Before GTA roamed the earth…Formula One 97 on the original PlayStation

In case it escaped your attention, Grand Theft Auto V was released this week. The Scottish-designed, US-set crime simulator has caught not only the attention of hardcore gamers but also the general public and mainstream media, a clear illustration of how games have become an integral part of 21st Century living – even if they do involve carjacking and blowing stuff up.

I won’t be buying GTA5. As much as I’d like to, I just don’t have enough spare hours in the day to play games that require such an extensive time commitment. A kickabout on a football pitch or five laps of a racing circuit on a Saturday morning are fine, but a game so extensive that you face a twenty-minute drive to get across town to the next mission is always going to be a non-starter. The same goes for Gran Turismo 6 – I will not and can not spend weeks of my life doing pointless tasks like driving tests and Toyota Yaris races just so I can access all the fun stuff I paid sixty quid to enjoy immediately.

Dig those 32-bit Ardennes trees

Dig those 32-bit Ardennes trees (and yes, I did bend the front wing on the out lap)

The irony is that now that I have some disposable income to buy most of the games and consoles I want, I don’t have the time to enjoy them. Sixteen years ago, the reverse was true. It was early 1997 and the latest sensation in the motor racing world was being released to glowing reviews – Formula 1 97. I’d been completely hooked on the demonstration version of the PlayStation’s original Formula One title – in which you raced on the Nürburgring grand prix circuit with all the cars from the 1995 season – and kept reading that the uprated version was even better. The title was developed by Psygnosis and Bizzarre Creations, two of the top names in video game development at the time, and a quick go on the demo on F1 ’97 (Jean Alesi at Silverstone, oh yes) confirmed I really wanted to get my hands on the latest incarnation.

The problem was that Formula 1 97 was always too expensive to buy. For some reason it was priced at £50 (£49.99 to be precise) and came in a weird double-disc box with a bonus disc. The next year’s release – the imaginatively titled Formula One ’98 – was rubbish, which helped to keep the price of F1 ’97 high well into the following two seasons. By the time prices came down the 1999 incarnation of the series had been released – and no self-respecting teenager wants a sports game that’s two years out of date.

Acquisition of F1 '97 came around the same time I was able to rent a place with a decent carpet

Acquisition of F1 ’97 came around the same time I was able to rent a place with a decent carpet

In a scene reminiscent of the Simpsons episode where a grown-up barrister Bart finally gets to see the Itchy and Scratchy Movie, I acquired Formula 1 97 for the princely sum of three pounds not long after I started my PhD. It was in the second-hand section of one of the independent game stores in the studenty area of town, and at less than the price of an Edinburgh pint it would have been rude not to. Inspired by a retro F1 session with my friends a few weeks ago, I fired up F1 ‘97 yesterday morning for the first time in goodness knows how long and hit the crudely-rendered track.

Even from the instruction booklet you can see this is a game from the era when games were unashamedly geeky. It has half a page of controls – cross accelerates, square brakes, R1 changes up gear etc – and ten pages about the cars and circuits. I think it may be the best guide to the 1997 Formula One season I have ever read. Not only are there mugshots of all the drivers and digital representations of the cars, there’s also a little paragraph explaining that the Lola cars have been removed from the game as the team withdrew from the championship following a disappointing showing in the first round of the year. Likewise, tacked onto the glorious digital depictions of each of the tracks is a full-page description of the dispute around whether the last race of the year would be held at Estoril in Portugal or Jerez in Spain, essential safety work having not yet been completed at the former by the time F1 ’97 went to press. In light of this uncertainty, the thoughtful programmers put both tracks in the game.

In reality, it transpired that the final race of the calendar that year would be moved to Jerez. This proved to be decisive in the championship, for it was at Jerez that Michael Schumacher collided with title rival Jacques Villeneuve in what was deemed to be a deliberate attempt to seal his third drivers’ championship. Villeneuve survived the collision and sealed the 1997 crown by finishing the race third, whereas Schumacher retired with damage and was subsequently disqualified from the season standings. The 1997 season also encompassed such highlights as a heroic drive in Hungary from Arrows’ world champion refugee Damon Hill, a brief cameo from the utterly hopeless Lola team, and the debut of Sir Jackie Stewart’s eponymous Milton Keynes-based team who would be sold to Jaguar and subsequently Red Bull.

Remember this guy?

Remember this guy?

All of this is depicted in glorious low-resolution. Select Grand Prix mode, wait for the power chords and pumping synthesizer music to kick in, and click up to pick a team and driver. Next to the rendered cars are digitized mugshots of cap-wearing drivers, their faces slightly blurred but still distinguishable. Each of the drivers that started the season is depicted with the exception of Jacques Villeneuve, whose image rights precluded him from being represented (a similar stooshie with the FIA logo resulted in the game being pulled from the shelves for a brief period of time not long after its relase). I take Ukyo Katayama’s Minardi, select Suzuka, and head out for qualifying.

