The remarkable community around a 27-year-old MS-DOS racing game

What does it take to keep a game alive for 27 years?

Stunts, released by Distinctive Software in 1990, is a brutally unforgiving racing game. In glorious 640×480 resolution, it boasts 3D graphics in bold primary colours, a physics engine (that will regularly destroy your car), and a track editor. Prior to the fall of the Soviet Union, it was pretty cutting edge. But what is most noteworthy about it is that it still has an active playerbase. I spoke to members of the Stunts community to find out why they’re still playing.

Péter Ács, a.k.a. Zak McKracken, is the founder of ZakStunts, the forum and tournament series at the heart of Stunts’ survival. He has been playing the game since 1994. “Stunts introduced a new level of freedom that was unconventional back in that age,” he told me. “It does not put you in a linear story or on a circular track you have to repeat all-over. You can go anywhere and if you get bored with a track, you can redesign it or design your own. Replays allowed you to compete with friends and show off your skills – so it was and is a true multiplayer sandbox game, very similar to Minecraft.”

Replays are what allow the tournaments to take place – rather than running conventional multiplayer races, which would be beyond the powers of its aged technology, Stunts allows players to record replays of their solo performances, which they can then upload to the forum at their convenience. This ingenious system made tournaments much easier to organise, but also had some unexpected consequences. “Replay handling arises from the replay system of Stunts,” says veteran player Daniel Mlot, “which can be used to rewind a lap and continue from any point. The game tells us we are not supposed to get a high score from laps continued in this way, but the mechanism that enforces it is very easy to circumvent within the game, with no external tools or outright hacks… Replay handling changes the character of the game. It becomes equal parts racing and puzzle: discovering improbable racing lines and figuring out ways to pull them off is as important as driving fast.”

Ács’ innovative tournament format likely contributed to the tenacity of the ZakStunts community. “I started using the internet in 1998 and got immersed in the abandonware community,” he says. “Almost all regular racers started their own competitions back then, so I took my chances too. The concept was to play with all the cars, as most competitions were focusing only on the fastest car – the Indy.”

‘Dreadnaut’, an Edinburgh-based software developer who maintains the website, described the subtleties of the system. “Slow or unused cars get bonuses; leading the scoreboard for a few days can bring additional points; replays are downloadable at the beginning of the race, then only the results are visible, and hidden for the last 48 hours. These rules create a strategic meta-game that runs over weeks and months, across the whole season. Should I send my strong replay now and disclose my tricks and short-cuts, or should I wait a few days more but forfeit the leading points?”

Though the community maintains a fairly stable number of players, the real heyday, according to Mlot, was 2002-2006. “It was an era of very fierce rivalries between racers and teams,” he says, “rivalries that were played out across various competitions with diverging rule sets. Large parts of the modern metagame were consolidated during that period. Compared to those years, the community these days is a somewhat quieter and calmer place.” Ács backed him up: “The best part in my opinion was 2004-2006, when each year we had a World Stunts Meeting, twice in Hungary, once in Denmark, where the core of the community came together, played live races, and had a lot of fun and parties through a long weekend.”

For one player in Argentina, though, Stunts took on a much more personal significance.

Sergio Baronetti came across ZakStunts in 2004, and immediately introduced his 70-year-old father, Anelio, to the game. Already a fan of more contemporary titles such as Viper Racing and Colin McRae Rally, Anelio took to it with gusto. Under the name AbuRaf70, he competed in almost every ZakStunts tournament for the next twelve years, achieving eleven podiums and taking part in the formation of the ‘MeganiuM Aces High’ racing team. He used Google Translate to communicate with non-Spanish speaking players. “Over the years,” Sergio told me, “friendships were formed in the game – Paleke [a fellow ZakStunts competitor] came to visit my father’s house and mine.”

