Formula 1 97: Racing, Refined

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A year after the well-received Formula 1 hit the PlayStation, Bizarre Creations proved that their apparent skill in creating great racing games wasn’t just a fluke — because they made another Formula One game, and it was even better.

Formula 1 97 hit store shelves in September of 1997, a month before the 1997 racing season came to a close. While development ran fairly smoothly — and apparently legendary commentator Murray Walker was so impressed with the game that he signed an exclusive agreement with Sony to provide commentary for another two years — Psygnosis and Sony ran into legal issues with the sport’s various governing bodies after the game launched, and ended up having to repackage, rename and rerelease the game.

Thankfully none of that matters now, and Formula 1 97 still provides an enjoyable racing experience for both arcade racer fans and more dedicated petrolheads. So let’s take a closer look!

Like its predecessor, Formula 1 97 is split into Arcade and Grand Prix modes. This time around, there’s even more of a distinction between the two: besides the differences in interface seen in the first Formula 1, now Arcade mode deliberately omits the commentary from Murray Walker and Martin Brundle in favour of some entertainingly cheesy background music.

There’s even a slight tweak to the colour palette between the two modes; Arcade mode features greater saturation on the colour, making for a look that is a bit more… well, arcadey. Grand Prix mode, meanwhile, features a slightly more muted palette, intended to give a more realistic impression.

Sadly, the enjoyable Ladder mode from the first Formula 1, in which your sole aim in each race was to finish ahead of a designated “rival” driver, is no longer present. Arcade mode now consists of three series of single races, with only one track available in each to begin with. As you successfully complete the races, additional tracks unlock, and your aim is to clear all the races with the best possible times and a first-place finish.

You can save your progress — although the fact you need to press Select on the menu screen to be able to do this isn’t made clear anywhere in the game itself, so I hope you read the manual — or you can simply play from the start every time if you prefer.

Arcade mode’s handling has had a bit of an overhaul, with a curious emphasis on power-sliding that one wouldn’t typically associate with real Formula One vehicles. Still, you can shamelessly cut corners when it comes to chicanes, because you don’t lose much speed on the grass, and the whole thing becomes a joyfully silly experience after a while; it’s not trying to be realistic, and it takes great delight in that.

If you want realism, you head for Grand Prix mode. Once again, the Ladder mode has been stripped out in favour of the simple choice between a practice session, a single race or a full championship. You have a lot of realism options to tinker with this time around, ranging from the tyre wear and fuel consumption settings we saw in the previous installment to whether or not you need to manually remove the tear-off strips from your driver’s helmet while racing in first-person view.

With everything turned on, Formula 1 97’s Grand Prix mode is pretty terrifying, and drives home the fact that you’re in charge of a frighteningly powerful piece of technology that probably weighs less than what you had for dinner last night. Mix and match the settings a bit, however, and you’ll find an experience that manages to remain broadly accessible without veering into the absurd territory that the Arcade mode provides with such enthusiasm.

Even on its “easiest” settings, the atmosphere of Grand Prix mode is second to none — at least among games from the period, anyway. Once again, the solid recreation of Fuji Television’s coverage forms the bulk of the in-race interface, and is complemented well by the aforementiond commentary from Walker and Brundle. This time around Walker in particular has a much greater repertoire of lines, so while you’ll still hear some repetition — particularly of the “Murrayisms” — there’s a lot more variety.

In fact, many of Walker’s lines this time around provide some interesting facts and figures about the various race courses and the 1997 championship, rather than simply reacting to what is happening on screen. In one race, he might be explaining how many teams lowered their drivers’ positions in their cars to help with cramp issues; in another, he might be talking about how they flattened out some of the undulations on a particular course to make for a faster race. While it still feels a little artificial at times, it’s definitely an improvement over the commentary heard in the previous Formula 1.

Brundle feels a little under-used, if anything, since many of his contributions to the commentary seem to consist of acknowledging the things that Walker says with very few meaningful additions of his own. Perhaps budget and licensing constraints are to blame for this; either way, his presence does go a certain way to increasing the “authenticity” of the game’s presentation.

Is it a better game than Formula 1? For the most part, yes; it offers more of pretty much everything. But that doesn’t mean there’s no reason to play Formula 1 ever again once you dive into Formula 1 97.

For starters, the Arcade modes in the two games have very distinct feels from one another. Formula 1’s arcade mode is snappy and responsive — almost Sega-esque at times — while Formula 1 97’s slip-slidey gameplay makes for a bit more of a thrill ride that takes some practice to get right.

The absence of the Ladder mode in Formula 1 97 is a shame, too; it was an enjoyable way to play Formula 1, since it didn’t require absolute perfection from each and every race in order to come out on top. Rather, it provided a good intermediate step between a single race and a full championship; it provided a sense of progression besides simple leaderboard positions. And the fact you could play it in both Arcade and Grand Prix modes was excellent.

Ultimately, these days you may as well just pick ’em both up; they can both be had for less than a fiver each, because very few people are interested in old and outdated sports games. In these cases, that’s their loss; the two Formula 1 games are a very good time indeed — and it’s definitely exciting to see the exact moment where Bizarre Creations realised what it was they were really good at.

But racing’s not the only thing they were all about, as we’ll see next time!

This post is one chapter of a MegaFeature!
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