So far here on Fatal Rewind: A Bizarre Creations Retrospective, we’ve seen how Martyn Chudley and, subsequently, a team of able assistants, commanded a solid technical mastery over the hardware they were working on, producing beautiful looking games that played well.
Today, we reach a significant milestone in the history of the company and their games, because it marks the point at which Chudley and his team became Bizarre Creations, the name under which they worked up until their untimely demise in 2011.
It also marks the first time they worked on a type of game that would come to be seen as their particular specialism: the accessible but realistic racing game, straddling the line between arcade game and simulation. Let’s look at Formula 1, released for PlayStation in 1996.
Before we get into the game proper, a little bit of trivia about that company name. Supposedly Sega objected to the name Chudley and co had adopted for themselves — “Raising Hell Software” — after the Mega Drive release of The Killing Game Show (which was renamed to Fatal Rewind, after its innovative “instant replay” feature). This forced the group to go nameless for a little while; you’ll notice Wiz ‘n’ Liz’s credits only make reference to individual people and no company names whatsoever.
In 1994, though, the team was once again gearing up to work with their regular publishing partner Psygnosis, who by this point were a wholly owned subsidiary of Sony Computer Entertainment. Sony apparently liked to do things “properly” at the time, and decided that any developer working with them needed a proper company name. According to legend, Chudley left the name “Weird Concepts” on the submission documentation, then another staffer — history sadly doesn’t record who this was — supposedly used Microsoft Word’s thesaurus to come up with “Bizarre Creations”, and the name stuck.
The project Bizarre was originally signing up with Psygnosis and Sony to take on was a concept work called Slaughter. This never actually came to anything, but the proficiency of the demo was enough to convince Psygnosis to sign the company up to develop the official Formula 1 game for the PlayStation platform. This was, it’s fair to say, a big deal.
While there had been previous racing games that used parts of the Formula One license — Geoff Crammond’s famous Formula One Grand Prix, for example, used authentic tracks, teams, liveries and helmet designs but fictional names for drivers — Formula 1 from Psygnosis was the first Formula One game to make full use of the license, featuring the full lineup of 17 tracks (plus one unlockable fictional circuit), 13 racing teams and 35 drivers.
The game was made at the end of the 1995 season, meaning it incorporates authentic timings and grid lineups from that year — plus all the driver substitutions made along the way. It even drops the field of competitors from 26 to 24 after the Monaco Grand Prix, since in the real 1995 championship the Simtek team pulled out after this race. You do, however, have the option to compete as one of the Simtek racers and change the course of history if you so desire!
Although Psygnosis had a perfectly functional 3D racing game engine that they had used for their 1995 titles Wipeout and Destruction Derby by the time Bizarre came along to develop Formula 1, Chudley and his team decided to create their own 3D engine from scratch. They deliberately built it to be as efficient as possible, reducing demand on the PlayStation’s processor by adopting a dynamic level-of-detail system, whereby car models would switch to a low-detail version of themselves when they were a certain distance away from the camera.
Bizarre went all-out when it came to accuracy. The tracks were modelled from surveyor’s track data, the audio was recorded by strapping a DAT recorder to a real driver, and each car model in the game is unique rather than simply being a single generic model with a different skin. To achieve this latter touch, the team used a combination of data provided by the Formula One Constructors’ Association and photographs of the cars themselves. While it’s not something most players will likely notice, you can bet the most ardent petrolheads would have appreciated this attention to detail.
In fact, the only part that isn’t strictly true to life is the fact that the game doesn’t feature tobacco or alcohol advertising, both of which were very prevalent in motorsports prior to the turn of the century — tobacco advertising in Formula One wasn’t banned until 2006, and there are still ongoing discussions over alcohol advertising in the sport today. However, at the time Formula 1 released, advertising tobacco and alcohol in video games was illegal in certain parts of the United States, forcing Bizarre to rejig these parts of the presentation. The final result still looks pretty authentic, but closer inspection will reveal a fair amount of the advertising around the track isn’t quite what it might appear to be at first glance!
