Morning retro campers! Welcome to barrel-scraping territory where everything's a 'classic' and a 'treasure' if it, you know, it once appeared in an arcade. Having just trawled through the annals (or should that be anals?) of Tecmo's 'classic' retro history, we were in no mood to be fobbed off again with a pile of stinking detritus masquerading as jolly retro fodder - so forgive us if we're just a little stroppy with Midway's latest collection of old long-forgotten hits.
The first thing to get to the bottom of is exactly why Midway is continuing to mislead the public over its arcade heritage. Checking out the contents of this eight game pack, five of them were produced under the Atari banner, namely Badlands, Race Drivin', Stun Runner, San Francisco Rush: The Rock - Alcatraz Edition, and San Francisco Rush 2049. One of the others (Super Off Road) was by Leland Corp, leaving just two (Hydro Thunder and Off Road Thunder) as genuine Midway-produced games.
So, how can this be? It's a slightly complicated tale of changing ownership and corporate pass-the-parcel, but here's the abridged version of why Atari games keep cropping up in Midway compilations.
Pass the Atari parcel
Essentially, the Atari Games associated with arcade games (as opposed to the Atari that made the ST, Lynx and Jaguar) gradually became wholly owned by Time Warner (and ceased to exist as a name). In 1996 Time Warner Interactive was sold to WMS Industries, owner of Midway at the time. WMS then reinstated the Atari Games name (alongside its Midway brand), but when Hasbro claimed ownership of the other Atari name in the late '90s, Midway (having bought itself out of WMS) agreed to rename Atari Games in 2000 to Midway Games West. Confused? Have a cookie.
That certainly explains why the San Francisco Rush pair are considered Midway games as they were part of the same overall operation, but we can only assume that the old Atari arcade games that have appeared on all the previous Midway compilations are present because of the old rights ownership pass-the-parcel. Anyway, this is boring. Let's talk about games and just pretend that Midway made them all. It's easier.
So, six paragraphs in, what are the latest batch of 'Treasures' like? Given that there are only eight to talk about, we can examine them in slightly more depth than our normal retro compilation reviews (unlike the Taito Legends pack, which had 29 of the buggers in there). In chronological order, the first trio were all squeezed out by Atari in 1989 on roughly the same 68000 hardware; home to many an arcade game of the era.
Not quite bad, just not all that good...
Badlands was essentially a slight twist on Atari's successful Super Sprint formula, which involved top-down, single screen racing for up to three players. Badlands merely added weapons to the car, now allowing you to shoot the crap out of your opponents while you busied yourself with screeching around a handful of tracks. At the end of each and every round you'd buy upgrades to enhance top speed, traction and so on, and go again on progressively harder tracks until the CPU got so clever that you'd inevitably struggle to match them and have to insert more coins. So contrived was this mercenary gameplay tactic that it spoils the fun nowadays, as it's the game's way of saying 'more money please!' We don't really have time for such nonsense today, so we found ourselves quickly tiring of what is an otherwise appealing formula. Visually it's held up reasonably well, mainly because Atari wasn't trying to be flash at the time - it was more about representing the gameplay in a tidy and simple fashion. If you got off on the Sprint titles, then this is definitely an essential addition, otherwise it's a mild curiosity which has been bettered ten times over since.
Another 1989 release, Race Drivin' was the sequel to Hard Drivin', a proto polygonal 3D racing game that was more of a chance for Atari to showcase some emerging technology than produce a fast and furious game. Scouring the fairly scant extras it was quite amusing to read "Faster microprocessor and more efficient software code provides a new imperceptible lag time between the control input and screen graphic response". It also boasted "Lifelike 3D graphics, incredible handling", but nothing could be further from the truth. Running at three frames per second (at a push), the game is bordering on uncontrollable. If you can manage to steer the car around the first corner without smashing you'll be doing a fine job, such is the incredibly jerky nature of the gameplay. Whether this is down to dodgy emulation or not is hard to say, given that we never came across the 'real' Race Drivin' in an arcade. What is certain, though, is that the 'game' featured here is an unplayable mess, with hilariously basic visuals, the most hideously annoying screeching sound ever, and controls that simply don't work on even a basic level.
What's weird is that Atari's proto WipEout-style futuristic racer Stun Runner runs like a dream in comparison. Admittedly, it does run on the slightly faster 68010 hardware, but that doesn't quite explain the massive difference in speed and frame rate. Hilariously, the blurb states: "Travel ahead in time to the [yes!!] 21st Century and experience the thrill of racing in a futuristic form of competitive driving". Set in the Spread Tunnel Underground Network (Stun), you're basically tasked with piloting "a billion dollar vehicle capable of attaining speeds of over 900 miles an hour" down twisty-turny tubes, attempting to shoot up anything that crosses your path, hitting the boost pads, collecting stars and avoiding the armoured tanks within a time limit. It's fast, furious and damned good fun. One of the stars of the compilation for sure.
