Tuesday 2 February 2021

4x4 Off-Road Racing (Epyx, 1988)

Designed by Ogdon Micro Design Inc.

Commodore 64:
Programming by Paul Nickels, Joe Simko, Ed Schoenberg, Steve Thomas and K-Byte
Graphics by Paul Vernon
Music by Jennell "Paul" Jaquays

Sinclair ZX Spectrum version written by Steve Marsden and David Cooke.

Commodore Amiga:
Music by Chris Grigg
Miscellaneous stuff by Mark Riley

IBM-PC compatibles:
Programming by Ed Schoenberg
Artwork by Matthew Sarconi
Music by Jennell "Paul" Jaquays

All other credits are currently unknown.

Published for Amstrad CPC, Commodore 64, Commodore Amiga, IBM-PC compatibles, MSX and Sinclair ZX Spectrum by Epyx for the North American market, and U.S. Gold for the European market in 1988.



Since restarting the comparison blog in late 2019, I've been trying to avoid writing about games that are bound to be heavy work for a comparison. But now that the comparison of Exploding Fist is done, the next logical step (if such logic exists) would be an Epyx game, but I didn't want to write about any of the other sport games quite yet, nor about Impossible Mission, because I've never really understood it, and there are just too many versions to bother with it. So, this presented a puzzle for a long while, until the answer was presented to me by a reader called Zaltys on the 5th of June 2020 - thanks again for the suggestion, and sorry for the delay! Not only does this bring another game into the numerals in the comparisons archive, but it also gives me a chance to really dive into a game I've long meant to, but have always postponed it due to lack of inspiration and time. Besides, it's about time an Epyx game, that is not part of their multi-event sports series, is featured on the blog.

4x4 Off-Road Racing isn't nearly one of the better known or popular Epyx games, but it is one of the more interesting titles. It's also one of the most mysterious Epyx games, since not much is known about the people involved in the making of practically any other version apart from the C64 and Spectrum ones, the former of which I'm rather certain is the original, since it actually does offer a proper Epyx-type credits sequence. Ogdon Micro Design Inc. was a short lived team, who were only responsible for developing four Epyx releases in 1988, all of which were somehow sports related. Another mystery regarding this game is, that some websites (such as MobyGames and Wikipedia) claim that it was also released for the Atari ST, when little exploration is needed to prove this claim false.

Mysteries notwithstanding, 4x4 ORR is one of the last big Epyx titles that (probably) originated on the C64, before the company turned their focus on creating games for the Atari Lynx while importing European games to the U.S. market. It also stands as a clear turning point in the company's success story. While getting fairly good reviews at the time of release, time hasn't been particularly kind on this game. The C64 version has a score of 6.7 from 53 votes at Lemon64, while its 16-bit counterpart has a 5.17 from 30 votes. At World of Spectrum, 21 voters have given their version a score of 5.53. The score at CPC-Softs is similarly mediocre 11 out of 20, and only 2 users at Generation-MSX have voted their version to get a 3 stars out of 5 rating. The DOS version seems the only one with more of a presence, as 3047 voters at Abandonia have given it a similar score of 2.7 from 5.0, while the site editor has given it a 3.0. Fairly similar scores all over, with a slight advantage to the C64 version, but let's see how it turns out.



What 4x4 ORR attempts to be is an off-road racing simulator in a way that hadn't been seen before, which wasn't all that much of a stretch, since off-road racers, as they were, were not a particularly over-utilized genre to begin with. Adding any simulation-like elements would easily make any such game unique and interesting at the time, so 4x4 ORR certainly fit into its very own slot.

The racing itself happens in an Outrun-like 3rd person view, but being an off-road game, you will be driving through roads... hm, well, yes, it's not a proper off-roader as such, but these roads are built on varyingly hazardous bits of land, which sometimes contain watery bits, often contain pieces of wood and rocks and whatnot, which will make your car bounce off in various ways, and crashes are also to be expected. The simulation elements have more to do with how to get yourself out of off-roadish troubles, like fixing your car from spare parts, refueling it when there are no gas stations around, looking at a map to see if there are any shorter routes available to preserve gas, and so forth. The four different courses offer different sorts of off-roadish elements to fight against, which you can prepare for prior to the actual race - that is, IF you choose any of the three higher difficulty levels. The easiest level lets you race without a need for preparations, apart from choosing one of the four available off-road cars, all of which have their fair share of specifics to consider.

