Full speed ahead Mr. Parker!

In late 1984 Jaws developer Martech teamed up with the only British stunt performer Joe Public can name without cheating; Eddie Kidd. In collaboration with the death-defying dare devil himself they published the BMX/motorbike stunt simulator ‘Eddie Kidd Jump Challenge’ for the Spectrum.

Reworking it the following year for a wider audience, variations of the game found their way onto the Acorn Electron, BBC Micro, C64, and MSX.

Its archetype receiving scores between 40% and 60% it’s safe to say that Jump Challenge wasn’t a roaring success, no more so than many of the non-licensed stunt games. Which quite possibly explains why an equivalent personality-based rival didn’t emerge until ‘Evel Knievel Interactive Stunt Game’ smashed through a crepe paper wall onto a Windows computer near you in 1998, courtesy of Pantera Entertainment/ValuSoft. PC Gamer detested it, grudgingly awarding an 11% score. No-one else could be bothered putting it on trial.

Neither entry set the high water mark for the genre. Falling by the wayside as they did, many of us seem to be under the illusion that the field of extreme stunts has been poorly represented in video games over the years. This isn’t strictly true, it’s just that we only remember a handful of them… the ones that are actually worth playing, or are remarkable because they broke new ground. Titles such as Hard Drivin’ (1989), Stunt Car Racer (1989), and Stunts/4D Sports Driving (1990) for instance.

According to Moby’s (nowhere near comprehensive) list of retail release stunt-orientated games, a total of 56 were in fact produced prior to 2016, taking all platforms into consideration. The genre must have tumbled out of favour since, or perhaps been absorbed into others or further segregated. GTA and The Italian Job is full of stunts for instance. I’ll have to be especially careful with my annunciation here; I don’t want to slip up and turn this into a Guy Richie cockney gangster flick. I’ve already got a raging headache, thanks.

A long time ago in a coin-op arcade far, far away (1976 to be exact), the pixelated stunt show got on the road courtesy of ‘Stunt Cycle’ by Atari.

Before then real men-kid artistes would replicate adrenaline-fuelled aerobatics with physical BMXs, roller-skates or skateboards and endure the inevitable cuts, grazes and decapitated heads. I’m on my third refit personally.

You’d presume the attraction of such amusements is that they allow the player to engage in hazardous lunacy that most people couldn’t attempt without befalling a horrendous, bone-crunching one-way trip to oblivion. To catch the attention then they need to be spine-tinglingly extreme and involve hi-tech kit that mere mortals can’t afford. You wouldn’t be seen dead on the small screen teetering about on Wheelies, tiptoeing around traffic cones to earn useless points or collect litter (remember that game?). We need to be…

  • Leaping at least ten double-decker buses at a time on a motorbike, as in Dare-Devil or DJL Software’s 3D Stunt Rider (published by Amsoft).

Chuck away that dictionary, there’s no time for correct speeling!

 

A dozen buses all on route to Amstrad. Did we nod off and wake up in one of Alan Sugar’s dreams?

 

  • Joyriding around a perilously elevated circuit in a finely-tuned performance sports car, a la Stunt Car Racer.

 

  • Polygonal 3D loop-the-looping via Distinctive Software’s Stunts, Atari’s Hard Drivin’ I and II and Race Drivin’, followed by instant replays to admire our handiwork.

 

  • Replays can similarly be enjoyed in Stunts/4D Sports Driving… after jumping (not carrying) a boat for example.

  • Or dropping from a swooping hand-glider onto a remotely controlled motorbike/diving through burning rings of fire, as demonstrated in Probe Software’s Stunt Bike Simulator… and Johnny Cash’s recording studio.

If you wouldn’t pay to see it at a carnival, why would you want to play it at home?

On paper Rainbow Arts 1987 mixed-genre C64/Amiga stunt ‘simulator’, Danger Freak, would appear to tick all the boxes. It showcases events revolving around a trailblazing motorbike, one of those airborne gadget thingies that helps you to fly without being Superman, a wave-churning jet-ski, high-powered sports car and even a helicopter, albeit one you don’t get to see or fly. Yet somehow it fails miserably to capitalise on these promising foundations in that they feel anything but jeopardous or exhilarating.

Whenever title music eclipses gameplay, deafening alarm bells should warn you that something isn’t quite right. Even if it was composed by the legendary Chris Huelsbeck. Watch the longplay and you’ll notice that as much time is spent looking at the opening credits in order to capture the compelling synth-heavy theme tune as is spent playing the game. Quite rightly that’s because there’s so little to it.

