Where the Rubber Meets the Road: A New Perspective on “Real”

This short article appeared in an issue of Incredibly Strange Games as part of an evening of Strange Games held on March 25th, 2017 at Seattle’s Fuse Box.

Atari Games released Hard Drivin’ to arcades in 1989. It was one of the first solid-filled polygonal racing games with dedicated hardware that attempted (ahem) to realistically simulate actual vehicle physics. It was amazing for the time, and I first experienced it as a sit-down cabinet with force-feedback steering wheel and a real clutch and gear shift. It was also a hit, and 1990 saw a sequel called Race Drivin’ that added additional tracks and cars. Sweet!

1995 saw a Japanese release of Race Drivin’ for the Sega Saturn. There’s a pretty good port of the original game here under “Arcade Mode.” They added some new vehicles, including a tuk-tuk and Hitler’s yellow Duesenberg, and a tractor-trailer. All of them kinda drive the same, but that’s fine. The instant replay that happens when you crash finally stops the clock–a big annoyance in the arcade–and lets you rotate the camera. You can use a digital pad or an analog one. There’s a horn, and you can cycle through three camera positions.

In the years between the original Race Drivin’ and its Sega Saturn port, racing games had advanced. Ridge Racer and Daytona USA added texture mapping and realtime lighting effects. Race Drivin’ was looking a lil’ long in the tooth, so Time Warner Interactive hatched a plan for their Saturn release. Maybe not a good plan, but an Incredibly Strange one.

On the main menu you’ll discover there’s “Real Mode.” A new selection of tracks open up! “Real Mode” tries to up its game and go head-to-head with its contemporaries and re-defines what “Real” means in just about every way possible.


The textures warp in uncomfortable ways as billboarded trees go by. Pop-in, which wasn’t very noticeable in the solid-fill mode, is apparent and distracting. Colors are garish and like those chosen by a crazy person. The car is hemmed in by strange two-dimensional fences, or surrounded on all sides by waterfalls while the road meanders, supported in space by nothing. Odd, moss-draped masonry structures with red-peaked conical roofs lurch out of the impressionist nothingness to startle and shock, like some quasi-dimension close to Chaos out of The Chronicles of Amber. THERE IS NOTHING “REAL” HERE.

It takes a little while, but soon you realize that the new tracks in “Real Mode” are literally the same tracks as the arcade mode, but everything is so disorienting and surreal as to be unrecognizable.

Imagine this SOUNDING like what this LOOKS like!

And then there’s the music. The original game eschewed music for the pure simulation, leaving you to hear the whine of the motor and squealing of tires. (An aside: the physics weren’t all that great and sometimes you’d hear nonstop ear-piercing tire squeals, even whilst driving perfectly straight, which led to the sobriquet of “Squealy Car Game” by our friends.) It was charming. But now the least exciting–perhaps antithesis is the right word–of race music plays. The re-branded Super Stunt Track plays such depressing music it might as well be called Emily Dickinson’s Impressionist Race Drivin’.

As a whole, “Real Mode” delivers a whole new, and not entirely unpleasureable experience that leaves you scratching your head. Strange!

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