Still at this point, true to Epyx's status as an evolving software house who make their games necessary, yet worth putting time into, 4x4 ORR managed to keep their standards up in certain ways. Unfortunately, as the games got heavier to perform in content, the replay value began to suffer, which is exactly why this game can be considered that turning point I talked about earlier. As an early off-roading simulator, albeit a light one, I can only recommend this game highly to any gamer who's interested in this sort of a thing, but the answer to which version is my preferred choice, you need to wait until the end of this article.



Once we have dealt with the usual Epyx-style title screen, the game throws a screen of options at us. There are two variants of these, which effectively determine the depth differences between each version. All versions have a terrain selection menu, in which you can select a racing route from four different terrains: Baja, Death Valley, Georgia and Michigan - all of which feature different conditions, such as mud, snow and desert. The C64, AMIGA and DOS versions also feature a difficulty level selection, which offers four different "ability" levels to choose from: beginner, amateur, semi-pro and professional. To alter between choosing the ability level and the terrain, you need to move the joystick left and right in the menu screen; moving up and down selects options from the menu you have highlighted.

After selecting the terrain and ability level (if available), you are taken to a car selection screen, in which you need to select a pick-up truck from four available choices: Highlander, Katana, Tarantula and Stormtrooper, all of which have clearly different specifications, such as the size of their gas/petrol tanks, high speed, the maximum load capacity and other such important things that need consideration in off-road driving. Because I'm a bit lazy, I will make this comparison only (or mostly) using Katana, because it felt like the most optimal choice overall.

If you selected (or were able to select) the beginner level, you are taken straight to the driving part of the game, and you are given a pre-selected set of equipment for your race, so you're still required to make maintenance stops. From amateur level onwards, you are given a chance to purchase various different items for your race, install different tires and winches and whatnot, and you are more vulnerable to all hazards in the game, requiring you to make stops for mending the car. This also necessitates more careful route planning. The SPECTRUM, AMSTRAD and MSX versions force you to play the game on what's probably the Amateur level, perhaps higher, which means you are forced to go through the shopping segment and deal with the simulation-y bits in the game, which isn't necessarily a bad thing, since the pre-selected equipment aren't necessarily the most optimal.

The shopping section itself has some differences between the C64, AMIGA and DOS trio and the SPECTRUM, AMSTRAD and MSX trio. In the former lot, the Auto Mart has 15 items on the shelves, while the latter lot only has 12, missing the ever-important sixpack and two additional types of tyres. The Custom Shop allows you to attach and detach things to you car, namely a winch, a cap (for extra carrying capacity) and an extra capacity fuel tank, but in the SPE/CPC/MSX versions, you're not able to change tyres, while in the other versions, you are. The Car Sales shop is featured in the C64/AMIGA/DOS versions just for the sake of having it graphically represented, since you just bought your new pick-up truck from there, but you can't actually access it after the initial purchase. You just have to walk your man on the street past the Custom Shop door to get to the race section.

It should perhaps be pointed out, that by default, the cursor in the shopping and maintenance screens is controlled with either a joystick or keyboard, depending on your available/designated control method. The AMIGA version makes an exception to this rule by enabling mouse control for the cursor, although joystick is still an option. The mouse controlled cursor is easily the most comfortable and the least time-consuming choice, because with a joystick or keyboard, the cursor needs to move slower in order to be more accurate. In the C64/DOS/AMIGA versions, it's fairly comfortable, while in the SPE/CPC/MSX versions, the cursor moves painfully slowly.

