So last week we spent some time talking about the early days of Atari’s pioneering push into polygon based 3D graphics. It was arguably Atari’s last relevant technological gift to the world of gaming before their fall into mediocrity and establishment as a retro icon. What is lesser known is how their legacy transferred to Midway. When parent company Warner Communications split Atari into two separate companies — Atari Corporation and Atari Games — the hardware-focused Atari Corporation would eventually fall off the face of the Earth. Atari Games would, however, live on, eventually being folded into Midway halfway through the 1990s. Here, it would serve as a subsidiary studio that would become famous for creating racing games that may not have necessarily been the industry standard for quality — that title went to Sega — but certainly made a mark with a certain breed of gamer looking for speed, adrenaline, and attitude. Let’s look back at the Midway Racing Renaissance of the 1990s and shine some love on two of Midway/Atari’s best remembered series.
The Cruis’n Series
Back when Daytona and Ridge Racer hit at the same time in late 1993, the racing boom was officially underway. Everybody and their dog wanted to throw whatever racing titles they could at the market. Some stuck, and some didn’t. While Daytona was a heavily technical game with a pick-up-and-play level of accessibility, it was also an expensive beast that didn’t come in a lot of variants for smaller establishments. Midway stepped up to create a racing game in 1994 that would fill that void of a purely casual racer with a lot of flair. That game was Cruis’n USA. Directed by Eugene Jarvis (famous for Defender and Robotron 1084), Cruis’n was a purely popcorn title by most standards, but the graphics were brain-blowing for 1994. Thanks to the inclusion of a hard drive (which most Midway titles of the era were utilizing), it was possible to stream a high quality eclectic soundtrack and lots of graphics from the built-in storage. It also lead to a lot of hardware failure, but regardless Cruis’n set the standard for flashy popcorn racers of the ’90s. Most memorable was the flashy and controversial secret ending featuring then President “Slick Willy” Bill Clinton in a hot tub with a pair of strippers telling tales of the hallucinogenic experiences of his youth.
What’s sad is that when Cruis’n USA was finally ported home, few cared. The original game was billed as running on “Nintendo Ultra 64” hardware and “Coming to your home in 1995”, but it really did neither. The final Nintendo 64 chipset was a good bit less powerful than the 50MHz board that powered Cruis’n USA. While the N64′s 98MHz CPU was vastly more powerful, the rest of the hardware provided bottlenecks which prevented early titles from reaching arcade quality, even leaving aside the expensive cartridge memory limitations. Plus, by 1997 the tech powering arcade racing games had far outclassed whatever Midway had accomplished in 1994.
In 1996, arguably the most popular installment in the series hit arcades with Cruis’n World. The global theme, inclusion of stunts, and expanded multiplayer experience made for a memorable arcade classic that had legs, even though it ran on an only slightly modified/buffed version of the old Cruis’n USA hardware. A home port followed to the Nintendo 64 in 1998 and received a much higher quality conversion than its predecessor did. By the time Cruis’n Exotica hit arcades in 1999, the industry was saturated with popcorn racers and the reception was lukewarm at best. While the enhanced hardware powering the game would have been better suited to the Dreamcast, Midway’s franchise-exclusive publishing deal with Nintendo prevented any such discussion. As a result, the game had to be ported to the aging Nintendo 64, or not at all. The results were quite ugly. The N64 may not have been able to totally match the hardware of the preceding two games, but the results were a favorable comparison. Exotica however was a grainy, pop-up ridden disaster with a muffled soundtrack and awful controls.
Thanks to all the above factors, the franchise (and the whole point-to-point racing genre) took a nose dive straight to hell from which it never returned. It’s quite sad that in many ways, the Cruis’n series is indirectly partly responsible for the downfall of American arcades due to the mismanagement of operators. This was during the time that racing games were so successful (thanks to their much weaker presence on home consoles) that arcade operators thought they could compensate for failing revenues in other genres by filling their arcades with tons of cheap to operate Cruis’n World, California Speed, and Sega GT clones, all games very similar to each other. The lack of variety burned out arcade goers and helped the home console totally fill the needs of the arcade player.
San Francisco Rush
In 1996, Midway/Atari games decided that to respond to the flashiness of Sega’s Model 3 generation racers, they had to take a different route. Midway’s Flagstaff hardware couldn’t match the raw power of Model 3. It was very much like a slightly buffed variant of the Nintendo 64 with a more powerful CPU (200Mhz). To compete with Sega, Atari went for the “EXTREME” style. Rush was set in the hills of San Francisco with wild jumps, crazy explosions, and a reset button for when you knew your car was about to explode in a fiery ball of death. There were a lot of faults with the game however. The twitchy steering was a notorious turnoff. The feedback motor’s default setting was super high, and the game’s thin Atari style steering wheel gave little grip. However if you could find a way to wrap your hands around the beast, Rush would give you a hell of a trip with its blasting, vibrating engine sounds, crazy high flying action, and trademark rumble seat. A N64 port followed quickly in 1997. While the action was preserved near perfectly, the graphics were among the worst on the system.
What set Rush apart however was the rampant use of shortcuts in the track design. If you could find them, the possibilities of flying through skyscrapers and blasting over rooftops in the fog of the bay area were rampant. San Francisco Rush provided quite a thrill once you got past its flaws. An upgraded arcade release Rush: The Rock was released the next year featuring a brand new Alcatraz based track that better exploited the game’s wild stunt system. Rush was ported to the GameCube in 2004 in the Midway Treasures Collection, but the emulation is terrible. Best to just find the original.
While Cruis’n Exotica was filling out Midway’s casual portfolio to a muted arrival, Atari Games’s swan song was just about to hit arcades with San Francisco Rush 2049. It turned out to be one of the defining racers of the era, and also one of the last. Running on a beastly 3DFX Voodoo3 card, and packing a telephone style keypad to let players retain their driver info with a pin number used to unlock tracks and cars, 2049 was a very ambitious title that was pushing to advance arcade titles into the online era. A 2000 revision introduced online play, but was quickly recalled as Midway’s slow financial downfall began to take place. N64 and Dreamcast ports were rolled out in 2000. The N64 version squeezes every ounce possible out of the machine to be as faithful as possible, but it’s the Dreamcast port that truly manages to capture the essence of the game. Both versions included a new gimmick by letting cars sprout wings to perform stunts. Finally, in 2003, long after the console that housed the home ports were dead and gone, Atari Games published its final title in the form of Rush 2049: Special Edition, including two new tracks, ten new cars, and a lot of new shortcuts (none of which were ever seen on a home console). Upon this release, Atari Games was shut down and transformed into Midway Games West. After the death of Midway, the studio housing the last remnants of the old Atari was sold to THQ, and has since been closed down.
Such ended the legacy of one of the truly legendary brands in gaming. While the Atari of old was known for titles like Centipede, Astroids, and Missile Command, the later Atari was known for games like Rush, Paperboy, Primal Rage, Klax, and Gauntlet. Financially, their legacies and libraries are separate, held and marketed by separate companies, but spiritually they are all of the same family of games. Rest in Peace Atari. You are missed.
Insert Coin is Games Are Evil’s weekly exploration of arcade culture and classic arcade games, hosted by our own Lucas DeWoody. You can follow Lucas on Twitter here.