Thursday, 22 August 2013

C64: Kick-Start 2

Nope, it’s not about a game where you raise cash for an old franchise to try to breathe so-called new life into it while keeping true to the roots and then realise the new game is just shit and you’ll never recapture the nostalgia with hundreds of thousands of other people’s cash. This game is about motorbikes. (Though I might start a kick-starter for that making a kick-starter game)

Back in the early 80s in the UK there was a television show about motorbikes, involving people riding bikes over dirt tracks, up huge barrels and obstacles to compete for the fastest times. Basically an assault course for motorbike riders, much like the last event in Gladiators, Krypton Factor and a whole host of physical based game shows that had people running like pricks through a meat grinder, only on motorbikes.

The game, much in the same vein as the former, has the player controlling a bike from a side-on view, using the joystick to increase and decrease speed with left and right, wheelie with upwards directions and jump with the fire button. Simple, effective and all that needs to be done in this game. Each level has a selection of ramps, jumps and obstacles the like of which were never in the TV show and thank god for that, we’d have had more dead kids.

For every obstacle the rider must drive over it, jump it, ride it or stay within specific speed limits upon the item. Some obstacles like the wooden bar cannot be ridden over quickly or landed on (but you can jump from it) some items have no speed limit at all but cannot be landed upon, while others cannot be wheelie’d upon (yes that’s a word now). Some items cannot be ridden on slowly or too quickly depending on the item, some will slow you down like mud and rough ground, water always makes you fall if you touch it and fire will make you explode.

Falling off, getting blown up or just crashing will make your rider dismount in an odd but often amusing digitised scream and the faster you bail the further they’ll be launched and the bigger the scream. The game then scrolls the level steadily until there’s a safe enough point to get back upon the bike while the time counter speeds up, effectively incurring a time penalty just like the show would have for riders dismounting or falling off things. So in some respects the game sticks to the TV show but the TV show never had ski jumps over flamethrowers and thankfully the game does.

A little extra variety comes in the guise of ice levels that make accelerations and deceleration more difficult and longer to achieve and night time levels are just hard to identify most things (except fire and you can expect fire on almost all of those levels).

The game is always split screen, whether single player or two player. Two player games are a simple affair of picking levels through selection of keys A-X, one level per letter, or going fully random for 5 levels. The winner will be the player with the fastest overall time of those 5 levels. In single player mode, there will be an AI rider who will travel each and every level in exactly the same way thanks to the algorithms used. They sadly will always balls up on the same place, at the same time, in the same way, they never jump off items earlier than they can so if you can jump over a log that would force you to be slow and land safely past it, do so. The AI never will do that. So there’s easy ways to beat the computer unless the level can be run at full speed from the start and only easy jumps, in which you can only pull a draw as they computer will never screw those ones up. Oh and its transition in speed will be flawless, unlike yours because you’re a berk with slower reflexes than a pixel perfect AI. Some levels you cannot win as a result.

So the real fun is in the 2 player mode you might think. Well yes, and no.

The biggest and best aspect of Kick-start 2, is the custom level designer. A fully functioning level designer is built into the game where players can create their own levels and throw in their own courses and traps. Bunny hops before fire? Do it. Brick ramp up and grass ramp down? Why not. Step jump up 5 steps to a ski jump ramp over water and flamethrowers to bounce on a series of springs before landing on mud just to MAKE the player fail? Laugh your arse off the whole time while you’re setting that up. There are almost limitless possibilities and combinations you can pull off that are not only playable but fit within the game’s maximum course size, you can even add items within items for odd set ups where a ski jump will have gaps in the middle and you’ll have to bunny hop the ski jump ramp just to get to the end of the jump where it leads into a ramp leading to another spring that will bounce you over several barrels (or make you crash.... actually quite likely make you crash but you can still make it).

In fact you can make a whole assortment of tricks and traps that were not in the original levels. Of course you could also make a level that screws up the AI straight away and leaves you to win the game while the AI is forced to travel slowly to the very end for maximum time penalties, if you want to win cheaply.

The key focus of the game of course, is the multiplayer and the level editor. Back in the day most of the levels could be made and used in the main game, over writing the original levels until the game was reloaded but some people could save the files to disc/floppy (5.25” for those with the age and memory, no... not the size of anything else)

The music, does stick rather faithfully to the original show’s theme while playing on the courses/tracks but after a while it gets painfully repetitive and dull though thankfully you can switch the music off and just have the sound of low buzzes for engines, screaming descending riders and the occasional pops of exploding bikes on fire. The other music used in the menu screen and level editor is a rather neat and inspiring composition that doesn’t wane as quickly as the original theme tune does.

As quickly...

For a game programmed back in those days, have multiplayer on screen at the same time AND a fully functioning level editor, was considered a rarity for such games. If you’re not careful, you could end up losing a lot of time tweaking, playing and testing the level you’re making instead of seeing the other levels already on offer or playing with a friend/against the AI. Nowadays though, the potential exists to have online gaming, with file sharing of pre-made levels like most other games of similar ilk.

Sadly though there’s other motorbike based games already doing that, with more elaborate set ups and stunts, in that pseudo 3D they call 2.5D (bullshit, it’s 3D and played on a single plane, let’s not make things complicated) such as The Trials series but if you’re interested in looking back to the very humble origins, you’d do well to re-visit Kick-start 2 and see how it was done right and some 25+ years earlier.

For now, I’m going to ski jump onto a telephone box just to see if I can land it.

Then later play kick-start 2.