I have to admit, my early attempts at playing 4X4ORR went rather badly, because I hadn't bothered to read the game's instructions manual, which is just as important to read through here as it is in Epyx's sports games. The way you control the car in the C64/DOS/AMIGA versions is, fire button accelerates, pulling the joystick down decelerates slowly and up slams on the brakes. Left and right steer your vehicle, as expected. In the SPE/CPC/MSX versions, pushing the joystick up will accelerate, down will decelerate, and fire button switches gears between low and high, which is a fairly notable difference in gameplay, but matters only a little in the long run. It has been said somewhere on the Internet, that the only way to not have your game end on a shortage of petrol is not to drive at full speed, which I suppose is only logical, but you still need to figure out the amount of spare parts and all sorts of fluids you need - and are able to - carry in your 4x4, to lower the fuel consumption. And you need to make decisions in road forks to lessen the distance. See, it is rather simulation-like, after all. Sort of.

The dashboard also has vast differences, but generally, it shows the condition of your car's individual parts. The C64/DOS/AMIGA versions show the damages in three colours: green for low, blue for medium and yellow for severe damage. The SPE/CPC/MSX versions only have the damaged or heated parts flashing a bit, which might only mean that you need to take it easier for now, but maintenance will soon need to be done. Also, the dashboard in the SPE/CPC/MSX versions shows less things that will eventually start flashing. However, the real damage information comes in the maintenance screen, where you need to click on the damage icon and then fix it by clicking above the required tool. The same goes for filling up the tank. For some reason, the DOS version I found to make my comparison with crashed almost every time I tried fixing any mechanical failures with the hammer icon instead of the other tools, but despite that little fault, it was still completable - just remember, if you come across the same version, don't use the hammer.

Surprisingly, the car(s) is(/are) very similar to control in all versions, with the only real difference being a matter of framerate, which is considerably lower on the SPE/CPC/MSX lot than in the others, but still playable. You just sort of float around left and right, but when you drive in the snow stage (Michigan), you float around a bit more, but barely notably. In terms of driving feel, it's not simulation-like at all. But as you crash into or jump from rocks and small pieces of logs and other debris lying around on the road, the car in the C64/AMIGA/DOS versions acts more unpredictably than in the other three. It takes something like a standing tree or a cactus to actually crash your car and lose one of your three lives. Any other collisions will only damage your car gradually. Mind you, the C64 version seems to have more junk on the road to bump into than in any other version, regardless of the skill level.

One of the most interesting point of comparison is your opponents. There are 17 opponents to race against, most of which are rather sedate and willing to get overtaken. There's one type of a car in the C64/DOS/AMIGA versions, that doesn't like to get overtaken, which looks a bit different in each version, and that will very likely cause a lot of damage to your car. In the C64 version, this slightly monster-truckish vehicle is notably more evil than in the AMIGA and DOS versions. In the SPE/CPC/MSX versions, the mad driver with a monster truck-like thing is evidently absent, but then you do often need to overtake more than one car at a time, whereas in the other three versions, you're only ever overtaking one car at a time.

If you can bother to concentrate on this game for more than one go at a time, you will notice that all the levels are basically in the same form: dodging rocks, trees and skeletons, jumping over small streams or wider river-like bits, taking over some random opponents, occasionally fixing your car or filling the tank, and finally either reaching the end or failing to do so. The roads offer nothing vastly different between themselves, apart from graphical variations, but in order of difficulty, level 1 (Baja) gives you notably less rocks and other nonsense on the road, while level 4 (Michigan) gives you notably more, particularly towards the final third of the level. So, the real challenge is to keep your car in one piece and reach the end.

What I doubly meant by the first line in the last paragraph, I was also referring to the game's type of segmented loading. The game was clearly designed to be played from a floppy disk, since it loads all the maintenance sections whenever needed, and then loads back to the driving part. In any cassette tape version, you are bound to suffer quite a lot of loading and rewinding the tape back and forth. Unfortunately for SPECTRUM users, the game was only ever released on tape, and while that doesn't pose much of a problem today with emulators, Spectrum gamers who want to play the game on their actual, physical Spectrums will not be very happy about their version of 4x4ORR, and that is why it must come in the last place for this section. At least the 128k version can load the actual racing segment as one big chunk into the memory, while the 48k mode needs to load the maintenance bits separately, and then reload the racing bits again.

