PS1 at 20: Destruction Derby and the art of being an idiot
I was a very serious player of driving games just before the PlayStation 1 came out 20 years ago. It's debatable whether I played racing games or not, even - these were things to be studied, analysed and perfected. A friend gave me a copy of Geoff Crammond's Formula One Grand Prix, after trying to convince me how much fun it was to play the idiot, switching the invincibility on, turning 180 degrees and eliminating every car on the field before turning back around and claiming the win. I wasn't much good at hiding my disgust. This, I assured him with all the pomposity of a teenager, was most definitely not what it was all about.
For me, Formula One Grand Prix was something else entirely. I'd simulate every practice and qualifying session, printing off timing sheets and going through them before I'd set up a full-length race every other Sunday. In the days between races - I could only ever race on a Sunday, as anything else would be sacrilege to the sport - I made my own magazine, with full race reports on the simulated season and fictional gossip on the driver rivalries I'd made up in my head. I wasn't, as you might have guessed already, all that to hang around with.
And then Destruction Derby came out, and showed me that I was wrong. It turns out that driving head-on into a field of cars can be kind of awesome.
Reflection Studios' Destruction Derby is an often overlooked part of the PlayStation 1's early days, overshadowed by other, hipper racing games like Ridge Racer and WipEout. It certainly was't as cool as either of those: it wasn't touched by the sharp appeal of club culture, or the then otherworldly appeal of Japanese arcades. Instead, Destruction Derby's had the greasy taint of banger racing, and of hairy-knuckled men beating a Ford Granada's door panels back into place with a hammer before heading back out into battle. It was milky tea and bacon sandwiches on sticky white bread, not edgy narcotics and neon lights.
Destruction Derby is a redneck game, and I love it for that. There's no high culture, and no grand sport to it - instead it's a messy soup of twisted metal and rubber you're invited to wade gleefully around in. There are races, yes, but getting into first place isn't even half the challenge - you'll get more points for spinning out the competition, so you're better off languishing in the midfield where all the delicious carnage is. It's at its best when it's not even pretending to offer a race, giving you a flat concrete bowl and a field of cars to smash about in. Who needs more then that when there are such beautiful toys to be demolished?
There's a redneck quality beyond the racing, too - in the voiceover that seems to be one person doing passable impersonations of a Brummie competitor, and not-so-passable impressions of an American announcer, or in the crude caricatures that you're competing against. Beyond all that knockabout mess, though, Destruction Derby was a remarkably accomplished game; it offered 19 opponents on track at any point, handsome and muscular car models that deformed convincingly and handling that was fine-tuned to the binary click of the PlayStation's original digital controller.
Destruction Derby was never going to be the poster child of PlayStation, which is a shame; in many ways Reflection's knockabout racer sold the console harder than those other racing games. It was in love with polygons, as all those early PlayStation games were, but it wasn't afraid to mash them about with its crunchy, spiky physics.
20 years later, as the steering wheel rig on my desk and the special driving gloves I sometimes wear to use it attest, I still take racing games a little too seriously. But every now and then, with a mischievous smile on my face, I'm not above spinning the wheel and driving full-on the other direction, revelling in the fun that comes when digital metal comes crashing together. Sometimes, being an idiot feels pretty great.