So we’ve established the game was pretty realistic in terms of presentation. I mean, hell, they even got Murray Walker on commentary duty, and while his repertoire of lines is relatively limited — presumably due to space, time and money constraints — he does come out with a fair few classic Murrayisms as you progress through the races. This includes both the classic “unless I am very much mistaken… I AM very much mistaken!” and “anything happens in Grand Prix racing, and it usually does!”, among a fair few others.
But all that aside… what of the game itself? It’s actually a thoroughly interesting affair, for a number of reasons — not least of which is the fact that it’s effectively two games in one, allowing both arcade racer fans and full-on enthusiasts of Formula One to play the game and get something out of it.
And I’m not talking a half-hearted arcade mode which is actually just a “single race” mode in disguise; nope, here, the Arcade mode has a forgiving handling model with responsive controls and little need to brake for corners, a unique HUD, a countdown timer and checkpoints, a deliberately limited number of laps and an almost intoxicating sense of immediacy. It’s Virtua Racing with texture-mapped graphics and real circuits — right down to the camera angles — and it’s an absolute pleasure to play.
But that’s not all Formula 1 offers. No no no. The proper Formula One buffs can take on the Grand Prix mode, which offers a much more realistic handling model — you’ll need to slow down for corners properly in this mode — along with a more “TV-style” presentation modelled on Fuji Television’s coverage of the sport. There are no countdown timers and checkpoints here; it’s all about proving your mastery over your car — and over the tracks on the F1 circuit. And Grand Prix mode also offers you the opportunity to run races anywhere between 5% and 100% of their “real” length as you so desire — so if you fancy a real endurance challenge, this is the mode to go for.
Both the Arcade and Grand Prix modes can be played in three ways: a single, one-off race; a full championship (with the “secret” track unlocking if you win every race and top the Constructors’ Championship leaderboard); or a 12-round “ladder” mode in which your goal in each stage is to finish ahead of a specially marked “rival” car. In the ladder mode, you also receive championship points as well, but the only thing you have to do in order to “win” is consistently beat your opponent in each race. In fact, if you so desire, you can even make each race a straight-up duel between the two of you rather than taking on the full pack — this makes for a markedly different and very interesting dynamic!
In both the Arcade and Grand Prix mode you can optionally switch on features including tyre wear, damage and fuel consumption; the first and last of these only generally become an issue in longer Grand Prix races, but switching on damage makes for a very different experience, as you will no longer be able to get around corners by barging your opponents out of the way or bouncing off the barriers! There are also options to assist with both steering and braking that are disabled by default, and both modes offer three difficulty levels to challenge. There’s plenty to enjoy here.
The interesting thing about Formula 1 from a modern design perspective is that it’s obviously designed to be a bit of a transient experience. There’s no long-term goal for this game; no persistent unlocks and not even much reason to save your game outside of stopping partway through a championship and picking it up again later. There’s no experience level, there’s no need to replay the game over and over again to unlock new skins or cars or whatever; it’s just a game that invites you to pick it up, enjoy it on its own terms, then put it down again, perhaps to return at some point in the near future.
It’s actually rather refreshing to encounter a game like this today. With so many games out there — particularly big-budget ones — aiming for maximum “retention”, usually with a mind to selling you some DLC down the line, it’s nice to play something that respects your time and doesn’t cling on to your leg like a psychotic ex-girlfriend when you try to leave.
It just… is, and oddly enough, that’s what makes me more likely to come back and play it again in the future. I know I’m under no pressure to “finish” it, because there’s nothing to finish outside of whatever goal I set for myself in that particular session. Having a game that can potentially last you “forever” is all well and good… but having a game that lasts you an hour or two whenever you fancy playing it is nice sometimes, too.
Considering Formula 1 was Bizarre Creations’ first pop at a racing game — and with one hell of a license to live up to, no less — what they achieved here was pretty astonishing. They successfully created an authentic-feeling racing game that has distinct appeal elements for both arcade racer fans and sim buffs, and they proved they had the technical chops to make the PlayStation throw some decent-looking visuals around at a solid frame rate.
And then the following year they went and did it again, but even better. But that’s something to explore next time!
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