“Despite the obvious graphic and sonic differences, playability is similar to the C64’s. Rainbow Arts have come up with some good games. Denaris (reviewed TGM 017) for example, and luckily they haven’t damaged their reputation too much with Danger Freak. But still, try before you buy.”

The Games Machine (68%, June 1989)

“The small blocky looking sprites on first sighting don’t bode well for this game and tricky controls also give you a vaguely unsettled feeling. But it must be said that after a while Danger Freak does tend grow on you, so short-term playability is assured.”

The Games Machine (65%, C64, June 1989)

During the bike stage, we jump over ramps, duck under limbo poles, and swerve around various hazards, including pipe-wielding hicks who half-heartedly wave them in our general direction without much menace.

 

As we approach the end of the track a convertible sports car driven by our glamorous assistant materialises to take us to the next challenge. Only we don’t sensibly decelerate to a graceful halt, open the door and climb into the stationary vehicle. Where’s the fun in that? Instead, we must stalk it from behind at full tilt, leaping onto the boot as it speeds towards a solid brick wall, conspicuously built right across the road for death-defying stunt purposes.

Preferably before the inevitable happens we have to latch onto a ladder dangled from a hovering helicopter.

In-between performances there’s an overhead bonus bike racing interlude that’s reminiscent of dozens of similar antecedents.

We face three other competitors, navigating around a winding, single-screen track. Collide with a barrier and we crash rather than ricocheting off it, which is very annoying in view of the sensitive steering, and how swiftly we move.

If it hadn’t been for Dare-Devil previously featuring ‘takes’ in place of lives, more innovative would be the system by which the game over screen is reached. Sustaining too many ‘cuts’ results in the production budget being exceeded. In which case filming has to be wrapped up, leaving us unemployed. Assuming we haven’t already lost our three life allocation by this point.

It all handles fairly competently in the joystick department so unfair deaths aren’t an issue at least. Manoeuvres are easily executed from the outset thanks to the responsive controls. Hold fire and pull down to duck, hold fire and push up to jump, hold fire and push left/right to accelerate in that direction. It couldn’t get much simpler.

“There’s basically not enough of the game to hook you for long, but it is quite jolly.”

Advanced Computer Entertainment (59%, C64, June 1989)

Jet-skiing across the open sea, road hazards are replaced with buoys, logs and synchronised shivers of limb-chomping sharks. Cue the Fonzie/Happy Days parody. It had to be done.

Otherwise, it’s a re-skinned repeat of level one, this time culminating in a scramble aboard a yellow submarine. Not just any mind you – there’s no mistaking that it’s the one from the 1968 animated Beatles film. Anyone would think this is a PD release where anything goes, to hell with infringing copyright. Perhaps we shouldn’t be surprised – Rainbow Arts did publish blatant rip-offs The Great Giana Sisters and Katakis/Denaris after all.

As spectacularly thrilling as this all sounds in theory, don’t be fooled. Most of it happens automatically, only requiring us to press fire when the ladder is aligned correctly. Full marks for random, unexpected nonsense though; the sub accompanied by an authentic midi rendition of the unforgettable anthem is the highlight of the game. Or it would have been if the game hadn’t crashed as I sung along – in perfect harmony! – in appreciation, bobbing my head from side to side in the officially endorsed nursery rhyme manner.

“Graphics aren’t very good unfortunately. Sound isn’t that much better: the intro tune is poor and the in-game FX aren’t really anything in the way of a step up.

Not Rainbow Arts’ finest. A surprisingly sub-standard quality product from a company famed for raising standards.”

CU Amiga (58%, May 1989)

Oddly, level three – the plane flying segment – appears to have gone AWOL from the Amiga iteration, despite there being a screenshot of it on the back of the box. I also tried a trainered version of Danger Freak only to discover that the level skipper similarly failed to transport me to it. Interesting that it’s absent from the Amiga longplay too, though can be seen in the C64 playthrough. Who knows? Maybe it’s a problem introduced by the crack.

This time we wrap-up shooting by ejecting and parachuting safely back down to terra firma, having dodged birds of prey, witches and dragons.

Around this time the idea that variety is the spice of gaming became entrenched in the consciousness of developers and publishers alike. It led to the release of multi-genre affairs like Danger Freak that fuse several mediocre mini-games under the optimistic assumption that together they’d amount to a worthwhile package. Barring a few exceptional outliers like certain versions of RoboCop and Batman the Movie, customarily they were proved wrong, the industry collectively failed to learn from the mistake, and before long were caught out repeating it. Rainbow Arts’ only real defence is that they fell into the trap early on, and got it out of their system. Thankfully today they are more fondly remembered for delivering two exceedingly acclaimed, classic Turrican games. Oh, and the third one. Let’s not mention Bad Cat… or post a picture.

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