Guess what, pals? We’re starting a new series called Torch’s Old-Ass Video Game Basement, because I’m Torch, and I have a bunch of old-ass video games in my basement. Where I work, like a dirty troll. Since this is still Jalopnik, the world’s premiere webbed-site about cars and their marker lamps, I’ll be focusing on automotive-related old-ass games, mostly. And I’d like to start off with the best, and by that I mean the worst. The worst driving video game ever made, at least according to me.
Let me give some context here regarding why I think this game is the worst before I reveal it. I’ll be covering games from the 1970s to the early 1990s, (mostly) here, and those early games are, let’s face it, all pretty crude. I’m not judging this game based on how backwards it may be to modern eyes.
I’m comparing it to other games of its era, which for this game is 1979. Technically, this game is certainly on par with its contemporaries, and in certain aspects, most obviously the graphics, I think it was state-of-the-art for that era.
No, this game gets its worst status because it’s absolutely zero fun to play.
The game is creatively titled Auto Racing, and it was for the Mattel Intellivision.
The Intellivision is actually a very interesting console; it was the first real competitor to the Atari 2600, the first really popular cartridge-based home game system, and it surpassed the 2600 on a number of technical levels.
Most notably, it had more video memory (the 2600 only had one horizontal scanline of video memory!) and as a result could produce some quite complicated screen images. It also had an odd, slow (894 KHz, that means it’s under 1 MHz) CPU, a 16-bit CP1610 that used a weird 10-bit byte called a decele.
I’ll stop getting too geeky and just say that the Intellivision excelled at games that were sort of slower-paced but had complex graphics. Mattel’s ads really pushed the graphical angle, and, strangely for something targeted at kids, used George Plimpton for their ads:
What kid of the ‘80s wasn’t just crazy about George Plimpton, right? I can’t think of any of my little friends from that time that didn’t always have a copy of The Paris Review on them.
Auto Racing had the great graphics the Intellivision was known for, but the gameplay itself was miserable for two reasons.
First, the controls. The Intellivision used these odd, uncomfortable and overly complex controllers with a 16-direction control disc, four small buttons on the sides (2 per side) and a 12-key keypad.
These controllers were tricky for most games, but were really terrible for driving. You’d think you could maybe spin the disc like a wheel, but it doesn’t work like that; it’s just an early form of a D-pad.
In the Auto Racing game itself, there were actually two variants of how to control the car. First, there was a system where the disc would turn your car in whatever direction you pushed the disc, regardless of the car’s orientation on screen:
This was later decided to be not realistic enough, so a second version came out where the disc was more like a car’s steering wheel, so pushing, say, left on the disc would be like turning a steering wheel left, no matter the car’s orientation:
This is how my copy works. While I like it better conceptually, it’s deeply unintuitive and difficult to use.
You can also oversteer and drift and spin out in the game, which I like, but in practice it just makes the game more frustrating.
And the problem here; this game’s goal is not, like nearly all other games, to deliver an experience of “fun,” but rather seems to be all about delivering an experience of frustration. Most other overhead racing games, though they tended to look crude, were actually pretty fun, in a simple way. Take Atari’s Indy 500, for example:
Sure, it looks ridiculous now, but with another person, it’s a blast. Mattel’s Auto Racing was never, ever a blast.
That said, back in the day, desperate kids did manage to force it to be, if not fun, at least interesting. The way Auto Racing was programmed, all of the tracks in the game were actually laid out on a sort of “globe.” That means that it was possible to go off-road on one track and very carefully thread your way around trees and houses to find the other tracks, including a hidden “dragstrip,” a small segment of straight pavement just stuck out somewhere normally inaccessible.
Kids even made maps of it all! Here’s a modern recreation of the whole Auto Racing world map:
So, you know, that’s something, at least.
Still, unless you’re in to really slow, tedious mapping of monotonous environments, I can’t possibly recommend this attractive but miserable game. It’s a terrible, joyless slog. Even a game like the legendary Penn & Teller’s Desert Bus is better because it’s supposed to be terrible; that’s the joke.
There’s no joke here. Auto Racing is seriously, earnestly, awful. That’s it.
Next time, we’ll look at something a little more fun. But not much more!