There are games that have cute graphics. There are games that have great playability. There are games that have a long playtime. And then there are games that have all of that. Mega games. And mega games deserve mega reviews. In terms of pictures (exactly 100 screenshots!), not text–so relax and read on. In case you’re really extremely text-shy, just scroll down to the mega gallery at the end of the article.
A VERY DIFFERENT RACING GAME
Hot Rod was originally a 1988 SEGA top-down racing arcade game. A very different racing game.
Hot Rod is one of the best racing games to ever hit the 8-bit market.
It starts with that it’s one of just very few overhead games where you don’t race on circuits. Instead, you’re driving across an unspecified country. Every three stages take place in roughly the same kind of landscape. The landscapes range from mountains to deserts to sea shores and from wilderness to cities. You’ll drive not only on good old tarmac, but also on dirt, sand, snow, and ice. So what you’re getting are 30 levels of scrolling awesomeness in ten different environments.
Title screens from the Spectrum (left) and Commodore 64 (right) version. The CPC one has no title picture.
Another huge difference is that unlike in other car games, Hot Rod isn’t about lightning-quick reactions. The pace of the game is quite relaxed, so it’s all about precision driving, not jerking the wheel in this or that direction as fast as possible. That is supported by a game mechanics that’s only possible in a game world: there are no collisions with other players. Your car can be in the very same place as your opponent’s, so everyone can take the racing line they deem the optimal one. This eliminates the most frequent problem of multiplayer car games, where you often get rid of the other humans as soon as possible through crashing into them and/or driving them off the track and then just cruise to victory. It practically asks for cooperative playing instead: sharing the available bonuses and trying to get both humans through all the levels.
Anytime you have a scrolling multiplayer racer, you have to solve the same problem: what to do with a player who’s lagging behind so much that they’d fall off the screen? Hot Rod bases its logic on one all-important variable: gas. You get extra gas depending on your place in each stage, and you can collect some on the road in the form of extras. You burn it with each second the road, and it’s a currency in which you pay for your blunders. If one of the three cars (up to two human players, the rest is played by the machine), for example, falls into the ocean or gets buried by an avalanche or a landslide, they’re resurrected at the cost of 20 gas units. Same goes for the time when they fall behind–the game puts them back among the competitors, but they lose 20 gas. If their gas tank gets empty–game over.
Perhaps the only traditional element of Hot Rod are the upgrades, which you exchange for the second most important indicator in the game: money. You receive money for your performane in the races, and in the CPC and ZX version also for collecting bonuses. Between the races, you can visit a parts shop and buy one of the 20 possible thingies that change the behavior of your car. These are engines, wings, bumpers, and tires for different surfaces. Yet even here, Hot Rod inserts its own little twist. Every shop has only select upgrades and you can always buy only one; therefore, you have to plan your upgrade strategy very carefully.
In Parts Shops, you can buy upgrades for your car. This one is from the CPC version.
In most stages, the roads and/or streets are closed for the race, but occasionally, Hot Rod gets a Gumballish touch, and you have to navigate among other cars, dozers, and rollers, and avoid being caught by the police or hit by a train. And sometimes you can take a shortcut that, in turn, is more difficult navigate – so if you’re good, you gain, if you make a mistake, you lose time (and possibly gas).
THREE DIFFERENTLY BEAUTIFUL VERSIONS
All of the above says how much creativity and effort went into the game, but what I’ve always loved about Hot Rod the most is how it all clicks together. You get a polished, immensely entertaining, variable, highly replayable eye candy monster of a game. Hot Rod is simply one of the best racing games to ever hit the 8-bit market (and my No. 1 personally). And its versions are a perfect example of that each 8-bit platform has its strengths.
Hot Rod found its way to the C=64, CPC, and ZX.
Top right: ZX Spectrum. Bottom left: C=64. Bottom right: CPC. This layout will be the same for all the pictures in the mega gallery below.
The best-presented version is the C=64 one. It has a neat intro, great music by Jeroen Tel, and makes the most of the Commodore’s hardware sprites and hardware scrolling. Everything is smooth and sleek. However, typically for C=64 versions of arcade games, there’s one big dent in all that beauty: the game lacks nine out of the original 30 levels (19-24, 28-30). Sadly, they are some of the best levels. As they are all from the final parts of the game, it looks as if there was a hard deadline and the publisher said, “We’ll just put out whatever we’ll have by then.” Back on the positive side, the C=64 is the only 8-bit version that has an end sequence – on the CPC and the ZX, the game just wraps (which I have always hated–I play games to win them, not to play them until I lose).
The C=64 version is also the best balanced of them all. It’s got to do with the brave, but ultimately bad, decision of the CPC and ZX converters to be fair to the human players and implement actual AI. On the C=64, you have your typical computer droids. They follow a predetermined path no matter what. It’s a little dull, very predictable–but it works. On the Z80-based machines, the computer tries to find the best way through the level on the fly, reacting to what’s currently happening on the screen. The problem is that the AI is too weak. Once you throw it off balance, it usually fails to get back on track and your victory in that level is guaranteed. Yet, when the AI works well, the racing is more fun than on the C=64, as the computer also upgrades its cars, and if you let it grow, it becomes a tough opponent. When a computer car gets a game over, a new car is pitted against you, starting from scratch without any upgrades.
Another bit of balancing that the C=64 version got right is the economy. On the Speccy, and esp. on the CPC, near the end, you have a lot of money and not much to buy for it (with most upgrades priced between $600 and $5000, the $48000 from the picture above is ridiculously much). While on the C=64, an engine will last you only 6 races, so you have to make sure to win enough money to keep replacing it–and remember the right levels in which the Parts Shops have the engines you want.
The CPC version of the game has all of the glorious 30 levels but pays the price for the hardware it runs on. Compared to the C=64 and ZX version, it feels kind of sluggish. There’s a delay between the time you change the steering and the time the car actually reacts. Which means that especially on snow and ice, where your car is already difficult to control by default, you have to do a lot of very anticipative driving. Apart from the jerky scrolling, there’s also a smaller game window, into which the creators tried to put all the necessary graphics, resulting in not much detail. On the other hand, compared to Speccy, the graphics are much more colorful. And the slower pace of the game can be an advantage for weaker gamers.
The ZX version has the least colors, but that’s the nature of the platform. The only serious problem with the graphics is that while on the C=64 and the CPC, there’s a red, green, and blue car, on the Spectrum, all the cars are black. And as they can all be in one place at one time, sometimes it happens that you’re happy with how brilliantly you’ve steered through a curve, to notice only five seconds later that your car actually is the one that ended in the barrier and that you’re mistaking it for one of your computer opponents. On the other hand, the hires graphics allow for a solid level of detail, and the game is as fast as it needs to be and very playable.
A MUST-PLAY GAME
Having had a Commodore 64 for almost 30 years now, I’ve completed Hot Rod on the C=64 countless times already, but I loved playing through it on the CPC as well as on the Spectrum. And I heartily recommend you to do the same, because each of the versions has nice bits that the others lack. You can see it in the mega gallery that follows. And then? Stop reading, start playing!
HOT ROD MEGA GALLERY
In this gallery, you’ll find a screenshot from every level on each platform. What we’re not showing you is the end sequence. After all, this is a teaser. Enjoy it, drool, and then play through the game on your own. Have fun!