Despite his declining health, Anelio’s enthusiasm for the game was unswerving. “Having already been hospitalized,” Sergio says, “what he most asked was when the ZCT186 race started, as it was taking a while… I adapted a NetBook computer so he could race from a wheelchair. With great effort he came out of his bed and sat in the wheelchair, and with the NetBook in his lap could barely get past the first corner of the ZCT186 and could not continue to race because of his health – but was very happy to be able to see the track, and to run even that smallest part.”

Anelio died in January of this year. “He will be dearly missed,” said Mlot. “AbuRaf was one of our most loved friends and an icon of the community,” said Cas, architect of the Stunts community’s favoured track-editing tool, Bliss. “It is a great pleasure for me to remember my father in this game,” said Sergio. “Stunts has meant a lot, an awful lot, in his last years of life… When I was very young, my dad always told me that he would have liked to sit in a Formula 1 car and drive it. As you might expect, that was impossible – but thanks to computer games, he could simulate it.”

The ZakStunts homepage displays the track being raced in each month’s tournament. If you go there now, you can see the current track: ‘AbuRaf’s Boulevard’.

From this site

48 Comments

  1. Ezzekhiel says:

    Thank you so much, this game was absolutely amazing and so ahead of its time. I remember spending entire schooldays designing my tracks and rushing home to build them. Excellent article, and I am very happy the community keeps this game alive!

  2. Landiss says:

    The URL is broken.

  3. RuySan says:

    I knew this game as 4d sports driving, and I’m almost sure it isn’t SVGA but 320×200 instead.

    Yes, it was a great good with lots of longevity due to the track editor, so it’s not surprising that it has such fan base

    • ansionnach says:

      I think it was called 4D Sports Driving in the UK. That’s the version I had, too. The executable was still Stunts. I remember being confused as to what it was really called.

      • RuySan says:

        I remember my executable being 4ds, because that’s what everybody called this game back then here in portugal.

        • ansionnach says:

          I may be mistaken about the UK exe file, then – please disregard this comment. The earliest I can check up on this is Saturday.

          Did anyone play some of the other 4D sports games? There was boxing and maybe some others. Never did myself.

          • JimDiGritz says:

            4D Sports Boxing was astounding – it’s never been bettered on the PC (though the console based Fight Night series is it’s nearest descendant)

    • ButteringSundays says:

      Yup i was always puzzled what made it 4d!

      Great game, I’d completely forgotten about it.

      • ansionnach says:

        Maybe it was 4d because you travelled through time… forwards and at a constant rate! By that definition, all 2d games would have a third dimension, too. It’s hardly to do with the replay system that allowed you to rewind and continue? Not sure if the other 4d games had one as well. Even though I don’t care about scores, the message you got when you rewound and continued was enough to have me restart when this happened. If I could have circumvented it, I wouldn’t. I suopose you make up your own challenges sometimes!

        One of my favourites was turning around and trying to ram all the other cars off the track in Indianapolis 500. There was no damage for you in the ten-lap race but you didn’t have long to stop all the other cars. If you did too many backwards laps it messed up your lap counter and you couldn’t win even if you stopped everyone else. Great fun, especially watching the carnage-filled replays with polygona flying everywhere!

    • hfm says:

      link to mobygames.com

      “Dazzling VGA Graphics”

      VGA = 640×480
      SVGA = 800×600

      • ansionnach says:

        This game, like many VGA DOS games, was 320×200 as many have said. Doesn’t matter what the current online definitions say. Might explain why another recent RPS piece made the same mistake.

        How’s everyone’s memory? I seem to remember games at 640×480 being called SVGA around the mid nineties. An example of this was Sim City 2000.

        • dahauns says:

          Yep, like that. Quite confusing, since VGA/SVGA/XGA originally referred to actual hardware implementations (with lots of different display modes) but transitioned in meaning towards monikers of resolution. (Typically corresponding to the hardware’s max. resolution)
          VGA in this case would more precisely mean VGA/MCGA Mode 13h.

          • syndrome says:

            ^this

            MCGA mode 13h was the only one capable of 320×200, 6 bits per channel (262,144 color palette with 256 displayed at any time)

            click

      • RuySan says:

        You’re massively wrong.

