Friday, May 27, 2016

The Evolution Of... Formula One Video Games

I cannot settle the debate on the chicken and the egg, but I do know that I was an F1 gamer first and an F1 fan second. In fact, it was only after half a decade of playing various F1 games on a variety of formats that I finally decided that I should probably give watching the real thing a go. Even then, it was purely accidental when I did watch my first race, as highlights of the 1991 Canadian Grand Prix were the only thing on television while I had my tea that evening.

But soon I was as obsessive about watching F1 the sport as I was about driving around virtual circuits on my ZX Spectrum. My bedroom wall was covered with posters of Nigel Mansell's Williams - battling for wallspace with Kylie, obviously - endless biros were worn out filling in the wallcharts of F1 News or recreating circuit maps in my school rough book, model cars adorned every available shelf and, of course, my enjoyment of F1 games was increased with my new-found knowledge.

Video games even returned the favour by adding to my enjoyment of F1. When Michael Buffer turned into Rumble Man in Ready 2 Rumble: Round 2, he looked just like David Coulthard. Admittedly, a beefcake version, but close enough. Whilst others insist on calling him DC, he'll always be Rumble Man to us. Anything to liven up an otherwise dull race.

For most people, playing F1 video games is the closest they'll get to the real thing. Back in the 1980s, many arcade posters made slightly exaggerated claims that it was just like being in the cockpit. But as games have moved on, we've ended up at a point where it might not be exactly like the real thing, but it's a pretty close simulation. Even the real-life drivers agree, and some of them even drive like they're in a game.

We've taken a look back through the years at the evolution of F1 video games. As usual with these things, it's by no means exhaustive and is more of an excuse to tell obscure stories about growing up in Cardiff in the 1980s. We've also not included games that feature random F1 cars (such as TOCA Race Driver 3 or Gran Turismo 5) or ones that feature fake or F1-style cars (Micro Machines). It's interesting to see the ideas that lingered, the ones that didn't work, and the ones that should have stuck around but didn't. Overall, it's a personal celebration of thirty years of F1 video game addiction. Here's to many more!

Pole Position (1982, Namco, Arcade)

Although not the first example of Formula One in the arcades - Namco themselves had manufactured a mechanical cabinet, simply titled F-1 in 1976 - Pole Position set a template for video game driving games that continued for decades, with some elements remaining in place to this day.

I first played Pole Position in an amusement arcade underneath the multi-storey car park on Penarth beach, which has since been demolished. I frequented it every Saturday during the late 1980s, when my grandparents would take me there and sit in the adjoining cafe while I had my fun. I didn't care in the slightest that most of the cabinets were years old and had seen better days. All I needed was a packet of Wotsits and a bag of change, and I was a happy boy. Many hours - and ten pence pieces - were spent playing classics such as Paperboy, Track & Field and Gauntlet, and if I had to pinpoint a moment when my love of video games began, it would be those carefree Saturdays.

Pole Position always lured me back for more with its bright colours and noisy engine sounds - the grunt when you first pressed the accelerator still makes me jump today! The sense of speed and danger was there in spades, and it was so easy to control your car, weaving between your opponents and not bothering to brake around corners. I never got very far - maybe I should have braked more after all - but I felt like Nigel Mansell and soon yearned for more driving games to swallow my pocket money.

Pole Position II was released in 1983 with updated graphics and sound, and the same addictive gameplay. But sadly, it never made it to Penarth beach.

Chequered Flag (1983, Psion, ZX Spectrum)

I first encountered Chequered Flag when a family friend presented me with a shoebox full of his old 48K games, including a large amount of Sinclair Research software. I had been a Spectrum +2 owner for around eighteen months at the time, after becoming such a video game addict that I needed a fix at home too.

I was used to the brightly coloured packaging and arcade-style games of publishers such as Ocean and Hi-Tec, so although the games in the shoebox were only a decade old, it felt like rummaging through an ancient time capsule. The sparse nature of the packaging, and titles such as Make-A-Chip and Survival, felt almost intimidating. A bit like when you accidentally stumbled upon an Open University programme when you were trying to catch a glimpse of something naughty on The Hitman And Her in the middle of the night.

But amongst all those serious educational titles was something more familiar; the sight of a Formula One car on the cover of Chequered Flag. I was used to more recent F1 games by this point, whether on Spectrum or in the arcades, so I loaded up the game and hoped for more of the same. What I actually discovered was a lot more primitive, but ultimately no less challenging or addictive.

Driving around a sparse Paul Ricard whilst trying to avoid oil spills and rocks was a tricky business, and to this day I don't think I've ever completed a flat-out lap due to the incredibly sensitive controls. It's a shame that there were no other cars to race against too, but given the limitations of the machine it was an excellent start for driving games on the ZX Spectrum.

F-1 Race (1984, HAL Laboratory, Nintendo Entertainment System)

Clearly inspired by Pole Position, F-1 Race was thrillingly fast and controlled like a dream. Even on easy levels the track would be littered with opponents who had to be avoided at speed in order to keep the momentum necessary to make it around the track within the time limit. The simple controls were so responsive and the sense of speed was so exciting. It still stands up as a brilliant F1 game even by today's standards, and is one of the best arcade racers on any console. Despite this, the game was only released in Japan and it was not until the excellent GameBoy conversion (pictured) in 1991 that the rest of the world got to sample its delights.

