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Remembering…Carmageddon

Back in 1997, Carmageddon crashed onto the gaming scene with about as much subtlety as a bin-liner full of steaming innards detonated over a wedding reception. The darkly-comic and highly-violent racer defecated in the rulebook, then sent it back to the authors via first class special delivery. Other games have provoked similar uproar, but few are as fondly remembered or have achieved the classic status of Carmageddon. So, how did this ground-breaking game come into existence?

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“The darkly comic and highly violent racer defecated in the rulebook”The game was originally conceived during the mid-nineties by fledgling developers Stainless Software, who intended to create a racer based in the Mad Max universe. Unfortunately, this idea was disengaged after Stainless was unable to contact the rights-holders to the post-apocalyptic franchise. Meanwhile, publishers SCi agreed on a deal with Stainless, clearly seeing potential in the developers and their original game. The developers then turned to the cult-classic film Death Race 2000 as a basis, but this intention was bumped-off once they heard an official sequel, Death Race 2020 had been announced. Indeed, an often quoted fact is that the change occurred so fast, the game’s .exe file was named ‘Deathrace’ right up until it shipped. Thus, Carmageddon was born – the pun-based title demonstrating the creators’ flair for humorous wordplay besides revealing what was in store for unsuspecting gamers.

Carmageddon shattered all the established racing game traditions by allowing players to complete each course in one of three distinct ways. The first was to race the other five drivers through the designated checkpoints, whilst the other two methods were where the real fun could be found: either by ramming the other cars into smouldering wrecks, or by wiping out the entire pedestrian population by means of vehicular homicide. For players at the time, these methods of victory were such alien concepts that winning in this fashion felt like breaking the rules of both conventional racing games and of morality itself. And it felt good, Gonzo-insanity good.

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Like all classics, Carmageddon had pure unadulterated gameplay in abundance. It was infectiously engrossing – from the comically-voiced announcer through to when the player either emerged triumphant, ran out of time or drowned in the free-flowing dark-lifeblood of their ruined car. The game had 36 race courses, 25 opposing drivers and over 40 power-ups – the replayability was massive. In-game, both extra time and credits were awarded every time the player passed through a checkpoint, squelched a pedestrian or inflicted damage on another racer’s vehicle.

As either Max Damage or Die Anna, gamers were thrust into a variety of colourful maps were they could veer from the race-track and actually explore the large and open levels. Driving around areas that would’ve been inaccessible in other racing games felt liberating and refreshing – as did learning that the maps had destructible features players could interact with (i.e. smash). This sandbox exploration was virtually non-existent in racing games at the time and only the equally innovative Grand Theft Auto offered anything similar. One area in which GTA couldn’t compete with Carmageddon of course, was in the graphics department. The 3D engine used by the game was years ahead of its time, allowing for highly realistic in-game physics and car behaviour that added yet another dimension to the intense experience. Stepping on the gas and hitting the car’s top speed felt dangerously exciting, as one wrong movement or slight clip to the bonnet could send your vehicle spinning insanely through the air and result in a game-ending crash (‘wasted!’), or send it careening through a group of screaming pedestrians, possibly earning players the ‘bonus for artistic impression’ accolade if the carnage was deemed suitably Picasso-esque.

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“Like all classics, Carmageddon had pure unadulterated gameplay in abundance”The doomed pedestrians yelled, screamed and expired with some of the most memorable sound effects in gaming history. From the comical to the grotesque, the thuds of steel breaking bones and squishing organs can still be heard inside of this writer’s mind. As for the cars themselves, the jarring sounds of twisting metal went through gamer’s jaws and penetrated their ears like a sonic screwdriver thrust into their eardrum. Then, as if yet more unforgiving aural beatings were needed, the majority of the game’s soundtrack came courtesy of US cyber-metallers Fear Factory, who supplied three instrumental versions of tracks from their aptly titled Demanufacture album. The extremely fast, machine-like drumming and staccato riffing of ‘Demanufacture’, ‘Zero Signal’ and ‘Body Hammer’ perfectly soundtracked the onscreen vehicular psychosis. It was, without question, exactly the kind of music Max Pain or Die Anna would have had blasting from their stereos as they ploughed through bystanders and into opposing racers.

