It’s always fun to see what relics will appear on Good Old Games next. Plundering the PC gaming archives, they pull out a Duke Nukem 3D or a Stonekeep, and suddenly you’re back in the mid 90s, the blocky graphics and absence of physics are immediately forgotten, and you’re having a damned great time. And then there’s MegaRace. It’s fascinating to see it appearing – one of the most famously terrible games of all time, given new life. But is it really as bad as everyone remembers?
Good grief, it’s so much worse.
MegaRace represented an astonishing step forward for game CGI. It was breathtaking. Not only where there 3D cities through which the camera would sweep, but the full motion video from your host, one Lance Boyle, was a league ahead of the barely recognisable video actors from the previous year’s 7th Guest. It first appeared in 1994, the same year as the even-more-legendary Rise of the Robots, and it achieved the same phenomenon: utterly astonishing graphics, but less game than an empty bucket.
It’s perhaps most famous for the frenetic camp gurning of race host, Lance Boyle. Played by videogame regular, Christian Erickson, the squawking character achieves previously uncharted levels of irritating. As he squirms and waggles his way through the nonsense script, you find yourself increasingly recognising the charisma and appeal of people like Dale Winton and Terry Christian. But by far the most entertaining aspect of Boyle’s introduction is his desperation to assure you that it’s all just pretend.
Painfully influenced by Arnie’s The Running Man, the story is set in a dystopianish future where criminal gangs take part in deadly races. You are the Enforcer, taking part in a virtual reality TV show where your job is to kill all the other players from their evil speed gangs. So you’re not fighting criminal gangs. But they employ criminal gangs. They sometimes even ship them in from other areas for the race. But it’s virtual reality. But… Huh? Anyway, ignoring all that, you’re tasked with shooting at, crashing into, or, er, driving past them to death. Get a big enough lead against one of the other cars and it will explode. Presumably in shame. But oh good grief, whatever you do, don’t think for a moment that the death is real!!!
Perhaps the ratings board had warned developers Cryo that any implications of genuine violence would see them get a higher rating than they wanted, or maybe there was an overruling manifesto at the company that their games must be “family friendly”, because Boyle’s frantic monologue goes to extraordinary lengths to reassure the player that it’s all make believe.
“Here’s the deal: our chosen candidate – and everybody with a death-wish is free to apply, including men and women of either sex – our candidate, who we call, ‘The Enforcer’, gets a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity to terminate a whole lotta slimeballs, and there’s nothing anybody can do about it, you see what I mean?! Because it all happening right here on VWBT – where the cops move over and the Enforcer takes over!”
Ooh, that does sound awfully violent, doesn’t it? But wait.
“Wait ’til you hear this! Every time you kill a Pack Leader – and when I say ‘kill’, I’m talking virtuality, not reality, okay? In MegaRace, nobody actually dies. It just looks and feels like it (and that makes you feel a whole lot better about yourself, now doesn’t it?!) – every time you kill a leader, you not only score big time, you also win some major bonus prizes. His personal music CD and his customized car are both yours!”
So assured that you’re not actually killing anyone… Oh just wait a second, look I’m sorry but I can’t let this go. It’s a game, right? No one at any point thought that MegRace, no matter how revolutionary the graphics were at the time, was a live video feed of a real life car crashing race in which you remotely controlled the Enforcer’s car. So of COURSE the death was pretend! Why in the name of crikey did they feel the need to hammer this point so damned hard? Right, I’ll move on, I promise.
Because for all MegaRace’s dramatic presentation, the game’s terribleness was spectacular. The most important thing to know was that at no point do you really race a car. In fact, amazingly, the track is an unstoppable pre-rendered FMV playing in the background. Your vehicle is projected onto it, only capable of sliding from side to side. Occasionally the FMV slows down or speeds up to create the illusion of changing speed, but it’s hilariously clear it’s an illusion.
It’s brilliantly dreadful in every imaginable way. One aspect shouted at you by Boyle at the start is the Thrillometer. This is a gauge on your dashboard that informs you how thrilling your race is for the TV show’s viewing audience. You mustn’t let it drop into the grey you’re told. If it drops in the grey, the audience gets bored, ratings go down. Except it makes absolutely no difference whatsoever. It doesn’t affect the race, your progress, your score – nothing. Never mind that it would be utterly impossible to perform any act in the game that could ever be considered as thrilling by even the most sedentary slug-human hybrid.
It’s not fair to mock it for how poor it looks now. But it’s interesting to note how bonkers our brains were back then, when we’d stare open-mouthed at the extraordinary depiction of a city. We could see regular cities, right? And they weren’t made of jagged blocks, right? Just checking. So you know when you stare in amazement at Far Cry 2’s incredible vistas? We’re not going to believe we thought that was ever possible in a few years time.
It’s worth buying to experience. I swear it. The complete absence of any sensation of being a car, the dreadful collision detection, the absolute lack of any notion of real driving, and of course the finger-chewingly awful Lance Boyle. (I wish no disrespect to Christian Erickson – I’m quite certain none of this is his fault.) MegaRace is unquestionably one of the most dreadful games ever made, and deserves to be heralded for this. It’s a novelty piece, a mutant foetus in a museum of medical oddities. Also, you get the slightly less dreadful MegaRace 2 in the deal!