Release Date: 1994
Developer: Electronic Arts Canada
Publisher: Electronic Arts, Inc.
I feel the need…
The Need for Speed series is the longest-running video game racing series. It’s a very successful series, boasting sales of over 150 million copies across multiple generations of consoles. As a fan of the racing genre, I have cut my teeth on many entries in the venerable series. There have been titles that stand among my favorites ever, like Need for Speed: Underground, Need for Speed: Most Wanted, and Need for Speed: Hot Pursuit 2. Of course, there have been duds like Need for Speed: Rivals and the abysmal Need for Speed: The Run. With Need for Speed: Payback hitting the streets on November 10th, I figured it’d be good to explore the series’ roots.
It’s hard to believe now, but the console racing game landscape was barren back in 1994. The racing sim juggernauts of today – Gran Turismo and Forza Motorsports – did not exist, and the best racing was done on PC. The most successful racing sim on that platform was Accolade’s Test Drive series. The series, which made a brief appearance on the SNES and Sega Genesis with 1989’s The Duel: Test Drive II, focused on trying to realistically simulate racing with stock-bodied cars. Electronic Arts (not EA just yet) decided to throw their hat into the ring with Road & Track Presents The Need for Speed, a title that also tried to realistically simulate racing stock-bodied cars on roads. Of course, they decided that only the most powerful console would accurately show off their vision. So they released it on the 3DO, a powerful console that was not very popular.
To call the 3DO a console is technically incorrect. The 3DO was actually just a series of specifications that hardware manufacturers could license and make consoles with. Created by Electronic Arts founder Trip Hawkins, The 3DO Company’s tech first entered the market with Panasonic’s FZ-1 3DO Interactive Multiplayer. It boasted cutting-edge multimedia and 3D capabilities that dwarfed contemporaries like the Sega CD and the TurboGrafx-CD. Its $699 retail price also dwarfed its competition, ensuring that the console would stay out of reach for the majority of gamers. Christ, it was even more expensive than the Neo-Geo AES!
Trip Hawkins’ involvement with The 3DO Company guaranteed that it would have a cozy relationship with Electronic Arts. The publisher would release quite a few titles that exploited the 3DO tech. This included the definitive version of John Madden Football in 1994.
It was in 1994 that Road & Track Presents The Need for Speed for the 3DO. In a move that would become an EA standard later, the game was developed by Distinctive Software Inc. They were the development team behind the first game in the Test Drive series. Electronic Arts purchased the studio, renamed it Electronic Arts Canada, and set them to work on the game. Road & Track, the popular car magazine at the time, was brought on to help EA Canada recreate the dynamics and characteristics of the vehicles that were represented.
So how does the game actually play? It’s pretty good, so long as you set your expectations to the 1994 standard.
The game’s claim to fame was the ability to drive some of the most coveted sports cars and supercars of the time. The list includes the Acura NSX, the Chevrolet Corvette, the Ferrari 512 TR and F355, the Lamborghini Diablo, the Porsche 911, and the Toyota Supra. The car selection screen features all of the “multi-media” bugaboos inherent to CD-based games at the time, including cinematics and spoken dialogue about the car’s stats. There are other video clips strewn about the game during non-driving portions. It’s quaint at first, and slightly irritating during long playthroughs. Remember, though, that this type of presentation was cutting-edge back in 1994.
The actual driving bits are more recognizable to racing sim fans. Players are put in the vehicle they chose and blast through recreations of street courses. The vehicle models are all polygonal, which was in its infancy on consoles. Players could choose from one of three viewpoints: a cockpit view and two external views. The cockpits were all modeled to mimic the cars being used. The simulation was such that gauge needles and steering wheel inputs were animated. The stick shifter was not constantly present on the screen; it would appear briefly with each shift then disappear.
Although the car models are blocky by today’s standards, they were cutting-edge back in 1994. The environments were not fully polygonal, either. Instead, the game used the old trick of using 2D bitmaps that scaled as they got closer. That cut down on a number of calculations the 32-bit 3DO had to do, saving all the heavy math for the cars’ rendering and physics.
The gameplay was essentially a duel, pitting the player against a single AI-controlled racer. There is no countdown to start a race; once you put the car in gear and accelerate, the race starts. It’s here where the flaws start to show.
For one thing, the game does not convey the feeling of speed you would expect in a game named The Need for Speed. You can reach speeds in excess of 100 mph, but the game won’t translate that into anything that feels like high speed. Part of the reason for that is the game’s biggest flaw: the frame-rate. At best, the game runs at about 20 fps and typically runs in the 12-15 fps range. That gives the game a very sluggish feeling. The cars aren’t very responsive, seeming like it takes one or two extra beats before it changes direction.
Another thing that takes away from the experience is the fact that it’s threadbare aurally. The only things heard during gameplay are the sounds of the engine and the muted thuds when a vehicle hits an obstacle. There was absolutely no soundtrack whatsoever. Purists at the time must have loved that, but the engine sounds were themselves so muted that any enjoyment would be dashed.
To be fair, this was state-of-the-art at the time. Console racing games generally went for an arcade feel, ditching the sim aspects of the genre. The only contemporary example that I can use for a proper comparison is the SNES’s Stunt Race FX. That title, with the extra help of the cartridge’s FX chip, performed even worse than The Need for Speed. This level of realism in racing games just wasn’t seen on mainstream consoles. While it didn’t do that well, it performed way better than anything outside of the PC realm.
Ultimately, the 3DO release wasn’t all that spectacular. Even though it was a technical marvel for its time, piss-poor sales of the consoles using 3DO tech meant there would not be many game copies being sold. 3DO itself would only last three years total before selling the technology to Matsushita, Panasonic’s parent company. The company became a third-party publisher, acquiring other studios and making games in the Army Men series, as well as PC titles in the Might and Magic and Heroes of Might and Magic series. The company would soldier on until 2003 when it filed for Chapter 11 bankruptcy and sold its IPs to other publishers.
Does The Need for Speed hold up? Not in its original state. The game was just too ambitious, requiring much more than what the 3DO could provide. This was evident when the game was ported to MS-DOS. The framerate was still dodgy, but it performed better than the 3DO version. Console ports for the Sega Saturn and Sony PlayStation followed. Of the two, the PlayStation port is the superior one. Both ran much more smoothly than the 3DO version, but the Saturn version’s cockpits didn’t even feature animated gauges. The PlayStation version, meanwhile, did everything the 3DO version did better and added an extra perk: a soundtrack.
For those who want to explore the beginnings of the series, I would suggest running down a PlayStation version of The Need for Speed. Not only is it the superior version, it’ll also be the cheapest. The usual third-party resellers will be your only recourse to legally play this game, and a complete copy usually runs for less than $10.
Road & Track Presents The Need for Speed on the 3DO is an interesting game. It’s the first game in a series I generally like. The game pushed boundaries and tried to provide a console experience that had not existed prior. Its initial incarnation did not exactly set the world on fire, but later ports set the foundation for a long-lived series with over 20 entries. That’s a pretty good start if you ask me.
Good: Fully 3D models, mostly 3D environments; good selection of cars
Bad: Bad frame rate; sluggish controls; no soundtrack
Final score: 5/10