Retro Rated – Ivan ‘Ironman’ Stewart’s Super Off Road

Factfile
Developed by: Leland Corporation
Released: 1989
Format played: Arcade

Ruminations

Growing up as a kid in the ’80s was all kinds of awesome for lots of reasons. But as a gamer, perhaps the greatest thrill was in a trip to the local arcade.

Long before the likes of the Amiga, SNES or Playstation took over as the dominant platform, bringing gaming firmly into the living room, the best gaming experiences were to be found in the arcade. You’ll have your favourite depending on your age group; Space Invaders, Gauntlet, Out Run, Street Fighter 2, Operation Wolf, Ridge Racer, the list goes on.

As the home machines became more sophisticated the arcade began to lose its graphical edge. In many ways the home experience came to eclipse the arcade experience. But there was one ace that your local seaside grot pit could always hold that a home console, however powerful, could simply not complete with; custom cabinets.

Think Afterburner with its rotating cockpit. Think Star Wars. Think Paperboy. Think that weird machine that was really expensive that you never used.

Which brings us (eventually) to Super Off Road. The game would receive faithful conversions on a number of home systems but the arcade cabinet was a behemoth, borrowing liberally from the likes of Super Sprint, with 3 different colour steering wheels allowing you and two buddies to cram round the screen in your battle for first place. No matter how good the conversion, it was an experience that could not be replicated.

Anyway, I never had any idea who this Ivan Stewart guy was, nor why his picture was all over the cabinet. But what I did know was that this was a great looking, tough driving, multiplayer mud fest that let you loose in great big Tonka toys.

Super Off Road would see conversions to the Spectrum, Amiga, C64 and NES amongst others. A SNES-only sequel would follow in 1993 whilst arcade sequels would eventually see the light of day in 1997 and 1998 respectively. The original game was re-released as part of the Midway Arcade Origins pack for PS3 and Xbox 360 in 2012.

Gameplay

In some respects the game takes its cue from the likes of Super Sprint et al, with its top down albeit forced perspective viewpoint. But whilst it shares a superficial similarity with those games, it is a far more visceral experience.

Perhaps a more modern point of reference would be PS3 launch title Motorstorm. Graphically the two are very different, the PS3-powered Motorstorm offering fully realised 3D visuals, but there is an undoubted lineage.

As the name infers, Super Off Road provides a wonderfully dirty, full throttle challenge. Jumping into the cockpit of your truck, you square off against 3 other players; 2 of these can be your mates whilst the titular Ironman controls the 4th vehicle. As soon as the klaxon sounds you’re off, bumping, scraping and crashing your way round 8 different tracks (which are also played in reverse) with only first place good enough to see you through to the next round.

As a single screen, top down racer the track layouts are short by necessity but actually serving very much to your favour. Not only can you very quickly learn the layout, optimum routes, shortcuts and pitfalls, it is also feasible to catch up with the leader even if you find yourself falling a considerable distance behind.

The tracks themselves are fiendishly designed. Things start off gently enough with some lumps and bumps to ease you in but before long the game starts adding water traps, criss-cross sections, constricted barriers and no barriers at all. And the real beauty of the game lies in how tangible all these obstacles feel. Put your foot down on a straight and you power away but once you hit a gaping divot or water, your pace grinds to a slow crawl as you drag your inertia-ridden truck through. It’s a supreme example of almost tactile handling in an era before rumble effects.

Handling generally is superb. Your truck is deceptively nippy and swings round corners with glee. But get cocky and overshoot and you’ll soon find yourself grinding the barrier or facing completely the wrong way, the game offering no hand holding to set you right. Even if you manage to time your slide round the corner to perfection, your good work can quickly be undone by some other clumsy oaf barrelling down the inside out of control, knocking you flying in a tangle of tyres and screeching metal as both your respective laps lay in ruins.

This threat comes to the fore with the criss crossing tracks, a mistimed whack sending you off the racing line and down the wrong way. Don’t go thinking you can just steal a shortcut to victory though. If you don’t race round the whole lap then it won’t count and you’ll waste valuable seconds retracing your steps to get back on the right path.

If you do find yourself falling behind then you have one weapon tucked up your sleeve with a well timed turbo boost. These short bursts of speed can make a huge difference down the back straight, turning agonising defeat into last gasp victory. But be careful; use them wisely and you’ll sit proudly atop the podium, use them on a corner or when entering a tricky chicane and you might find yourself turning into the world’s fastest mobile roadblock.

Aside from the generous batch you start with, turbo boosts can be collected during races as random pop ups, or bought from the upgrade shop in-between races. Here you can also tune up your truck, boosting top speed, grip and acceleration to help you through the trickier courses.

It’s over 25 years old but this is still terrific fun. Whilst it shares some of the basic themes of other top down racers, it very much carves out its own niche. The superb handling combines well with track design that inspires aggressive driving making each lap a battle for survival, whether you are duelling with a couple of buddies or the AI.

With only 8 tracks there is a degree of repetition. Each is reversed which offers a semblance of variety but early races recycle the same handful of tracks multiple times. It feels a little bit of a grind to unlock the later, more challenging tracks, although this is a minor grievance. A ‘Track Pack’ was also released for the arcade cabinet, adding a further 8 tracks to the challenge.

Conversion Capers

The Spectrum version is, not surprisingly, the weakest of the bunch graphically, although there is something about its limited colour palette that, strangely, actually works. Okay, so the yellow track resembles a moon race rather than a dust bowl but the programmers have done well to convert the game in full and capture the essence of the original, if not the visual fidelity.

In its own way the Master System version fares slightly worse. The colours are more accurate to be sure but everything feels squished, almost like a child’s drawing of the arcade parent. Again, the full game is here, with some extra tracks in fact, but to look at, this version is almost Super Off Road Jr, designed for a younger audience.

The SNES and Megadrive versions are actually pretty similar in look and feel although both deviate from the source material. Licensing issues aside, which prevented the great man of the title from appearing, the SNES version manages to double the amount of tracks on offer whilst both offer crisp, clear visuals and lightening fast driving. One major drawback thought is in the handling of the trucks themselves. The courses across any version are heart warmingly lumpy bumpy but here your truck feels like its being driven by Frogger, positively leaping into the air at the slightest provocation as if eloctrodes have been stuffed into the driving seat.

The most accurate conversion award must go to the Amiga. Visually it is nigh on perfect although as would so often be the case, the reliance on a one button joystick and the use of ‘up’ to accelerate is both mind boggling stupid and infuriating. Oh, and the version I had as a kid would always crash just after the 5th race, which I appreciate shouldn’t make me resent it all these years later. It shouldn’t…

Bottom Line

Still one of my go-to games for quick, fun, arcade racing thrills. Great handling, memorable tracks, funky music and a superb multiplayer experience.

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1 Comment on "Retro Rated – Ivan ‘Ironman’ Stewart’s Super Off Road"

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Edd
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One of my favourites from my youth! Great writeup!

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