Talking of vehicular crashes – the destruction method of victory was usually the quickest and most gratifying way to win. There was nothing as satisfying as hitting another driver head-on, gradually overpowering them in a brief battle of horsepower, pushing them backwards whilst building speed, then concussively smashing them into a wall/barrier/lamppost for the grin-inducing ‘you wasted ‘em’ announcement. Even with all the berserk behaviour occurring, the maps weren’t completely lawless. Much like today, if you became too raucous near a police car, you’d be hunted down with sirens blaring, and have your car mercilessly totalled. Unlike today, however, if you somehow managed to take out the lawman’s armoured wheels before he took yours, you didn’t get Tasered until you vomited your own poo, you got the chance to add the hulking motor to your own car collection. Take that, The Law! This mechanic also applied to most of the wacky cars you wasted in-game, which you could view in a post-game wrecks gallery.

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Of course, all this digital carnage and wanton pedestrian murdering wasn’t just allowed to happen without incident. Carmageddon and controversy went hand in blood-soaked hand. Interestingly, the game never actually needed to be rated in the first place as it contained no video footage. It was asked for a rating from the BBFC by SCi (who were hoping for an 18 certificate) in order to try and generate controversy, which in retrospect, is pretty awesome. The BBFC petitioned for all the game’s gore to be removed before they would classify it, even though according to an interview with Stainless, they actually played and thorougly enjoyed the full-gore version. Horrendous shit-rag, The Daily Mail, also waded in and tried to get the game banned, clutching at pathetic straws such as associating the death of Princess Diana with the character Die Anna. Further offence was taken by various persons about the running-over of OAPs (one in-game victim declared ‘I was in The War!’) and also by a blind pressure group over the ‘blind pedestrians’ power-up. Finally, Stainless was hit with a sufficient number of body blows that it conceded and replaced all the pedestrians with zombies. Yes, grey, atrociously boring zombies, that were full of green blood and who groaned and shuffled along embarrassingly. The Germans got a slightly more bearable robot version and the Indian version had all the cows removed (as ever). How, then, did these changes affect the game?

“Of course, all this carnage and wanton pedestrian murdering wasn’t just allowed to happen without incident”The truth is, Carmageddon simply wasn’t as fun to play when all the gore was removed. What does it say about the PC gaming audience who felt this way? For a start, the inclusion of zombies meant that many of the original and brilliant sounds previously experienced in trailers and demos were now completely vacant. Also, although the game was at its core absurd, this blood replacement made it feel less real; it made players feel like they’d also been forced to compromise along with Stainless. It no longer felt that they were playing something genuinely boundary-pushing, illicit and dark. It was frustrating and disappointing: green blood just isn’t as sexy as that special scarlet that pumps from our racing hearts. And the new storyline:

“The year is 2028. Solar flares have contaminated the atmosphere, turning 80% of the world’s population into wandering crowds of evil zombies. In this era of peace, where weapons are a forgotten problem of the past, mankind has only one option – to defend society as we know it IN CARS. All pedestrians have been cleared from the streets; Carmageddon is our only hope.”

Sucked donkey-balls. Fortunately, a patch and the Splat Pack add-on were soon made available and restored equilibrium to the brains of blood-hungry virtual motorists. A brief court-battle had managed to overturn the BBFC’s influence in a matter of months.

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Carmageddon simply wasn’t as fun to play when the gore was removed”Praise for the non-zombie version was high, with acclaim being bestowed upon all of the game’s many-selling points and, leading magazine of the time, PC Zone, even declared ‘Carmageddon is God!’ The game’s success meant a sequel was inevitable, and Carmageddon II: Carpocalypse Now, delivered more of the same quality gaming on a superior engine. The third and final game of the series, Carmageddon III: Total Destruction Racing 2000, unfortunately failed to live up to the high standards of the first two games. The series still enjoys a loyal online fanbase that includes dedicated modders, and the possibility of a fourth game remains optimistic. But even if another game is never realised, the original can be credited with forever altering the gaming landscape: its inspired innovation, timeless replayability, redefinition of racing game boundaries, and of course – its controversy, means Carmageddon has as a legacy forever etched upon gaming history.

The author of this fine article

is a Staff Writer at Thunderbolt, having joined in November 2009. Get in touch on Twitter @p_etew.

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