A Blast from the Past review
FBT relives a beer-soaked memory of crashing monster trucks in what he remembers as the best racing game of the nineties. How much beer did he drink?
Monster Truck Madness has a special spot in my gamer heart. Many nights were spent with friends and beers playing this game even though we shouldn’t have. Not because it was outside our age rating or we’d stolen it, but because it seemed too shiny and pleasant, a kids game. We were all about Doom or Road Rash, what was this doing on our rig? You couldn’t even run people over. We put it on for an ironic laugh, and then we were laughing for reals.
I remember MTM as a bright, silly, fun racer. A year later two racing games were released that spoke to me on a higher, more intellectual level - GTA and Carmageddon; Everything that MTM was not. But up ‘till then, MTM was the only racer I played that let me drive how I wanted; Like a maniac. Sure there were demolition derby-style games, but they kept within the confines of the track. MTM had tracks in an open environment; the game seemed to nudge you and say ‘go on, have a muck about’. You’re driving a monster truck - if there was ever a game that could break the rules, it’s this one.
While Carma’s violence and GTA’s criminal behaviour had me cackling at the mayhem, MTM made me giggle with sheer fun. The commentator’s dialogue just added encouragement; ‘Gravedigger is looking for a detour!’ he screamed when I drove off into a nearby field, ‘Gravedigger is doin’ it in the air’ he’d inform the crowd when I went airborne or ‘Leannnnnnnnn into it!’ if you looked set to tip your truck over. Oh we did lean into it.
The trucks were mostly based on real-life machines - the Big Daddy Bigfoot featured along with other ‘famous’ monster trucks of the day. I don’t remember much about the tracks but that’s likely because I was rarely on them. The game didn’t really care what you got up to, it didn’t constantly flash ‘wrong way’ or auto place you back on the track if you ventured too far and the contestants didn’t pull over once they finished, they kept truckin’. As soon as we realised this, we stopped even trying to win a game.
Much like Driver, released 3 years later, where we’d bump a copper then run for it and see who lasted the longest, in MTM we’d just hang a right as soon as possible then drive towards the other trucks to cause pile ups then relive our greatest moments in the replay menu. Because most of the environment was moveable, within minutes we’d be shunting caravans, bins, trees, anything possible into the path of the oncoming trucks. The AI wasn’t too smart but it knew to avoid something it could see, so we created a new genre - stealth monster trucking. We’d back Gravedigger up behind a billboard and wait, switching views (you could switch views!) to Bigfoot and watch to as it hammered around the track, blissfully unaware a competitor was not taking this seriously. ‘Bigfoot is hanging ten!’ the commentator would yell as it hit the portapotty I shunted into his path and span off. I don’t know why but we spent hours doing this. Hours planning traps and exploring the region looking for things to push miles back onto the track. It became a badge of honour to send an opponent into the abyss and hear the commentator yelling ‘Bigfoot is calling in the whirly bird’ and we knew we’d bested him. Name one other racing game where instead of hitting ‘reset’, you called in a helicopter to recover you?
I’m really excited to get back to the madness; if there was ever a game title I took to heart it was this one. I never won a race, but I never had so much fun losing.
Still a Blast?
So yeah, maybe alcohol played a part in this memory. The game is exactly how I remembered, but with a whole lot of rose-tint going on. Once the game starts, I am struck by one thing; I am old.
The commentator ‘Army Armstrong’ is there spouting encouragements and updates but it’s gotten hard to look at and control and what I remembered as the thundering sound of monster trucks now sounds like my phone vibrating on my desk. I justify it’s rough and ready feel as part of the charm, that it was never going to stand up graphically to modern games but even I’m surprised at how basic this looks, how clunky it feels. It’s 20yrs old I argue, age isn’t a barrier to playability I whine, but I have to consider that during this time, Playstation and N64 were at war and racing games were the battlefield - they had the genre down to a fine art and were pulling people away from PC. It seems as if Microsoft’s studios were trying to offer equally bright shiny fun with MTM and its stable mates Midtown and Motocross but graphically it looks like a port from the previous generation of consoles. This should have been a precursor to Carma or GTA but MTM looks like something you’d be playing down the arcade ten years earlier.
I shove caravans into Bigfoot’s path but he easily dodges them and when I do finally spring a trap it’s nowhere near as ballistic; there’s not the hysterics or the physics I remember. Mostly they back up and continue on. I wonder if we were so drunk we thought we were controlling the cutscenes.
When I do start to take it a little more seriously, MTM takes on a life of it's own. The tracks are basic but you need to keep an eye on where they're twisting and looping - and not get distracted by the giant dinosaur eating a car on the side of the track (A robosaurous I believe) - there's jumps, shortcuts and loads of areas you get caught out by. I never get close to winning a race, but it's really hectic, daft and great fun. There's other modes I never tried before, and lost at as well - Drag and Rally as well as Circuit.
So MTM should definitely have stayed in the past? Maybe not. When I compare it to my memories, it’s a letdown but that’s unfair. When I play GTA5 I spend all my time stressing about scratching my delicate car or injuring myself. Like in real life. Games have become so life-like, so real they’re not an escape anymore. The moment I bring real-world worries into what's supposed to be escapism it's gone too far. Games didn’t used to be like that and MTM reminds me of that time. It makes me want to dig out Carma, GTA VC and Driver, drive it like I stole it not like I bought it on a payday loan. Only Saints Row 3 has come close to this level of nuts and MTM just really wants you to have fun - you can chose your truck, who you race against, the tracks; it doesn't force you to win to unlock, you're not scoring prize money to upgrade - it's as up for fun as you are, which is also lacking in games nowadays. If there was ever a game to get a second life as a iOS racer app like Carmageddon did, MTM is it.
It may not be the game I remember, but as Army often yells; ‘That’s gonna leave a mark!’ He’s right, MTM did. MTM informed my expectations of racers for game-generations to come. It’s because of MTM I was disappointed in GTA5. That’s a memory, alcohol-infused or not. And who doesn’t want to drive Bigfoot? Or at least trick it into hitting a portapotty.