        640×480 might not sound like much, but it was super crispy on 14″ monitors back in the day, hence the ‘super’ , and because of that I remember quite well which games had that resolution, like the first need for speed, the crusader games and sim city 2000.

  4. Beefsurgeon says:

    Oh man, Stunts was probably my favorite game of the early 90’s. Pretty sure the resolution wasn’t 640×480 though. I believe it was straight-up VGA @ 320×200.

    • kalirion says:

      Yup, it was just standard VGA/MCGA mode IIRC.

      • ansionnach says:

        Yes, the best option was 320 x 200 in MCGA/VGA. The others were EGA, Tandy, Hercules and CGA.

        • Risingson says:

          It’s not even memory. It takes barely no time to try the game and check the resolution, but the documentation in RPS is failing all the time. They just don’t want to make any effort themselves about, well, about supposedly what they like: videogames.

          BUT. Remember that it was not that easy. Remember that VGA was not only 320×200 because there were many non standard modes (Jazz Jackrabbit, Tubular Worlds or Lost Vikings had these). Remember that VGA could also be 640×480 (the Legend Entertainment first games, SimAnt) or 640×400 or 640×350…

          EDIT: informative link link to nerdlypleasures.blogspot.co.uk

        • Risingson says:

          What about Syndicate?

  5. Premium User Badge

    Drib says:

    Oh man, Stunts!

    I remember playing this on a friend’s computer way back when. I never had my own copy.

    But this game was super neat for the time. I sorta doubt it holds up, but now I’m pretty tempted to find a way to give it a go.

  6. Konservenknilch says:

    Man, that brings back memories. Not such much about the driving, but I could play for hours just with the track editor.

  7. CartonofMilk says:

    Played that a lot too in about 1991. Lots of fun. But NOT in any way a game i expected this article could be about when i clicked the link.

  8. int says:

    Love this game, first played it in the mid 90s. It was the first game I ever played which had a map (or track) editor.

    I was amazed by how ahead of its time the game was. Like actually traveling through a loop in first person was amazing, and very difficult at first; hell, some cars simply couldn’t do it.

  9. JKing says:

    I wasted many an hour playing this game when I should have been doing my homework. I was never very serious with it, but I remember is as being very advanced for its time. Its longevity since probably speaks volumes about the worth of its systems.

  10. noom says:

    Wow… while I don’t have distinct memories of playing this, those screenshots are definitely triggering some kind of recall in me, especially the map editor and track overview. And that recall is telling me I had a lot of love for this game. Amazing to hear that people still play it.

  11. ansionnach says:

    Some things I remember about this game:
    The shrillness of the PC Speaker title screen music, especially towards the end.
    That your car would sometimes be destroyed going around a loop-the-loop at polygon seams.
    Getting more enjoyment out of it when I stopped picking the Indy car all the time.

  12. Babymech says:

    The most important thing by far about Stunts was picking the Porsche March IndyCar, building a track that let it build up to max speed, and then jumping off a ramp. The physics engine broke and you hit escape velocity, just going straight up.

    • The Velour Fog says:

      if you held down accelerate long enough, your car would eventually launch vertically by itself

  13. baristan says:

    archive.org has a browser playable version of this game.
    link to archive.org

  14. Shazbut says:

    The article and linked site give me a warm fuzzy feeling. Thanks!

  15. orbit_l says:

    Awesome game. My favourite thing to do was to start the track off with a loop-the-loop and litter the track after it with obstacles like trees and houses. Then you could crawl up the loop with the Indy and come out the other side at full speed, at which point the challenge was to drift between the obstacles as long as possible :D

  16. slamelov says:

    I remember this one
    link to mobygames.com

    With a great damage model for that time. I remember the digitized voice “gentlemen, start your engine”.

  17. Premium User Badge

    AceJohnny says:

    Wait! People are still playing Stunts!? Holy shit! Thank you for bringing this to my attention :D

    Of all the stuff I’ve played in the 90s, this remains the most undervalued ones in my mind.

