Genre: Racing Developer: Acid Software Publisher: Codemasters Players: 1-6 Released: 1995
Cows with sunglasses and fuzzy dice on wheels! Did this catch your attention? The box for the Codemasters game Super Skidmarks definitely sports one of the strangest cover arts of the 16-bit era. A dubious choice, to say the least. Cows aren’t particularly known to handle or maneuver well, so why pick this particular animal if you want to promote your racing game? But then again, that may just be exactly the joke the developers were aiming for. Strangeness aside, late in the lifespan of the Mega Drive, British-based company Codemasters (perhaps best known to the 16-bit console crowd for their fun and addictive Micro Machines games) decided to throw out another little racing game with probably the most confusing box art ever to grace an exclusive PAL-title for Sega’s old flagship console. Super Skidmarks is a PAL-exclusive game, and as many of its kind, was ported from a game originally released on the Amiga home computers. Its main gimmicks: An isometric pseudo-3D perspective, simultaneous multi-player for up to six (!) contestants, and not surprisingly, cows.
In a vein rather similar to the aforementioned Micro Machines titles, Super Skidmarks is first and foremost an entry into the subcategory of “Fun Racers.” Instead of a top-down perspective and the living room settings the toy car series had, this game literally is looking at things from a different angle. You get to see the race track from an isometric point of view, where the camera is set in a fixed camera angle and always centered on your car (or, in multi-player sessions, the player who’s currently in the lead). That’s not incredibly original since other racers since the NES era have done this already. What sets Super Skidmarks aside from other games sharing said point of view like Super Championship Pro-Am or Rock & Roll Racing (aside from cows) are three things: smaller sprites (to allow for a bigger view of the racing area), a wider camera angle (ditto) and dropping the potential of shooting and destroying your opponents for the ability to honk a horn. This option doesn’t influence the gameplay at all, but maybe this was to appease any realism fetishists who find the prospect of getting honked at strangely appealing. You could argue that this is more realistic, but then again you get to control cows on wheels! More on that later.
In single-player mode you get to race through 48 tracks, split into four leagues with 12 tracks each. Perform well in each league, and you get to advance to the next one, where the opponents are more relentless and the tracks themselves get a bit trickier to navigate. There are several different cars to choose from, each with different qualities in terms of handling, acceleration, and overall speed. While cars like the Bug or the Mini don’t exactly ace in the high velocity department, they are more reliable when covering corners, whilst the Formula One cars accessible in the higher leagues go off like your digestion system after a three-alarm chili and are about as slippery. The fastest vehicles are the “Bovine Warriors,” which you can access after acing the game (or entering the password CHOCMILK). They are literally cows with rocket boosters on wheels, and while they pretty much trump everything when it comes to raw speed, they control about as well as the description suggests. The idea alone is strangely appealing though, and once you’ve reached the Bovine Warrior league watching your turbocharged ungulate careen across the racetrack can definitely draw a smile to your face.
The controls are about as simple as they get: one button to accelerate, another to brake, and since there was room for a third one you can also passive-aggressively honk at other cars just as if they cut into your lane while you’re riding down main street during rush-hour, with about the same effect it has (none). As I already mentioned, the type of car you choose determines the way it handles when accelerating, drifting around corners or jumping ramps. The racetracks have a kind of motocross styling to them, with interconnecting crossings, steep corners, and chicanes, and of course ramps you can jump across. The differences aren’t very pronounced, so beginners can simply pick up a controller without noting much of a change. After playing the game for a while longer though, you will note the finer nuances in controlling the different vehicles. The game is of the “easy to learn, difficult to master” variety, and while mastery of the racing style will probably come in baby steps, the game will grow on you in that regard the longer you play.
Visually, Super Skidmarks does not win any awards. There are only six different colors for the cars, and while the racetracks change in layout, they don’t have much of a variety in dress setting to them (depending on the league the color schemes of the tracks are either brown-in-brown, brown-in-green, brown-in-white or – drumroll – grey-in-brown!). The sprites are rather small and not very detailed, just enough that you can tell different cars apart on the selection screen, but when they move you can pretty much only tell individual racers apart by their color. Vehicles are unicolored, even the cows, and green and violet cows on wheels do have a rather strange look to them. Since the sprites are small you have a good overview of the play area, but it would have been nice to have a few more details in the game.
As with the graphics, the sound is pretty much just functional. There are a few sound effects which, while not ugly, aren’t that impressive either. Music is only heard during the menu screens, during the race the soundscape is completely devoted to the little engines. Each car sounds the same, too. It doesn’t detract from the overall atmosphere (and it least it doesn’t make your eardrums bleed like the shrill engine noises in games like Mario Andretti Racing), but like in the visual department, a little more variety would have been nice.
The biggest trump this game boasts, however, is the multi-player array: Using a combination of the Codemasters-trademarked J-Cart (where you can plug in two controllers directly into the cartridge itself) AND a Sega multi-tap allows you to actually engage in multi-player races for up to six human opponents. However, as hinted at before, during the race the camera usually stays fixated on the player who is currently in the lead. Should another fall too far behind and leave the screen, he is automatically brought forward again, accompanied by a small time penalty. While this means that all (players’) cars stay in view at all times, it can be a bit confusing, as it gets hard to discern whether the player currently in the lead really holds the best time, or whether he’s up front but really just in second place due to time penalties when he had fallen back earlier. It can get very confusing, especially since the interconnecting roads in some races mean that you can momentarily loose track where you were supposed to go right now (while this is just a slight nuisance in single-player, it can become a huge distraction during multi-player games). When playing with just four players or less you can have the option of switching to a split-screen mode instead, but since this heavily cuts down the viewing area, it is not recommendable either. So multi-player can be only recommended if ever player has at least some experience with the game, or if all players joining in are newbies – if only one participant has only a little more experience with the game, newcomers will just be completely disoriented and fall behind fast.
Before I come to the conclusion, I have to mention one little thing. As I said before, this game was a PAL-exclusive release for the Mega Drive. As such, it is optimized towards the PAL video standard in display. It isn’t region locked, though, so in theory the game could be played on a NTSC console. However, you’d need either a multi-system TV set or an old television set where you can manually adjust the vertical scanline. If you don’t, the display will keep “rolling” and you won’t get a clear picture (or at best one that won’t hold still). Modding the console itself won’t help this, either, since this is an issue with the display, not the system itself. This is the only PAL Mega Drive game that I know of that has this effect. My guess is that since it was intended as a European exclusive game, the developers either put in a little extra effort in enhancing it specifically for that area and didn’t regard any potential side effects or wanted to implement their own way of making sure that imports won’t happen.
Overall, Super Skidmarks is not too challenging or ambitious, but it’s fun. Even though the presentation could have been improved upon, it has its little quirks that can become endearing and even entertaining after some time. It doesn’t reach the quality of the Micro Machines games when it comes to some fun party play, as it’s lacking that certain amount of Schadenfreude that other series had. Since you can’t harm your opponents in Super Skidmarks, it’s only up to your racing skills, and people who like that aspect of fun racers may count that in its favor. So if you like fun games to play with several friends at once, you may give this game a chance, unless you don’t have a TV with PAL support, that is!
SCORE: 7 out of 10