Sunday, 23 October 2016

Arcade Racing Games #5

Continental Circus (1987)
By: Taito Genre: Racing Players: 1 Difficulty: Medium
Featured Version: Arcade First Day Score: 2,101,460
Also Available For: Amiga, Commodore 64, Amstrad CPC, MSX, ZX Spectrum

There were quite a few racing and driving games in the arcades of the mid-to-late 80's so developers often had to do something to make their game stand out, but Taito managed to do that by accident with this release. It's clearly an F1-style game so what's with the 'circus' in the title, so many of us thought back in the day. It soon transpired that this was actually a translation error with the intended title being Continental Circuit. A few cabs made it to the US with the corrected name on them but for most of us it was a game that was often met by a childish smirk. Was it actually a good game though, or would attempts to play it be met with even more mirth? Well, the Spectrum version wasn't too bad as I recall but I never had the chance to play the arcade original back then. Upon recently being reminded of the game, I decided it was time to find out.

Like most other such games at the time, you're racing against the clock here. After pulling away from the start line for the first time, with various other cars flying past you as you build up speed, your objective is apparently to reach each checkpoint before the timer runs down. However, if you are paying attention you might also notice that you start the game in a somewhat worrying 100th place and there is also a qualifying limit. If you get within this before the end of the race by passing the many other cars you'll encounter as well as keep your timer ticking, you'll qualify for the next race, and it turns out there are eight of them in total - a decent number for the day, I think you'll agree. Each circuit is based on a real example from the F1 calendar of the time (France, Japan, Monaco, etc) but you only get one lap to make up those places, so every corner counts.

Your nice yellow Camel car (which makes it a Lotus if I remember rightly) comes with mandatory two speed (low/high) transmission and like real F1 cars it's a dainty thing too. A light touch from another car or road-side object causes smoke to bellow from it, and it might even catch fire. At this stage it can still be repaired by visiting the pits (unless you leave it too long) but if you take any more damage before this happens, or suffer a heavier collision without being damaged, your car will explode, costing you valuable seconds before it's replaced and you get back up to speed. It can also lose grip on corners if you go too fast, and will spin completely if you're not careful, and this often results in an explosion too. This will happen much more easily when it starts raining, which it does from time to time, but fortunately you can also change to wet tyres at the pits.

Despite being yet another take on what was already a well worn genre, there are a few things that make Continental Circus stand out, even discounting that humorous naming mistake. The graphics are great for one thing. The cars look good, the scenery is varied, and the scaling and draw-distance are superb. The courses also undulate more than any other F1 game I've played I think (I can't imagine the real courses are this hilly). The AI of the other cars is also more than a little noteworthy, but for being weird rather than especially good or bad. Cars will sometimes stop in front of you - not unusual in racing games I guess - but they also seem to randomly veer off the track and explode now and then too, with their debris frequently seen flying across the screen. Sometimes they even spontaneously blow up on the road ahead of you as well, causing a hazard as well as confusion!

Not really quite sure what's going on with that but it certainly makes the game more interesting! It is an enjoyable game too. The circuits certainly have their challenges including the odd surprise hairpin or chicane, but it's far from the toughest racing game I've played. About the only thing wrong with it really is the lacklustre audio - the effects are okay, and I particularly like the 'passing cars' noise - but there is no music at all. OutRun showed us how much this can add to an arcade driving experience so it's a shame Taito didn't give it a try themselves. It's still a mighty fine example of the genre though, and doesn't seem to have aged much at all. Admittedly I only played it for the first time for this review but I have thoroughly enjoyed it. It's not quite up to the standards of Taito's more well known Chase HQ but it's definitely able to stand next to it with pride.

RKS Score: 8/10

Gameplay Video: here's a video of the whole game being played by one of the talented fellows at World of Longplays (check out their great channel here). Oh, and don't watch if you want to avoid spoilers!


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