Scalextric (1986, Leisure Genius, ZX Spectrum)

They could make a game out of anything in the Eighties, so a simulation of a simulator was fair game and allowed everyone to have a go of Scalextric even if they didn't have the room for metres of physical slot-car track. Admittedly, the game had little to do with Scalextric other than featuring the brand name and logo. If anything it was just an updated version of Britannia Software's Grand Prix Driver from three years before. The game was most notable for allowing split-screen competitive play with a friend without any visible loss of game speed. When played in this mode, Scalextric really came into its own as you battled a friend around interpretations of real-life circuits. An on-screen map displayed each player's position, but it was so hard to read that it was easier just to ignore it and wait until the finish line to discover who had won. Probably not as much fun as real Scalextric, but a decent substitute.

Super Sprint (1986, Atari, Arcade)

An update on the primitive Sprint arcade games of the 1970s, Super Sprint was a top-down racer which could be played competitively with up to three players at once. Each player had to steer their car around the twisting track while avoiding hazards - and each other - without banging into the side of the road with a thud. It was easier said than done, as the controls were extremely sensitive and required only the slightest touch of accelerator or the steering wheel. But with practise and a good memory, it was possible to guide your car around the track in seconds without ever lifting off. An extremely addictive game which inspired a sequel (Championship Sprint), a number of copycat titles (most notably Ivan "Ironman" Stewart's Super Off-Road) and offered a different perspective - literally - on Formula One.

Grand Prix Simulator (1987, Codemasters, ZX Spectrum)

Clearly inspired by Super Sprint, Grand Prix Simulator used a top-down view of the entire track for racing mayhem. Controls were hyper-sensitive and first-time players would spend most of the time spinning around in a circle, banging into the sides of the track or getting lost under a bridge. As with Super Sprint, practise made perfect and it wouldn't be long before you'd be zooming around each increasingly difficult track with ease. Written by The Oliver Twins, the game contained their usual brand of fun and humour, plus a soundtrack that wouldn't have been out of place in one of their Dizzy games. A sequel - Grand Prix Simulator 2 - was released in 1989, and most other Codemasters simulators of the time (BMX, Championship Jet-Ski, etc.) used the same top-down view to great effect.

Continental Circus (1987, Taito, Arcade)

By the early Nineties, I was visiting Barry Island's Just Pennies arcade on a weekly basis, and it was here that I first discovered Continental Circus. I fell in love with the game immediately and headed straight for it as soon as I entered the building. The graphics were gorgeous and the gameplay was fast, with a great soundtrack to boot. Your aim was to get around each track not only within a time limit, but also in a certain position - 80th for the first race in Brazil, and then higher and higher for each circuit onwards. As with most F1 arcade games of the time, it was as much an obstacle course as a traditional F1 race, and the tracks were packed with numerous roadhog competitors who did not want to let you pass. Crash into any of them and you'd not only lose momentum but your engine would also start smoking. Pit lanes were placed at strategic points along the track to give you an opportunity to repair your car, but if you ignored your pit crew's instruction to come in you'd eventually catch fire and explode - impressively - all over the screen. If you ran out of time or position, the Game Over screen would show an OutRun style progress map to show how close you came to making it across the finish line. This led to many "just one more go" moments, as you tried to beat your previous best.

Virgin Mastertronic released an amazing conversion for ZX Spectrum in 1987 which made full use of the new 128K machines. Everything from the arcade original was present, including the rather attractive flag girl at the beginning, the jumbo rear tyres and even the Jesus statue in the background of the Brazil track. It was far less colourful than the arcade of course, but what it lacked in that department it more than made up for in speed and control. Spectrum Continental Circus was just as addictive, and allowed for entire afternoons of playing without the need for a pocketful of change. It is still one of my all-time favourite Spectrum games - racing or otherwise - and it still stands up to hours of addictive gameplay.

Final Lap (1987, Namco, Arcade)

A spiritual sequel to Pole Position, Namco's Final Lap games provided the same fast and furious fun as their predecessors. There were numerous sequels in the arcade (2, 3 and R (pictured)) a NES conversion, and a couple of Wonderswan instalments (Final Lap 2000 and Final Lap Special). But perhaps the most interesting is 1989's Final Lap Twin for the PC Engine which combined the expected F1 gameplay with a cute RPG storyline.

Grand Prix Circuit (1988, Accolade, ZX Spectrum)

An amazing game for its time, Grand Prix Circuit offered a cockpit view of the racetrack and some gorgeous graphics. Admittedly, this meant that speed was sacrificed and it sometimes felt as if you were driving an unruly bus rather than a Formula One car. More than anything, it showed how far the aging 8-Bit machines could be pushed and was an overall enjoyable experience. The Commodore 64 version was particularly impressive, and even included an animated podium ceremony at the end of a race.

