Xeroxmorphs in Dittoland: T-Racer

Very few game developers can genuinely claim to have sired an entirely unique evolutionary offshoot. In reality – like any art form – games are a hodgepodge of ideas, graphics and audio absorbed from a profusion of sources reaching far and wide, stretching back to the big bang… and even that was inspired by Asteroids.

This can amount to anything from accidental correlations to blatant plagiarism, and nowhere is this more apparent than where public domain games are concerned. This shouldn’t come as much of a shock as often these are made by amateurs who operate under the assumption that because their games won’t command a full price fee, or be appearing on high street shelves, they have carte blanche to make like the Borrowers, and erm, well, borrow stuff.

Technically the same copyright laws apply, yet in effect, I can’t recall a precedent involving legal action being taken against a bedroom, public domain coder. What would be the point? The perpetrators likely wouldn’t have the resources to pay much in the way of compensation; all a publisher would achieve is to alienate potential customers, hitting the headlines for cracking proverbial nuts with a sledgehammer.

Which by pure coincidence leads me neatly onto my latest blog series, subtitled ‘operation dredge the murky depths of Amigaland for the most shameless PD game rip-offs this side of the known universe’. Catchy I thought!

I’ll be kicking off the proceedings with the obscure, horizontally scrolling shoot-em-up, T-Racer, which I’m sure won’t have escaped your notice, bears more than a slight resemblance to Team 17’s Project-X.

The handiwork of Italian developers, Virtual Dreams, it was written entirely in Assembly code in the space of a year. Comprising the four man team were programmer and graphician, Alberto Longo, musician and graphician, Pierpaolo Di Maio, and graphicians, Gianluca Abbate and Antonio Beatrice.

T-Racer was offered initially in 1994 as a demo for £1 from your favourite PD outlet, with the option to buy the full game for £12. Quite presumptuous given that your average budget title would sell for £9.99 and be delivered in a box, accompanied with a manual and the provision of technical support, “should you need us, for any reason at all…”.

Chances are, something you bought from HMV or Boots wouldn’t have been a flagrant clone of a game released two years previously (and also available as a bargain basement budget title by that stage!).

That said, T-Racer was originally intended to be released through more traditional channels under the Dynabyte label (who were responsible for Nippon Safes Inc., Big Red Adventure and Tube Warriors – don’t ask!), but the deal fell through, leaving the game bereft of a publisher (maybe Martyn Brown got wind of it and growled at them).

The upshot was that T-Racer became a shareware game purely through misfortune rather than by design. Perhaps Virtual Dreams felt the price tag was justified because – prior to pulling out – they had their arms twisted into reworking it by Dynabyte, so as to extend the longevity. The developers weren’t best pleased because they felt it sabotaged the finely tuned pacing of the action, and the extra time invested stung.

The most striking parallels between Team 17’s shooter and T-Racer are embodied by the acutely stylish visuals and digitised – albeit grainy – speech that provides an ongoing commentary encompassing helpful notifications and warnings of your impending doom.

Contrary to popular belief, the sprites and backgrounds were created from scratch, though unmistakably in the Project-X mould. T-Racer attempts to mimic the latter in its use of multi-layered parallax scrolling, copper effects, fluid motion and an impressively extensive colour palette. In this regard, it largely hits the mark, and in some instances, even surpasses it!

One core area in which it deviates is the mechanics of the power-up system. In Project-X you collect ‘p bubbles’ left behind when an enemy wave is decimated, and these serve to sequentially shift the focus of a marker over words at the bottom of the playfield. When the one you wish to engage is highlighted, you press the spacebar or waggle the joystick from left to right to select it.

Likewise in T-Racer, power-ups are earned by destroying a predefined volume of enemy craft, and awarded by way of lettered bubbles, though the power-up bar is conspicuously absent. The more havoc you wreak, the more energy you can reclaim, and the greater the boost in the potency of your weaponry. Where the two games diverge is in the volitional control afforded in the selection of weapons and power-ups from your potential arsenal.

Despite T-Racer’s inferior fire-power, it has the edge where its more balanced, smoother difficulty curve is concerned, largely – though not exclusively – thanks to dropping the one-hit-death policy in favour of an energy bar.

Lose a life and your ship respawns in situ, eschewing the frustration of being forced to restart the mission from square one. Additionally, you’ll find that when you “awise fwom your gwave” you can pick up where you left off with exactly the same power-ups.

Side-stepping the bullet-hell barrage approach to artificially extending the lifespan of shoot-em-ups also works wonders for its playability.

It’s as though VD (unfortunate acronym!) have honed in on the aspects of Project-X that neuter the fun-factor, and eviscerated them with a scalpel. The developers should have been offered consultant jobs at Team 17!

Whilst Project-X features co-pilot navigated trials through narrow, undulating tunnels at high velocity, T-Racer turns to the Dark Side.

These jarringly disparate bonus stages invoke the original Star Wars wire-frame, vector games you may remember from the arcades. The twist here is that they’re played via the screen of a Chinese knock-off Game Gear, just about anonymous enough not to be a Sega.

Between each of the main stages, you swoop through Death Star-esque corridors, the objective being to gravitate towards gaps in the walls which alternate from top to bottom, left to right. The longer you survive, the bigger the bonuses carried through into the next level.

T-Racer is so well constructed and eminently refined that it makes you wonder why these immensely talented developers chose to saddle themselves with a copycat reputation, rather than channelling their energy into something fresh and novel.

The game was praised in the PD spotlight section of Amiga Format issue 73, and scored a respectable 88% in the July 1994 edition of The Games Machine, so it’s not just me getting carried away with the pretty visuals, although the visuals are very pretty.

It would appear that Amiga Power took a shine to it too given that they saw fit to promote it as one of the featured games on cover disk 60b in April 1996. As ringing endorsements go, that’s practically a chorus of tubular bells.

The developers stopped eating cheese before bedtime, and Virtual Dreams became Fields of Vision. Coding more and sleeping less, they went on to release the first-person perspective, 3D shooter, Breathless, for the A1200/A4000. It was pegged a …dare I say it? …Doom clone.

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