It’s just as well I know where all the corners in Suzuka are, because the pop-up is chronic. Any virtual racer under the age of 15 probably won’t remember this wonderful phenomenon where, because of the early consoles’ computational limitations, the circuit wasn’t ‘drawn’ until you got close to it. The track and surroundings are visible for a certain distance ahead, beyond which the road peters out into a wall of sky. The next block of road is generated just in time to stop you driving into the abyss, followed by the next and the next. This is tolerable if you know where you’re going, but when you’re speeding along at two hundred plus miles an hour, finding out at relatively short notice that the next bend is a tight right-hander with a wall on the outside is something of an inconvenience. Other pop-up induced delights include trying to guess the braking zone for the Kemmel Straight at Spa, and coming out of La Rascasse at Monaco to have a pitting car pop up right on the racing line

Out of La Source, foot flat to the floor, changing up into fourth...yes, I think it would be good if the PSX decided to draw Eau Rouge sooner rather than later, don't you?

Out of La Source, foot flat to the floor, changing up into fourth…yes, I think it would be good if the PSX decided to draw Eau Rouge sooner rather than later, don’t you?

One thing to note is that this game, on the hardest setting, is bloody impossible. I know my way around Suzuka in an F1 car (in a videogame at least). I know what gear to take the corners in and where the braking points are. I don’t think the driving dynamics of cars have changed that much in the last sixteen years. So how come I am all of a sudden six seconds off my teammate, driving with more or less the effort and commitment that enabled me to take pole positions on later games? Mind you, when you don’t have the option of packing your game full of extra features, you have to compensate by making what is there hard as nails.

The commentary is truly special, featuring voiceovers from probably the greatest team of broadcasters in any sport ever – Murray Walker and Martin Brundle. Seamless commentary hadn’t quite been perfected in the mid-nineties, as evidenced by crackers like ‘he’s hit…MAGNUSSEN’ and ‘it’sNAKANO. He’s in the barriers!’ On the whole, though, the voiceovers are well ahead of their time and weigh in firmly at the geeky end of the spectrum, with such gems as ‘for nineteen ninety-seven two of the great innovators in the sport, Williams and Jordan, have gone for an oval air intake’ and ‘one of the unique features of this year’s Stewart is the high side pods. This reduces the risk of the car ingesting debris, one of the main causes of engine failure’. There seems to be neither rhyme nor reason as to when the CPU chooses to dispense these more in-depth morsels of knowledge – as I make my way through the second part of Spoon Curve at Suzuka, Martin Brundle’s disembodied voice comes over the speakers to explain to me that because Ferrari introduced the higher head and shoulder protection one season earlier than required, they have been able to overcome all the aerodynamic and packaging penalties before the other teams. The fact my friends and I were discussing this very issue only a fortnight previous during one of our classic F1 sessions should give you a pretty good indication of the levels of geekery we sink to.

For something made sixteen years ago, this is all still pretty impressive stuff (for me at least!)

For something made sixteen years ago, this is all still pretty impressive stuff (for me at least!)

Having been so excited about Formula One 97 when I was younger, having finally acquired it several years ago I proceeded to hardly ever play it. As such, I discovered some really nifty features in the gameplay that were pretty cool by 2013 standards, so must have been revolutionary at a time when Gerhard Berger was still racing. The first of these is the tear-off strip function. As you pound the track, your visor picks up muck and your vision slowly deteriorates. This is remedied by pressing the triangle button to restore clarity, mimicking the tear-off strips drivers have on their visors. The second of these is the in-car camera, where you see essentially what the driver sees. It’s pretty basic, with two dismembered arms holding on to a basic steering wheel, but bear in mind the console powering this had an eighth of the power of a more modern machine, if even that. Regardless of the processing power at the programmers’ disposal, it’s always been little features like this that have made games great.

Third and final is the ability to change driver names. Over the short term at least, this meant one could keep the game up to date for a season or two without having to buy a newer version to get updated names (just as well because F1 ‘98 was pants). Of course, as time passes fast teams get slow and slow teams get bought over, so some of the consistency in terms of colour scheme and grid position is lost. It’s still fun to look at how the lineage of the present-day teams maps onto the 1997 season, though. Ferrari and McLaren are essentially the same in both livery and pace, being fast-but-not-the-fastest and upper midfield respectively. The team now known as Lotus were at that time bright blue Benettons, a bit slower than they are now but with considerably older drivers in the form of Alesi and Berger. Jordan – who became Midland, Spyker and then Force India – are still solid midfielders, as are Sauber, who at that time carried all of Red Bull’s F1 sponsorship. Williams and Tyrrell have almost swapped places – the former was at the peak of their powers in the mid-90s, whereas the latter was propping up the order of the established teams in 1997, unware that their return to the front of the grid would come as the result of several iterations as British American Racing, Honda, Brawn and finally Mercedes Grand Prix. Perennial backmarkers Minardi would ultimately be bought out by Red Bull and renamed Toro Rosso, rising slightly from their usual position to take a place in the midfield. And ’97 new boys Stewart would win a race within two years, be sold by their super-shrewd owner to Jaguar for a small fortune, and then achieve crushing dominance just over a decade later under the Red Bull Racing flag.

Here’s a scary thought to conclude – at the time this game was made, the guy that is just about to secure his fourth world drivers’ title with Red Bull was just six years of age, probably pottering about in a garden in Heppenheim. How old does that make you feel?

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Filed under Computer Games, Formula 1

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