The vehicular combat genre of games has been around for almost as long as video games have. They either take the form of a more traditional tank battle or a more outlandish game of chicken with machine guns and rocket launchers. As such, tracing its origins proves quite difficult. For me, the vehicular combat genre as I know it originated with a surprising title; Super Mario Kart.
Super Mario Kart was primarily a go-kart racing game with characters from Nintendo’s Super Mario series of games. It was a wacky take on the genre, but it also was more than just a racing game. Around the time it came out, competitive gaming was becoming more and more popular. Either at the arcades with fighting games or on the computer with death match modes in first-person shooters. Nintendo, recognizing this, implemented a battle mode in Super Mario Kart that dropped the racers into an arena with the goal of being the last man standing. Players used the various power-ups to target their opponents with turtle shells and banana peels in an effort to incapacitate their opponents. Three strikes and you were out. This mode proved highly addictive and whenever I got together with friends to play Super Mario Kart we pretty much always played battle mode and hardly ever touched the main game.
Other publishers must have taken note, because it wasn’t long until games started showing up that relied almost entirely on this battle mode concept introduced by Super Mario Kart. It especially exploded during the Playstation era. By the time that era came to a close the market was saturated with games of varying quality including licensed games like WWE Crush Hour, which was the breaking point for the genre. It has been de-emphasized by publishers and developers alike and it remains to be seen if it can ever become a major genre again.
Super Mario Kart may have been the originator, but the title most cite as the launching point for the modern genre of car combat is Twisted Metal. Twisted Metal was one of Sony’s earliest first-party titles for the Playstation, arriving in stores roughly two months after the system’s launch in North America. Original launch units of the Playstation included a video demo of the game as part of the pack-in demo disc along with games like Tekken and Warhawk. Critically, it wasn’t well received for the most part but gamers seemed to enjoy it well enough. For me, it was the first game I ever bought for my brand new Playstation game console and an early favorite.
Had I seen the initial reviews I may have never purchased it. My introduction to the Playstation seemed to happen fast and came out of no where. My grandmother on my mother’s side lived for Christmas when I was younger. She would get all of those gigantic wish catalogs put out by the major department stores and have me and my sister pick through them to make our Christmas list. She always wanted to be the one to get us that gift we wanted most. That year I remember picking through one such catalog with her and pointing out things I wanted. They must have been all little things like action figures and movies and I remember her almost getting frustrated. She asked me if there was something big I wanted and I turned the page and saw “Sony Playstation $299.99” on the bottom right-hand corner. I pointed to that, almost as a joke because to an 11 year old a $300 system seems way too big. My mom had a similar reaction but then my grandmother started to reason it. She more or less agreed to get it for me with the caveat that it would be the only thing I’d get. I knew next to nothing about the Playstation, only that it was new and seemed exotic compared to my Genesis and Super Nintendo and was more than happy to concede other gifts in exchange for a hot new console. Little did I know, my grandmother had been notified that my nana (dad’s mother) had told my mom she was giving me a television for Christmas which was like declaring war with grandma. I got caught in the cross-hairs of a grandmother battle and reaped the benefits.
Because I really knew nothing about the Playstation, I had no idea what games to get. For Christmas that year my parents gave me Doom, a familiar title to me since I had played it on my friend’s PC a few times. There was no Mario or Sonic though to fall back on, all I had was that demo disc. Twisted Metal looked pretty cool, so I bought it with some Christmas money. Not long after I got Street Fighter Alpha, but all I would really play for the next six months (until my birthday) was Twisted Metal. I would end up beating it with every character, I’d play my friends in death match, and just enjoyed the Hell out of it. Twisted Metal 2 would arrive the following year and improve upon the original in almost every way. Then something terrible would happen.
Singletrac, the developer of Twisted Metal, would leave Sony over a contract dispute. Twisted Metal was owned by Sony though, so they just handed it off to internal studio 989 who was best known for crafting Sony’s licensed sports games. 989 would release the next two Twisted Metal games and both were disasters. Singletrac put out the acceptable Rogue Trip and other studios were putting out car combat games that now surpassed the Twisted Metal brand.
This was unacceptable. When Singletrac folded and some of the key members went on to form Incognito, Sony gobbled them up and immediately handed them the Twisted Metal franchise in an effort to bring it back. And bring it back they did, for that team basically erased everything 989 had done with one game; Twisted Metal Black.
