Rings of Saturn Issue #23: “Andretti Racing” in VROOM VROOM BABY VROOM VROOOOOM

Welcome back to a long overdue post from yours truly as we once again visit the library of everyone’s favourite third placed fifth gen console, the SEGA Saturn. This time out, we’re going to be taking a goosey gander at Andretti Racing, which is a game I picked up for a cool £8 from Rewind Collectables whilst also on the lookout for a new Saturn controller. I had never heard of the game before, but a quick trip to Wikipedia revealed that Andretti Racing had received reasonable reviews throughout the years, with the Saturn version normally outshining the other consoles. It’s rare that the Saturn has the superior version of a multi-plat release, so I decided to pick Andretti Racing up and take to the track!

Developed by High Score Productions and Stormfront Studios and published by everyone’s favourite evil video game corporation Electronic Arts, Andretti Racing uses the license of the titular American Motorsports organisation, and saw releases to the PlayStation, SEGA Saturn and Windows PCs. North America got the game about a month before us folks in the PAL region saw it, but for 1996, that isn’t a bad turnaround considering some of the delays with getting games into Europe during that time period. As previously mentioned, the Saturn version of the game tended to review better than the PSX port, with Lee Nutter (later of PSW fame, ironically) referring to Andretti Racing as “Very Playable”. Well, I should chuffing hope so too!

As soon as I booted up Andretti Racing, I noticed that there was a mode called “Racing School”, which I assumed would be the in-game tutorial that would teach you how to get to grips with the controls. Interestingly, Andretti Racing has gone for a different approach, whereby Racing School is just a collection of videos where real-life racer Mr. Andretti tells you how to actually drive a real car on real tracks. It’s nice to have something like that included, but I didn’t find it especially helpful when it came to playing the game. It might have been better for Racing School to let you get on the track following the video with a guide on-screen so that you could try and perform the skills mentioned in the video. I wonder if that would have been a bit difficult to do in 1996 though.

Once you begin to negotiate the main menu (and the crushingly 90s soundtrack found on it), you can choose to either buckle up and take part in an Exhibition race or head to the petrol pumps in order to get stuck right into the Career Mode. Exhibition puts you straight into a race, which lets you get to grips with the controls in a scenario with little risk, whilst Career Mode sees you racing on a series of tracks in order to see how highly you can finish on the leaderboard. Andretti Racing gives you a choice of choosing between Indy racing cars (think more the sort of car you’d see in an F1 game) or Stock Car vehicles (think more the sort of wheels you’d expect to find in a game like Destruction Derby). This adds some variety to the gameplay as you can find the style of vehicle that suits you best, and if you like both modes of transport, you can tackle the Career Mode twice over as you complete the game with both types of cars.

You are greeted in Career Mode by Full Motion Video clips featuring James Brown (not that one) and Bob Jenkins, who I’m guessing fronted racing coverage over in the States, and they give you the skinny on the upcoming track and then talk about how good (or bad) your performance was following the race. These are well done and are a nice addition. It might not seem quite as impressive today, but in 1996, it was still quite a big deal to have actual video footage like this in video games, and smooth FMV was a good example of the new features that having a game on a CD could provide. One big downside of being a CD-based game, though, are the loading times, and in Career Mode, you’ll be waiting for long stretches of time whilst Andretti Racing sputters along to the next screen. Honestly, I thought Godot was going to arrive before the next menu screen sometimes.

In Career Mode, you have the option to qualify first before competing in the race itself, and I suggest that you do take the time to qualify because it will give you a better placing on the starting grid, and sometimes that can be essential if you have any desire to accrue valuable points for the league table. The actual racing in Andretti Racing didn’t especially impress me at first, and it can be brutally punishing if you’re not careful. In only the second race of the Championship, I crashed into a barricade and wrecked my car after just two laps of the race, causing me to finish dead last and eventually turning damage off so that I could actually finish races should I clatter into the side of the course or other racers.

Opposing racers can be right awkward buggers at times, which only adds to the substantial challenge at hand. However, with patience and good use of the brakes, you can eventually drag yourself through each race and even compete with your CPU-controlled opponents. I was never really that close to winning the Championship on my Stock Car playthrough, but I was usually around 4th place, and I was able to be competitive in most races, which kept me returning to see how I could improve my placing. One aspect of Andretti Racing that separates it from more arcade-inspired racers is that you have to make pit stops in order to repair your car and also fill up your petrol tank; otherwise, your car will grind to a screeching, empty-tanked halt. This means that pit management is very important, with it being the real key to victory on the more straightforward bowl-styled tracks as timing your trips to the pit correctly will ensure that you lose as little time as possible in your quest to reach the chequered flag.

Those who like to tinker will be pleased to know that Andretti Racing lets you play with the settings of your car, allowing you to tweak the tyres, suspension, etc. in order to get the car motoring just as you like. I wasn’t quite sure what to do with this section of the menu as I know roughly as much about how cars operate as I do about how attractive women operate, which is to say tragically little, so I often just went with the default settings and trusted in the heart of the cards. However, if this is an area you are familiar with, then you’ll likely appreciate that Andretti Racing gives you the option to tailor your four-wheeled death machine to your own personal liking.

Graphically, Andretti Racing certainly shows its age today, with the Saturn version in particular looking a little “blocky” these days. However, I did play the game on a flat screen television, which is never really the best thing to do as these fifth gen games always tend to look better on a CRT screen, so I might be being overly harsh with my graphical assessment. The music is the sort of generic 90s music that you’d expect someone like Los Villanos to enter to on an episode of WCW Thunder from 1999, but it does the job, and the cars sound nice and powerful when their engines roar as you race. It took me a little while to really get into Andretti Racing, but when I eventually did, I found a challenging yet decent racing experience, and I would have likely added Andretti Racing to my collection had I owned a Saturn at the time (although I might have let it drop a little bit in price first, especially if I already owned Daytona USA and SEGA Rally as they are both superior racers).

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