Every game released before 2015 is being destroyed. We only have time to rescue one game from each year. Not those you’ve played to death, or the classics that the industry has already learned from. We’re going to select the games that still have more to give. These are the Saved Games.
There’s a moment just seconds into Interstate ‘76’s intro cinematic that I think neatly captures its spirit: two American hot rods are racing along a desert highway, one firing its roof-mounted machine guns perfectly in sync with the wacka-wacka funk guitar underpinning the scene, while the other weaves from side to side in front of it, also in time with the music. There are probably a total of seventy polygons onscreen, and yet the game’s stylistic vision and world of bizarre menace are communicated instantly.
Set in an alt-history southwestern USA in which the 1973 oil crisis provoked the rise of criminal gangs and a resultant vigilante uprising, Interstate ‘76 is a vehicular combat game as concerned with nailing an aesthetic as it is with the mechanics of cars shooting at one another. It’s a game that achieves remarkable harmony between its visual style, narrative and what you do as the player, and it does so in a world that’s not quite seventies pastiche or fantasy dystopia. Instead, it’s something strange and distinct in between the two. It is the game release of 1997 that should be preserved forevermore.
Settings and plot arcs in vehicular combat games are preposterous by necessity, of course, because they have to accommodate a) the existence of wholly impractical machines and b) people solving their every problem by driving those machines. Interstate ‘76 is preposterous, then, but because its visual design, soundtrack and core mechanics reinforce its ideas so well, it’s the kind of preposterous you can get behind.
Player-character Groove Champion is mixed up in all this highway warfare by sheer chance. He finds himself behind the wheel of a modded, weaponised Picard Piranha after his vigilante sister ticks off the wrong crime lord and winds up catching a fatal (or is it, etc.) bullet. He’s horrified to learn she was caught up in that world, but at the same time feels an irresistible sense of duty to follow the same path. Mentor Taurus, who partnered Groove’s sister before she died, is there to make sure he fulfils that obligation. Keep in mind that this is a driving-shooty game from 1997; it would have been ample exposition to tell the player, ‘You’re a vigilante. Go shoot these cars.’ Instead, Interstate ‘76 strived for something with more character.
Talismanic of that attitude is the now legendary poem button in the controls list. You press the 'x' key and Groove asks, “Hey Stampede, how about a poem?” Taurus obliges with one of 15 different pieces, and he’s not half bad at waxing lyrical. Playing in situ at age 11, it was probably the best poetry I’d ever heard. “I'm a storm torrent across a slate-gray sea,” he might begin. Or, “They twist like quad-coiled vipers, feeding on combustion's waste.” Taurus’ unwavering commitment to fulfilling Groove’s request can lead to moments of unexpected poignancy - he’ll recite lines even when coming under heavy attack from landmines, machinegun fire, or helicopters. I’m not proud of it, but I used to ask him for a poem when his smoking car appeared to be in real trouble in the hope of seeing him explode mid-verse.
The options menus and map screen are worthy of mention too, if you can believe it. Graphical options, control customisation and all the rest are written out as items on a menu from Joe’s Fish Shack, while maps for each mission are scrawled on restaurant napkins. When you exit the game, a note from someone presumably under Joe’s employment asks “Are you leaving me, sweetheart?” These are small details, and they wouldn’t save Interstate ‘76 if the fundamentals weren’t in place, but they do demonstrate how far that commitment to stylistic consistency runs in this game.
The inhuman angles, featureless faces and girder-like fingers of Interstate ‘76’s low-poly cast of characters should by all rights make it look as dated as snap bracelets, yet it’s employed so effectively to tell the story of alt-seventies vigilantes that it looks in many ways perfectly modern, even now. However restrictive the hardware of 1997 may have been, its early 3D character models appear sculpted by artistic imperative rather than necessity. Notably, it's not a million miles away from some recent indie games.
As the story goes, the concept came about when designer Sean Vesce and lead designer/writer Zack Norman had just shipped Mechwarrior 2 and were flicking through listings for used muscle cars in Auto Trader magazine. While the vehicles in Interstate ‘76 are all unlicensed, that doesn’t diminish its enthusiasm for hot rods and their component parts one bit. A surprisingly sophisticated vehicle salvage system for the time lets you harvest parts from opponents you shot to smithereens in the previous mission, designate them for your mechanic Skeeter to repair, and gradually upgrade your own Piranha on a granular level, from guns to brakes, mine dispensers and nitrous oxide canisters to armour distribution.
I haven’t mentioned what you actually do much, have I? Perhaps I’m slightly loath to admit that shooting at other cars from inside one of your own is a fundamentally awkward experience, and that Interstate ‘76 doesn’t offer a particularly elegant solution to that problem. Aerial dogfights in space shooters and combat flight sims enjoy the significant advantage of additional axes of movement. You can loop-de-loop out of trouble to emerge behind your foe, undertake a twisting evasive manoeuvre, and you can use vertical distance, as well as horizontal, to hide when your health bar gets low. There’s none of that when you’re stuck on the ground like a schmuck. Your options are limited to lining yourself up directly in front of or behind a target, and in Interstate ‘76 most conflicts are resolved by two vehicles trundling in gradually slower circles as they try to get behind one another.
I always preferred the moments of calm. If Interstate ‘76’s influence can be found anywhere in the modern era, and you have to peer quite closely, it’s the way it treats long drives as an opportunity for exposition. It’s a staple of open world game design now, the drive-and-chat on the way to a mission, but I found a thrill in hearing Groove and Taurus discuss life and crack wise with each other over their CB radios with nary a foe in sight. It’s another tool Activision use to maintain that tonal unity.
Interstate '76 got a sequel in 1999, although Interstate ‘82 suffered a fate of obscurity after failing to heed the advice offered by Skeeter in the first game: never get out of the car. After that, it’s hard to trace a line of heritage down the years. The vehicular combat genre survives on the fringe, sustained only by those inclined to put up with its inherent frustrations. Despite critical acclaim at the time, Interstate ‘76 doesn’t come up in conversation much these days. In the end it’s managed the same sort of cult status as many of the exploitation films and gaudy TV shows it drew influence from, and it’d be happy with that, I suppose. Its petrolhead poetry and ludonarrative consonance (my fingers just did little sicks as I typed that) certainly won’t be forgotten by anyone who played it.