Converted for the Amstrad CPC by Nick Wilson and Mike A. Richardson.
Spectrum and Amstrad loading screen by Dave Cummings.
Converted for the Commodore 64 in 1986; credits unknown.
INTRODUCTION & GAME STATUS
A lot of you might know how this one will end before it even begins, but let us just say, this entry is an introduction to the game for those of you readers who have for some reason never really tried this game out properly. Myself included, in fact. Durell's Turbo Esprit can be called the progenitor for games like Grand Theft Auto for a good reason, as it was the first free-roaming 3D driving game ever. The reason why I never got around to properly give it a try is mostly because I missed the greatest hype period when it was new, and later on, the look of it just never really appealed to me. I'm not even much of a fan of the GTA series. But now, because I had the feeling the Spectrum was once again getting left out of the spotlight, I decided I would finally give it a proper go, and give an honest review of how the game feels for a beginner, 28 years after the game was released, and compare the three releases while at it.
Old reviews might give some indication as to what sort of results might await at the end: Zzap!64 gave the C64 version a massively disappointing 9% in their review in issue 49, while Sinclair User gave the Spectrum version a full 5 stars and Your Sinclair gave it a 9 out of 10. Lemon64 users have given 23 votes for the C64 version, and the rating is currently 3.4, while 473 WoS'ers have given the Spectrum version a whopping 8.50. The only score, old or new, I found for the Amstrad version was at CPC Softs website, which had a 14.38 out of 20.00. I suppose the results are quite clear already, but let's take you through the details.
DESCRIPTION & REVIEW
Released in May 1986, Turbo Esprit was in many ways ahead of its time. As the title would suggest, the game concentrates on driving a car around, but this was the first free-roaming, behind-viewed 3D driving game. And I do have to make the distinction about the perspective, since Atari 2600 had Getaway! a few years before this one came out. More precisely, the game utilises a very strange combination of dashboard view at the bottom half of the screen and a 3rd person view at the top half. But that's only one part of the deal - you also get car indicator lights, pedestrians and traffic lights, and as many as four cities to drive around in. Naturally, being located in England, the traffic is on the left side, so you need to take that into account when driving around. This makes adjustment to the game surprisingly difficult for us foreigners who drive on the right side - or the WRONG side, as Jeremy Clarkson puts it.
The object of the game is to track down cars of drug smugglers and either destroy them or ram them into submission, depending on what kind of car are you up against. You are a special agent behind the wheel of a Lotus Esprit Turbo, equipped with a machine gun and a message display that will give you occasional information from the headquarters. As you are supposed to be portraying one of the good ones, you will be given penalties for hitting scenery or civilian vehicles.
Wikipedia says, that according to author Mike Richardson, Turbo Esprit took 10 months to develop, the longest time he ever spent on a single game. It was developed with the cooperation of Lotus Cars Ltd., who provided "technical assistance", whatever that means. Comparing this to more modern games with single developers, it's not all that long a time, but for the time, it must have felt like an eternity. Happily, the time spent on the project shows quite well in all the details, and to some extent even playability, although today it naturally feels extremely primitive and awkward, at least when compared to modern 3rd person 3D driving games.
It is sadly quite possible, that I, for one, will never be able to enjoy this game properly, for many reasons. First off, I have very rarely gotten behind the wheel of a real car, and I don't have a driver's licence. Therefore, I might have some problems with traffic rules, particularly when I have to concentrate on relatively badly flowing simulated traffic that goes on the left side. I also don't like following real-life traffic laws in games, particularly if my mission is to catch bad guys in high speed. It just feels like the dream combination for a masochist gamer. But I might well be in the minority here. Anyway, if it were 1986, I would probably recommend Turbo Esprit wholeheartedly, but if you didn't grow up with this game, I would still say that you might as well take a look at it, because it is such an important piece of gaming history, but don't be too surprised if your initial experience ends in disappointment.
Although Turbo Esprit has been released in disk format as well as cassette, mostly due to the cassette being the predominant format in Europe, the loading times will be compared from the tapes, and only the quickest loaders will be mentioned here. For those of you, who haven't read my earlier entries with disk loading time comparisons included, I will only say that the Amstrad and Spectrum disk versions seem to load superbly fast compared to the C64 disks, and leave it at that.
|Loading screens, left to right: Commodore 64, Amstrad CPC, ZX Spectrum.|
C64: 4 minutes 59 seconds (Big 4 compilation)
CPC: 7 minutes 53 seconds (UK original)
SPE: 4 minutes 12 seconds (UK original, side 1)
Actually, the Spanish Erbe Software release for the Spectrum loads one second quicker than the original Durell UK release, but since the Erbe version is Spanish, most of you readers will probably not be interested in that one. Also noteworthy is that the original Durell release on the Spectrum has some sort of custom loading scheme on side 1 that will not load on 128k machines, so the 128k Spectrum users will need to use side 2, which takes a bit longer to load, or alternately, buy the Encore re-release.