Nigel Mansell's Grand Prix (1988, Martech, ZX Spectrum)

I first played Nigel Mansell's Grand Prix when it appeared on the October 1991 covertape from Your Sinclair. Advertised as a playable demo, I was thrilled to discover that it was actually the full game and soon became completely addicted. In fact, I played it so much that I wore the tape out and had to buy a replacement copy of the game from John Menzies to satisfy my withdrawal symptoms.

Nigel Mansell's Grand Prix didn't offer anything particularly new to the genre, but it did everything you would expect and did so perfectly. Using a joystick, you simply needed to push forwards to accelerate or pull back to steer. Left and right steered the car and the Fire button changed gear (but once I was up into sixth I never bothered coming back down!) On Spectrum, each track was presented in a certain colour, starting off with yellow for Brazil. I won't deny that I was jealous of the gorgeous Amiga screenshots on the cassette inlay, but the gameplay more than made up for the Spectrum's simplicity.

Nigel's Williams sounded like an angry fly as you exited the pitlane to begin qualification, and it would stay that way for the rest of the session. Hearing the noise now takes me right back to my childhood bedroom, with a can of Shandy Bass at my side. The game insisted on you completing qualification, so if you went spinning off-track or suffered a car malfunction, you had to start all over again. But with practise, I was able to stay on the road and within the rev limit and was soon able to begin racing against opponents such as Iam De Fastese, albeit from the back of the grid.

Races were exciting, with a scrolling commentary across the bottom of the screen informing you of your proximity to rivals. I was good enough to win on many occasions, and it was pleasing that the game offered a Save function (as long as you had a blank tape handy) so at least it wasn't necessary to start all over again if I (or the game) crashed.

F-1 Dream (1988, Capcom, Arcade)

Capcom's entry into the F1 genre was a fun top-down racer which scrolled to reveal each section as you drove along, rather than displaying the entire circuit Super Sprint-style. It wasn't a particularly remarkable game, but did contain elements of comedy in the obstacles (such as a man running across the track) which added to the challenge and provided a unique touch to the game. F-1 Dream was also accurately converted to the PC Engine (pictured).

Super Monaco GP (1989, Sega, Arcade)

One of the most famous F1 arcade games, Super Monaco GP was another of my Just Pennies favourites. A sit-down cabinet and first-person cockpit view added to the realistic experience and both the speed and sound were breathtaking. Super Monaco GP used an eliminator system which saw you racing against a field of competitors as well as the clock. As you progressed, the required position would gradually count down and it was up to you to stay ahead of it. It was relatively easy to control the car, only needing to break at corners marked with red and yellow signs, but your opponents were tough and it was difficult to catch up with them once you got into the higher positions. One of the first games to feature a recognisable version of the Monaco circuit, the game was perfect for F1 fans who wanted a taste of how their favourite drivers felt as they zipped around the narrow streets. An unforgettable experience for anybody who ever played it in the arcades, Super Monaco GP was the ultimate balance of arcade fun and real-life simulation. Home conversions followed, including US Gold's effort for the ZX Spectrum, but as good as they were, they couldn't quite live up to the speed of the arcade original, which remains one of the greatest F1 games ever made.

F-1 Boy (1990, ASK Kodansha, GameBoy)

An adorable Japanese game with anime-style graphics which opts for the top-down scrolling view. Very slow gameplay compared with others of the era, but the racing is tough and addictive and it's a genuine feeling of achievement when you finally manage to win a race.

F1 Exhaust Note (1991, Sega, Arcade)

Sega's next effort after Super Monaco GP was a dual-screen arcade cabinet allowing for head-to-head races with a friend. Despite featuring real cars, teams and circuits, it wasn't quite as exciting as their previous offering. However, a notable feature was the inclusion of an overtake button which operated like modern-day KERS by providing an extra boost of speed for a limited amount of time, allowing for exciting moments during the race.

Grand Prix Star (1991, Jaleco, Arcade)

Having been a huge fan of Jaleco's Cisco Heat in both the arcade and on ZX Spectrum, I was thrilled to accidentally stumble upon this title from the same producers. As an F1 game it didn't offer anything particularly new or exciting to the genre. But as it played exactly like Cisco Heat, it meant that I was good at it straightaway! A sequel - F-1 Grand Prix Star II - followed in 1993 offering more of the same.

F-1 Grand Prix (1991, Video System, Arcade)

Video System had originally entered the F1 genre with 1989's Tail To Nose: Great Championship which used the top-down-scrolling style of Capcom's F-1 Dream and included fake names and teams. When they returned with F-1 Grand Prix, Video System had obtained the rights to the official Formula One season and it was now possible to play as your favourite driver, or with your favourite car, from the 1991 season. The top-down view works perfectly and the attention to detail is perfect - it's lovely to see the red and white McLaren or blue and yellow Williams made famous by Ayrton Senna and Nigel Mansell respectively. Over twenty years on, it's a reminder of a bygone era and is particularly nostalgic for me as it's the exact time when I first got into Formula One as a sport.

The game was successful enough to spawn a sequel the following year, F-1 Grand Prix Part II, which featured all the teams and drivers of the 1992 season. Excitingly, the title screen appeared to show Nigel Mansell's Williams taking off - he was that good.

