Thursday, June 17, 2010

At Random: Cyber Speedway

I tend to grow my game collection eclectically and indiscriminately, i.e., whenever I find something I don't already own at a reasonable price in reasonably good condition.  So I'm starting this occasional feature to force myself to close my eyes, pick something from the stack and get around to actually playing it.  In this first installment, we'll take a look at Sega's Cyber Speedway, a futuristic racer for the ill-fated Sega Saturn console published in 1995, with visual design assistance from the legendary Syd Mead:

The first consoles to take 3-D seriously hosted a lot of racing games, because the genre was an obvious fit for the technology.  The Saturn was intended as a 2-D powerhouse, hastily retrofitted to face Sony's impressive Playstation.  Creating polygonal 3-D characters was a serious challenge on the Saturn, but vehicles and simple backdrops were more feasible, and a straightforward racer could provide a solid library title without eating a lot of development resources.

Syd Mead was a visual consultant on the movie TRON, and his influence on Cyber Speedway is most visible in the racer design -- the ships are sleek, angular beasts with energy forks at the front and flat, smooth panels, carved into low-polygon models suited to the Saturn's capabilities. 

The backgrounds are less successful -- popup is a major problem, with distant walls flickering in and out until the player approaches more closely.  And visual variety is limited by available memory -- most circuits are barren and repetitive, with just a few textures that become visibly low-res up close:

I appreciated the simple but worthwhile controls provided for adjusting and balancing the ship's fundamental characteristics; several special features are introduced gradually as the game progresses: 

The game has a straightforward arcade-style racing mode, and a story mode concerning the main character's quest to be the best on the galactic circuit, limited to 3 continues to maintain a level of challenge.  The story is presented using nicely-shaded manga-style intermissions, albeit on a budget -- the voices are professionally acted, but there's no animation to speak of, and the Saturn had no transparency or alpha-channel capabilities, so the characters display rough pixel outlines when overlaid on the Mead-influenced backgrounds:

Sega produced many worthy arcade racers, and the racing action here is moderately enjoyable, but this Saturn title was easily outflanked (OutRun?) by Psygnosis' impressive Wipeout for the Playstation (and later the Nintendo 64).  Cyber Speedway feels sluggish and earthbound in comparison --  the ships hover and bank nicely enough, but there are no ramps or steep curves on the basic looping tracks, and the offensive weaponry feels pedestrian and proves hard to deploy effectively against opponents.  It took me a little while to master the controls, learning how to drift through a curve, accelerating partway through to account for the lack of friction, but once I was able to place consistently in the top three I started to lose interest.

One down...

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