Speed Busters

A Blast from the Past review

Who you gonna call? Speed Busters!

The Past

Back in the 90s, Carmageddon, Monster Truck Madness, and Road Rash were my racers of choice. I hated F1 or the Gran Turismo style games, just going around and around a track. I liked to be off the beaten track, mucking about, driving like I stole it. But Speed Buster was an exception. I remember insane tracks, mad drivers, weird physics and … dinosaurs?

And what we didn’t know back then, was SB's developers, one Ubisoft Montreal, would become the behemoths behind the Far Cry sequels and Assassin’s Creed; Speed Busters, a game where you just repeat events over and over? Looks like UM got their start early. Time to go back and see where it all began.

Still a Blast?

Originally a Dreamcast game, Speed Busters American Highways is a standard championship league racer. What sets Speed Busters apart is the sense that the dev team sat in an office and said, ‘how can we do the same thing over and over?’ and their answer is basically set-dressing. This is like going back in time and witnessing the birth of UM’s design document.

There’s all of 7 tracks, and in a precursor to UM’s love for reskins, each has a summer or winter version which has no difference in gameplay and can be played in ‘reverse’ – which isn’t the Tenet-style gameplay I was expecting; its literally the map mirrored. At first I thought it was a difficulty setting, letting you deactivate ‘reverse’. Turned out there is no reverse.

To back up, you press forward and left/right and the car spins itself free. Even for a 90s release it looks and feels cheap when you get on the tracks – which while fun and hectic, are a bit long-winded. Three laps feels a long time, especially when you're stuck in last for most of it. There are cops patrolling but that extends only to sounding their sirens. I never actually saw one move or chase. And it’s worryingly easy to crash, spin off or just drive into oblivion - when there's a road to drive off. Often you think you see a route or path and Roadrunner-style it’s just a wall you pile into.

A left or right tap might let you make a corner, or go into a spin/fly off the map/get jammed in the scenery. And bumping something has exactly the kind of reaction you’d expect when the laws of physics no longer apply. It really makes you appreciate how good Carmageddon, which came from a shed in England, handled handling and physics.

The competitor cars largely stick to racing, but they also seem to be struggling with the controls. They’ll spin off or crash and rather than avoid you, they'll often just try to barrel through your car, sending you flying. Mostly though they just take off and you never have a chance to catch up; several times I suffered the indignity of being lapped.

When all this is combined, winning is a tall order. You need to make the top three to gain any prize money, which you will need to repair your battered car. By the fourth race my car only had three wheels. Eventually the game ended the race/embarrassment and sent me back to the beginning of the league. Which isn’t appealing. The time trials are marginally easier as you just have to reach checkpoints to progress, but even there the closest I made was third.

So the controls suck, the cars are cheats, the graphics haven’t aged well and the tracks are repetitive. No wonder I don’t remember much about this, I get the feeling I gave up quickly. But, like all Ubisoft games, the environments save it. The Hollywood level has a T-Rex that bursts out of a studio and knocks everything flying, there’s swinging axes in an Aztec temple in Mexico, Indy-style boulders rolling down tunnels, drains flooding, UFOs buzzing… and I just noticed there's a dog hanging out my back window. it’s actually a lot of fun just zooming around wondering what weirdness will happen next.

This would have ruled as free-roam like Monster Truck Madness or Carmageddon; there’s other routes, shortcuts and areas you glimpse, but in-game there’s no time to do so. There is an online co-op but I don’t have dial-up anymore. If me and a few mates could get involved, I think there’s a lot of fun to be had mucking about in those up-for-it tracks.

Really, this isn’t a very good racer, even for the 90s. But it has that same energetic, here for a good time feel that many 90s games had, back when devs finally had the tools to match their imaginations and went a bit mad. It’s not a classic like Carma or Road Rage are for me, but you can get it for less than a Quid and it’s the perfect little retro muckabout game; can’t believe Ubisoft haven’t monetised it as an App. Or just kept reskinning and re-releasing it.