I didn't mean to write about this game. I was trying to open a different game - I can't remember which one, but it probably didn't have some bloke called Ivan in it - and I missed. I chose to take this as a sign from the unknowable forces who rule our cosmos that I should rise to the challenge of saying something interesting about The Leland Coproration's 1990 NES game Ivan "Ironman" Stewart's Super Off Road. It is a challenge that I'm not sure I can meet.
This is Ivan Stewart. He's a real-life man who is really good at driving cars in places where cars ought not to be, like deserts and swamps and the homewares aisle of Wilkinsons. Actually, that last one sounds like a good place to drive a truck through. You'd be sparing the world from a lot of gaudy tat.
Ivan has the jowly, friendly face of a favourite uncle but eerie eyes, glittering blue orbs that betray no trace of humanity and instead hint at darker forces than man was meant to know of. He's a cheerful side character from an American sitcom, possessed by some Lovecraftian horror. Nice use of that shatter font, too. Very punk rock.
Ah yes, Ironman's "Speed Shop," from which he sells speed. I can't imagine off-road racing provides a particularly steady income, Ivan has to supplement his take-home pay somehow.
As I'm player one, I get to be the red team. This is good, because as everyone knows red cars go faster than other colours, which is why you should only every play OutRun 2006 as the red Testarossa. I'll be calling myself VGJ because VGJunk doesn't fit. It strikes me that "VGJ" is a clumsy mouthful of letters to attempt to say out loud, so it's a good job that no-one ever will.
It was a stroke of luck to find identical quadruplets willing to pose as bikini girls, huh? I say bikinis, they look more like dungarees. Sexy dungarees.
All these women have the same cold blue eyes as Ivan Stewart. I wouldn't be surprised if they peeled off their disguises of human skin the moment my truck rolls out of the garage.
Another twist of fate: I meant to make my racer an American - it seemed appropriate, given the milieu of the game - but I accidentally pressed the d-pad too many times and ending up being British. Or was it an accident? I'm just going to ascribe everything that happens in Ivan "Ironman" Stewart's Super Off Road to divine intervention
He may be a superstar in the field of driving around in, well, fields, but even Ivan Stewart has to qualify for the races ahead. That's fair enough, I'm sure Ivan doesn't think he's better than everyone else just because he has his own videogame and a sweet nickname.
"Is there life of Maaaars?" was a question once warbled by David Bowie, and the answer is yes. Life has sprouted amongst the ruddy, rock-strewn dirt of the Red Planet and it's ready to race in Ivan "Ironman" Stewart's Martian Race-Fest and Chilli Cook-Off! I'll be back in a minute, I've got to go and listen to "Life on Mars now".
Right, I'm back. So, IISSOR is a racing game, unsurprisingly enough, and a racing game of the single-screen variety where teeny little trucks bump and bustle their way around a track with the aim of finishing first. I'm controlling the pink truck. I wouldn't have expected a bloke who calls himself "Ironman" to be confident enough in his masculinity to drive around in Barbie's Dream Pick-Up, but there you go.
The driving is very simple and immediately familiar. One button accelerates and the other activates your limited-use turbo boost - no brakes in this one - and the d-pad steer. Pressing left turns your truck to its left. It's not a complicated control scheme.
If you're thinking that you've seen this game before, that's probably because it was originally an arcade game and was then ported to every console under the sun. It's playing the NES version, but this article could have easily been about the Megadrive or ZX Spectrum iterations. The ZX version is one of the better racing games on that format, by all accounts, although it doesn't seem like there's much to choose between them besides the quality of the graphics.
After a narrow win in the first race, crossing the finish line with the second-placed car's front end nudging under my rear bumper like a lonely dog burrowing its head into it's owner's lap, VGJunk takes the top spot on the podium. Everyone gets a trophy. What is this, a school sports day? Come and collect your participation trophy, yellow driver. Yellow driver looks down to see the words "nice try, loser" engraved on his prize.
If you win, you're treated to a short excerpt from your country's national anthem. I really wish I'd said I was French now. La Marseillaise is pretty rousing, much preferable to the awful dirge of God Save The Queen.
You also get cash for completing races, which you can use to upgrade your truck. Well, this is a NES racing game, there was bound to be some sort of upgrade system involved. It works well enough. I'd like to see this system rolled out to Formula 1, ideally. Everyone starts of racing in shopping trolleys, but as they win races they can upgrade to modest hatchbacks, then sports cars, and finally Formula 1 machines. I think this kind of mixed-class event would be the only thing that could ever get me to watch motorsports.
