Futuristic racers seem to embody something essential about videogames: fluid, neuron-firing challenges for our coordination and dexterity, explosions of color that meld high-concept science fiction with the vertiginous thrill of accelerated speed and kinetic violence. Complete with whirling missiles and magnetic humming, futuristic racers are iconic, vibrant experiences that could only be videogames. Titles like Wipeout are routinely selected for montage clips intended to encapsulate the spirit of contemporary videogaming: the speed, the violence, the spectacle. Yet when you look closely at this genre it becomes clear that the future racer is actually a neglected, unfulfilled genre. You'd expect futuristic racers to be defining, obligatory gaming experiences, yet only a few turn up in each generation of gaming. What is wrong with the game of flying cars?
In 1996, Sony's marketing spawned something unusual: a worthwhile videogame that was also a product of corporately manufactured cool. Wipeout 2097, or Wipeout XL as it was known in North America, was the result of a deliberate attempt to associate a rare sub-genre of racing games with contemporary dance culture. The game's atmosphere was heavily weighted by the inclusion of music from The Future Sound of London, Photek, The Chemical Brothers and Underworld. What the first Wipeout game had lacked was a sense of style, and now Sony had supplied that, too. These electronic musicians were just far enough outside the mainstream to be seen as cool and cutting-edge, but also getting enough radio play for everyone to know who they were. Videogames were, by force of smartbomb marketing, becoming cool.
Wipeout was exuberant, colorful and gifted with a twitchy, amphetamine pace. It merged perfectly with the dance music scene. Its velocity allowed it to be the perfect game in a cultural environment where games and pop culture were colliding. Electronic music and videogames matched well, and the marriage created new media for mainstream consumption. Rather than being exported quietly to some geek-chic ghetto, Wipeout 2097 was part of the opening barrage of Sony's attempt to bring gaming to the forefront of popular culture.
But there was more to it than that: Wipeout 2097 had the balanced challenge and the velocity to genuinely command the attention of hardcore gamers. We spent weeks honing our nervous systems on this thing, pushing and pushing until we could lap each of the opening tracks without a fault. It was electric.
There had been futuristic racing games before - Powerdrome on the Amiga and Atari ST (later unsuccessfully "remade" later for the Xbox and PlayStation 2) being a prime example - but it was Wipeout 2097 that suddenly charged the genre. It seemed to matter, and would become one of the era's psychic landmarks in gaming. It was an experience that everyone remembered from that time in their lives, like the biggest pop records on the charts, or the loudest Hollywood movies in the cinemas. It was spectacle, an event to be recorded.
And then there was nothing. A few half-hearted futuristic racers turned up here and there, botched and clumsy in their polygonal paintjobs, but there was nothing to replace Wipeout 2097/XL. Even the Wipeout games to follow that 1996 game lacked the same inertia and fidelity of that second, peerlessly produced Wipeout game. Wipeout 3 failed to return to the scintillating standard set by its progenitor, then most crippling of all was the inevitable PlayStation 2 follow up, Wipeout Fusion. Fusion was arguably a disaster for the franchise: sloppy handling, an ill-conceived array of weapons, and a lack of cohesion in track design and game modes - it all combined to deliver a ruined experience. Anyone who came to futuristic racing at the time of Fusion could be forgiven for never picking up the pad to tweak another speeding rocket-car, it was that flabby and weak.