The F-1 Grand Prix games were converted to Super Nintendo and played extremely well. Again, the real cars of the era were recreated brilliantly and it was exciting to be able to play as your hero from the comfort of your own home.

Video System's games were also a clear influence on other games of the time, such as F-1 Spirit (aka. The Spirit Of F-1) which was released on GameBoy by Konami in 1991 and played almost identically.

Grand Prix Challenge (1992, Challenge Software, ZX Spectrum)

The Cardiff Queen Street branch of WH Smith used to keep their Spectrum games in very close proximity to books on railway modelling. My father and I would often while away an hour in there whilst my mother tried on every dress in the nearby clothes shops. He would excitedly hold up pictures of GWR Castle engines, whilst I would be making mental lists of my next essential Spectrum purchase. On one such occasion, I picked up Grand Prix Challenge and could not contain my excitement at discovering an F1 game that I'd never seen before. I admit, I let out quite the squeak, but at least I have the defense that I was only twelve. Putting it back on the shelf as I didn't have my pocket money, I made a mental note to buy it next time and walked away. Hours later, whilst unloading the car, my father reached into the boot and pulled out a little Smith's bag. "That's yours isn't it, Rod?" he asked (he called me Rod and I called him Del, for reasons which were obvious to any fan of Only Fools & Horses who ever saw us side by side). Confused, I looked inside to see Grand Prix Challenge before looking up to see my father grinning from ear to ear. In typical generous style, he had not failed to hear my squeak of glee, noticed the cause of my involuntary outburst and then secretly bought it while my back was turned.

I played that game for hours on end, especially during school holidays when I could indulge my F1 management fantasies from morning until night. I had played other similar games on Spectrum, such as Silicon Joy's Grand Prix Manager (1984) and D&H's Grand Prix (1989), but my young mind found them a bit too overwhelming and serious. Grand Prix Manager was more cartoony and bright, and much more accessible. It was so simple, you just had to make half a dozen choices about tyres and fuel and then spend twenty minutes watching cars scroll vertically along the screen whilst a running commentary informed you of fastest laps, position changes and dreaded failures. Not only was it hugely enjoyable, it was also ridiculously relaxing due to the trance-like nature of the display. I always regarded it as the F1 version of Goliath's Tracksuit Manager, probably my all-time favourite football video game. Like the latter, it still stands up to long sessions of play today despite being extremely outdated and bearing little relevance to the modern version of the sport. But as well as providing great gaming memories, it's also a lovely reminder of my late father and his sneaky generosity.

F1 Circus (1992, Nichibutsu, Nintendo Entertainment System)

The start of a series of Japan only games which spawned sequels on SNES (Super F1 Circus, 2, 3 and Gaiden) and even Playstation (Formula Circus). They didn't really add anything new to the genre, but played fast and smooth and featured recognisable cars and partially recognisable drivers. Depending on the game, the action was offered in third person or a scrolling top-down view similar to the Video System games. Today, the games are a lovely little time capsule which reflect Japan's obsession with all things F1 in the 1990s - an almost childlike excitement and passion for the sport simply oozes out of the games.

F1 Pole Position (1992, Ubisoft, Super Nintendo)

A curious little game which attempted to combine F1 with Mario Kart with only partially successful results. For some reason they also thought it would add to the challenge if the circuit was covered in fog. It's odd to find yourself driving Nigel Mansell's iconic blue and yellow Williams around a flat and angular scrolling circuit with poor visibility, always expecting to be hit by a red shell that never arrived. It's a bit of a slow game, but it's certainly a grower and the rival system is a nice twist, especially being able to watch their progress in the top half the screen. But if you wanted a successful combination of F1 and Mario Kart-style gameplay, you'd have to wait another twenty years for Codemasters to have a bright idea...

Exhaust Heat (F1: ROC - Race Of Champions) (1992, Ocean/SETA, Super Nintendo)

One of the best F1 games on Super Nintendo, Exhaust Heat is a simple but fun third-person take on the sport, which starts off as a pleasant time waster before you realise that you've spent an entire afternoon racing around San Marino. An equally fun sequel - F1 ROC II: Race Of Champions - followed in 1993.

Ferrari Grand Prix Challenge (1992, Acclaim / Flying Edge, Sega Mega Drive)

Heavily inspired by Super Monaco GP, Acclaim's Ferrari-licensed F1 game was a decent way to spend a few hours, featuring smooth arcade gameplay and music. But the most fun was guessing which drivers the unlicensed competitors were based upon. The writing may have said R. Cousen but the facial hair screamed N. Mansell!

Ayrton Senna's Super Monaco GP II (1992, Sega, Sega Mega Drive)

The lesser known sequel to Super Monaco GP, it was the Ayrton Senna license which attracted my best friend to the cover whilst we perused the Mega Drive titles at the Penarth branch of Blockbuster. If we rented it once, we rented it twenty times that summer. Entire days (and sometimes nights) would be lost to playing through full championships, with us alternating races and adding our own commentary (even giving ourselves the names Jimmy and Ralph for added immersion). Eventually, my friend found a cheap copy at Cardiff's Virgin Megastore and it was ours to play whenever we liked, without having to share our game saves with the other game renters of Penarth. Little did we know that playing the game would take a more poignant turn within a matter of months.