    I should give Trackmania another go…

  18. April March says:

    Ah, Stunts. I have a lot of memories of this game, and this article triggers all of them. The track builder. The weird pilots. The DRM (I had a bootleg copy that had a list of all answers, and considered making a module for Keep Talking and Nobody Explodes based on it). It truly was ahead of its time.

  19. Dilapinated says:

    I’ve never played the game, but I love your articles about gaming communities with such strong bonds & goodwill. This was a really wonderful article, thankyou.

  20. apa says:

    Stunts or 4D Sports: Driving was awesome back then, especially the track builder. And it had quite exotic cars – Lamborghini LM002! Did Stunts support wheels (ie. could I play it today with a wheel)? I think I played with joystick or keyboard.

    And yes, 4D Sports: Boxing was also great. I remember the title theme better than Rocky theme :D

  21. lglethal says:

    Ah yes, spent many hours playing this as a kid. I can still remember the amount of time it took me to learn how to handle the Loops and how easy it actually turned out to be (once i got the hang of it!). I think i probably still have the muscle Memory! ;)

  22. Collieuk says:

    I loved Stunts. Played this on my 12mhz 286 after borrowing a friend’s copy. Couldn’t understand why I couldn’t get near their track times, then realised later it was due to the slow frame rate of my machine. Drop graphic settings down (yes you had graphics options even then) and suddenly I was getting faster times. When I had a 486 I beat all their times. A few years back I found the copy on a 3.5inch disk with all their old tracks and tried to beat their 20 year old scores again.

    There are 3 versions of the .Exe I believe with minor changes, one version being 4D Sports Driving. I used to love creating the biggest tracks possible and cruising around in the 4×4 or Lacia. Oddly my 486 could handle the big tracks but later my more powerful PCs couldn’t.

    Anyway amazing game. Lost weeks of my life to it.

  23. Barts says:

    Loved it. Worked on Hercules graphics card, using CGA emulation. Ye goode, olde amber times…

  24. icarussc says:

    This game was great. This article is great. This site is great. Thank you very much, folks.

  25. Premium User Badge

    Drib says:

    The site has a copy of Stunts that runs on XP or older.

    Take that, friends who scoffed at me keeping my old XP machine. Who has an ancient game now?

  26. Premium User Badge

    corinoco says:

    I played this a lot in the early 90’s as part of my effort to avoid doing uni work. The first place I remember swapping replays and tracks was funet.edu.fi – the very free and open Finnish server in the days of FTP and TELNET before the WWW buggered everything forever.

    I still have those replays backed up somewhere, and a huge collection of tracks dating to the 90’s – I should upload them. For a while I held a record for ‘longest time in the air’ from a crash, I think it was maybe 12 minutes or so.

  27. Michael Fogg says:

    This article should mention the secret (or at least not obvious) keybinding in the level editor that unlocks terrain and other features besides the basic track elements.

  28. morse says:

    Great article. It definitely brings back memories for me too. I remember finding a trick where you could re-enter the loop-the-loop just as you exited, putting you in a cycle of increasing speed. If you timed your exit right, you could blast off like a space shuttle, making for some fun replays.
    (I was pretty garbage at racing. Still am.)

  29. SebfromMTL says:

    I remember this and the Track magazine game (forgot the name) which let you use a sport car to climb a mountain.

    Anyone remember Race Drivin? It had the same look as Stunts but was also available in arcade in a full cabinet. That was awesome!

  30. hurrakan says:

    I loved this game but I think I was quite terrible at it. I was only 10 years old though.

    Here it is on abandonia: link to abandonia.com

  31. takfar says:

    Ooh. Stunts was quite popular back in my early teens, 1995/96. We’d pass around the floppy disk and play it in school computers. Even tho the CD-ROM “multimedia kit” era was already upon us, Stunts was a huge favorite.

    Interesting to know it was a global phenomenom (I’m in Brazil, btw).