Ever since Atari put gamesters behind the wheel in "Pole Position" in the early '80s, racing games have been a staple of electronic entertainment -- and with good reason. They're fun, everybody understands them, and they're easy to learn but difficult to master.
Over the years, in pursuit of research for this column, I've climbed behind the wheel of digital Ferraris, Corvettes, Indy cars, Lamborghinis, Deuce Coupes, and GTOs. I've raced motorcycles, planes, go-karts and powerboats. But when Infogrames' latest offering arrived in the mail last week, I took one look at "Beetle Buggin'" and laughed out loud.
It's billed as a "Classic VW Beetle" racing game, which, to those of us who remember the classic Beetle, is a bit like advertising a "classic turtle race." The little German imports were much beloved for their unabashedly ugly lines, reliability, economy and ease of repair, but speed was never part of the equation. In fact, the real thrill in driving a Beetle came from its very reluctance to overcome the laws of inertia.
Young folks who drive small cars today have no appreciation for the bravado it took to drive an import in the heyday of the Beetle. Today's little cars have highly tuned, 100-horsepower engines (the new Beetle has 115), which doesn't make them speed demons but doesn't make them safety hazards, either.
The classic Beetle of the '60s had a 40-horsepower motor that looked and sounded like a washing machine but was still a major improvement over the 36-hp model of the 1950s. On the plus side, the little power plant was reliable, economical and easy to fix. One of my best friends in high school who had a new 1965 Beetle was incredibly proud of the fact that if his battery died, he could wind a rope around a reel under the hood and start it like an outboard motor, a feat he would demonstrate to anyone who would watch -- even strangers. Actually, it wasn't very hard to do because most outboard motors were bigger than the Beetle's engine.
To compensate for this lack of raw muscle, VW provided a clever four-speed transmission with a low gear that was absolutely breathtaking. In fact, my buddy claimed that there was no faster car off the line -- for the first 30 feet or so. After that, you were in trouble.
I learned just how much trouble in my college roommate's red 1964 Beetle convertible. While it was fine for chugging around town, it was definitely "challenged" by superhighways and two-lane country roads. Sure, the 40 horses under the hood would keep you purring along in fourth gear if the road was straight and level. But on hills the Beetle would gradually start to die. About halfway up -- or less, depending on the slope -- you'd have to shift down into third gear, which topped out at an incredibly noisy 45 mph. This made long drives in the rolling countryside last a lot longer (or so it seemed when I was 19).
The workaround for this problem was to put the pedal to the metal going down a hill and hope your momentum would carry you to the top of the next one before you'd be forced to shift down again. That's why so many cops hid their speed traps behind bushes at the bottom of hills; they'd never nab a Beetle driver at the top.
Likewise, passing another car on a two-lane road was an art form -- if you call playing chicken an art. If the little old lady in the Ford Falcon ahead of you was going 40 or 45 mph, you were in big trouble, because that's when you had to shift from third gear to fourth, which meant the Beetle was absolutely out of whatever oomph it had to start with. At best you could floor the accelerator and creep by, hoping that nobody came along the other way. If a tractor-trailer appeared, you had to start calculating very quickly, wondering if you could edge past Grandma before you became a highway statistic.
Alternatively, you could hang back a bit and build up speed gradually, till you were doing 60 or so (at which point the Beetle would actually respond to the gas pedal). Then you could slingshot around her at the last second, once again hoping nobody would turn up headed the other way. That's why cops used to hide their speed traps on roads where there were a lot of old ladies driving Ford Falcons.
But so much for reminiscing -- this is a software review. The $20 "Beetle Buggin'" is a lot like its namesake -- not very fancy but easy to learn and a lot of fun. Of course, the digital Volkwagens you'll race are tuned up with dual carburetors and other modifications that make them a lot livelier than the originals, but the Beetles, vans and VW-based dune buggies you'll find are beautifully rendered.
You can choose from five events, including a classic Beetle road race, a ski-jump competition for nitro-burners, a dune buggy challenge, a crossover race on a figure-eight dirt track and the ultimate fantasy -- a "monster truck" race featuring VW pickups with huge tires that crush everything in their paths.
With 17 different models and 20 different tracks, there's plenty of variety as you move from one level of competition to the next, acquiring more exotic and powerful cars along the way. The controls are simple -- for most races, all you need are the four cursor keys. Graphics are beautifully rendered, and while you'll get the best performance from a souped-up computer, the Windows 95/98 game will run acceptably on the PC equivalent of the original Bug -- a 233 MHz Pentium without a graphic accelerator.
Because Infogrames licensed the rights to the VW name and car makers like wholesome entertainment, speed freaks who like the new generation of violent racing games ("Carmageddon" comes to mind) will want to look elsewhere. There are no crashes (only bumps) and you'll never damage your car, no matter how many times you bang it into a wall. Nor will other drivers assault you with M-16s or give you the finger. As a result, it's a good title for kids.
All things considered, "Beetle Buggin'" is good, cheap entertainment for the terminally nostalgic. If the programmers had included a "pass a Ford Falcon on a country road" event, it would be almost perfect.
For information, surf to www.infogrames.com.