As for the others, the DOS version is easily the quickest, and is rather comfortable to play, apart from the little tool-related problem I told earlier; and the AMIGA version feels a bit boring on the long run, since it has less debris stacked on the road, and the sense of speed is not quite there. Also, in emulation, the game pauses for a second every other time it plays some sort of a crash sound, which drops the enjoyability of the otherwise okay version, but on a real Amiga computer, this problem doesn't exist, so I'd say it's on par with the DOS version. The CPC and MSX versions are basically equal to each other, simply by having disk versions, and their playability is, from what I can tell, exactly the same as the SPECTRUM version.




Ho, boy. As you might expect from an Epyx game, 4x4ORR offers a lot of graphics. Fortunately, there's not nearly as many versions of this game around as there are of, say, California Games et al. But it all starts with the title screen, which in some cases appears as a loading screen. But since it wasn't specifically designed as a loading screen (meaning, the screen appearing WHILE the game is loading), we'll let it appear in this section.

Title screens. Top row, left to right: Commodore 64, DOS EGA, DOS Tandy, Commodore Amiga.
Bottom row, left to right: ZX Spectrum, Amstrad CPC, MSX.

Now, for starters, I'll say outright, that the DOS version features four graphic modes: Hercules, CGA, EGA and Tandy, of which I shall only be showing you the last two, because they're the best options, really. For those of you who are not aware, Hercules is monochrome and CGA has 4 colours, while EGA and Tandy should have a lot more, but it looks as though in this case, they don't.

Anyway, the title screens are muchly the same on most platforms, with a fairly 70's style title logo coming at you "in 3-D!" sort of manner. Somehow, it reminds me of the title sequences of Superman and/or Dallas. The slightly wheelie'ing pick-up truck coming from diagonal front left, leaving a mass of dust and flying gravel in its wake, with far away mountains in the background, is the usual title screen. The SPECTRUM and MSX screens have some really funky colours, and the screen is cut off from the back of the pick-up truck, leaving no room for the cloud of dust and gravel, due to their screen sizes. Only the AMIGA version has a very static sideview of what I imagine to be the same 4x4 as in the regular picture, and the title logo has less nostalgic American TV-kitsch in it. Also, the Epyx logo isn't the original Epyx logo in the AMIGA version. But otherwise, it's a very pretty picture.

Terrain and Ability options. Top row, left to right: C64 disk, C64 tape, Amstrad CPC, Amiga.
Bottom row, left to right: DOS EGA, DOS Tandy, ZX Spectrum, MSX.

The options screen doesn't show much of graphics, really, apart from the map of each level to be chosen, which are also viewable in the car maintenance screens. The primary reason for the inclusion of the options screen here is to show you the differences in the options themselves on different platforms, and as you can see, the SPE/CPC/MSX versions have no difficulty options, and the C64 tape version doesn't seem to let you choose the terrain - it just goes straight to Michigan, which is a bit unfortunate, since it's the last item to load on the tape.

Since you do get a view of each map in this screen, let's examine the differences. Clearly, the AMIGA version is the only one that has a very detailed map, featuring mountain shapes, grassy areas and nicely shaded shorelines, but also a light background for the menu. It also has an OK button, which is a nice safety mechanism to keep you from making unintended choices. The SPECTRUM and MSX versions offer the least colourful views of the map, and the AMSTRAD and DOS versions seem fairly similar at this point, apart from the menu contents. The C64 original gets a safe second place here.

Selecting your pick-up truck, left to right:
Commodore 64, Amstrad CPC, ZX Spectrum (+MSX), DOS EGA/Tandy, Commodore Amiga.

This is where the graphical comparison starts getting more interesting. In comparison to the others, the two COMMODORE versions show a little bit of imagination in graphical design, because for all four terrains, the cars have been given a specifically fitting colour. For the AMSTRAD version, your car is always wearing the same colour, no matter what terrain you choose to drive in, although it's not actually yellow, contrary to what this car selection screen shows. The SPECTRUM and MSX versions continue to look the same, apart from the palette differences shown earlier, and while the car selection screens show yellow cars, you will notice that the cars are monochrome against each terrain's own colours. The DOS cars are also shown sporting a single colour, this time red, with a shade according to each colour mode, but that's also a bit different once you get to the actual driving.

