Saturday, September 15, 2018

Game 22: Indy 500

Another one of the Atari VCS launch titles, Indy 500 is based on the arcade game Indy 800, and has a game type inspired by Crash ‘n Score. Although Indy 800 is not yet emulated, its scaled-down counterpart Indy 4 is, as is Crash ‘n Score, both of which I’ve covered in an earlier post.

Uniquely for an Atari VCS game, Indy 500 uses special “wheel” controllers, which are similar to Pong paddles, but can spin indefinitely in either direction. A single button is used for acceleration, and there are no brakes or drifting as in Indy 800/400.

There are 14 modes split across four game types. The manual doesn’t have any handy table this time, so I made my own.

Game No. Players Track
Race Car 1 2 Grand Prix
2 1
3 2 Devil's Elbow
4 1
Crash n' Score 5 2 Barrier Chase
6 1
7 2 Motor Hunt
8 1
Tag 9 2 Barrier Chase
10 2 Motor Hunt
Ice Race 11 2 Ice Sprint
12 1
13 2 Grand Prix
14 1

Each game type has two tracks, and aside from the Tag modes, a singleplayer and a two-player mode for each track, giving four combination modes for each of the non-Tag game types. I didn’t see much point in playing a racing game solo, so I played a session with “B” where we toured each of the eight two-player modes.

Even from this table, we can see that Indy 500 is very stripped down from its arcade inspirations. The track layouts are far simpler than the layouts of Indy 800 and even Indy 4. Indy 800/4 supported eight and four simultaneous racers, Indy 500 only supports two. The Crash ‘n Score arenas are much smaller and simpler than in the obstacle-strewn arcade game.

Right off the bat, we ran into an emulation issue. The original game used wheel controllers, but that wasn’t an option for us, so MAME helpfully mapped the controls to analog sticks instead. Trouble is, the default setting is ridiculously sensitive, the cars spinning in place like a ballerina in a centrifuge at the slightest touch. Only by lowering the sensitivity to the lowest possible setting did things become manageable, and they still felt fiddlier than in Indy 4, where analog steering felt fine with a keyboard.

Modes 1-4: Race Car

The standard Indy setup. Two cars race through a closed circuit, and the first to complete 25 laps wins.

The first track is called “Grand Prix,” and is only slightly more interesting than an oval circuit. With wide turns and slightly bendy straightaways, the lack of brakes isn’t missed, and it seems perfectly reasonable to finish without even letting up on the gas. We still hit the walls a lot, which act less like “walls” and more like surfaces that bring your car to a near halt and can be drive through slowly, but chalked this up to lack of skill rather than any difficulty in the course.

The second track, “Devil’s Elbow,” is a different beast. Navigating the hairpin turns at the left and right sides of the screen was nearly impossible with these joystick controls. Both of us eventually decided it was faster just to drive through the “walls” rather than try to take the elbow turns. Again, it’s possible that the analog joystick is simply unsuitable for this game.

This set of modes just wasn’t much fun for either of us. Maybe it’s unfair to evaluate it harshly given that we weren’t using the correct controllers, but we had to play Indy 4 with arrow keys on a keyboard and found that to be manageable and more fun. The 25 lap races also feel far too long for how simple the tracks were, and got mind-numbingly repetitive from around the 15 lap mark onward. Indy 4 had a longer and more varied track, and the time limit meant races didn’t go on past the point of tedium.

Modes 5-8: Crash ‘n Score

Crash ‘n Score is back, and it still doesn’t have all that much to do with demolition derbies, or even all that much crashing. Score pylons randomly appear one at a time in an arena, and the first player to drive into it scores a point. First to score 50 points wins.

There are a few notable differences from the arcade game. The physics model is still the same as the Race Car mode, so the cars are a lot speedier than the somewhat inert junkers of the original. Several other factors also contribute to the faster feel of this version; the arcade game had far more obstacles getting in your way and slowing you down, and the scoring pylons would revert to obstacle status when touched, which often caused a player who just barely missed their chance to score points to hit it while inactive and then instantly lose their momentum. Here, the obstacles are fewer, only one score pylon is on screen at once, and touching one makes it disappear rather than turn inactive and trip up a trailing opponent. Randomness is still a factor, with score pylons often appearing so close to one car that the other has no reasonable chance of getting it, but overall it still feels fairer than the arcade game thanks to the faster speed and smaller arena. Wrap-around through the narrow openings at the top and bottom of the screen is possible, but seems unnecessary most of the time, even more so than in the arcade game.

Track II has the same rules, but there are more obstacles, and it’s harder to avoid bumping into them and slowing down. It’s still less dense with obstacles than the arcade game, so what I said before still applies. Unlike Track I, wrap-around is quite useful here, as the openings on the screen’s side are completely wide open and can be easily passed through at full speed.

This was a lot more fun than the Race Car modes. The controls didn't feel like a hindrance, the randomness added unpredictability and broke up monotony without seeming unfair, and the open arena gameplay lent itself to some strategy options and some interesting techniques.

Modes 9-10: Tag

The only set of modes lacking a solo play option, since how would you play tag solo anyway? Atari's batting record in competent AI is a zero so far, so good on them for not bothering this time. The courses are exactly the same as the ones used in Crash ‘n Score. The goal is to be the first to score 99 points by being “it” and avoiding your opponent, who, if they touch your vehicle, will become “it” and momentarily slow you down so that they have a chance to gain a lead. You score about 1 point per second as “it."

Mode 10 with the second arena is particularly chaotic and fun thanks to the easy wrap-around, which gives the pursuing player plenty of opportunities to sneakily tag “it.”

This was the most fun set of modes in Indy 500. It’s a lot like Crash ‘n Score, actually, except the target is your opponent instead of randomly placed pixels, making it the most interactive game type on the cartridge.

Modes 11-14: Ice Race

Finally, we return to racing. The rules are the same as in Race Car, but the road is slick, and now it’s necessary to release the gas on turns, even on very wide corners of the "Ice Sprint" track in mode 10. This ice course is the simplest in the whole game, essentially just an oval, and seems like training for the second course.

The second track, Ice Rally, is identical in shape to very first Grand Prix, making it a fitting bookend. Same track, different traction. There was a lot of crashing going on; hardly any laps were completed without at least one crash for each of us. The slick physics also made it nearly impossible to pass an opponent unless they crashed into a wall, which of course we did constantly. All of that said, Ice Race overall was kind of frustrating and still pretty dull.

So that’s the end of an exhaustive look at Indy 500, minus the seemingly pointless singleplayer modes. The racing isn’t much fun, possibly thanks to poorly emulated controls. But we had fun with the Crash ‘n Score and Tag modes even with the controls, which felt natural enough for these modes. If one looks at these games in terms of value and takes all modes into account, Indy 500 is a mediocre package with only eight purposeful modes and only four of them provide enjoyment. But that’s still more enjoyment than any other Atari VCS game covered so far provides, and by that measure, looking at the best parts of the package rather than the mean of all parts, Indy 500 is the best VCS game yet.

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