WipeOut: Setting the tempo for a new generation
Retroperspective of a defining title
Some games manage to define a genre, some even achieve the hallmark of defining a platform, and a tiny, elite club mange to define a generation. The next title under the time-machine, microscope managed all 3 when it launched on the then “New boy” on the scene in Sony with it’s Playstation.
Before this story begins we need to journey back to 1994, I was still at school, games at home still predominately ran with very impressive but 2D visuals and the good 3D attempts were few and far between. They also carried a stigma of sad, lonely teenagers, no friends, unsociable, a plain bad influence. Hated by teachers, parents and MP’s alike nothing was going to change that overnight. The Megadrive and Super Nintendo were still battling it out for high street dominance and mainstream relevance, but behind closed doors a new pretender was emerging, one driven by hunger and a cool, calm & calculated chilled glass of revenge on Nintendo, after its failed partnership and humiliating public U-turn on the CD-rom add-on for the Super Nintendo entitled the Play Station..sounds familiar right?
Revenge is a dish....
With lazer focus Ken Kutaragi, big Ken to his friends, assembled a crack team around him to mould not only a trailblazing machine with focused hardware, efficient design, but even more integral, a software suite, community and marketing juggernaut that crushed all under foot. Fixated on the 20 something’s just starting work with disposable income it offered something that felt as natural as buying your first car or hitting a night club. Delivered through edgy marketing that flipped the finger to conformity and played into the prolonged adolescent dream, us younger teenagers still wanted in as what was cool for our older siblings or peers was 3x cooler for us mere plebs, right? It was such a well targeted hype and hardware combo that it could have never failed in hindsight, but on the battleground at the time it was never so sure, even if Sony came in to E3 1995 like the lone gunman with no name. Not quite dropping the mic as the bomb, its rivals did not as much blink, as close their eyes and pray. Prayers which fell on deaf ears and the rest is history now, but it took slightly more than just a cheaper price & marketing slogan to die for, “Do not underestimate the power of Playstation” became the words for some to do just that.
Build it and they will come
Rewind a little again to 1994 when the marketing machine kicked into life, Sega had just been basking in its Arcade release of Virtua Fighter that did for fists was racing did for fuel the year prior. Not resting on their laurels, they released the next evolution of that board in Model 2 that added full texture mapping and more predominantly filtering at double the frame-rate of before, it left all in its wake and theme tune, although the hopes of having this bespoke power in our bedrooms was never on the menu, Sony had other plans, to dominate the console space, shocking as it may seem this blindsided Sega who were clearly far too busy in the woods admiring its own massive trees.
With Sony on the road and wowing developers with its internal Graphics demo’s, eventual vast C# library of code examples complied into a streamlined, documented and welcoming development environment, in large part thanks to UK talent they partnered with and/or bought, well known SN systems who created easy development kits, tools and code for various machines at the time, Saturn and Sony alike benefited from the small company’s skills, becoming a big player in the Playstation’s long term future and most certainly in laying the track for the PSX. It was the machine for games designed for developers, this was no half measure. Part of this locust-like consumption involved forming a brand-new division in Sony Computer Entertainment or SCEI in addition to building a team of internal software groups to really drive home the PSX advantage, exclusives, something that has been a core pillar of the brand ever since. Many companies in those early days were bought up, like many acquisitions, for the portfolio or Intellectual property they had within and some just for the talent they contain.The first of these, UK based Amiga heroes Psygnosis limited in Liverpool, was both and this company focused their aim to break into all markets as hard as possible.
They created incredible titles from the 80's and stood out as the graphics leader on the Atari ST and AMIGA with some of the most impressive titles, the owl logo soon became a symbol of Audio and Visual Nirvana relevant to the time, gameplay was never as assured. Big hits followed and heads would roll, Barbarian, Menace, Blood Money, Xenon II, Shadow of the beast, Microcosm, The killing game show aka Fatal rewind on Megadrive/Genesis the list goes on and on.
dding up the Bits
They improved the gameplay along with the graphics and Lemmings sent them into the stratosphere and was one of many reasons Sony wanted the brand and catalogue of titles, in addition to its forward-thinking visuals, CGI work and style, primarily they knew how to create, craft and ship games, something Sony still had little to no experience in. It was another game that would go on to define the team throughout its history and vindicate the Sony interest which was one of a handful of new IP’s that hit the Playstation at launch, Destruction Derby from Martin Edmondson ,of the beast fame, and crew I have already covered in detail in a previous Retroperspective, and just like that title the other was a multiplatform release, Sony are a business after all and hedging your bets to allow duel releases demonstrated they had the eye on the prize but the other on the till. As fun and ground-breaking as DD was it did not have the sheer impact, velocity and pill popping, Ecstasy driven tempo that fitted the machine, era and style of the time *music break). They had found a mammoth in Psygonsis and in turn struck gold with Wipeout that sold more PlayStation's than any other single title at launch. It was an absolute monster hit here in the UK of September 95, demonstrated by the UK release having more tracks from such big hitters at the time as the Chemical Brothers, Orbital & Leftfield along with its WipeOut:The music CD that released the following year alongside the Sega Saturn release it was a cultural movement. The US lapped up the game in November of the same year with good sales and attach rate’s proving this was a sure fire, acid raving system seller and brand ambassador.