Shopping street. Top row, left to right: Commodore 64, Amstrad CPC, DOS EGA, DOS Tandy.
Bottom row, left to right: ZX Spectrum, Commodore Amiga, MSX.

Considering this is a driving game, this section of the game might come in as an odd surprise. You are actually required to (slowly) walk the bit of street you see on the screen, and enter the Custom Shop and Auto Mart to make your necessary purchases to enable you to finish a race, before you actually enter the race by walking past the shops to the right and push the fire button. The only animation here is the driver's walking animation, which is slow enough to almost put you off the entire game, if your focus is at all easily drawable elsewhere, and that doesn't really alter for any version, at least not significantly. If it means anything, though, the driver is notably shorter in the SPE/CPC/MSX versions, and is clearly differently coloured, despite whether he's monochrome like on SPECTRUM and MSX, or more colourful, like on AMSTRAD.

So, the important bits here are the background graphics, and the colour of your car being as expected, according to the prior visuals. Up to this point, the colour of your car seems to be what you would expect it to be, which is good. The backgrounds offer nothing particularly exciting, but a few details do stick out, when you start comparing the lot. Obviously, the SPECTRUM and MSX versions haven't been able to fit Truck Sales on the screen. Slightly less obviously, in the AMIGA version, Truck Sales has been renamed Alpha Racing. The C64/DOS/AMIGA versions also have have more windows at the top of the screen, and a cat looking out of one of them. The road your car is parked on, also has a sidewalk closer to the screen's bottom edge in the C64 and DOS versions, and they also feature a fire hydrant in the bottom right corner. The AMIGA and DOS versions have a pothole cover behind your car. Also, there are no items shown in the windows of the Custom Shop in the SPE/CPC/MSX versions, and all the other versions have slightly different looking items there.

Custom Shop. Top row, left to right: Commodore 64, Amstrad CPC, DOS EGA, DOS Tandy.
Bottom row, left to right: ZX Spectrum, Commodore Amiga, MSX.

As the Custom Shop is the most likely place you will enter first, let's compare the insides of that first. The basic setup is the same in all versions: the shelving for the customing items is in the bottom left corner, featuring a hood for the flatbed, an auxiliary tank and a winch; the C64/DOS/AMIGA versions also have different sets of tyres in the lower shelf. The bottom right corner shows you a chart of how much the customizations cost, how much weight you have at any stage of your modifications, and what the carrying capacity is (volume). In the top half of the screen, the only clickable thing is the Exit sign, which is self-explanatory.

The Custom Shop, as you would naturally expect, doesn't really contain much of decorative background elements. In this occasion, the decorative elements are a sliding door on the left side of your car on a lifter and a chest of drawers on rolling legs on the right side. The DOS version also has a window behind your car and another door on the right side, while the AMIGA version has a trash can on the left side of the car and what appears to be a broken globe lamp on the right side, and a couple of oil puddles on the floor. The only moving thing on the screen is your pointing hand cursor.

Auto Mart. Top row, left to right: Commodore 64, DOS EGA, DOS Tandy, Commodore Amiga.
Bottom row: ZX Spectrum, Amstrad CPC, MSX.

Next stop, Auto Mart, and I thought to make a much clearer grouping for this picture here. As you can see, the SPE/CPC/MSX versions have three less items in them than the C64/DOS/AMIGA versions, but graphically, the really interesting parts are the shop's floor pattern (checkered vs. patternless), the visibility of the Exit (DOS version's shelves are clearly 3x5, while the shelves in other versions extend out of visual range to the left) and the shopping cart in the foreground. The shopping cart is missing from the SPECTRUM and MSX versions, but is there in the AMSTRAD version, which has a much wider screen. Which in itself begs the question: why wouldn't the AMSTRAD conversion team make it closer to the C64 version by having all the items, since the screen would have allowed it, as did the more common disk drive than on Sinclair's machine? Well, the only plausible explanation would be, of course, that the three versions - SPE/CPC/MSX - were made by the same team, perhaps simultaneously, and this would make the cross-development less of a hassle. But as the Credits section at the top of this article points out, there are no documented credits for the AMSTRAD and MSX versions.

