier time. It was also a time of complicated DOS installs, IRQ conflicts, sound card compatibility issues and in the case of many a title, a time of unrepentant, naked, pornographic ultraviolence. The mid 90s may not be heralded by many purists these days as among the finer days of gaming’s past. The first 3D titles to emerge slowly from the primordial ooze of vector-based space sims and flat shaded polygon racers weren’t pretty by today’s standards, or even by yesterday’s. Nor where they, by and large, particularly subtle. If anything can be said to typify the era, at least when it comes to PC games, the theme of cartoonish bloodletting would be the first to spring to mind.

While the arcades were full of high-tech racing games like Daytona and Sega Rally, and the PlayStation was busy wooing clubbers with the uber-cool soundtrack and visuals of Wipeout, the PC market was setting its sights firmly on the teenage males of the world. Perhaps it was inevitable. The late 90s saw the PC, in the guise of big beige Pentium Gateway’s, make the transition from boardroom to bedroom. The web may have been born at CERN in 1991, but it finally hit the world at large in the mid 90s and like every other teenage boy given access to my first AOL free trial, I spent most of my time online looking for pictures of girls with no tops on, and animated gifs of things blowing up. If that was typical behaviour (and it was) for males of my age group, it made sense for publisher to fill PC games with the kind of content that would appeal to PC owners, now not just the desk jockeys of offices around the world, but teenage boys who’d be just as happy blowing things up and paying girls to get their tops off in Duke Nukem 3D as they would squinting at AltaVista search results for” Cindy Crawford Naked” on a 14 inch CRT monitor.

So while Duke lorded it up in the FPS market, the good people at Stainless Games decided they’d create his vehicular equivalent. Loosely based on a never-to-materialise licence for the cult move Death Race 2000, Carmageddon saw players enter a bizarre science fiction dystopia where racers earned money and time for mowing down screaming pedestrians or livestock while trying to smash each other to bits. It was about as far away from Mario as it was possible to get, which was sort of the point. The PC market had, until just a few years before, been dominated by shareware releases like Doom and Wolfenstein 3D; games programmed in bedrooms or tiny startups by hardcore gamers designed to be played by hardcore gamers.

Watch those blocky sprite people die!

Watch those blocky sprite people die!

By the time Carmageddon hit the streets in 1997 the first 3D accelerator cards were going on sale, and the idea of dedicated gaming-PCs was being born. The PC was defining itself as a games machine for adults and enthusiasts, with strategy titles like Command and Conquer that no mouseless console could touch, and the kind of graphic violence that the likes of Nintendo and Sega would never approve for their machines. The PC market found niches that the SNES and Megadrive couldn’t fill – and helped play out the sad fantasies of millions of spotty youths in the process.

The game itself is a fairly unusual one. Races can be tackled in any order, as long as they’re unlocked. The unlocks come through ranking up through a series of 99 levels in some sort of fictional racing league. Each race is set in one of about half a dozen themed environments, which – in a sort of Crystal Maze fashion – can be loosely described as desert, city, coastal, industrial, winter and mine. Players must pass through a set of checkpoints on each level a certain number of times, in order, with the actual maps themselves otherwise open. In fact the racing action has more in common with something like TrackMania that contemporaries like Gremlin’s Fatal Racing. Races are finished either by passing all the checkpoints before the time runs out (topping up said time by ramming opponents, hitting green barrels or murdering pedestrians) or by destroying each of the handful of rival cars.

Carmageddon is one of few games where you can drive underwater.

Carmageddon is one of few games where you can drive underwater.

It’s all initially confusing. There’s no point in actually racing your opponents, and their appalling AI means they’d never keep up with you if you tried. So gamers are left either to race effectively alone, splattering innocents every few hundred yards to keep topping up the time and grinding out the laps until they’re done, or to follow their demented rivals off-piste and pummel them into oblivion before the time is up. It’s all fairly easy, and the major difficulties lie in getting hopelessly lost (a handy map is available via the tab key) or simply becoming too frustrated with the ridiculous handling.

The driving is at best an art, as opposed to a science. Your default car, looking like a cross between the batmobile and a hedgehog is fast enough, but corners like a supertanker, requiring a firm stab of the handbrake to slide helplessly around every corner, often smashing into the scenery en route. Still, the spastic driving experience rather suits the game’s rough and ready tone, as do the software accelerated graphics, which have the same delightful cardboard cutout feel as Duke Nukem. Later updates to the game offered a 3DFX version which can be played today via special builds of Dropbox with the help of a 3DFX card emulator called nGlide (this was before the day’s of proper DirectX support).

The sound too is typically mid 90s. They engine noises and crashes are punctuated by badly compressed and oft-repeated obscenities from your male, or if you prefer, female avatar and the screams of semi naked sprite women about to be mown down by your priapic deathmobile. As gauche and tasteless as it all seems to modern sensibilities, Carmageddon is nothing if not terrific fun. The handling may be bizarre, but it is consistent, and those who persevere will eventually get to slides with it, if not to grips. The simplicity of the graphics renders the blood and guts effects of killings anything but realistic, making a gentle mockery of the controversy and scorn that was poured on the game for its “realistic” depiction of violence at the time of its release.

A menu screen. What joy.

A menu screen. What joy.

The maps aren’t quite open world, but in offering a playing area way larger than each designated track, with lots of secrets to be found, they’re reminiscent of the best Duke Nukem levels. Samey, ugly and only just three-dimensional they may be, but they’re a lot of fun to explore. I fired up an old copy I found lying around as much as an exercise in getting 3DFX accelerated games working in DosBox as anything else, but I soon found that hours had passed since I started playing, and I didn’t want to stop. There’s a rudimentary upgrade feature, and the chance to unlock new cars that, combined with the exciting possibilities offered by later maps and circuits, kept me coming back for more. The charming mid-90s touches, like the FMV footage of your avatar in the top corner busily reacting to everything that happens to the car, just add to the appeal.

Carmageddon’s not a game to be proud of liking. It’s not something you’d ever want to put forward to sceptics as an example of the videogame as art, but it’s not something we should shut away in the locker of forgotten bad taste either. Despite it’s loutish nature, and its shlocky reliance on penile humour and bloodletting, its rotten heart is a 3D racer that was actually ahead of its time, that remains more than a pleasant diversion for an hour or two on a rainy afternoon.


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Categories: Retro

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