Lost & Found: Big Red Racing

From Earth to the Moon (and Mars and Venus).

I largely remember Big Red Racing as a scapegoat game. When I almost didn't graduate, Big Red Racing was the culprit I chose. Not fair, I guess, but we all need a crutch now and then. Besides, at least I remember Big Red Racing in the first place. Not enough people seem to.

This is weird, really, because Domark's game has an awful lot of character. Sure, the handling's a bit, um, rugged, the mid-1990s font choice on the menus makes the front-end look like a blend of ransom note and holiday eCard, and the globe-trotting voiceovers - during the five seconds before you venture into the options screen to silence them for eternity - start at Bewilderingly Awful and end at Hey, That's Just Plain Racist. Beyond all that, though, this is a wonderfully jouncy knockabout racer that offers an unusual degree of freedom. Clouds of dust, flaming metal: it's about as far from Gran Turismo as you're ever likely to get, and I've probably put well over 100 hours into it, all things considered.

As driving games go, it ranks amongst the most teeth-rattling, with a series of lumpy, bumpy, tumbledown tracks designed to throw you around even on the straights. When you do take a bashing, you'll find the simple audio cues are gloriously crunchy, and you'll also be inflicting damage on your own vehicle, too: try not to blow up, eh?

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The in-car view made the game rather puke-inducing. Nice steering wheel, though.

Levels, meanwhile, span the globe - several globes, in fact, since alongside Egyptian quarries and Japanese mountainsides, there's also a canyon run on Mars, and a trip over the golden lava floes of Venus. In Big Red Racing, you can drive Minis and diggers and dinghies and snowcats and even weird space crawlers with monster truck wheels, and you'll find that the areas you race across are filled with weird little in-jokes and gimmicks. The Italian level features a very familiar bus perched on the edge of a ravine, for example, and the moon is home to a frightening Kubrickian movie prop.

Best of all, you're welcome to go off road, and back in 1997, with no other games on my borrowed Pentium, going off road was really all I was interested in. Big Red Racing uses a checkpoint system to keep you stuck to the track - the actor who says "Checkpoint" in-game, incidentally, sounds like a work experience kid who was suffering from a deviated septum during the recording sessions - but if you don't care about winning, there's plenty of leeway for you to explore. The levels have almost no invisible walls to speak of so you can ramble around to your heart's content, sounding out strange alleyways in one map, driving your motorboat up hills in another. The best locations actually let you drop off the side of the official landscape, tumbling down steep cliffs sculpted out of literally dozens of separate polygons and racing across huge featureless deserts: open territory that has never known the tug or prod of an artist's sculpting tool.

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Big Red's helicopters offer soothing airborne tracks that often end in flames.

All of which makes the game more loveable, if you ask me: a racing game where no track can hold you, and where you can travel to the end of the world, and then peek over the side. Had Big Red Racing been any slicker, it wouldn't have been as special. It's a forgotten gem that sparkles all the more brightly because of its many rough edges.

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