When it was all Super
Another 1989 release, Super Off Road from Leland Corp was a fairly enjoyable-but-crude attempt to ape the top-down circuit-based Super Sprint style of game. Featuring slightly chunkier graphics than Atari's efforts, and a far more exaggerated handling model that bounced your vehicle all over the place, it was arguably the poor-man's alternative. Much like the Sprint games, track pick-ups allowed you to spec up various parts of your car between races, and so it went on until you eventually failed to win. Bizarrely, a few rounds in, some sort of bug occurs that ensures that all the CPU cars upgrade themselves to superhuman proportions and race around the track like they’re on speed, which kind of ruins any semblance of fun you might have been having. Meanwhile, the presence of the game's 'Track pack' as a standalone extra game adds value, but it's hardly a major bonus.
Moving forward to the recent past of 1997, Atari's San Francisco Rush: The Rock - Alcatraz Edition seems rather too new to be thrown onto a retro compilation such as this, but here it is. Billed as "the exciting sequel to the most intense driving game ever", it's a lowbrow festival of fast-paced racing, with some flat textured, low poly visuals that look truly abhorrent next to today's game. But, being big fans of games of all eras, regardless of what they look like, it's the fairly underwhelming gameplay that ultimately does it no favours. The original cabinets were designed to offer the then-novel premise of linked-up racing, and stripped of that particular feature you're left racing up against dumb AI drones, which kind of misses the point. With hilariously inappropriate driving physics, laughable handling and shallow premise, it mainly serves to remind us just how far the arcade driving genre has come in a relatively short space of time. If there's one area of retro gaming we're not too keen to be reminded about, it's mid-'90s 3D racing. Let's move on.
Skipping forward two years to 1999, Atari's San Francisco Rush 2049 was a major improvement on the second in the series, but still nothing to get too excited about. Powered by the 'Denver' hardware, it's still one of those games which is too new to feel nostalgic about, and you can't help but compare it unfavourably with what's available now - however unfair that is in reality. But, again, much like version 2, it's not so much the naff visuals that fail to draw you in, but the entirely rubbish 'arcade' handling, which is so bland and unrealistic that any sense of real 'arcade' excitement is lost. Five years ago, we remember quite liking the Dreamcast version (especially its 'Battle' mode), but nowadays you wouldn't give it more than five minutes before doing something better with your life. We gave it about an hour, and that felt like 59 minutes too long. Seriously, unless you've got some specific good memories of playing this in your local arcade as a kid, there's literally no point revisiting it. If we recall, not many people even rated this at the time, so it's not much of a surprise that it looks rubbish now.
Thunder, lightning, strike
In the light of that, we were really quite staggered at how advanced Midway's Hydro Thunder looks considering its 1999 release. Slick as baby oil, the deliciously shiny and crisp visuals look well ahead of their time and do the simplistic but addictive speedboat racing gameplay a great deal of justice. Based on Midway's Quicksilver II hardware, the blurb claims that the "Turbo-charged superboat racing...will leave all other racing games scattered in its wake". Okay, that's debatable, but it's certainly one of, if not the best example of a water-based arcade racing game (not counting home console racers like WaveRace and Splashdown). The premise is breathtakingly simple, tasking you with placing in the top three in each race in order to unlock the next difficulty level. Each course is peppered with a mixture of hazards, ramps and boosts, making for an enjoyable, albeit lightweight experience. Like many of the latter-day arcade racing games, this was really more of a link-up experience (8-player in this case), so playing it alone doesn't quite provide the same thrills. But with 13 speedboats to choose from, 12 tracks and a variety of racing conditions to tackle, it's definitely one of the three games here worthy of your attention. Oh, and it's got (according to Midway's original blurb) "Newtonian physics" -arf!
Finally, Midway's 1999 offering Offroad Thunder takes a similar approach to Hydro Thunder in offering an instantly playable fast-paced racing extravaganza as you tear up a succession of mud tracks in a bunch of off-road vehicles. While not as visually striking as its cousin, (and suffering from a discernible amount of dust-effect-related slowdown), the gameplay is almost as enjoyable thanks to some good course design and plenty of options to play around with. With eight tracks, eight vehicles (plus four hidden), there's a fair bit to play through. It's just a shame that you can't play the game as it was intended. For the full four-player linked experience you're still going to have to track down an old arcade somewhere. Still, for nostalists that need to be reminded of their late 20th Century arcade antics, this is certainly a cheap means of going about it.
After all that, is the package really worth the dosh? Well, there's nothing exactly stand-out classic or essential here to justify forking out for on its own, but there are a few minor curios that may well push the right buttons for racing fans that like being able to chart the progress of the genre through the ages. The disappointing aspect of the package isn’t so much the quality of the games (evidently every one has been superseded since - that goes without saying), but that there's only a miserly eight being offered here. Sure, some of them are relatively recent, but that shouldn’t disguise the fact that this is an incredibly lightweight selection. As a side note, Midway has also neglected to bother throwing in much in the way of background information, such as developer interviews and so on. As with so many of these retro compilations we're left zooming in on fairly pointless sales sheets that provide little, if any information as to the thought processes behind each game's genesis. On the whole you're left with the impression that this latest compilation is rather thrown together with little thought to what the retro fans will want from it. The emulation's pretty much spot-on, as a rule, but Race Drivin' should never have been included in such a state. That says everything you need to know, really.
Save your pennies
All-round, if you can pick up Midway Arcade Treasure 3 for a discount price then it's probably worth it if you're specifically after some of the games featured on it. But for those of you that missed out the first time around, it's fair to say that there are much better retro compilations available - not least the first two incarnations of Midway Arcade Treasures, which both feature some all-time classics.