Prior to the 1994 San Marino Grand Prix, the biggest talking point amongst my F1-loving school friends was the fact that Murray Walker had inexplicably added an "I" to the start of Ayrton Senna's name. It even became a running joke for us to add the extra letter to all driver names and teams, referring to our favourites as iDamon Hill and iWilliams. However, there was little to laugh about after that tragic weekend at Imola.

During the red flag period following Senna's fatal crash on lap seven of the race, my friend came over to my house in shock. We couldn't believe what we had seen and just sat in silence watching the events unfold. To this day, I barely remember the remainder of the race, and can only recall a subdued Michael Schumacher in the press conference afterwards.

It felt as if the coverage should have continued for hours more - these days it probably would - and when the programme ended we didn't know what to do with ourselves. Usually it was the fortnightly routine of filling in the F1 News wallchart in a variety of different coloured pens. But that seemed pointless, and the spaces still remain blank to this day.

At this point, Senna had still not been declared dead. Teletext used the term "clinically dead", which we didn't really understand. With a flicker of hope left, and at a loss for anything better to do, we went for a walk.

By 4pm we found ourselves in the Cricket nets at Penarth Athletic Field. We didn't have a bat or a ball on us, but we stayed there for two hours playing what can only be described as Air Cricket and talking about the day's events. It was a beautiful day, perfect Bank Holiday weather, but all we could think about was the crash, and its possible consequences.

At 6pm - my friend's traditional time to go home for tea - we headed back, going our separate ways at the corner of St. Peter's Road. As soon as I got in, I checked Teletext and was upset to discover that Senna had been declared dead. Another wave of disbelief engulfed me, and I don't remember much else until my friend came back to my house and we came up with the only tribute that seemed appropriate - a marathon session of Ayrton Senna's Super Monaco GP II.

For five hours, that's how we processed the day. At around 11.30pm, we won the championship (and sent the flag man soaring into the sky). Ayrton's digital yelp of "Final Lap" during the last race was particularly emotional. It didn't help us get over it - I don't think anybody who saw it live ever did - but we at least felt that we had done our bit to honour one of our heroes.

Nigel Mansell's World Championship (1992, Gremlin, GameBoy)

By the time Nigel Mansell finally got around to releasing a sequel to his classic Grand Prix, my Spectrum had broken and I desperately needed a way to play his latest instalment. Thankfully, I received enough money for my thirteenth birthday to buy a GameBoy, followed soon after by the game featuring the third best moustache-wearer in video games (after Mario and Daley Thompson, of course).

Like many F1 games of this time, World Championship was basically a clone of Super Monaco GP, such was the influence of Sega's classic. Nigel's version was more of a simulation though, you couldn't just put your foot down and drive without ever braking if you wanted to succeed. Tracks and opponents were unforgiving, even on the easier mode, and it took many attempts before you could even get on the podium. The game also featured some excellent rain effects, which made handling even trickier.

The game was just as addictive as Super Monaco, and many hours would be spent staring at the GameBoy's monochrome screen until the red battery light started fading and you had to decide whether you had enough juice for just one more race. In my case, the answer would often be a frustrating "no!" as the screen faded halfway around the Hungaroring.

A version of the game appeared on home consoles using a third person view of the car instead of the GameBoy's cockpit-cam. Just as difficult, just as addictive, but just lacking the same charm as its small screen equivalent.

Formula One Grand Prix (1992, Microprose, Amiga)

It's probably fair to say that the release of Geoff Crammond's Formula One Grand Prix changed F1 games forever. Certainly, it was the first step towards an authentic simulation and representation of the sport, and away from the fast and furious gameplay style of arcade classics such as Continental Circus and Super Monaco GP. You could even say that it was the F1 video game equivalent of The Beatles going to India. Things would never be the same again.

It helped that advances in technology were able to make it feel as though you were actually in the car on the exact tracks you had been watching on television, even if it all now looks quite quaint and primitive by today's standards. All kinds of set-up options were available to the player, even if they didn't always make much of a noticable difference. Like trying to complete the Toyota Yaris Cup in Gran Turismo 3, you didn't really care what all the settings did as long as it helped you win.

This was serious racing for serious F1 fans on a serious computer, and things would get even more... serious with the release of ever-improving sequels throughout the 1990s, culminating with Grand Prix 4 in 2002 which featured fully-licensed teams and drivers and television-style presentation. Today's F1 games would probably not be where they are without Microprose's contribution to the genre.

Super F-1 Hero (1993, Varie, Super Nintendo)

A Japanese cockpit-cam F1 game which is most notable for a digitised image of Satoru Nakajima looking very thoughtful, like Tony Hadley in the Band Aid video.

