When contemplating video games from years gone by, it’s all too easy to focus exclusively on the “classics” — those defining experiences that went on to have a huge amount of influence on everything that came afterwards.
But the highly influential and historically significant nature of these games means that, by this point in time, most of the things which can be said about them have probably already been said. These days, I personally find it much more interesting to dive into the dustiest of dusty archives and dig out some stuff that, while perhaps not as well-regarded as the “greats” from over the years, might do some unusual, experimental and creative things with established formulae.
One of the best things about Blaze’s Evercade retro gaming platform is that the people behind it clearly understand this. And so, while the Evercade’s Atari Collection 1 cartridge contains established, all-time early ’80s classics like Asteroids and Centipede for Atari’s monstrously popular 2600 console, it also features 1990’s MotorPsycho — a double-whammy of overlooked goodness in that it is 1) a game that will likely be largely unfamiliar to a lot of people today, and 2) it came out on the Atari 7800, a console no-one bought. So let’s take a closer look!
At its core, MotorPsycho very much wants to be “Pole Position with motorcycles”. It’s a vanishing point-style, pseudo-3D racer that unfolds from a third-person perspective positioned behind your vehicle, in which you have just two gears to worry about, and steering left and right moves you laterally across the road rather than actually turning. Corners push you towards the outside of the road, so steering around them allows you to stay on the tarmac; sometimes you’ll need to slow down in order to counterbalance the “pushing” effect further. And your ultimate goal is to score as many points as possible before the timer expires.
So far, so familiar. But MotorPsycho adds a few interesting things to the Pole Position formula that, while not necessarily making it “good”, certainly make it a worthwhile racer to at least spend a bit of time with, and appreciate the fact that some developers out there were willing to experiment with the norms of the racing game genre as they existed in 1990.
For starters, you can jump. Yes, at the touch of a button you can fling your motorcycle into the air in order to clear traffic cones that occasionally litter the road, or even leap right over the heads of your fellow racers. Time these jumps effectively when you go over the crest of a hill — yes, MotorPsycho features undulating roads, which Pole Position lacked — and you’ll fly so high you’ll disappear off the top of the screen for a few seconds. Enormously satisfying… at least until you realise there’s a very sharp corner coming up just ahead, and it’s difficult to steer around those when your wheels are not touching the ground.
There’s a reason for being able to jump besides just simple entertainment value. Clearing obstacles or hopping over your opponents rewards you with a substantial amount of additional points and you also get double points for distance covered in the air rather than on the ground. As such, if you’re chasing high scores you’ll need to take full advantage of that jump button — and, indeed, learn the best (and worst) times to make use of it.
Another peculiar part of MotorPsycho’s mechanical design is the complete lack of any ability to brake. Instead, slowing down is primarily achieved by downshifting. Switching from Hi to Lo gear immediately causes your speed to plummet, and is best done while entering tight corners; you can then shift back up at the optimal moment partway around the corner and continue to accelerate as the road starts to straighten again. Slow in, fast out, as they say.
One interesting feature included in the original Atari 7800 version of MotorPsycho is the ability to customise your bike’s responsiveness, both in terms of how quickly it leans around corners, and how quickly it straightens up again after a turn. Unfortunately, since this requires a second controller to access and set the options, at the time of writing it is impossible to take advantage of this on the Evercade version of the game. Thankfully, though, it’s perfectly possible to get around all of the four tracks in the game without having to fiddle with these at all.
The game’s longevity stems from its scoring system. At the conclusion of a race, you’ll see your score and the high score for the track you’ve been racing on, and you’ll receive a bonus according to how many of your opponents you successfully overtook during the race. After that, you have a very brief window to note what your score was before the game takes you back to the track selection screen; it would have been nice to be able to see this for a bit longer — or perhaps just to see a constantly updating score readout during the race, since it’s not really necessary to see the sensitivity settings at any time other than when you’re setting them! You can see your score mid-race, but doing so requires holding down the L button on the Evercade.
MotorPsycho is never going to be anyone’s favourite racing game. Its scenery is bland, its controls lack the fluidity of pretty much every racing game ever since, and some design decisions — such as the inability to see your score while you race unless you hold down a button — are just baffling. But it’s an intriguing game that isn’t just trying to ape its popular peers; it’s doing a few interesting things that are entirely its own along the way, too.
Best motorcycle racing game on the Atari 7800? Absolutely. Only motorcycle racing game on the Atari 7800? Most definitely. And that alone makes it worthy of note, if only for a few minutes!
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