On this past Sunday, the 98th running of the Indianapolis 500 went underway. The Indy 500 is an automobile race that I have enjoyed watching since I can remember, and as a youth I rarely missed seeing it. Actually, I loved auto racing so much that in third grade, I dressed up as sport legend Mario Andretti by wearing a blue tracksuit similar to the fire suit Andretti wore during races. Ah, to be young and have heroes…
For this post, I’m going to cover a game that I’ve been meaning to write about since this blog began. As the title of this post suggests, that game is Indianapolis 500: The Simulation, an auto racing simulator released for DOS in 1989 and Amiga in 1990. Published by Electronic Arts and developed by Papyrus (which went on to develop more quality racing simulators) Indy 500 is an auto racing simulator that recreates the actual 1989 running of its namesake race in great detail. With its early 3D graphics and meticulous physics engine, Indy 500 is one of the quintessential games of the racing simulator genre, providing a blueprint for similar racing games to come.
Before I get into the game, here’s a little history on the race itself. Constructed in 1909, the 2.5 mile Indianapolis Motor Speedway began as a brick and tar track that hosted small racing events, the first of which was raced by helium gas-filled balloons. In 1911, the track hosted its first 500 mile motorsport event, and since then has continued to do so on Memorial Day weekend. Some of motorsports’ most legendary names have competed in the Indy 500, from 4-time winners A.J. Foyt, Al Unser Sr. and Rick Mears, to current greats like 3-time winner Helio Castroneves and 2008 winner Scott Dixon.
It should be noted that there were not a lot of racing simulators available when Indy 500 was released. Most driving games focused on arcade-style thrills as opposed to simulating actual driving. Two notable simulators are Geoff Crammond’s Formula One simulator Revs which debuted in 1984 and Atari’s stunt racer Hard Drivin’ which was released in arcades five years later. It was games like these along with Indy 500 which provided a change of focus in the genre of racing video games from solely focusing on arcade action in favor of simulating the nuances of driving.
Indy 500 places the player in the driver’s seat of a high-performance race car. Played from a first-person perspective (within the cockpit of the car), the game gives the player a choice of three vehicles: the red Lolo-Buick, the blue March- Cosworth, and my personal favorite, the yellow Penske-Chevrolet. The player can control his or her car with either a keyboard, mouse or joystick. A practice mode is available for players to hone their skills, and a qualifying mode is present should players want to shoot for a better position than the default placement of 33rd, which is last place.
Before a race, the player can customize the settings of his or her car, with options to modify everything from tire pressure to turbo output. The player has four lap settings of 10, 30, 60 and 200 laps which determine the length (and difficulty) of the race. The 10 and 30 lap settings disallow damage to the player car only (computer controlled cars are still vulnerable), while the remaining two settings allow damage to all cars. During a race, computer cars can suffer from random mechanical issues such as engine failure and oil leaks which can take them out of the competition.
One of Indy 500’s best features is its replay system, which allowed the player to watch the previous 20 seconds of gameplay. The replay mode features six different camera angles: TV, Leader, In-Car, Behind, Track, and Sky. It’s actually quite remarkable how thorough the replay feature is because it virtually covers all the action race. Furthermore, it adds to the overall authenticity of the experience, making it look as though an actual televised race is occurring.
I forget exactly how I got Indy 500, but I believe it came from a friend of my mother’s. It had everything– the manual, game diskette and other papers– but the game box. The game’s manual was of particular joy to me (I loved reading game manuals as a kid); it included a map of the track as it appeared in 1989 and provided lots of information on past drivers of the Indy 500. The driver info is especially important because it’s needed to start the game. Indy 500 was released during the days of rudimentary copy protection, so if you wanted to play the game you really needed to hold on to the manual.
It was a good thing I enjoyed reading manuals, because the game’s harder difficulty settings demand further attentiveness to the nuances of driving. Every little detail about the car– from the health of its tires to the status of its engine– comes into play, and just like the real thing, one untimely move can end the player’s race for good.
Playing the game was an engaging experience. Cars made that signature high-pitched sound similar to that of the real Indy Cars, and the game’s physics engine made it feel as though I was driving on a superspeedway at over 200 MPH.
When I played Indy 500, it was mostly on the 10 lap setting. I tried to play the 60 and 200 lap modes but it was no go. The challenge level was too much for me. I would run backgrounds on the track until I wrecked every car, then watch the crashes on the replay. It was brainless fun for sure, but my main method of enjoying the game.
The attention to detail in Indy 500 was impressive for its time, and remained so even when I played it some 6 years after its release. Even now, considering current advanced racing simulators such as Gran Turismo and Forza Motorsport games, it’s difficult not to appreciate the work Indy’s creators did in simulating an auto race, especially considering the technology available at the time.
That does it for this segment. Below is some video footage of the game from YouTube user Subypowa. Until next time.
Peace & Pistons
P.S. I’d like to give a big thanks to Jim Nabors for singing “Back Home Again in Indiana” for the last time at the 500, after doing so for 42 years.
Edit: Added some info on the state of racing games in the 1980s.