Now we get to the meat of the game: driving. As I said, all the levels/terrains are built in the same form, so there's not all that much to see there. But even with its basics, I cannot show you everything necessary in screenshots, which is why there's yet another video accompaniment included later on. But in screenshot form, we'll concentrate on one version at a time, starting with the C64 original.

Racing screenshots from the Commodore 64 version.

The C64 version has the car colour still correct for each terrain, following the terrain selection and shopping segment, and the game runs very smooth and is richly animated for an 8-bit game of this sort. Your selected pick-up truck doesn't really tilt left and right when steering, but for every other thing that happens, there's some sort of an animation. When you move up and down when any differences in elevation happen in the road, the car does change its angle accordingly, and there are, from what I could count, seven different animations that can occur whenever you hit an obstacle on the road or off of it, including somersaults and cartwheels, if you want to use gymnastic terms, and simpler, Buggy Boy-style two-wheel driving stuff, but one of the funniest animations in an 8-bit driving game ever has to be your crash animation, which is a comic strip explosion of dust and debris, with flying steering wheels, a flying driver and a dog that must have escaped the car prior to the explosion, because he/she just sits next to the exploded car in a dubiously calm manner. You also have a splashy visual effect for driving in a body of water or other water-like material.

All this animation supposedly gives less room for competitors, so you only get to see one opponent car on your screen at a time, but at least the distance scaling for the other cars is acceptable. As for your opponents, they're mostly very similar looking pick-up trucks in varying colours, but there is one opponent that looks as menacing as it acts, and that is the black monster truck.

My only heavy complaint regarding the game's graphics is, that the terrain elevations that you drive through are always exactly the same in the C64 version. You go up, and come down, but there's never anything else happening in these bits; this pattern doesn't even happen in curves. A lesser, but a complaint nonetheless, is that the graphics stay very samey not only throughout each level, but through all four terrains, and the time of day changes don't help the illusion of progression in any helpful manner. Another lesser complaint is, that the background graphics are boring, but at least all the background graphics have two parallax scrolling layers, which is more than some similar games had... a year or two prior to this.

Racing screenshots from the Commodore Amiga version.

If you assumed, that the AMIGA and DOS versions followed the C64 original's footsteps in graphics as much as in gameplay, you're not too far off. The AMIGA version is obviously more colourful, and the details are nicer, but that's about as much upgrades as you can expect, because the animations are very much the same as on the C64, the same rate of cars come at you, the parallel scrolling in the still as uninspiring background is still just two layers, and the terrain elevations are pretty much of the same design as on the C64. Well, to be fair, the road forks now get shown all the way until the other road is off the screen, so that's a nice plus. Oddly, though, the Amiga version feels a bit slower than the C64 version due to its animation combined with its framerate, but that doesn't really interfere with the gameplay. As I mentioned earlier, when you play this game on WinUAE (and perhaps other emulators as well), the game pauses for a second every time some odd event has occurred, which makes the graphics more jarring to look at than if it was completely smooth running, but that's not necessarily the graphician's fault. Happily, this doesn't happen on a real Amiga.

Racing screenshots from the DOS version. Bottom row is from Tandy mode, others EGA.

Judging by the DOS screenshots in the EGA mode, I must have accidentally used some other car than Katana in the Baja stage, but no matter - I seem to have done so for one of the tracks in the C64 version, as well, and at least you can see that there are some differences in the cars' backsides.

Anyway, above you see in-game screenshots from the DOS version in EGA and Tandy modes, still leaving out the CGA and Hercules modes for convenience's sake. As you see, the Tandy mode has slightly less colour variation in it than the EGA mode, with two of the routes looking exactly similar in their colourings and backgrounds, and the other two sharing the colouring, but having slight differences in the background. Too bad the amount of colours is at best restricted to four: red, black, white/yellow and turqoise, so you obviously get no visual time of day progression. Your chosen car is coloured more fitting to the colouring of the road, so the EGA mode has four car colour variants and Tandy has two. But your opponents have more wild colourings in the DOS version - I especially like the funky striped variation. The animations are much as they are in the C64 version.

Racing screenshots from the ZX Spectrum (top and middle rows) and MSX (bottom) versions.