Once the game has loaded in, you will get to choose one of four cities you will be driving in. This, in its own way, acts as a sort of additional difficulty level setting. Unfortunately, you cannot change the city once you have chosen it, unless you reset the computer and reload the game. From the main menu, you can choose your control method, view the high scores (and penalty scores), change the difficulty level, and start either a practice game or a regular game.
All the versions have the same basic controls setup. You can choose to play with either a joystick or keyboard, although the Spectrum version is the only one, in which you can redefine the playing keys. Up and down will accelerate and decelerate your Lotus, and you can even go reverse with the car if you require to. Left and right on their own will strafe through the lanes, and pushing the fire button while moving left or right will make your car turn into your specified direction. You can even move on to the sidewalks, since that is where you need to pull over to, if you need to stop at a petrol station. The Esprit is quite quick to handle, so you need to be careful when turning, lest you bump into another car, a traffic light, or a pedestrian. As mentioned previously, all the unnecessary collisions will give you penalty score. Fire button on its own will shoot your machine gun, which will help you bring down the drug smugglers. The M button will toggle the map screen by default, and naturally, you can choose your own map key on the Spectrum. The other default key mappings are J and L for left and right, K for fire, A and S for acceleration and deceleration/reversing, and T for suicide.
What might have once been a revolutionary control method, is ultimately what brings Turbo Esprit down for me now. The biggest problem with the game engine is the way your viewpoint changes every time you supposedly turn your car onto another street. It takes a good while to get used to the turning cycle, which is surprisingly quick, and sometimes, your viewpoint changes even if you haven't completely managed to turn to the new lane properly, due to crashing into an on-coming vehicle which you couldn't see, or some other similar reason. One of the most problematic issues about this game, however, is that your viewpoint doesn't change to the front of the car when you drive in reverse, so you have no idea if you're backing up onto other cars behind you. This is something you would take for granted nowadays due to games like Grand Theft Auto (3 onwards). Before you know the city maps by heart, you will have quite a lot of trouble getting anywhere in the game, so it's really easier to find a city you are most comfortable with in the beginning, and practice a good half an hour before you actually try your hand at chasing down drug smugglers.
Another thing that doesn't exactly help to improve the playing experience is how the map works. The game doesn't pause while you're in the map, which is okay in games like Carmageddon, where you get a miniature action window in some corner of the full map screen to see what's actually happening in the game. Sure, it helps to get to know the areas more easily, although I would have preferred to have the maps within the game manual as well as in the game. Also, while you're in the map, you cannot control the car - you will continue moving the same speed in which you left your Esprit moving before you switched on to the map mode, and the risk of bumping into other cars is immense. Instead, the controls will move the map around. None of this would make such a big deal, if the map ever worked instantaneously, but since toggling the map has a certain amount of lag, it feels unresponsive, and often you will be unintentionally scrolling the map while you were trying to control the car. I did test this on real hardware as well (Spectrum and C64), so it's not just an emulation-related problem.
Still, all things considered, the game plays surprisingly well, at least on its original platform, the ZX Spectrum. The sense of urgency and the need for expert skills for navigation and handling your vehicle have been programmed very well indeed for its age, even if it all feels a bit uncomfortable compared to modern games. The C64 version performs quite poorly in comparison - there is no sense of speed whatsoever, and the lack of speed reflects in the gameplay. Even when I turned the emulation speed to 200%, the game still progressed painfully slowly, as although the game speed now was closer to the original Spectrum version, everything still moved on the map at least 5 times slower than in the original. If you happen to be the kind of virtual police officer, that more enjoys the coffee and doughnuts side of the job, then this might be more suited to you. The Amstrad version is happily closer to the Spectrum version, but the 3D scrolling gets more sluggish more quickly, when there are too many other moving objects on the screen.
1. ZX SPECTRUM
2. AMSTRAD CPC
3. COMMODORE 64
Since Turbo Esprit essentially tries to act like a 3D polygon game, at least when it comes to all the roads and buildings, you cannot expect too much graphical detail from the game. The buildings are of a few different heights, but that is the only characteristic that you can make out of the blocks by both sides of the roads. Other little things you can see occasionally are pedestrians (white or black stick figure people, depending on the version), lamp posts, traffic lights, petrol stations and roadworks. Trying to spot these little details can be fun, since the game has no details at all in buildings. All the road markings are surprisingly well made, and it is rather surprising to see, how lawfully all the civilians drive around.
|Screenshots from the ZX Spectrum version.|
The most important things in the game are, of course, all the cars. In the original Spectrum version, all the other cars are black (including your Lotus), except for those used by the drug smugglers. The delivery cars (of which there are four in each game) are blue; the armoured supply car is red, and the "hit" cars are coloured magenta. The Amstrad and Commodore versions share the same car colours: your Lotus is red, as are the delivery cars; the supply car is black, the "hit" cars are white, and all the civilian cars are yellow and blue. Although I would normally say that more colour is better, I have to agree with the original colour scheme, because trying to follow too many different colours around can be extremely diverting.
