Friday, 16 May 2014

Burnin' Rubber - Amstrad GX4000

You're fired!
Game: Burnin' Rubber
Format: Amstrad GX4000
Developer/Publisher: Ocean
Year Released: 1988
Also released on: Amstrad 464 Plus, Amstrad 6128 Plus
Available now on: Internet Archive

The Amstrad GX4000 is remembered for two reasons. One, it was a complete flop and two, it had Burnin' Rubber on it. Burnin' Rubber was the GX4000's most popular game, mostly because it was the game bundled with each console. Yep, all 300 of the console's owners were able to enjoy the delights of Burnin' Rubber, an arcade-style racing game designed to showcase some of the abilities of the GX4000.

Oooh, I can feel the excitement building up just sitting here staring at this screenshot.

Smile! There are plenty of other quality games available
for this console. Oh, wait. There aren't. 
For those who don't know, or those who want reminding, the GX4000 was Amstrad's attempt to enter the console market, and the only British console in video game history. An 8-Bit console released in 1990, it was clearly designed to compete with the Sega Master System and Nintendo Entertainment System. However, its launch was around the same time as the European launch of the Mega Drive and the Super Famicom's Japanese launch, so it was sharing shelf space, and competing for interest,  with much superior consoles. Added to that was the fact that many of its games were rereleases of earlier Amstrad CPC games that were available on tape at a fraction of the price of the GX4000 cartridge version. Even games programmed specifically for the GX4000 weren't up to much, and most felt a bit like computer games rather than console games. Unsurprisingly, the console didn't generate much interest, its price was slashed weeks after launch before the machine was pulled completely after only a few months. Hopefully Sir Lord Alan Sugar did a few firings after such a disaster.

There's some weird voodoo magic thing going on with my car here..

Signs for Ocean and a tunnel. Who knows what continent
lies at the other side?
Even so, the GX4000 is remembered with a certain amount of fondness in some quarters and has achieved something of a cult status. Burnin' Rubber is often regarded as one of its better games. This is probably due to the fact that there was crap all else available for the console. But even on its own merits, just as a video game, it's meant to be quite good. So, shall we take it for a spin? Eh? Anybody there? Oh right, I'm typing this, not talking to anybody. I'll imagine somebody has said yes then and boldly go onto another paragraph.

So, the idea of Burnin' Rubber is simply to drive a car. Begin with a qualifying lap, and then go onto burning dust and eating rubber for real. On starting up the game, the game's title blazes its way onto the screen over a animated tyre-like pattern. The first thing you need to do is change the controller layout. By default, the game is set so that pushing up on the d-pad accelerates, down brakes and the two control pad buttons control the gears up or down if you're playing in manual. The game is much easier if you set the buttons to accelerate and brake and use up and down to control gears. Or ignore the gears and stay in automatic, which is what I do.
Even before the days of Instagram, games like these featured filter effects that make it look like it was made in the 1970s.

Woohoo! 7th!
As already mentioned, you need to complete a quick lap to qualify for the main race. The qualification race is a good way of getting used to the game, but when you've done it once, it seems a bit pointless. Regardless of your qualifying position, it doesn't take long in the main race to get past the cars in the other qualifying positions. Initially your car feels a bit sluggish to control. It doesn't appear to move instantly to your commands. I guess power-steering was still a luxury optional add-on in 1990. Building up speed is also a bit laboured, and using your brakes or going around tight corners results in you losing the speed you've built up and having to get up to speed again to make the most of the straights. But after a while, controlling the car does become quite natural, even quite realistic, albeit sometimes frustrating. If you're not going too fast, colliding with a car just results in you being nudged to the side slightly. But hit one at speed or any of the objects inconsiderately placed at the side of the road will result in you spectacularly flipping over and flying through the air before magically landing in the exact position you need to be in to continue your race. Rather handily, you car doesn't come to a complete stop when either kind of collision happens, meaning you don't have the issue of having to start up again from being parked. It's the little things like this that make a difference to the game, the sort of things that frustrate you in other racing games.

A bit of a grey moment here. Nice tree though.
Other vehicles can be a bit of a nuisance. Some will just decide to make a random movement across the road purely to get in your way whereas others seem to have a habit of breaking down in tunnels, so it's important to try to avoid them.

Graphically, the game is quite good. The GX4000 was able to display quite a number of colours on screen and had a large pallet to choose from so Burnin' Rubber, being a launch title, shows some of this off. The game is supposedly set over 24 hours and as you progress, day turns to night, night becomes day again and the colour scheme changes to reflect this. It does give the feeling that you're progressing nicely through the race as you pass through each part of the day. Cars, backgrounds, roadside objects are all nicely drawn and the scaling of sprites and items works well. The game isn't the fastest out there, but you do definitely feel a sense of speed when you do have the opportunities to put your foot down. All of the on-screen information you need is nicely laid out and everything feels polished and well-presented.

Oh, what a feeling! When we're dancing on the ceiling 

Is that Cameron and Clegg? Or the Pet Shop Boys. Perhaps
they're the same thing.
Sound however is another matter. The intro music and menu screen music is great, but in game effects are horrible. Your car's engine makes quite a nasty noise, which continues throughout the game. There are some effects from when you overtake or get overtaken, but you really need to keep the sound down if you have any respect for your ears. That said, there is a certain "depth" to the sound - things just don't sound as tinny and high-pitched as other 8-Bit games.

Close, but not close enough. Not close at all actually.
Burnin' Rubber is not a bad game at all, and is quite a good launch game. It has some faults but is definitely one of the better 8-Bit racing games. I was initially put off by the game's sluggish controls and lack of oomph, but felt myself getting drawn into it as I continued to play it. I'm not sure it would really have much longevity, but it's a game I'd be happy to come back to for another go from time to time. It's just a shame that factors at the time meant that the GX4000 was doomed from the start as it had the potential to be quite a good machine.

Presentation: 79%
Well presented throughout. Large text fills the screen when needed, the title screen is basic but does the trick, and the menu system is simple and effective. Nothing special but very professional.
Graphics: 83%
A good use of the GX4000's pallet with changing colour schemes, detailed sprites and good crash effects, as well as nice smoke effects. 
Sound: 50%
Good music, sadly lacking in game, replaced instead by horrible engine noise.
Playability: 78%
Ironically given it's name, Burnin' Rubber is a bit of a slow burner. It doesn't instantly appeal but grows on you if you stick with it and turns out to be rather fun.
Overall: 79%
A good example of what the GX4000 could potentially do. Sadly tarnished by the console's reputation but a decent game overall. 

Begone! And don't forget to look for your missing apostrophe!