I thought I might as well couple the SPECTRUM and MSX versions similarly to the DOS EGA and Tandy modes, because these two look practically the same, apart from the obvious palette differences. They both suffer from monochromaticity, somewhat distasteful colour choices, relative lack of animations, no time of day progression, choppy scrolling and a lack of variety in backgrounds... not that they ever were particularly interesting in the first place, but they're all the same for all four routes now!

It's not all bad, however. You get terrain elevations happening in curves now, as well as hills that go down first. You also get multiple opponent cars on the screen in places, which feels more realistic for a racing game. Different road segments are marked with small rocks and small flags, so you might have an idea where you are located at.

Racing screenshots from the Amstrad CPC version.

If the SPE/MSX versions felt choppy compared to the C64/DOS versions, the AMSTRAD version can chop down the nearest tree and then some. Well, it's not too bad, but it's still choppier than the rest. At least it offers the same pluses that the SPE/MSX versions do, and the minuses aren't at big, for the most part, because it's not monochrome. Each route is clearly defined by their own colouring, although the illusion of dissimilarity is let down by the background mountains that are clearly copies of themselves, only in different colours. The colour choices aren't necessarily always successful, but it's still notably more interesting than the DOS, SPECTRUM and MSX versions.

My favourite peeve about the AMSTRAD version is the colour of your pick-up truck. If you consider it a good thing that it's the same for all routes, then it's probably your thing, but my problem is not with it being the same for all routes - although that makes the game slightly more boring to look at, even if it is more uniform. My problem with it is, that the colour your car has on the road is different from the colour it has in the selection menu, the street and the maintenance screens. On the road, it's blue/turqoise, and elsewhere, it's yellow.

Truck maintenance and map screens, left to right:
Commodore 64, Amstrad CPC, ZX Spectrum (+MSX), DOS EGA/Tandy, Commodore Amiga.

The truck maintenance screens show the same side-view of your chosen truck as it appeared in the truck selection screen, the street and the Custom Shop, but in a different setting. Apart from the AMIGA version, there are no background graphics to give the situation any sense of location - the background is just a blank space in whatever colour the graphic designer of any given version decided to put there. In the C64/DOS/AMIGA versions, though, if you do reach a checkpoint, the game will include a sign on the screen saying as much.

In the lower half of the main maintenance screen, you have the information panel in the right half, and the tool panel in the left half. Whenever available, the icons shown from left to right in the smaller boxes give you two options tools to work with, a jerry can to fill your tank with, the map, and the "continue race" icon. The tool icons appear only if there's something to fix, and the "continue race" icon only appears if the car is fixed enough to continue. Clicking your finger pointer on the map icon shows you the map, as is viewed in the lower picture of each version, and the finger shows your location.

High score tables: C64 (left) and Amiga (right).
Unfortunately, 4X4ORR doesn't really offer much of congratulations on completing anything, unless you're playing either the C64 or the AMIGA version. At least, I haven't been able to find a high score table in any of the other versions, although the DOS version might, by all previous logic, have such a thing. And as we can see from the above, the AMIGA version is clearly more ornamental here.

Considering the graphics as things of beauty; from the point of quality, the AMIGA version beats the others by a long stretch, even though the pauses irritate me to no end - but that's not a graphical issue as such. Too bad it doesn't do anything particularly impressive as an Amiga game. The C64 version clearly has the most impressive graphics in its own territory, but it also works better than the Amiga version in some ways. The lack of colour and lack of animations render the SPECTRUM and MSX versions the least impressive of the lot, and the AMSTRAD version just manages to seat itself between the C64 and DOS versions.




If you're familiar with other Epyx games, particularly non-sports games, you will probably have realized, how their soundtracks are built. Rarely, if ever, do you get any in-game music, and even then it's fairly basic in execution in comparison to anything that came out from European developers. That doesn't mean the music in American-made C64 games isn't memorable, rather they just feel like they're from a different age. 4X4ORR makes no exception to this rule.

