Futuristic racers seem to embody something essential about videogames: fluid, neuron-firing challenges for our coordination and dexterity, explosions of color that meld high-concept science fiction with the vertiginous thrill of accelerated speed and kinetic violence. Complete with whirling missiles and magnetic humming, futuristic racers are iconic, vibrant experiences that could only be videogames. Titles like Wipeout are routinely selected for montage clips intended to encapsulate the spirit of contemporary videogaming: the speed, the violence, the spectacle. Yet when you look closely at this genre it becomes clear that the future racer is actually a neglected, unfulfilled genre. You’d expect futuristic racers to be defining, obligatory gaming experiences, yet only a few turn up in each generation of gaming. What is wrong with the game of flying cars?
In 1996, Sony’s marketing spawned something unusual: a worthwhile videogame that was also a product of corporately manufactured cool. Wipeout 2097, or Wipeout XL as it was known in North America, was the result of a deliberate attempt to associate a rare sub-genre of racing games with contemporary dance culture. The game’s atmosphere was heavily weighted by the inclusion of music from The Future Sound of London, Photek, The Chemical Brothers and Underworld. What the first Wipeout game had lacked was a sense of style, and now Sony had supplied that, too. These electronic musicians were just far enough outside the mainstream to be seen as cool and cutting-edge, but also getting enough radio play for everyone to know who they were. Videogames were, by force of smartbomb marketing, becoming cool.
Wipeout was exuberant, colorful and gifted with a twitchy, amphetamine pace. It merged perfectly with the dance music scene. Its velocity allowed it to be the perfect game in a cultural environment where games and pop culture were colliding. Electronic music and videogames matched well, and the marriage created new media for mainstream consumption. Rather than being exported quietly to some geek-chic ghetto, Wipeout 2097 was part of the opening barrage of Sony’s attempt to bring gaming to the forefront of popular culture.
But there was more to it than that: Wipeout 2097 had the balanced challenge and the velocity to genuinely command the attention of hardcore gamers. We spent weeks honing our nervous systems on this thing, pushing and pushing until we could lap each of the opening tracks without a fault. It was electric.
There had been futuristic racing games before – Powerdrome on the Amiga and Atari ST (later unsuccessfully “remade” later for the Xbox and PlayStation 2) being a prime example – but it was Wipeout 2097 that suddenly charged the genre. It seemed to matter, and would become one of the era’s psychic landmarks in gaming. It was an experience that everyone remembered from that time in their lives, like the biggest pop records on the charts, or the loudest Hollywood movies in the cinemas. It was spectacle, an event to be recorded.
And then there was nothing. A few half-hearted futuristic racers turned up here and there, botched and clumsy in their polygonal paintjobs, but there was nothing to replace Wipeout 2097/XL. Even the Wipeout games to follow that 1996 game lacked the same inertia and fidelity of that second, peerlessly produced Wipeout game. Wipeout 3 failed to return to the scintillating standard set by its progenitor, then most crippling of all was the inevitable PlayStation 2 follow up, Wipeout Fusion. Fusion was arguably a disaster for the franchise: sloppy handling, an ill-conceived array of weapons, and a lack of cohesion in track design and game modes – it all combined to deliver a ruined experience. Anyone who came to futuristic racing at the time of Fusion could be forgiven for never picking up the pad to tweak another speeding rocket-car, it was that flabby and weak.
The Xbox meanwhile opened up the throttle on its own Wipeout, with the visually wondrous Quantum Redshift. Clearly, to compete with PlayStation legend, the Xbox had to prove it could hit all the same high notes, and a futuristic racer was crucial to such a display of gaming eminence. While my own weakness for the genre means I enjoyed Quantum Redshift more than its overall lackluster critical reception might have suggested, I still knew it was a flawed and doomed project. It tried to be everything that Wipeout had been, and simply could not recreate the moment. Whatever you thought of Quantum Redshift‘s lavish imitations, its water-beaded camera and hyperbolic, spandex-carved pilots, the facts of its critical and commercial slump are undeniable: The follow-up game was cancelled by Microsoft, and the development team, Curly Monsters, disappeared into the silent ether of redundancy and dissolution.
