Review: Lotus Esprit Turbo Challenge (Atari ST)

ST Format Review (Issue 18)

Equipment Used/Recommended

  • MiSTer box running the Atari ST core – a 1MB STE running TOS 1.62 – you can replicate this with the Steem emulator.
  • Any of Automation 383A, Fuzion 20, Medway Boys 98, Pompey Pirates 60, Vectronix 219/904
  • Speedlink USB Joystick

My Review

Making our way through the wonderful ST Format Issue 18, we come to the first of 5 racing games I plan to cover. The fun thing is we get to try 3 of the major groups of racing game – we get the Outrun-type with the 2D sprites on a rolling-road using stripes to convey motion found in Lotus 1 and Chase HQ 2, we have the top-down racers Nitro and Badlands (though they are in separate sub-genres themselves with Nitro more akin to Supercars 2 as a pure top-down while Badlands is closer to the likes of Super Off Road with it’s more isometric perspective), and finally we have a 3D game offering a more hardcore simulation in the form of Toyota Celica GT Rally. Of this issue’s racing games, the only one I had previously played is Toyota Celica GT Rally so I’m thoroughly looking forward to that, but before we get there let’s talk a bit about Lotus Esprit Turbo Challenge from the wonderful Gremlin.

Just like Outrun, Lotus charges you with the arduous task of driving a lovely fast red sports car through undulating landscapes, revelling in the joy of breaking the speed limit. Sadly there’s no lovely young lady in the passenger seat, or if there is we can’t see her because the car isn’t a convertable. Tyres squeal as we hurtle around corners at unfeasible speeds and engines rev as we eek out ever last drop of performance. Locales are not quite as exotic as those of the Sega classic but they’re fun in their own way if a little restrained, but at least we get to fully enjoy them rather than spend our time cursing the ST port’s sluggish frame rate.

Lotus takes the Outrun formula and makes it a little closer to a proper racing game. It breaks with the Outrun and Super Hang-On tradition where you’d start at a sensible pace and the vehicles around you would instantly reach top speed and zoom off into the distance by having the other cars actually accelerate properly. Additionally, other vehicles are not just moving hazards placed randomly around the course. Instead each car makes its way around the lap at a pace befitting its position in the race and the current location on the circuit (so slower up hill and on bends for instance). All this is a welcome departure, and we add to that having proper laps of a circuit rather than the more traditional road trip offered by Outrun and Super Hang-On. This of course saves development costs as they don’t have to build so much track.

Where it falls down a little is that while the cars are circulating the track properly, they’re not on any kind of racing line. Indeed what they actually do is veer from side to side across the track, to provide that rolling hazard beloved of older rolling road games. So near and yet so far. One of the things I noted when running both the ST and Amiga versions was that while on the Amiga the cars move smoothly from side to side, the ST version has the car move in stages, jumping from position to position in what looks like 16-pixel increments. I imagine there’s a technical reason for this, to maintain performance, but once you notice it this does become a little jarring.

Races are entertaining and varied with a wide selection of tracks to choose from and races featuring a little more in the way of tactics than you might expect – longer races require refueling and a sensible driver will choose to time pit stops to avoid losing too many places or worse still emerging into traffic.

On a technical level the game performs well, with a smooth rolling road that compares favourably even with the mighty Super Hang On. It takes the traditional approach of using stripes across the road to convey speed alongside an assortment of signs placed alongside the road, because in 1990 thankfully we had yet to discover health and safety. One interesting detail by the way – those screenshots in the ST Format review are from the Amiga version. I know this because instead of stripes across the road it shows the proper road markings shown by the Amiga version. Naughty!

Back to the racing, the consistent performance allows you to get an excellent feel of speed from the game. The road really flies past. This is likely helped by only using half the screen in single-player mode (an admittedly odd decision which clearly stems from the choice to make two-player split screen racing the main priority. It’s impressive then given the limited vertical space that the game does such a good job with hills and long sweeping bends, showing that this was a wise choice. If you race in single-player mode the bottom half of the screen is occupied by a picture of a Lotus in the garage being looked after by some mechanics (which most Lotus owners will consider a familiar sight). Sensibly they went with a horizontal split (I still don’t understand why Nintendo chose a horizontal split for Mario Kart 8 – what were they thinking?) and it still maintains a decent framerate.

Away from the track there’s some absolutely gorgeous pixel art. Highlights include a photorealistic Lotus flashing its popup headlights at you (my Dad had a habit of buying cars he couldn’t afford on hire-purchase and then not paying for them – one such car was a Lotus Eclat and that thing typified the Lotus acronym Lots Of Trouble Usually Serious but its main habit was to have the popup headlights wink at you and then just start popping up and down at random). Elsewhere we have lovely fact sheets about the car, gorgeous renderings of the interior, and even the music selector is lovely with a close-up of the car’s stereo.

Something I quite like, and which is shared with the Supercars games also from Gremlin, is the stable of fictitious drivers you get to race against. Now admittedly this works more if you’re familiar with F1 drivers of the late 80s, but thankfully I am so I get to properly enjoy it. So we get Ayrton Sendup (Ayrton Senna), T Hairy Bootson (Thierry Boutson), Ricardo Pastry (Ricardo Patrese), M Carburettor (Michele Alboretto) and Mickey Louder (Niki Lauda) among others. It’s a nice touch which raises a chuckle from me, and the tradition of silly names carries on with Toyota Celica GT Rally (also from Gremlin – they made a LOT of racing games) featuring the likes of Fungus The Bogeyman.

While we’re talking about sound, while it’s not as nice as the Amiga’s sampled goodness it’s still pretty good. The music isn’t at the same level as Outrun or Super Hang-On of course but it’s competently done, but more importantly the engine noise is a good step above the usual awfulness one associates with these games on the ST. It actually sounds quite meaty!

Video Of Me Playing

I put together a little video to show you how the ST version compares with the Amiga version and how well it runs in general. Sound is a little iffy as I’m still ironing out the details there.

Improved STE Version In The Works…

So a bit of a late edit here – a chap on twitter (@RetroRacing) alerted me to this and Atari Crypt have been covering it and it looks awesome – it’s pretty damn close to having the Amiga version on the ST. Impressive stuff. Video in the Atari Crypt link – I can’t embed it on my site, presumably it’s protected.

UPDATE: The STE Enhanced Version is out and it’s amazing

The Verdict

So is it any good? And where does it stand in the pantheon of rolling road racers? Well, I would say that at the end of 1990, at point of release, it’s the best yet created, though had Outrun received a better port that might not be the case (I love the locations so much). Of course there are the sequels which I’ve not yet played, and games like Nigel Mansell’s World Championship, Vroom and Domark’s F1 came later of which I’ve only really played Nigel Mansell’s game. Maybe those will turn out to be even better but you’ll have to stay tuned to find out. In terms of more modern games its closest relative is probably Horizon Chase Turbo which is aesthetically more Outrun but in gameplay is more Lotus. Honestly I have a shedload of fun in both games, they’re brilliant fun so if you’ve not got Horizon Chase Turbo yet, go get it, and if you’ve not played the Lotus games yet, go get 1 and then try 2 and 3 to see if they’re as good. Gameplay is a big step forward from the Sega classics, even if the scenery isn’t quite as exciting, and the technical execution is so good you really have to try it.

Resources

Manual: https://www.gamesdatabase.org/Media/SYSTEM/Amstrad_CPC/manual/Formated/Lotus_Esprit_Turbo_Challenge_-_1990_-_Gremlin_Graphics.pdf

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