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by Corwin Brence - August 16, 2015

RoadBlasters - Arcade, NES, Genesis, Lynx, ZX Spectrum, Amstrad CPC, Amiga, Atari ST, Commodore 64, PC, PlayStation, PlayStation 2, Xbox, GameCube (1986)

Arcade Flyer

Commodore 64 Cover

Japanese Megadrive Cover

Through the mid-to-late 1980s, most racing games were of a similar persuasion to OutRun, where turns in the track were represented by simply bending the image of the road, and steering simply positioned the player's car left or right on the screen. Home computers were beginning to get 3D simulation games like Indianapolis 500 that presented a more realistic racing game, where steering actually affected the perspective, but these kinds of games were mainly restricted to PC and Amiga systems at the time. It wasn't until Atari's own Hard Drivin' and Race Drivin' hit the arcades that these 3D, flat-shaded polygon racers with realistic physics would begin to take off in arcades.

Until those came out, though, arcade racers were at an interesting transitional period. The Outrun-style racers were still being made, but arcade-goers were becoming desperate for a new innovation, something to keep them from leaving the machine halfway through a game (which is really saying something once you realize that the average arcade machine gives around 5 minutes of gameplay for one quarter). Atari Games came to the rescue with RoadBlasters, a futuristic take on racing with guns and explosives.

In RoadBlasters, you are the driver behind the wheel of a fancy red sports car. Your objective is to race from one end of the track to the other as quickly as possible (naturally, this is a racing game, after all), while shooting down all who stand in your way. Note that, despite both games featuring a fancy red sports car, this game is not to be confused with Data East's Road Blaster FX / Road Avenger.

Separated at birth...?

The actual racing formula here is not really all that different from the likes of OutRun, in that you have a limited amount of time to reach the next rally point before your car runs out of fuel. This game isn't quite so merciless about time, though, since you can not only find additional fuel on the track (in the form of green or red spheres), but your car can also build up a reserve fuel tank based on how well you do in the races.

What sets RoadBlasters apart is your gun. Most opponent drivers will explode in one shot from your cannon. While you have unlimited ammo (and the cannon fires as fast as you can pull the trigger), you have a score multiplier that builds for every consecutive car you destroy using only one shot. A missed shot will reduce the multiplier by 1x, and the multiplier maxes out at 10x. Accuracy is important for good scores, and good scores are important to keep your reserve fuel tanks maxed out. So, in essence, if you want to last as long as possible on this deadly road trip, you'll need to be a good driver and a good shot.

But it's not just the fragile, yellow Lamborghini-knockoffs you'll be facing on the roads. Other enemy vehicles include the purple limousines that are impervious to most damage, as well as motorcyclists who are quite a bit more nimble than the other vehicles, and speedy Formula One-type cars who will swerve in from behind. You'll also encounter minefields in the middle of the track, as well as turrets just off the road that can easily catch you unawares (but can also be destroyed if you're daring enough to turn the car their way).

If you think the enemy is getting the advantage, fear not, because certain tracks will actually hand out special powerups. If you manage to catch these items, your car will be outfitted with things like machine guns, rocket launchers, and nitrous tanks - but these are somewhat limited in use, and if you accidentally crash and blow up, they disappear.

RoadBlasters' big appeal, though, is that it is basically Outrun with guns. This is a game that rewards your driving prowess and your shooting accuracy in equal measure, and succeeds at being the mash-up of Pole Position and Spy Hunter that the designers wanted it to be.

RoadBlasters was initially ported to the NES and Atari Lynx, with a later port to the Sega Genesis, with the computer systems not being left out, either, with the ZX Spectrum, Atari ST, Amiga, Amstrad CPC, and Commodore 64 all receiving their own ports. Eventually, emulated versions on the PC, PS2, GameCube, and XBox surfaced, as part of the Arcade's Greatest Hits and Midway Arcade Treasures series. Of these, the Sega Genesis version, by Sterling Silver Software, is the most accurate of the non-emulated ports, though the controls are simplified due to the lack of analog control or the gas pedal. In this version, the gas pedal is always pressed down to the max, and you are able to slow down by pressing down on the D-pad.

The NES version was produced by Australian developer, Beam Software, and published by Mindscape. It is among the weaker versions of the game, with the graphics taking a muddied look due to the reduced NES color palette. The music also took a serious hit. Accelerating now requires you to hold up on the D-pad for a while. The gameplay hasn't suffered too much, though, and despite some really quite baffling color choices on later tracks, the tracks themselves at least seem to look okay.

