After the video games crash in 1983, it could be argued that the previously-successful Atari were the biggest losers in the whole debacle. Credited with taking gaming out of the arcades and into the living room, Atari tasted huge success with the 2600 (and considerably less with the difficult second console, the 5200) before the video game market’s increasingly saturated bubble burst. Losing ground post-crash to competitors Sega and Nintendo over the course of the 1980s, Atari vowed to become top dog once again in the ‘90s. In 1993, they launched the Jaguar, a console that Atari claimed was the first 64-bit console to hit the video games market.
The Jaguar wasn’t up to much, and within a couple of years was relegated to bargain bins and public-access infomercials as Sega, Sony and Nintendo all eclipsed the “Jag” with more powerful and more accessible consoles. Programmers struggled to cope with the Jaguar, and the low number of releases did nothing to assure consumers that the new console provided longevity.
One of the few games that trickled through the Jaguar pipeline was Rebellion Developments’ Checkered Flag. Released in 1994, Checkered Flag was essentially a Virtua Racing clone, sporting polygon graphics and a horrendously over-processed intro song that sounds a Giorgio Moroder reworking of Blondie’s “Call Me” (although in reality, I’d love to hear that…). After being greeted by a boxy, formula-style car skidding into view, you’re then able to try and navigate the menu.
First of all, it’s time to pick a car. Selecting a car in Checkered Flag is perhaps the most nuanced of all the options available; each of the six cars offer huge differences and it’s up to the gamer to choose which one is best tailored to their driving style. The variation is staggering and almost encourages existential debate, asking players to think deeply about themselves and build some kind of ethereal bond with just one of the sextet of chariots available.
I chose the orange one because it’s my favourite colour.
Unhelpfully, the other options are tucked away from view and they’ll only be noticed as you cycle up or down on the D-pad. There are the options for various weather conditions, different downforce settings and wet-weather tyres, as well as the selection of ten original circuits. There’s also the option to pick between automatic five-speed gearbox and a manual six-speed, as well as the choice of lap count and the number of “drones” – or AI in normal terms – you race against.
These options suggest a much-needed sense of longevity, but the reality is that the game feels exactly the same come rain or shine – horrible.
Driving the car is like trying to navigate the Titanic around an iceberg; there are no discernable handling qualities whatsoever. There’s no way to brake properly either; if you try to slow your car down to take a corner, a “drone” will channel its inner Tora Takagi and attempt to violently mount the rear of your car. On hitting a wall, the car proceeds to roll over like a skateboard mid-kickflip, before landing conveniently back on its wheels. The “drones” are absolutely pathetic, and you can happily lap them multiple times in a race; the only challenge on-track is the car you’re controlling…oh, and the track itself.
The player is constantly embroiled in a battle with frame-rate and draw-distance, and the developers at Rebellion have used a fog effect to mask the corners creeping up unexpectedly. This is supposed to be a 64-bit console, and yet the polygon graphics offer nothing of a step up over the Super Nintendo’s Star Fox (or Starwing in Europe), a game which was released a year before on a supposedly less-powerful console. Perhaps Rebellion wasn’t in a position to push the latest of Atari’s offerings to its maximum capabilities, but it’s more likely that the Jaguar’s teeth were not quite as sharp as Atari made out.
Like everything else, the music is horrible. Immediately, starting a race bestows the gift of an oversynthesised soundtrack, not dissimilar to a title theme for a low-budget 1980s fantasy series. Luckily, thanks to the Jaguar’s surplus of controller buttons, you can switch the music off by pressing “0”. Alternatively, you can just switch the game off and save yourself the trauma.
Comparing Checkered Flag to Virtua Racing – released on the Sega Mega Drive/Genesis two years’ prior – only serves to further underline how poor the game is. Virtua Racing boasts bright colours and similar polygon graphics on a 16-bit system, while Checkered Flag is a foggy, murky mess.
There’s absolutely nothing else to say about this game. It’s patently clear from playing Checkered Flag for a few minutes why the Jaguar was so unpopular; for something that was supposed to be Atari’s return to console glory, the Jag was not up to the task of taking the fight to even the previous-generation of game systems. Checkered Flag is nothing more than series of red flags, matching lumbering gameplay with antiquated graphics, terrible noises and absolutely lacklustre AI. Why even bother?
Checkered Flag was outdated and ancient even at the time of its first appearance. It’s desperately slow, and it’s here because…well, because it’s dire.