Perhaps the fate of Quantum Redshift explains the fate of the genre as a whole. It tried to live entirely within the shadow of its predecessor. Wipeout was so iconic, so vital, as to dictate what it meant to be a futuristic racer. The future racer genre suffers from the same problems as the MMOG genre: There is one game that all others are forced to ape if they want to make a pass at success. Just as EverQuest and then World of Warcraft have defined how the majority of MMOGs have been implemented over the last decade, so few futuristic racers have been able to escape the gravity of the Wipeout series.
The future racer, then, has been both best exemplified and worst shackled by Wipeout. Its initial success seems to have engendered a chronic lack of experimentation within future racing games. Of course, there were some exceptions to the rule, but their scarcity only drives the point further home.
F-Zero GX, Quantum Redshift‘s contemporary on the GameCube, took its inspiration from quite a different source and was the last great future racing game. It managed to sidestep Wipeout‘s impact by having its own wide, ultra-fast tracks, weird environments and fantastical backdrops. Impossible angles and unlikely courses that raced off at right-angles to the plane of gravity kept things flying, but still it was dogged by its pack of appeal, its lack of newness.
Then there was the 1999 experimental racer, Rollcage. Although not well received by critics , the game showed some definite flair for moving outside the Wipeout template. The cars were attached to the course, but were also able to play with physics – driving along walls and ceilings with absurd aplomb. It was a game that hooked dozens of the people who bought it, but made little impact on the genre as a whole. No games went on to imitate the title beyond its sequel, Rollcage Stage 2.
Also without any progeny was 2001’s left-field, ultra-high-speed Ballistics, from the Swedish team GRIN (who went on to create the recent Ghost Recon games). Ballistics did speed and little else and soon vanished into obscurity. Two thousand kph down steel tubes, sound barriers breaking, outrunning the noise of your own engines. Flawed, yes, but it was a game that did something new, did something that belonged to that single game. It moved outside the Wipeout template and, inevitably, was lost.
The same could be said of the criminally underrated Star Wars Pod Racer. Seldom is a single set piece from a film able to create such a strong concept for a game. Hurtling through the Star Wars universe and fixing exploding pods as you travel were rare experiences, and a wealth of ideas were once again lost to the churn of videogame fashions.
These few experiments represent the suffocated spirit of experimentation within fantastical adventure games, and their like should be encouraged without reserve. They offer a portal into an alternate world, where Wipeout had not smothered the category and science fiction racing had been the most vital and inventive of game genres.
And so we racers lament the passing of a genre. There has been no great future racer for five years, and there are none on the horizon. From my perspective, as a burned-out, disillusioned sci-fi speedster sifting through a collection of not quite classics, I can see that what the next generation of consoles needs is a future racing revolution. We can’t afford to lose this iconic genre, but it also has to change, to shed a skin that is hardening into a death mask. It needs to be faster, brighter and more fashionable than anything that has gone before. But it also needs to not look to Wipeout for validation, and should seek out the ideas of other genres for new and exciting angles on getting around a racetrack at high speed.
For that next futuristic racer, the one to replace Wipeout in those exciting video-montages, we need some of that reality bending that games are getting so good at: portal racing, or teleporting rocket-ships, or a racing game that does for racing what Steel Battalion did for giant robots – giving us an absurd peripheral around which to base our playful speeding antics might not make financial sense, but damn, it’d be fun. Or more practically, what about a future racer that threw even more conventions out of the window and ended up being something like Test Drive Unlimited, an online future city were impromptu street-racing events were the lifeblood of a persistent racing persona? Or what about a different kind of future -a decent post-apocalyptic racer in the dust storms of Australia, or a simulation based on telekinetic engineering? What about survival/horror racing, where outrunning the undead is all you can do to stay alive? (Surely a racing game can be scary, too?) Something, anything, just make it fast.
Science fiction speed-freaks as yet unimagined, we salute you.
Jim Rossignol is a writer and editor based in the South West of England. He writes about videogames, fiction and science.