Grand Prix Drivers (1993, Grafix Wizards, ZX Spectrum)

A basic top-down, Super Sprint-style F1 game which had a woman in a skin-tight yellow catsuit and knee high boots on the menu screen, which was quite alluring to a thirteen-year-old boy who hadn't yet stumbled upon a crumpled copy of Razzle in the trees at the side of the Old Penarthians rugby ground. No jokes about joystick waggling, please.

Gerhard Berger's Formula One Quiz (1993, Austria Soft, Commodore 64)

Nobody can begrudge good old Gerhard for wanting to get in on the licensed games scene, but the resulting product is surely up there as one of the most curious releases ever.

Beginning with the obligatory digitised image of the man himself, the player is then presented with a number of questions which become harder to understand as the game progresses. It's as if Gerhard started on the gin while writing the game, ending up in a paranoid drunken stupor by the end with less grasp of logic and the English language than he had before. Even the Eggheads would struggle to do what comes naturally against him in that frame of mind.

It's all going relatively swimmingly when Gerhard asks "who had been World Champion in 1992?" Easy, it was Nige. Type it in, press Enter, next question. But then he wants to know "which team won the most Grand Prix?" Er, when are we talking, Gerhard? In 1992? Ever? But he's not forthcoming with any more information, and we'll never know because he doesn't even tell you the right answer when you're wrong. In fact, he doesn't tell you either way. Thankfully he's a bit clearer with some other questions: "who is the youngest champion of ever?" for example, or "where had Lauda a terrible accident?" But then it all goes downhill again when you're left stumped on the question "who won in 1971 Monza at closest?" because you don't even know what he means.

Once you've ploughed through all of Gerhard's posers, he'll appear on screen again - regardless of your score, because you'll never know it - to wish you a hearty "Gratulations" and inform you that you are "a real expert in for the Formula 1 buissness" before hoping that you enjoyed the game. Well Gerhard, we'll never forget playing it, that's for sure. If we didn't know it was real, we'd swear it was a parody.

Whenever we see Gerhard lurking around the Formula One Paddock these days, we always like to imagine that he's setting a whole new series of posers to today's stars. We can see him being a fan of hypothetical scenarios like "who would win in a fight between Sebastian Vettel and Jean Todt, if Sebastian was stuck in quicksand and Jean was armed with an inflatable guitar?"

We're also longing for the day when David Coulthard (Rumble Man) corners Gerhard on one of his grid walks, and asks; "from which country is Jean Alesi really?" As in, really, not where he pretends to be from just to be cool.

F1 World Championship Edition (1994, Domark, Sega Mega Drive)

By the mid-1990s, it was all about 3D polygonal graphics for added realism. Such presentation had been present in small doses before, with games such as Formula 1 3D on the Amiga by Simulmondo. Domark had been leading the way since 1989's Hard Drivin', which had introduced the gaming community to the extremely angular vehicles, roads and bridges which were typical components of any game featuring 3D polygons. Domark's F1 had continued where Hard Drivin' left off with graphics that, although very old-fashioned by today's standards, really did add to the realism of playing an F1 game. The driver's head even moved in the cockpit! The updated sequel for Mega Drive is the version I played the most, and although my friends and I still preferred Super Monaco GP II, it was still exciting to see the direction in which F1 games were moving. Weekends were spent driving around the tracks I had just watched on TV. Most excitingly, I was able to play as Damon Hill (or Damo, as I called him - and still do) in the Sega-sponsored Williams in a video game. What more could a fourteen-year-old boy want?

Formula 1 Challenge (1994, Amivision, Amiga)

A little known management game for the Amiga, which would randomly generate team line-ups at the start of each season, including the unforgettable time when I led Damon Hill and Karl Wendlinger to victory for Ferrari.

Formula One World Championship: Beyond The Limit (1994, Sega, Sega Mega CD)

This is where things really started getting exciting. In all but name, this was basically Super Monaco GP 3, playing exactly as the previous SMGPs had done, but with the added power of the Sega CD and fully licensed by the FIA. The graphics were amazing for the time, and the game struck the right balance between simulation and arcade gameplay. Proving yourself on the Sega Test Track was quite the task, having to learn to keep the car on track whilst avoiding the numerous Sega and Sonic boards, as well as a herd of cows. The game was so fast and colourful, and is a perfect representation of both Sega and F1 in the 1990s. A brilliant game, but like so many from this era, a perfect time capsule of the F1 seasons of my youth. Bliss!

Virtua Racing (1994, Sega, Sega Mega Drive)

There was no stopping the march of the 3D polygons by this point, and Sega used them to great effect in their 1992 arcade classic and increasingly better home versions beginning with the Mega Drive, then 32X and ultimately the Saturn. Gameplay was fast and furious, and was an exciting sign of things to come. In some ways, the almost over-zealous use of 3D polygons lost some of the realism that had been present in older F1 games - the cars looked quite flat and futuristic and particularly at slower speeds, the wheels were so angular that they could have come straight off a Flintstones car. But with each new version, the graphics were gradually smoothed and cleaned up and soon became the template for F1 games as we known them today. If not perfect, the 3D polygon F1 games proved to be an excellent training ground for developers moving into the CD era, and provided an exciting buffer between the old-style arcade classics and what was to come.

