Classic game appreciation section: Formula One 97

We sadly lost F1 97’s developer Bizarre Creations under the wheels of the Activision juggernaut earlier this year. I still can’t believe such a fate could befall the team that made this incredible game. So, with our review of F1 2011 coming tomorrow, what better time than now to take a look back at one of the greatest F1 games ever seen?

F1 ’97 holds a special place in my heart because it was the first game I owned when I bought my first PlayStation. But those words don’t convey the enormity of what actually happened. I traded my Sega Saturn and 18 games to buy F1 ’97 – one single game – with a PlayStation. In hindsight, it was pure madness as there was a mint Panzer Dragoon Saga in there (stupid, stupid boy), mint NiGHTS and 3D pad and rarities like Enemy Zero. But at the time, F1 ’97 was so good, it felt totally worth it.

Above: Forget Alice: Madness Returns. Think we’ve got plenty enough of that right here

Bizarre Creations’ success had started with 1996’s ‘Formula One’, which contained several crash bugs and lacked depth, but was still a massive success in Europe that year. If you had a PlayStation, you had to have F1. But the sequel, Formula One ’97, added so much to the formula (no pun intended), it was a major leap forward not only for the series, but videogames in general.

It’s like watching TV!

In the GamesRadar office, Dave simply cannot understand what I mean when I talk about the likes of F1 ’97 and even FIFA 96 as looking more realistic in overall appearance than modern games. Don’t worry, I haven’t gone stark raving mad. I don’t mean the graphics are better – what I’m talking about is using the limited palette offered by the 32-bit consoles to create the impression of real life.

Above: No-one believes me, but I think the colours in FIFA 96 (left) are more realistic than HD titles

If the colours and spacing is right, the imagination can fill in the blanks – something modern graphics don’t let you do because they’re so… explicit. I’ve said it before so I’ll stop banging on about it, but my point is that F1 ’97 succeeds with this impressionistic technique. With aplomb.

This is thanks mainly to the superlative use of TV presentation. The camera angles, font and yellow squares are exactly like the vintage BBC TV coverage of the day. With the sweeping external views and authentically-places onboard shots, if you squinted a bit (well, OK, a lot), it looked just like TV. And, coupled with the real tracks and drivers, it was breathtakingly authentic.

And look at that!

Technically, it pushed PSone to near-Gran Turismo levels way before GT arrived on the scene. Huge video screens at the trackside ran real-time feeds of what you were seeing on your own TV screen (amazing) and while there is some draw-in, major landmarks in the distance were rendered all the time, allowing for skyscrapers to look like they were a mile away. It was really something back then.

Likewise, the realisation of Monaco was so good, my mum even asked me in all seriousness whether there were any other tracks in the game. I was hooked on flying around these incredible surroundings when just a few years earlier we were staring at the empty fields and ‘there’s Monaco in the distance’ graphics of 16-bit racers.

Above: Casino Square at Monaco. How is this even happening on a PSone?

F1 ’97 was also the first F1 game to deliver a true drivers-eye camera on consoles. The visor you were looking through would even pick up oil and splattered flies as you raced, becoming more and more opaque until you press the button that allowed you to tear off one of the layers of the visor to clear your vision again. That’s something even F1 2010 doesn’t do.

If you didn’t want to go for all the simulation stuff and just wanted to race around wildly with these gorgeous cars, the game also features an ‘arcade’ mode, but it isn’t worth your time. For some reason, it alters the colour palette, turning it into a garish mess. And the drift-heavy handling is pants compared to the carefully balanced main game.

Above: This abomination is the ‘arcade mode’. I hope everyone stayed off this. Yuk

Unless I’m very much mistaken…

For all the bells and whistles of more modern racing games, there’s one thing they simply can’t deliver – Murray Walker on the commentary track. In the game’s predecessor, he was there but it repeated so quickly, it became a bit of an in-joke. But F1 ’97 had him make comments on individual drivers, in his inimitable way. In a bizarre twist of the space/time continuum, the game even features Martin Brundle as co-commentator – the man who does such a good job in Murray’s place in BBC’s current F1 coverage. Who’d have thunk it?

Playing the game today, it’s aged very badly (as have most PSone games), but give it a chance and you’ll soon see that Bizzare Creations quality start to shine through. It’s a world apart from the godawful F1 ’98 that followed (not made by Bizzare). Hurtling down the cambered straight at Sao Paulo is still silky smooth and while the startline AI is pretty awful, it can be forgiven when the actual racing itself works so well. Take a look at this video and tell me it isn’t still charming (you don’t have to watch all of it).

F1 ’97 hails from an age when the possibilities of texture-mapped 3D were just being explored, often with quite remarkable results. And, incredibly, it made my decision to sell my Saturn absolutely worthwhile. It started a long and as-yet unbroken tradition for me of buying a Formula One game with every single Sony console I’ve owned – and with good reason. F1 ’97 is a stand-out moment in racing game history and deserves all the plaudits it can get.

15 Sep, 2011

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