Pedal To The Metal

From arcade classics' sparse graphics to today's lifelike games, racing titles have come a long way.

January 24, 2002|By Andria Yu | Andria Yu,SUN STAFF

It's a clear day, perfect for taking the millennium-yellow Corvette Z06 out for a spin. The sun glints off the tinted windows and the sky is mirrored perfectly in the polished skin of the $51,000 machine.

It looks even better under the hood - with 379 horsepower, it'll fly from zero to 60 in four seconds.

You give it your best, maneuvering through a couple of turns and into a straightaway, where you push the Z06 to 145 mph. As the engine winds up to red-line at 6,500 rpm, you ease it into fifth gear, smirking as you shoot past drivers trying to outrun you.

Suddenly, there's a tight turn. You hit the brakes and try to downshift. But the car skids, leaving a scorched trail of tire tread on the road. Alas, instead of sliding through the turn, you slide into the wall while the other cars whiz by, leaving you in their dust.

Don't worry. There isn't a scratch on you or the 'Vette. But you've probably lost the race. Maybe you'll do better next time with the Aston Martin DB7 Vantage, or the Jaguar XKR, or the Honda S2000. Or perhaps you'll race in the dirt with a Subaru Impreza or Ford Focus.

After all, in Gran Turismo 3 A-spec you're an immortal driver with more than 150 cars to play with, and all it cost you was $50.

By all accounts, this PlayStation 2 title is among the best of a racing game genre that dates back a quarter century and still draws dozens of new entries every year - each flashier and more realistic.

In replaying the race, you'll see a heat-shimmer effect as the cars prepare to take the green light. When you're driving through wooded areas, beams of light shine through trees. Wet roads at night reflect headlights and the surrounding environment.

"The level of simulation is incredible. The number of cars, tracks and how you can tweak them - it mirrors sport racing in real life. It's a lot of fun," says Frank Rogan, network director for GameSpy.com, an online gamer's resource.

To make GT3 look so three-dimensional, programmers had to generate 4,000 polygons per second of game time. It's amazing, then, to think that all this started in 1976 with a handful of white rectangles outlining a road on a black screen.

"When I did Night Driver, it was just 12 white dots," said Rob Fulop, who wrote the Atari 2600 version of the arcade classic, generally regarded as the first racing game to put the player behind the wheel.

Night Driver didn't even have an animated car. In the arcades, the racer was represented by a plastic overlay; on the Atari Video Computer System for the home, a tiny blue car was permanently fixed to the bottom of the screen. But it was a hit, and racing continues to be an entertainment staple, accounting for 20 percent of the game titles on the market, right behind the sports and action-adventure genres.

Game retailer Sam Goody's list of Top 10 sellers last year included three racing titles: Gran Turismo 3, ranked at No. 4, Motocross Mania at No. 7 and Gran Turismo 2 at No. 8. (The top-selling game was Madden NFL 2002.)

Racing and driving games are popular "mostly due in part to consumer passion for automobiles, particularly motor sports, which is the most popular sport in the world," said Ryan Bowling, a spokesman for Sony Computer Entertainment.

GameSpy's Rogan agrees. "Real-world racing is a much bigger sport than you might imagine. Formula 1 is probably the most popular sport internationally, aside from soccer. And what makes those games appeal to audiences is it's simple to understand," he said.

Early game developers such as Rob Fulop, now president of Perchance Inc., a San Francisco-based entertainment software company, also got a chance to fulfill their driving fantasies.

"I always loved going fast," said Fulop, who was hired as a summer intern with Atari in 1978 while he attended the University of California at Berkeley. "It was only natural that my first video game would be based on my favorite childhood experience."

By today's standards, Atari's Night Driver is laughably crude. Arcade machines and early home game consoles had limited computing power and graphic capabilities. "In order to get things to move quickly, you couldn't have a lot of detail," said Atari founder Nolan Bushnell. "The reason we did Night Driver was because all it showed was the reflectors. It was a very sparse representation, but it made sense as a night-driving game."

A few years later, a company called Vectorbeam produced Speed Freak, the first racing game that used vector graphics, with moving images formed by lines and polygons. It was a quantum leap: Players had to avoid oncoming cars and pass stick-like hitchhikers, cows, cacti and police roadblocks. And when a player crashed, an explosion of car parts erupted. But the game still lacked color and sound effects.

It wasn't until 1982, when Japanese arcade pioneer Namco introduced Pole Position, that racing games really took off, thanks to 4-bit color graphics and a real track based on the Fuji Speedway.

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