|Screenshots from the Amstrad CPC version.|
Also, the amount of detail and animation on the Spectrum is easily the most eye-pleasing of the three. Although most of the same details exist in all three versions, they are more difficult to come by in either of the two conversions, and due to blockier graphics, more difficult to see. Any bigger amount of action on the Amstrad screen renders taking good screenshots nearly impossible, as you can see from the shot with a car exploding.
|Screenshots from the Commodore 64 version.|
Finally, the map screen, which is just as important as the main action screen, differs surprisingly lot in each version. Although the C64 version seems to be the easiest one to read by a quick look, I'm not entirely sure it's the most informative one, even if it shows the biggest area of the three. The Amstrad map screen gives the least amount of information regarding street numbers, but at least it shows the petrol stations much like the Spectrum version. The Spectrum version is the easiest to scroll through, and shows all the necessary information, but doesn't show as much area in one screen as the C64 version. The most important thing about the map is how quickly can you locate the drug smugglers without smashing into another car, so I would say the C64 version has the best map in that sense. It's just a pity that the speed of the game ruins the whole thing. All in all, I would have to say the original wins here, quite easily even, and the Amstrad version wins over the C64 version in balance.
1. ZX SPECTRUM
2. AMSTRAD CPC
3. COMMODORE 64
It's difficult to say, which one of these soundtracks is the best, since I'm not really all that fond of any of them. When there is very little nostalgy involved when writing a retro game review, all you can do is trust your instincts and education.
Turbo Esprit only has one theme song, which is a cheerful one-minute tune, after which it loops. The Spectrum version has been made to play chord arpeggios very quickly, in order to get an illusion of multi-tonal music. It doesn't sound very comfortable, but you do get the idea of how it's supposed to sound like. Also, the first melody bit plays in a higher single beep style when you start the game, which is a unique feature on the Spectrum. The in-game sound effects are very much what you would expect from the 48k Spectrum: screechy, staccato, quick farty noises of different pitches, but you get no engine droning. At least it's all well-placed.
The Amstrad soundtrack gets it only slightly better, if you can call it that. The theme tune plays on three very static square tones, and is slightly quicker than the original. For any "normal" ear, this already sounds a bit better. The in-game sound effects aren't all that good, however. You do get the engine drone now, which doesn't differ all too much in either volume or pitch, both of which are low. In comparison, all the other sound effects are stupidly loud, and will make your ears bleed, so it's definitely better not to hear the engine drone. There aren't too many sound effects to hear, but considering the harrowing quality or the few that are there, perhaps one should be glad for the lack of them.
At least here, the C64 version can shine a bit. The theme tune is easy on the ears, with a similar arrangement as what the Amstrad version had, but with more sophisticated instrumentation. Perhaps it's not as energetic as the original in all its harshness, but it is quicker and less pushy on the ears. Still, one has to consider the amount of time that will be spent on the title screen compared to the time spent in the game itself. The in-game sound effects here are fairly boring - the amount of effects is similar to the Amstrad, but are more balanced. Even the engine drone is quite a lot better here, but it still gets boring very quickly due to the game's unplayability.
Overall, I would still have to say the Spectrum version is more interesting to listen to in the long run, and even the theme tune doesn't sound as bad as it could.
1. ZX SPECTRUM
2. COMMODORE 64
3. AMSTRAD CPC
Eventually, I did learn how to play Turbo Esprit, at least to some extent. I still cannot call it even nearly as good as all the voters at World of Spectrum have rated it, but I can understand the impact it made back then. Still, as has been pointed out to me by some of my retro gaming friends out there, people who grew up with different machines might have a surprisingly different way to play games. As such, I might be the wrong person to review certain types of games, Turbo Esprit being one of those games - particularly as I cannot wear those well-worn rose-tinted glasses while writing the comparison. But even without those rose-tinted glasses, these mathematical results might speak for themselves:
1. ZX SPECTRUM: Playability 3, Graphics 3, Sounds 3 = TOTAL 9
2. AMSTRAD CPC: Playability 2, Graphics 2, Sounds 1 = TOTAL 5
3. COMMODORE 64: Playability 1, Graphics 1, Sounds 2 = TOTAL 4
One of the more recent "vogue" things to do in the retro programming scenes is to enhance upon old games - perhaps even to the extent that the game code itself is almost completely rehauled. One such thing happened very recently on the C64 scene with one particular classic game, of which I will write about in my next updates entry in a couple of months. Then, a forum thread at Lemon64 got me thinking: if people keep remaking old arcade conversions for old computers, why not make new conversions of old games that didn't really pull it off the first time around? Here's to hoping some coders with talent might take this game and remake it - even enhance it, if possible.
|Screenshots from ZX Spectrum versions of Mike Richardson's other games:|
Scuba Dive (left), Sigma 7 (middle) and Thanatos (right)
Although Turbo Esprit is the most well-regarded game in Mike Richardson's catalogue at World of Spectrum, I would also urge people to take a closer look at some of his other very fine titles: Scuba Dive, Thanatos and Sigma 7 for starters. It's as fine a way to spend some lazy summer days as any other.
Thanks for reading again, hope you enjoyed it!
Next up, a very special episode of Unique Games, so stay tuned!