The Atari Lynx port was released in 1990 by Tengen, with a Matchbox Toys copyright on the title screen. While the graphics aren't quite as sharp due to the reduced screen resolution, they are about as close as you can get to the original arcade graphics at such a small size. The game does at least seem to still play decently enough, even though you still need to press up to accelerate.

The computer ports are all published by U.S. Gold, and of these, the Amiga and Atari ST versions really look the nicest, though the controls are quite baffling (it defaults to mouse controls, and firing special weapons requires you to hold the right mouse button, which is also used to fire the main cannon), and the game speed is not very smooth at all, especially in the ST version. Of those two, the Amiga version does have nicer music, though less accurate to the arcade game. The Amstrad CPC version puts in a decent effort toward looking like the Amiga game, but the horribly reduced screen resolution and garish color palette damages this effort quite a bit. It at least runs at a reasonable pace, though.

As ought to be expected, the Spectrum 128K version is really not worth bothering with, though it comes in two flavors, original and re-release, where the one difference between them is that the KIXX re-released version shows a countdown timer during the seven minute long loading sequence at the start of the game. Neither the original nor the re-release fixes the most glaring issue of performance, however, as the track chops along at such a slow pace that you might wonder if you're moving at all, if not for the road stripes. As far as the Commodore port goes, the drab colors and iffy controls don't really work well at all, and while it runs somewhat smoother than the Amstrad or Spectrum ports, it does so by "cheating" with the road rendering; the road almost doesn't move at all unless it is bending, and the screen simply scrolls back and forth when your car moves.

After all the direct conversions, RoadBlasters made its way to an additional five more platforms via emulation. The PC and Playstation versions are available on the Arcade's Greatest Hits: The Atari Collection 2 disc. The control scheme is actually a major reason to play these versions over just loading the game in MAME, since MAME still treats RoadBlasters' steering wheel as a spinner dial with no proper auto-centering for use with a real steering wheel controller. Though the preferred version to play is in the Midway Arcade Treasures series, of which the first volume includes a version of RoadBlasters, which is probably the best possible way to play the game since it supports analog triggers on the systems that include them and analog steering with auto-centering. The steering is a bit sensitive, but once you become accustomed to it, it's probably second only to an actual arcade machine. The sound quality is slightly tinny due to a low-ish sample rate, but it isn't painful to listen to.

RoadBlasters actually had quite a bit of marketing attached to it. From 1987 to 1988, Matchbox Toys actually produced a line of RoadBlasters car models based on the game, to celebrate Atari Games' 15th anniversary. Most of the cars in the lineup don't look a lot like what's in the game, though a lot of the vehicles are actually based on real cars (most of which Matchbox already produced, just modified for the RoadBlasters lineup). The player's red sports car is here (referred to as "Killer Zee") represented by a heavily modified Datsun 280 ZX, and even includes a gun rack that can be attached to the hood. One neat gimmick is the assortment of additional weaponry and attachments that could be added to the cars. Granted, most of them were just plastic bits, but this was huge stuff to the kids of 1988. Curiously, the Atari Lynx port of RoadBlasters bears a Matchbox Toys copyright on its title screen.

A page of the Matchbox catalog.

A sublicense from the Matchbox Toys deal resulted in a series of comic books based on RoadBlasters, published by Eagle Comics. The RoadBlasters series ran from Eagle Comics #320 to #344, with the characters appearing in a further eight issues of the Computer Warrior series in issues #345 through #353. These comics chronicle the struggle between two racing teams, Turbo Force and Motor Lords. As seems to be typical of media based on Western video games, the protagonists are actually two boys who, through some contrivance, manage to find themselves each on a different team. The 1980s holds considerable influence over the car designs and even the language, with such made-up “cool” phrases as “Zappy-zappy time!”


RoadBlasters went almost twenty-five years without being invoked by pop culture again, until Disney's Wreck-It Ralph, which not only prominently displays a RoadBlasters stand-up machine (with authentic footage), but also uses it as a central plot point to the movie. As is explained in the movie, a racing game called TurboTime - a slightly-modified Rally-X - was hugely popular in the early 1980s, until RoadBlasters came along and dazzled the arcade-going public (right down to at least one kid being heard marveling at how “realistic” the graphics are). Turbo, a main character in TurboTime, escaped from his game, trying to enter the RoadBlasters machine. But when he appeared in the game, players assumed the game was faulty, and the machine was placed "Out of Order" and unplugged forever.


(Thanks to the maintainers of MobyGames, GameFAQs, MadMaxModels.com, and The Arcade Flyer Archive for images used in this article.)

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RoadBlasters (Atari ST)

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