Appearing in clubs at the time to play, mixed with the Big Beat techno music & underground drug scene that was prevalent at the time in the UK. It latched into and onto the culture and mindset of the time and felt perfectly suited to play in public thanks to its edgy future vibe, stylish Japanese influenced design and raw, controversial marketing it was universally praised by critics and customer alike with great sales, film appearances, style mags. It managed to make games, and more so Playstation, instantly cool over-night, quite the achievement for the lads and lasses from the Tyne.
It took a little under 12 months to craft and create this futuristic racer as it started development in late 1994 well after the PSX developer units had been shipped out to company's with Psygnosis being among the first to clap hands & eyes on these rare units. Using parts from an earlier Amiga release the big influences on the title came from Nintendo and not from the most obvious of locations, although F-zero was a game that impressed and clearly had an impact on the teams direction with it, a certain red plumber and his kart wheeling friend’s played a bigger role with the games inception.
Closed looped tracks, a variety of classes, multiple vehicles to choose from and randomised boosts and weapon pick-ups all came from the Snes Karting Classic, dropping the cute style and mushrooms for more adolescent anger and..well.. different mushrooms, it was a trip that no-one wanted to miss. Very, very different to any previous futuristic racer, bright colours, fast action, undulating tracks, heavy art direction and a thumping soundtrack. The only thing that did carry over from others was the difficulty in the ships handling and digital controls, Analogue sticks officially never came in until the 3rd game in the series on Sony’s machine but sooner on machines that adopted this technology first or neGcon from Namco.
Transforming the landscape
In a sign of how much simpler game engines and content where back into these early 3D days are no clearer than this game. As beautiful, fast and technically strong it was at launch, around 9 months before release it really only existed as a Pre-rendered CGI demo that masqueraded as a playable game in Hackers. Being the new and UK based in-house team, 13 strong, hardly enough to cover modern AA testing teams now it demonstrated their prowess in utilising new hardware well, something they would go on to achieve many times for Sony. Lead artistic development and ideas came from Jim Bowers who had been instrumental in the rendering path in Microcosm, something that attracted Sony’s interest. The skills and tools proving advantages in this 3D shift for them, being used to working within the Microsoft owned SoftImage that later merging with AutoDesk Maya. Psygnosis built a tool set and pipeline around artist driven assets creation, tracks and modelling in the application, then porting into the game engine quickly. This is the precursor to modern methods that all of the big studios use for asset creation in games, it kept programming centered on the game engine and away from the artistic direction. They could create complete tracks, textures, bake the lighting and even fly through them within Softimage, once ready they would be packed up and ported over the PlayStation to run as the full game, a key ingredient to hitting the tight development window.
With the PS1 they had access to a dedicated 3D accelerator in the GTE (Graphics Transform Engine) that was something very new indeed, the PC was still largely languishing in software renders with the big push of dedicated 3D hardware yet to land around 1995 from the likes of ATi’s Rage cards or the hallowed Voodoo. But even in this birth of triangle centric rendering it still had 2D rasterising, meaning depth, scale , even perspective were ignored once the final buffer was created and passed to screen for raster each frame. Something that plagued the life of the console and its sister Sega machine to a lesser degree. This caused, among other reasons, the texture warping, edge clipping that occurred in the vast majority of titles on the machine, and as impressive as Wipeout was, it suffered as bad as any other title in this regard.
But it more than made up for that slight with the bright textured scenery, winding tracks, and blistering speed that was a revolution to what we had seen before. Running in the standard 256x256 interlaced image it zipped across with the same 25fps rate that all PAL titles did at the time, 30fps for the Japanese and US markets with the reduction on the vertical pixel count to 240 height to accommodate the increased output speed. With 1 caveat, these versions did not have their timing polls corrected from the baselined UK version and as such PAL players get a 20% faster lap time as a reward for the 20% slower framerate’s, a poor trade.
Want to learn more, watch the 2-part video series that covers the birth of the PlayStation brand and the Saturn versions compared below.
Part 2 All the ports and conversations right up to Omega
Once the dust had settled on Wipeout’s impact, specifically on the PS1 with the delayed Saturn release taking the wind out of its impact some what on that platform to some degree. To the point many never knew it launched on that machine, even to this day, let alone 2 of them. But more so the Marketing was coordinated with and into Sony’s message, but they never interfered with Psygnosis at a micro level, happy to have them as a strategic partner that they just so happened to own.
Watch the rest below in a monster journey through the generations
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