And that's it, really. You race, you upgrade, you race again, you try to ignore the sinister whisperings of the bikini girls from beyond time and space each time you step onto the podium. The actual racing is, on the whole, fairly enjoyable. It gets a tentative thumbs up from me, mostly because it does feel different from most other racing game, which is down to the tracks being built on well-used artillery ranges instead of roads. There are bumps and humps and divots all over the place, and your truck rattles across them all with aplomb - but slightly slower aplomb than if you tried to avoid them. Racing well in IISSOR is partly down to knowing when to steer around the hillocks and boulders to keep your speed up and when to head straight for them to give yourself a clear path to the finish line. Nothing slows you down more than getting tangled up with the other racers, a fact which makes getting a good start vital. If you can manage to get ahead by the first corner, that's ninety percent of the race won.
Then there are your nitro boosts. They give you a quick boost of straight-line speed in a manner than reminds me of an unsuspecting cat being kicked in the arse, and obviously that can come in very handy when you're trying to catch up to the front runners. However, the problem with the nitros - and this is IISSOR's main mechanical flaw - is that their effectiveness is tied to where your truck is when you use them, and the game is very finicky about positioning. If you use a boost when you're near certain obstacles, nothing happens. Well, you lose a nitro but you don't go any faster. That sort of makes sense if you're driving into a wall or something, but unfortunately it's almost impossible to tell when obstacles will cancel your nitro boost and where in relation to those objects you have to be for this nitro-cancelling effect to kick in. The most obvious one is that ramming another car with your boost simply stops you dead instead of pushing your opponent forward any faster, but the edges of rocks and the corners of the track can do the same thing when in a more advanced game you might expect to scrape along them. Honestly, the corners themselves - the physical barriers at their apexes, I mean - can be a bit of a nightmare, with ropey collision detection that often leads to you getting stuck on them when you'd swear you shouldn't be touching them at all.
This particular track has a bloody great pit in the middle of it. The pit serves as a crossroads, where trucks coming from multiple directions can jump towards each other, which sounds fun until you realise there's no way for it to end in a giant fireball of twisted metal and sponsorship deals with chain restaurants gone up in smoke. They're more bumper cars than big rigs. Honestly, they feel more like remote control cars than anything else, what with the size of the sprites and the track designer's utter disregard for human life.
Race 15, huh? I have to be nearing the end now. I've won all but one race so far, when will my competitors realise that they simply cannot compete with the Ironman?!
Now the championship begins. The first fourteen races were all qualifiers. That's a lot of qualifiers. By now I'm now more qualified to race in Ivan "Ironman" Stewart's Super Off Road then I am to do anything else in the world, including eating, breathing and existing. Off-roading is all there is for me now.
Of course, nothing changes during the races themselves, except that each time you come last in a race you lose a life and once you enter the tournament phase you can't continue once all your lives are gone.
The real difference is that now, thanks to a combination of winning a load of races and making sure to collect all the bags of cash that occasionally appear in the middle of the track during races, I have managed to fully upgrade my truck. The only thing left to spend my money on is extra nitros, so I did. I entered the tournament phase with a lot of nitros.
I even picked up a few spare nitros when they popped up on the track - you can see one in the top-left corner of the screenshot above. It's the thing that looks like a scuba tank, which is what I thought they were at first. Air canisters would have leant credence to my theory that this game takes place on Mars, but I think I'm going to have to let that dream die.
Once I was packed to the gills with rocket fuel and my truck was at the peak of its powers, IISSOR settled into a repetitive pattern of burning a bunch of nitros to get past the pack at the start of the race and then driving conservatively until the game decided I'd had enough and spat me out onto the next boulder-strewn raceway. There were some blips: on the track pictured above I built what I had thought was a commanding lead until I realised that I must have missed the course boundary somehow, meaning my second lap didn't count. The computer controlled players eventually managed to soup up their vehicles enough to pose much more of a challenge, even the lame-o in the yellow truck. Still, it all went on much as before, the races all blending into one until I realised I'd done about forty of them and there was no end in sight. That was enough, I thought. Playing this game for another ten hours or ten day or ten years isn't going to to anyone any favours. So I quit.
I briefly looked it up and I couldn't find a clear consensus on whether the game ever ends or not, but as far as I can tell all that happens if you do reach this hypothetical finishing point is that you're treated to the high-score table. The lines of text are forever flowing back and forth in a manner that makes them hard to read, as though they're ashamed to have their names associated with a game this mediocre.
Mediocre feels like a good word for it. Ivan "Ironman" Stewart's Super Off Road isn't horrendously broken or even unpleasant to play - the suspension-shuddering action is enjoyable in a basic way, and with four human players it would probably be lot more fun than the drudgery that the single-player mode sinks into after a while. The graphics aren't up to much and the music quickly becomes unbearable, the tunes sounding like a soundtrack to the life of a robotic rodeo clown playing on short, grating loops, but overall this game is the sponge part of the big cake that is the NES catalogue. It's not the rich buttercream filling and it's definitely not the cherry on top, but it's palatable if slightly bland.
Looking back, I'm not sure I managed to say anything interesting about this one. This is what happens when you leave things to fate. One mystery remains, however: how is a man called Ivan the Ironman not Russian?