The next whale, Epyx's Pitstop II, is a sequel to the less famous non-whale Pitstop from 1983. So I played both.
The Pitstops are arcade-style racing games closely modeled after Pole Position (and to a lesser extent Turbo), with the gimmick that in extended races, you'll need to enter the pits and complete a minigame to quickly refuel and replace your worn tires, and you risk running out of fuel or a disqualifying blowout by putting this off.
These came out around the time that Epyx was transitioning their focus from Atari to Commodore, and so "B" and I played Pitstop's Atari version, and Pitstop II's C64 version, which I believe reflects their respective development priorities, though both were available on either computer.
Game 347: Pitstop
Pitstop's title screen offers a few options prior to gameplay:
- Number of drivers (1-4). Drivers race sequentially, and are ranked by finishing time once all have completed their laps (or been disqualified).
- Number of laps (3, 6, 9).
- Difficulty (Rookie, Semi-Pro, Pro). Harder difficulties make it more difficult to pass your opponents (who drive slower than you in any difficulty), and also cause collisions to wear out your tires quicker.
- Race type (Single, Mini-Circuit, Grand Circuit). Single lets you select one of the six circuits for one race, mini-circuit plays through three of them, and grand circuit tours all six of them in order, displaying the drivers' cumulative scores and overall standings between races.
"B" and I decided that six laps was best, as with three laps you don't need to enter the pits at all, circumventing the game's very namesake, and with nine the race just goes on far too long. We played a few single races at each of the difficulties, and the below video showcases a six-lap race in semi-pro, and a three-lap race in pro.
The racing model here is simplistic and not very satisfying. Taking turns is trivial - this is the Pole Position model where steering means lateral movement, turns simply push your vehicle toward the curb, and here you can easily counteract this no matter how fast your vehicle is going. Turns are so barely consequential that it hardly matters what track you race on! The challenge is passing other cars, who spawn at random and as in Turbo/Pole Position serve more as obstacles than actual opponents.
Collisions aren't disastrous - they just cost you speed and some wear, which is represented by the color of your tires. Pulling into the pit lane at the start of each lap lets you replace them and refuel through a straightforward point & click interface.
|The sound of passing cars reminds you of precious time spent here.|
GAB rating: Below average. Pitstop is inoffensive, but too simple to be worth spending much time on. I am not surprised that it has been virtually forgotten in favor of its sequel.
Pitstop was ported to ColecoVision, where it can be played with a steering wheel and throttle pedal.
Game 348: Pitstop II
Pitstop II's big new feature, which the box and manual remind you of no fewer than four times (auto racing is not a solo sport), is the simultaneous split-screen multiplayer option, providing active competition and not just slow-moving drones to get in your way. Racing solo? The computer will take the second screen.
"B" and I once again raced multiple times, trying each of the difficulty settings on a different track. The below video shows six laps in rookie, and three apiece in semi-pro and pro.
On paper, Pitstop II looks like a big improvement over the original. Not only is there two-player racing, but the
graphics and physics have been overhauled, now better resembling Pole
Position both from its smooth pseudo-3D projection and its simulation of centrifugal forces that wear out your tires while pushing you laterally. The other cars on the road, aside from player 2's, are still more obstacles to surpass than real opponents, but they come into view on the horizon as blips, giving you plenty of time to swerve and avoid slamming into them at 250mph, and generally behave just like your actual opponent, just slower and ephemeral. Turns are now a challenge to navigate, and on the harder settings you'll need to properly manage your throttle to get through them or else take excessive damage.
So why did I say on paper? Because despite the more advanced physics model, Pitstop II just doesn't feel good to play. "B" and I constantly oversteered, then understeered, then oversteered again, causing our cars to slide back and forth across the lanes, which is hardly ideal for passing the slow-moving traffic. On rookie mode, you can get away with riding the curb, but on semi-pro this will shred your tires, and on pro even a few bumps is devastating. The C64's lack of analog control options is lamentable here, and I can't imagine trying to play this on a stiff authentic joystick.
Taking the turns slowly makes controlling things a bit easier, but throttle control is janky too, with pushing up and down on the joystick directly raising or lowering your velocity like one adjusts a thermostat, and the sense of speed conveyed by the pseudo-3D view doesn't feel quite aligned with the speedometer display. The fire button activates a turbo boost, but would have been better served as a harder brake option. You don't see turns until you're already in them, you don't really know when you're about to come out of a turn either, and the minimap isn't precise enough to really show you when you're close enough to a turn to need to start decelerating. I'd often brake while already in the turn, grinding my wheels against the side until speed dropped just enough that I could instantly overcome all of the centrifugal forces and instantly zip over to the other side of the road and grind my other wheels against the other curb.
And then there's the pits.
Your F1 team must have had a budget cut, because you've only got one tire guy now, and he controls like he's been hitting the bottle. Actions like walking around the vehicle and getting into the precise pixel needed to change a tire are just frustrating! And on a personal note, the color-coded damage stripes on the tires are less meaningful to my cone-deficient eyes than they were in the original.
"B" and I both enjoyed this less than the original Pitstop, despite the surface improvements. I did spend some time replaying alone, and I did improve a bit, but never to the point where I felt differently about its flaws on my initial impression.
GAB rating: Below average. Pitstop II is the more complete package, but it trades the flaws of the original for different flaws.
As a side-note, it's interesting to me that splitscreen multiplayer was more or less simultaneously implemented by both Spy vs. Spy and Pitstop II, and both on the C64. Is there an earlier example of this that both games might have followed?