[Retro] Retrospective: Rollcage

If there was one UK-based studio whose name was synonymous with quality during the life of the original PlayStation, it is Psygnosis. Working primarily as a publisher on 16 bit platforms like the Amiga, they helped Reflections Interactive and DMA design get their first big breaks, with the Shadow of the Beast and Lemmings series respectively. Those two codeshops would go on to give the world Grand Theft Auto (as Rockstar) and Driver (as Reflections). In fact, just about anyone who’s anyone in British gaming worked with the Liverpool based studio in the 1990s.

It was little surprise then when in 1993 a nascent Sony Computer Entertainment, looking to build an in-house development team for its soon to be released PlayStation snapped up Psygnosis and set them hard to work bringing groundbreaking new titles to the platform. Over the next few years the studio’s output was both prodigious and of a consistently high quality. They teams up again with Reflections for the European launch title Destruction Derby and it’s vastly superior sequel, and internally developed the acclaimed Colony Wars and G-Police franchises. The pinnacle of their success, though, was a series that became intrinsically linked with the format, and is seen by many as being instrumental in pushing both the PlayStation and gaming as a whole into the adult market.

 

Wipeout wasn’t a massively original concept. As a futuristic racer the SNES’s F-Zero predated it by some five years. Neither was the idea of a weapons-based racer particular new either. What was groundbreaking was the game’s aesthetic. With cover art and game elements designed by bleeding edge graphic design house the Designers Republic and a soundtrack littered with the kind of underground club culture chic that would put most Ministry of Sound compilations to shame, Wipeout hit the mid nineties zeitgeist perfectly. As a result it inspired many clones, almost none of which could come close to matching its success. While Powerdrome, Extreme G, MegaRace and the like are now forgotten and thankfully consigned to the dusty bin of never downloaded ISOs on completist emulation websites, there was one series that came close to surpassing the brilliance of Wipeout as a futuristic shoot-’em-up racer.

Appropriately enough Rollcage was another Psygnosis title. Developed by little-known and now defunct British codeshop Attention to Detail it bears all the hallmarks of being as close to an unofficial Wipeout spin off as was ever produced. Mean and moody near-future setting? Check. Twisty-turny, improbable roller coaster tracks? Check. Similar, but subtly different, futuristic racers with superficial avatars? Check. Impressive physics? Check. Shiny weapons trailed by streaks of blue light? Check. Trendy club-inspired soundtrack? Check. It’s all there. If it weren’t for two crucial differences in the core game mechanic this could literally have been Wipeout 3 (the real Wipeout 3 was released just a few months after Rollcage).

 

So for all its similarities, where does Rollcage differ? Well gone are the pointy headed hover ships of the better-known series and their slightly floaty handling. Instead you and your competitors hoon around the insane tracks in cars with ludicrously oversized off-road tyres. In fact the tyres are so big that the cars can flip over and run upside down, much like those radio controlled cars you can find in toyshops. The game, and it’s physics model, made full use of that fact, letting racers career up the side of massive banked curves to flip over other competitors, and even placing weapons and speed up pads on the roofs of tunnels, encouraging upside-down mayhem that traded a power-up boost for momentary disorientation.

Perhaps more subtly, but (in later races especially) more effectively, the games weapons could also be deployed in a fairly original manner. The usual array of missiles, shields and boosts were on offer, but as well as targeting individual racers, each could be fired at trackside buildings and other structures, bringing them crashing down ahead, or ideally on top, of other racers. It was a great technique and meant each lap was made different by the every changing, and easily destructable scenery. As a technique it’s still being used today in action racers like Split/Second and Motorstorm Apocolypse.

Released in 1999, at the end of the PlayStation’s golden era and just while the gaming world was busily salivating over the soon to be released PlayStation 2, Rollcage was warmly received by critics and gamers, but is now largely ignored in retrospective lists on the format’s best titles. That’s perhaps unfair, as today, it still plays well, and offers just as many easily accessible thrills as Wipeout. In fact the core concept holds up so well, that it’s a wonder it, like its venerable stable-mate, isn’t still being churned out in a variety of next generation iterations. With modern graphics and a more advanced physics model, Rollcage’s uniquely chaotic racing and breakneck turn of speed could be just the thing for modern gamers.

Sadly most of what was Psygnosis in its heyday has now been shut down or merged. The name itself was killed off by Sony with the launch of the PS2, becoming instead SCE Studio Liverpool. It still exists, and is still turning out Wipeout sequels for current and next-gen Sony hardware, but it’s a shadow of its former-self, a sign of the changing landscape of game development that leaves little room for inventive IP. Indeed it’s telling that one of the closest modern equivalents to Rollcage, Blur, sold in such low numbers, despite widespread critical acclaim, that it sealed the closure of Bizarre Creations, another renowned Liverpool-based codeshop that got its first break developing for Psygnosis.

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