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Review a Bad Game Day: The Great Space Race

The most difficult thing about writing a post for 1 More Castle’s “Review a Bad Game Day” wasn’t trying to think of a game I didn’t enjoy. Instead it was trying to decide which out of many sub-standard games I’ve played over the years is the worst. There are plenty of contenders to choose from. “Superman 64” and “E.T. The Extra Terrestrial” are frequently cited as two of the worst games ever made, with the latter even being suggested as being partly responsible for the 1983 video game crash. Others dispute the significance of the role that E.T. played in the near collapse of the video game market in the 1980s, but there is no denying it was a terrible game.

So how can a Spectrum title, made by one of the most highly regarded developers of the time, be a worse gaming experience than those titles? On the face of it, “The Great Space Race” by Legend should have been outstanding. It was touted as a “a true computer movie”, with “technical effects never before seen in home computer software”, using “Movisoft 2” technology.

It also followed hot on the heels of “Valhalla” a graphic adventure also developed by Legend. “Valhalla” won almost unanimous praise from game reviewers in 1983. Up until this point adventure games for the home computer had been largely text based affairs, relying on the player’s imagination to visualise scenes from the games. Static graphics were introduced into the genre through titles like “The Hobbit”. Animation slowly then started to creep into adventure games, and “Valhalla” was one of the first to use this new striking method of presentation. Although a text-based adventure, every scene in “Valhalla” was rendered graphically with animated characters on-screen following the player commands, which could be typed in multi-word sentences. The title earned over £2m for Legend, following a nearly unheard of investment of £250k in developing the title.

The hype machine went into overdrive for “The Great Space Race”. The title previewed regularly in Crash, Your Spectrum and Sinclair User magazines. The developer threw around details about the game that made it sound like something from the future. The use of “Facial Region Interpreted Graphics” technology (yes FRIG!) touted a level facial animation in characters that had never been seen before. The use of a  computerised “camera director” was going to create the most realistic and spectacular graphics ever.

The game pitted the player in a struggle against the computer to win a race through space.  A new drink called Natof has been discovered that gets you drunk, gives you no hangover and gives you all the nutrition required for a well-balanced diet. The drink is in massive demand throughout the galaxy and you must race against the computer to deliver it to 24 space stations, arming your ship to to deal with any difficult encounters along the way.

So how did the follow-up to the genre-defining Valhalla end up being such a stinker? Firstly there was the coding. Rather than giving  “technical effects never before seen in home computer software” the game was coded almost entirely in BASIC. Not a deal breaker by any means: “Valhalla” was also coded in BASIC and this didn’t stop it winning several awards from the gaming industry at the time. However,  “The Great Space Race” failed to deliver on Legend’s hyped-up promises, on nearly every level.

Sinclair User pulled no punches when it started its review of the title with the sentence “In space nobody can hear you scream which is just as well if you intend buying The Great Space Race. It is one of the most vacuous products we have seen and it’s time that this sci-fi ‘epic’ was exposed as yet another dose of Legend super-hype”.

Playing the game now via the FUSE emulator proves that it hasn’t improved at all with age. It is still a painfully monotonous yawn-fest of a title.  Sinclair User were spot on with their assessment of the game, it just didn’t live up to the hype. The graphics are a mixed bag: although the facial expressions of on-screen characters were good for the time, the rest of the animations (e.g. the ship battle scenes) are sub-par at best. Sinclair User nailed it when they said “The two ships on the screen look like two mis-shaped fried eggs sliding around in a pan”.

It’s difficult to review the game’s gameplay because, well, there really isn’t any. Some games catapult themselves into the realm of “worst game ever released” due to broken, glitch ridden gameplay, poor level design or controller-destroying frustration. “The Great Space Race” falls into none of these categories. After selecting a character and weapons that’s essentially it, the only interaction you have with the game after that is to choose to attack another ship, land on other vessels to obtain more Natof, pay to sober up your racers or choose a different course. A few choices do not make a game.

There is no control of your ship during the battle scenes and very little strategy used in the game. Of all the games I’ve ever played, The Great Space Race is easily the most pointless. It’s not so much a bad game – it’s not really a game at all. In all your time with the game you will only have to interact with it occasionally, to input a number to make what is basically a meaningless choice.

On top of this the game released at an eye-watering £15 price point, when most other games sold for between £2 to £8 at the time. The failure of the title to live up to the hype did not go noticed by the developer. In a  move that appeased some of Valhalla’s fan base, Legend offered a 50% rebate off their next game, “Komplex”, to “The Great Space Race” owners who sent in the poster that was included in the glossy box. The chairman was forced to make the following statement;

“We’re making the offer because we feel that “The Great Space Race failed to live up to many people’s expectations. The fact that we actually lost over £200,000 on TGSR is not much consolation to people who bought the game and didn’t like it. We take our customers seriously.”

Still “The Great Space Race” was an epic failure. Released in the same year that brought classic titles like “Gauntlet”, “Marble Madness” and “The Lords of Midnight”, it was outclassed, by a country mile. It lived up to virtually none of its promise, potential or pedigree, winning it the title of most pointless game I have ever had the misfortune to play. Avoid at all costs!


One comment on “Review a Bad Game Day: The Great Space Race

  1. Poor Vindaloo. All he wanted was to get ripped and feel good the next day! Ha ha ha! Thanks for posting this. I had no idea this game existed, and in a roundabout kind of way, I almost wish I still hadn’t. Good job!


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