Formula 1 '97 (1997, Bizarre Creations, PlayStation)

The two F1 games created by Bizarre Creations / Psygnosis for the PlayStation set a new standard for the genre which - graphical improvements aside - has actually changed very little ever since.

Formula 1 '97 is our favourite of the two. Everything you would want from an F1 game is there; official teams, circuits and drivers and authentic television style presentation. Commentary was provided by Murray Walker and Martin Brundle, although admittedly this was mainly limited to Murray just yelling "Ralf Schumacher!" every time you made the slightest mistake (even if you weren't playing as him), and Martin replying with a bored "you're right there, Murray."

Graphically, the 3D polygons were still present but had now been smoothed to give a very realistic feel, even by today's standards. Controls were hard to master as the D-Pad suffered from major understeer, whilst the analogue sticks would make the car twitch all over the place. But it was relatively easy to get the hang of things over time, and it was a lot of fun to work your way through the field after a disastrous qualifying session.

I still have vivid memories of one particular day when my friends and I were supposed to be revising for A-Levels and decided to play this game instead. Two of my friends almost came to blows when trying to decide who would have the honour of driving as Damon Hill. Perhaps the only time two men have had a fight over Damo, but he was the thinking fan's pin-up so you never know.

Bizarre Creations would go on to make one of our all-time favourite games, the amazing Metropolis Street Racer for Dreamcast, featuring the same level of realism and attention to detail, this time on the streets of London, San Francisco and Tokyo. It also featured one of the greatest video game soundtracks of all time, with the immortal MC Momo line; "that feels good, please continue."

F-1 World Grand Prix (2000, Video System, Sega Dreamcast)

Years after their brilliant arcade efforts, Video System returned in the late 1990s with their superb F-1 World Grand Prix game. Originally released for the Nintendo 64, we eventually bought the Dreamcast version a few years later after loving the demo on the N64 pod in Cardiff's Virgin Megastore.

Much more of a simulation than their previous arcade-style efforts, World Grand Prix was like watching races on the television, so great was the attention to detail. Everything was there from the safety car, a podium celebration with champagne spray (a detail so often overlooked in the majority of F1 games before and since) and official on-screen graphics. The game also included a '98 Events mode, which allowed you to recreate scenarios from the actual 1998 season.

Two player mode was great fun, and even included a catch-up mode for anybody picking the game up for the first time. Controls were very responsive, and along with Metropolis Street Racer, finally trained us to be confident with analogue stick control instead of our previously preferred D-Pad. We've never looked back!

A sequel was released which offered more of the same, plus two excellent GameBoy Color editions which provided fun arcade-style gameplay along the lines of Pole Position.

Racing Simulation: Monaco Grand Prix (2000, UbiSoft, Dreamcast)

If this game had been released half a dozen years before, I probably would have loved it. Unfortunately, coming after the official games by Bizarre Creations and Video System, it was a major disappointment. An official license was a basic requirement of F1 games by this point, so a lack of real teams and drivers was a step backwards. It wouldn't have been so bad if the game was fun to play, but the controls were very poor. On the plus side, the game did include a retro mode which allowed you to race old-school sausage cars (as only we call them). They're just as unresponsive as the main mode, but it's the thought that counts.

The PC version of the game was later re-branded and given away free with Kellogg's Frosties over four CD-ROMs which each contained different circuits, all newly emblazoned with Tony The Tiger and Kellogg's logos. It was still a generally disappointing game, but the addition of one of our favourite corporate characters made it a bit more... grrr-eat!

UbiSoft returned with 2000's F1 Racing Championship, which was slightly improved and featured actual teams and drivers. The best version was actually the GameBoy Color edition, and whilst not as good as the F-1 World Grand Prix titles, was a pleasant way to get a handheld F1 fix.

EA Sports F1 (2000-2003, EA, PlayStation2)

As huge fans of the FIFA and NHL games on Mega Drive, my friends and I had always wished that EA would make an official F1 game, absolutely sure that it would be brilliant. When our wish eventually came true in 2000, I had actually lost interest in F1 slightly. Life had got in the way since going to university, and Sundays were usually spent with Louise instead of in front of the television.

I didn't play an EA instalment until a fateful day in 2002, when we put the portable TV on in the kitchen while making breakfast and accidentally stumbled upon the Malaysian Grand Prix. It was the first race I had watched in a over a year and found myself enjoying it, and soon my infectious enjoyment had rubbed off on Louise, who became an instant fan of the sport.

Next day, we were in Cardiff and popped into Virgin on the off-chance that there were any cheap F1 games for us to play together. We were in luck, F1 2001 was on offer and we snapped it up before rushing home to spend the rest of the day racing each other. It was not until Louise had chosen Ralf Schumacher - or "Ralf Schumacher!" as Murray still insisted on yelling at every opportunity - for the twentieth time, that it became apparent that she had developed a bit of a thing for ol' Ralfy.

In typical EA style, their F1 games veered towards a more arcade style of gameplay, but it worked perfectly and looked fantastic. Having grown up with the ZX Spectrum and Mega Drive, I struggled to get my head around just how much graphics had moved on in such a short space of time. Considering how much games like Super Monaco GP impressed me, it's fair to say that titles such as F1 2001 astounded me!