Released on the Playstation 2 in the summer of 2001, Twisted Metal Black returned the series to the more gritty atmosphere present in the original game. The cartoonish antics of the sequel were gone and few righteous characters remained. All of the drivers of the various cars were now mental patients. Some were noble, like the driver of the police SUV Outlaw, but even the noble ones were twisted somehow. The levels throughout the game depicted a bleak and desolate world on the brink of ruin. Calypso was still the ring-leader and organizer of the Twisted Metal competition, but it was unclear if he still possessed super natural powers in most of the story modes (he did) and he came across as just some sick freak looking to get off on the misfortunes of others. All of the characters had their own tragic back-story. Each would narrate it him or herself with an opening video, a mid-point video revealing what led them to a mental institution, and an ending. Calypso was never given a voice.
The main title menu opened with a still image of exploding cars with the opening notes of The Rolling Stones’ “Paint it Black” playing. It was creepy and the song suited the game’s mood quite well (the full song played over the ending credits making this one of the few games where I always watch the ending credits). Graphically, the game was exceptional. Up until that point, few games had really done a good job of showing off what the Playstation 2 could do. The best we had at that point was a demo for Metal Gear Solid 2 that came bundled with the game Zone of the Enders. Twisted Metal Black had smooth visuals with lots of detail. The levels were huge and expansive. Each car had lots of little touches sprinkled on them as well be it riveted plates or bullet holes. Missile launchers would roll out when equipped and any first-time player was wowed when Sweet Tooth’s ice cream truck transformed into a mech-like killer clown. Gameplay was fast and the controls tight. A twin analog stick approach made quick turns easy to pull off and arcade physics meant cars weren’t flipping over constantly. Each car handled differently giving the game a great deal of variety and just about all of the special weapons had their uses.
The cast included a nice amount of familiar faces and new entrants. Some old cars, like Outlaw, were completely different from the car that had preceded it. Some of the returning ones also had new special attacks like Darkside’s ram attack, a great improvement over the old laser weapon. My favorite was Roadkill, who now sported a charge-up homing missile weapon. All of the special weapons had two methods of deployment, a standard one and a more technical one. The technical one was harder to pull off, but dealt more damage and figuring them out was part of the fun. Every car also had an energy bar for special attacks like freeze balls and shields that could easily change the tide of battle when deployed properly. A lot of the levels also had hidden areas or visual gags that were fun to exploit. There were hidden characters too that had to be found throughout the game, some were harder than others.
While the game is head and shoulders above all others in its genre, it did have a couple minor short-comings. One thing none of the Twisted Metal games ever got right was enemy AI. Each level is supposed to be a free-for-all but it always felt like the AI was programmed to go after the player and not each other. While this does enhance the game’s difficulty, it always felt a little cheap. The game’s final boss also wasn’t the best. While he was difficult, he didn’t seem to really test the player’s skills. I have always felt that a good boss battle is like a final exam meant to test how much the player has learned over the course of the game. This game’s final boss is a helicopter and the approach to beating him is completely different from the approach taken to go after virtually every other enemy. Vehicles that do not have some kind of missile attack as a special weapon are at an extreme disadvantage too as they have to rely mostly on weak homing missile pick-ups. And since vehicles can’t really adjust their aim it makes targeting the final boss a pain. Every encounter just ends up being a case of driving around waiting for either the special weapon to regenerate or for some homing missiles to appear.
Aside from that though, I really have few complaints with Twisted Metal Black. The gameplay is so tight and so fun that I’ve never truly gotten sick of it. The storylines for each car are also interesting in their own right which lead me to beating it with every single driver. Death match was just as fun as ever too, though it would have been nice if all of the single player levels were available. An online edition of Twisted Metal Black was released later on for free for early adopters of Sony’s online network. I never played it but it always made sense to bring Twisted Metal to the internet. This Tuesday, the latest game in the series arrives. Simply titled Twisted Metal, it actually puts more emphasis on the online component. It was initially conceived as an online only game but Sony was impressed with it so much they decided to make it a full game and had developer Eat, Sleep, Play (made up of ex Incognito/Singletrac members) craft a story mode. It sounds like the story mode will mostly be an after-thought and only focus on three participants which has me feeling rather disappointed. I hope to be pleasantly surprised though. Twisted Metal also appears to be taking the Mario Kart approach of letting the player pick the car’s driver and then choose the vehicle. This must be how the game can supply all of the old favorites while only having three storylines.
Regardless of how the new Twisted Metal turns out, I can’t imagine it topping Twisted Metal Black. Sure it will look better, it might even control better, but if the total package exceeds Black’s I’ll be shocked. This Greatest Games feature I’m doing is not in any particular order, but if it was, Twisted Metal Black would be a strong number two. I love this game and I’ll never get rid of my copy. For those who missed out, the new Twisted Metal is being released with a download code to get the original Twisted Metal Black which is one of the best bonus features in gaming history. You now have no excuse for missing this one.