ST Format Review
Days Of Thunder is a brilliant fun film, pure 80s (yeah I know it came out in 1990, but it’s 80s). It’s basically Top Gun with fast cars. What’s not to like? Sadly I never watched it growing up, but I got to watch it later in life and loved it, especially after getting into oval racing courtesy of iRacing. Most of us Brits just don’t see the appeal but oval racing is actually incredible. It’s 200mph chess, such a tactical form of racing with constant tight battles, it’s insane fun in iRacing on laser-scanned tracks in VR with a proper wheel and pedals. Days Of Thunder won’t match that but will it still be fun?
It’s worth noting that these old games can be more accurate than you might expect in many areas. I had a crack at Microprose F1GP recently and was enormously surprised at how accurate Silverstone was (the layout has changed since 1990 but the bits that are still there were impressively on the money with everything where it should be – I’ve driven a Caterham R300 at speed there in real life so I’m reasonably qualified to say that). I don’t know the oval tracks quite as well, but hopefully there will be a similar level of accuracy.
The game features 5 oval tracks, Daytona, Atlanta, Phoenix, Talladega and Charlotte. In real life Atlanta an Charlotte are very similar, fairly standard 1.5 mile ovals. Daytona and Talladega are what’s known as superspeedways, which means they’re really massive and heavily banked to allow the cars to reach well over 200mph, and finally there’s Phoenix which is the shortest at 1 mile but is far from being as nuts as somewhere like Bristol or Iowa. Phoenix has an unusual dog-leg, and in general is a tricky little bastard.
Controls are fairly standard racing game fare for the time, forward to accelerate and backwards to brake, with gears selected by pressing fire and up or down, and steering done by moving the stick left and right. This is a fully-3D game, which means that you can watch the race from a variety of views which you can select with the function keys. With F10 you can see information about your current lap, and return will overlay a race summary.
Sound is restricted to a chip tune intro and uninspired chip burbling for engine noise. Visually we have a simple menu which is quite hard to read with the colourful background, and then go into the game at which point vectors take over. When driving there are some guages and dials on your dashboard which actually move, though I think only the revs and speed actually relate to anything, the others are more for decoration. In a way, the game is quite ambitious for a movie tie-in. It would have been easy to do the standard Outrun-style rolling road with stock cars on ovals, but the developers went full-3D and included different camera angles to give the option of a more cinematic experience. With detail turned up you can get a feel for what the developers were trying to achieve and in all honestly the idea wasn’t bad – a full NASCAR simulator with a movie franchise to help sell it to a wider audience. Not many British kids would have bought NASCAR Simulator ’90, but we would buy the game of the Tom Cruise film. It’s clever marketing.
Unfortunately that ambition doesn’t get us a good game. The cars actually look quite cool in a weird chunky low-poly way, but as we later discover in Microprose F1GP, the Atari ST and Amiga are both capable of better than this – the sluggish frame-rate with really very little in the way of detail, or slightly less sluggish framerate if you set detail to minimum (which makes the game look like it’s running on an old Spectrum) really don’t give a sense of the speed at which NASCAR racing takes place. At no point did I feel like I was doing 200mph at Daytona, and though it is perhaps unfair to expect that of a 1990 sim it does rather fail at its core mission. The track feels tiny which means you lose the tactical pack racing found in real racing, and with so few cars on track vs the real thing you don’t get the chaos that comes with it either. In reality if you’re racing at Daytona you’ve got your foot to the floor the whole way and you’re using the draft to jostle for position, be that side draft or in behind another car, or you’re bump-drafting (getting in the tow behind another car and ramming it to give it some extra speed to help you along) – there’s so much to NASCAR that is simply not covered here, and that’s in part because the tracks just don’t match their real-world counterparts. At Daytona you’re lifting heavily for the corners and have so little room on track that you can’t pass there and yet that’s where so much passing happens in real life. Even the straights don’t help as they’re so narrow.
As a sim it’s clearly trying, even going as far as to have the proper lap behind the pace car to start the race, with everyone having to stay in position as the pace car comes in and the lead car then sets the pace until the green flag. You can make pit-stops to repair your car and change tyres. The problem is that it just doesn’t nail the actual race experience. Even simple things like the difference in pace between cars is way beyond just wrong – in oval racing the differences in laptime between front and back are typically under half a second, and among the front runners you can expect them to be separated by less than a tenth. On the other hand I gapped the field by 4 seconds in qualifying, and even the CPU cars were a second apart.
There are other problems like not knowing where other cars are due to lacking working mirrors (which F1GP managed to get right). Now admittedly in a NASCAR your mirrors aren’t brilliant, but they do exist and can give you some indication of someone being behind you. There’s the option of pressing return to pause the game and see who’s in what position but that only shows lap number, not gap in seconds which might be more useful to know if you’re pulling away or not. Now this was never an issue because the difficulty being so low meant I could fly off into the distance anyway but if they’d got the difficulty right it would have been an issue. There’s little sense of achievement from winning either as it just dumps you into the next race without ceremony.
Days Of Thunder is a refreshing change from the kind of low-effort garbage that the likes of US Gold and Ocean consistently put out for movie tie-ins. Yes it’s absolutely fundamentally flawed, as a racing simulation it has significant structural weaknesses, but consider what we got. We could have had a side-scrolling beat-em-up with Tom Cruise kicking shit out of the other drivers, maybe beating up a car Street Fighter 2 style, or an Outrun rolling road game. The developers shot for the moon but ultimately didn’t have the chops to pull it off. Looking on Mobygames it looks like one of the devs had built the Spectrum version of Hard Drivin’ so perhaps they had an engine lying around and wanted to use it, or maybe they learned from that and wanted to take their skills up a notch with another project. It didn’t quite come off, that’s undeniable, but I’m glad they tried.