EA's other F1 instalments offered more of the same, but for the memories associated with it, 2001 remains our favourite. Special mention must go to the GameBoy Advance version of F1 2002 which made the most out of the handheld. The most disappointing was probably F1 Career Challenge on the GameCube. We loved the idea of taking a driver through four official seasons, but found the controls impossible to master. The game remains on a shelf largely unplayed to this day.

Formula One 2001 (2001, Sony Computer Entertainment, PlayStation)

We first played one of the official Sony F1 games when 2001 appeared on a demo disc with Official PlayStation Magazine. We weren't huge fans at first, it was so fast it was almost too fast, and we didn't find it as enjoyable as the previous EA efforts.

Whether we got better at games in general, or something clicked, we eventually gave it another go and found it quite playable. In addition to the now expected license, TV presentation and realistic graphics, the game featured an F1 trivia quiz on the loading screens which thankfully made a lot more sense than Gerhard Berger's Formula One Quiz. Points were awarded for fast answers, and we still think it would have made an excellent spin-off game in its own right.

Commentary was much improved, even if there were long pauses between the driver's name and the description of events. Martin Brundle even developed a new phrase - "hang on a minute!" - to add to his previously limited utterances.

Subsequent sequels added little to the existing template except for updated graphics and team rosters and sponsorships. PlayStation2 releases had the nice touch of adding DVD season reviews as a bonus disc, allowing collectors to build up a collection of early 2000s F1 highlights.

F1 Race Stars (2012, Codemasters, PlayStation3)

By the time Codemasters got hold of the official F1 license, there was little they could bring to shake up a template that had remained in place for well over a decade. When you're making a game based on a sport and all the elements have already been mastered, it's basically just a case of updating the drivers, cars, circuits and sponsorships with each annual release. Admittedly, Codemasters have done a brilliant job with every release since F1 2009. We particularly love F1 2013 which included a Classics mode that allows you to drive many of the cars from the ZX Spectrum and Mega Drive eras in gorgeous modern HD, although we'll never forgive Mark Webber for driving us off the track in Canada. It's like coming full circle after a lifetime of playing F1 games. Overall, the Codemasters F1 games are our favourites. It's probably a mixture of the fact that they're done so well, combined with the nostalgia of having played Codemasters games for over two decades, including Grand Prix Simulator. But it is admittedly difficult to get excited and rush out to buy a game that you know is basically the same as the last one, and the one before that. Hence the reason we were so excited when we first played the demo of F1 Race Stars.

Successfully combining the official F1 license with Mario Kart-style gameplay, Race Stars sees you driving cartoon versions of the real cars of the 2012 season with caricature versions of the drivers, complete with comedy voices (which unfortunately are not provided by the drivers themselves). Each circuit also includes over-the-top representations of famous landmarks, plus national stereotypes. Racing through Germany with Sebastian Vettel shouting "Wunderbar!" whilst an Oompah band plays in the background is not to be missed. Similarly, it's the only way you'll hear Bruno Senna saying "hello!" like a Khajiit from Elder Scrolls.

All the usual power-ups are available, from ballons which explode to blind opponents with ticker tape, to homing missiles which blow cars off the track. Keys are located in hidden locations which allow you to take sneaky shortcuts, and whether you're racing the computer, a local opponent or a bunch of people online, you'll never know who will win until the very end. Bernie Ecclestone has spent years trying to make Formula One more interesting, and Codemasters managed it with one game. Admittedly, it's doubtful that the FIA would legalise electric shock bombs for actual racing though.

As older gamers who remember the charm of earlier F1 attempts, even if they didn't quite have the licenses or realism of today's instalments, it was pleasing to be surprised and excited by a new take on the genre at a time when both the sport and games based upon it have become quite clinical and predictable at times. As much as we can't wait for Codemasters' F1 2016 on PS4, it's F1 Race Stars that remains our go-to F1 game whenever we fancy a quick race. We wish they'd make a new one to reflect today's driver line-ups. The world needs a Max Verstappen caricature complete with a nappy and dummy, crying whenever he gets hit from behind by a well-aimed triple bomb from Carlos Sainz, Jr. We can but dream.

Saturday, May 07, 2016

Steam On The Dock - Albert Dock, Liverpool - May 6th 2016

Photos taken on the first day of the Steam At The Dock event at Liverpool's Albert Dock on May 6th 2016.

The dedication ceremony for the star of the show, the SS Daniel Adamson, a restored steam-powered tug. Featuring Dame Lorna Muirhead (Lord Lieutenant of Merseyside) and Dan Cross (chair of the Daniel Adamson Preservation Society), plus a performance by the Port Sunlight Sea Dogs.

'Lilla' from the Ffestiniog Railway in Gwynedd, offering free rides up and down the dock basin, and responsible for most of the steam on the dock!

Various photos from the event including George the Foden steam engine, the Brocklebank and a collection of other vintage steam-powered traction engines.

Prawn Cufflinks on eBay

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