I know that the newly-released Grip: Combat Racing is something of an homage to beloved PS1-era racer Rollcage, with its sci-fi slimline cars and giant wheels that allow the vehicle to, well, roll just as well upside-down as right-side up. But it reminds me more specifically of two N64 racing games that filled many a winter night (and summer evening) when I was a teen: Acclaim’s Extreme-G and LucasArts’ Star Wars Episode I: Racer, aka, the only good thing to come out of Episode I. Even more importantly, it reminds me of why I enjoy racing games in the first place: a desire to compete, yes, but even more fundamentally, to explore.
Both Extreme G and Episode I were superfast sci-fi racers, with wonderful 90s sensibilities: fast action, mildly goofy planets where the twisty, turny, roller-coaster tracks took place, and surprisingly memorable courses. A strong, evocative aesthetic. Extreme-G had the extra fun of a doofy backstory and the ubiquitous futuristic racer drum n’ bass soundtrack, where Episode I had a more orchestral score and slightly different feel, since, naturally, the pods were anti-gravity.
But there’s some of each in Grip, including that elusive, genuinely lovable 90s feel. The cars feel fast but, yes, grippy, sticking to the track by the sheer pull of gravity, whatever direction that pull comes from. It importantly feels fast, and each of its main gametypes: straight racing, a points-based mode that rewards you kicking other cars asses with Mario Kart-like power-ups while screaming down the courses quickly, and arena combat—all have their charms.
In watching Extreme G footage (apparently, the game has a healthy speedrunning community) for this piece, I’m struck by just how much playing Grip gets at this feel. The movement mechanics feel just loose enough to keep you on your toes, but tight and responsive enough to complete the illusion of going really, really fast in wild places. It’s just fun to blaze past generic sci-fi scenery at breakneck speeds, doing tricks and catching air and feeling cool.
And what scenery it is! Cyberpunk cities with skyboxes that stretch out to infinity, little neon lights in tall buildings that I still, somehow, never get bored of looking at. Ice planets and swamp planets and desert worlds all teeming with the requisite geological features: mountains, canyons, enough machinery to suggest human presence and life without having to animate it in a game where you’re going hundreds of miles per hour past it all. These places in Grip feel like the living portraits of the earlier 3D games, but in HD. Prettier, grittier, more detailed.
I wrote about this a tiny bit for a post on Mario Kart 64’s anniversary, and maybe it made me a weird kid, but my first experiences with racing games made me absolutely obsessed with the places that the tracks took place on. The sense of life or strangeness they embodied, because they were places I could explore. I mean, sure, yes, the action is on a course in these worlds, but great tracks in these kinds of games do make you wonder what’s going on a couple of miles off the beaten path.
“I loved the stages in my games not just for their challenges and flow, but also for the impossible and beautiful places they evoked. Those bramble forests and abandoned theme parks and icy mountains of the DKC series were places I liked to go to, and Mario Kart 64 held the same mystique.
Better, Mario Kart 64 let me drive around in those lands and explore them in… wait for it… 3D!”
There’s a course in Mario Kart 64—Kalimari Desert—that famously has a train in it. Speedrunners have found a way to use the train and the tracks as a shortcut, which is cool. But when I was young, all I could imagine was where does that train go? Are there towns in this desert? Trails? Mountains people climb? Are there Super Mario Bros. levels just off the beaten path? Is there adventure out here?
I did this in WipeOut too, wondering about what life was like in those cities I was blowing through. In Extreme G and Episode I, the latter especially because I was so primed from my teen years reading Expanded Universe fiction, I wondered what happened on all of these planets, who lived there, what adventures did they have?
The tracks, like Episode I’s Executioner, seemed to be cut right into a living world. There is a purpose to all of the architectural features. The landscapes feel like they have a history. I know they’re just skyboxes and simple models of things like dinosaur bones and chunky machinery and buildings, but alas, they are in all games. That’s what 3D worlds are, artfully arranged collections of assets and scripts and interactions, and where the illusion works, it feels like a coherent world and a pleasurable experience.
I jokingly tweeted this last week in reference to a lesson in a class I’m currently teaching, referring to different types of players and experiences that games can offer. But racing games have always nailed a few things for me, sure, the sense-pleasure of going real fast, of finesse and skill at high speeds, but also of discovery and uncharted territory. I love to explore, even if some of that exploration is unintentional (as in, falling off the track!) or lives partially in my imagination.
Grip really brought me back this week, to a place I don’t get to visit often. To days spent racing on what was my first 3D console, in the sci-fi playgrounds that shaped so much of my later tastes. It’s a trip well worth taking, and I look forward to testing out the multiplayer modes further, despite the fact that I’m pretty sure I haven’t talked to my eighth-grade crew that used to pour over Extreme G in… oh, a good twenty years.