The title tune is a nice bluesy rock piece that makes the game feel more energetic and exciting than you would have the right to expect. It's worth noting, that since Epyx was based in North America, their C64's ran in NTSC mode, so the games (along with their soundtracks) play a bit faster than in Europe, so the NTSC version is what we're comparing the others against. The only other piece of music you will hear during the game is the traditional military memorial bugle call named "Taps", which is played when you crash and lose a life. All the other noises in the game are your pick-up truck's loud engine noise, the odd crash and bump noises here and there, and the horn sounds when anyone's passing you or attempting to get past. All in all, it's a fairly simple arrangement of sounds, and you wouldn't imagine the other versions having too much of problems getting their sonics fairly close, apart from perhaps the SPECTRUM version.

But SPECTRUM users will be happy to know, that there are vast differences in the version's sonic offerings, if you load the game in 128k mode instead of the usual beepery 48k mode. Firstly, and perhaps most importantly, in 48k mode, there is no music in the title screen, so loading above 4 minutes of side 1 of the tape only gives you a title screen and a prompt to turn over the cassette and load a bit from side 2 to get on with the game. For the rest of the game, the 48k version only has a few kinds of steady staccato beeps, that only differ in pitch, and when you crash, the speed of the staccato also alters to a quicker one. In the 128k mode, it's pretty much the same as on the C64, but with less filters used for any of the sound effects, so it's a bit less interesting on the long run. Due to the similar sound chips, the AMSTRAD and MSX versions sound, as far as I can tell, exactly the same as the 128k SPECTRUM version.

The DOS version uses the single-channel PC speaker, so you would expect it's not much better than the SPECTRUM version, but it actually is quite a bit better. You get the theme tune in the title screen as good as it can get on a PC beeper, and the in-game sound effects are much more varied and fitting for the game's requirements, with a constant mowling of the 4x4's engine, and a few different kinds of effects for hitting debris and crashing.

Finally, the AMIGA version's title tune is as well-made as it ever needs to be with the advantage of 16-bit hardware, but it's also notably different in its arrangement, now closer to a 90's techno tune than a traditional rock'n'roll composition. The sound effects are, as you would expect, sampled mechanic noises, engine sounds, horns, splashes and explosions. While it's all presented in a more realistic manner, it doesn't really help make the game any less awkward than it is. Still, judging the sounds simply as themselves, the AMIGA is, on a technical level, a clear winner.




Another massive undertaking dealt with once again. Now, before we take a look at the overall scores, it would be advisable to also take a look at this compiled video (also a massive undertaking, with 40+ minutes of footage) that I prepared for you to see what I've been talking about for the past 33kb of text.

Perhaps that proves a point of how much better the graphics and sounds are in the AMIGA version, but more importantly it should show you, how much more boring it is compared to the others, since it doesn't have nearly as much to it that requires concentration, and the sense of speed is really awkward. The video doesn't really tell you, how bad the 48k SPECTRUM's loading is, but just as a reminder: even the 128k version is only available on cassette tape, which is why the scores are as you see below.

What I'm trying to say here is, that the traditionally stupidly mathematical overall scores don't really tell the whole story, but this is how they line up using that method:

1. COMMODORE AMIGA: Playability 5, Graphics 5, Sounds 5 = TOTAL 15
2. COMMODORE 64: Playability 4, Graphics 4, Sounds 4 = TOTAL 12
3. IBM-PC COMPATIBLES: Playability 5, Graphics 2, Sounds 2 = TOTAL 9
3. AMSTRAD CPC: Playability 3, Graphics 3, Sounds 3 = TOTAL 9
4. MSX: Playability 3, Graphics 1, Sounds 3 = TOTAL 7
Playability 2, Graphics 1, Sounds 3 = TOTAL 6
6. SINCLAIR ZX SPECTRUM 48k: Playability 1, Graphics 1, Sounds 1 = TOTAL 3

This doesn't exactly prove much of anything, only that some things have been done better for some versions than for others. The thing is, though, that 4X4 Off-Road Racing is not a game you should judge by its graphics or sounds, because neither of those are particularly interesting for any version. And while playability is the most important singular factor of all three ingredients, it just doesn't matter when the game turns uninteresting after the first 10 minutes. It's really the SPE/MSX/CPC versions that managed to grab my interest more in the end, because even though they lack most of the humorous animations from the original, they do offer a slightly more balanced challenge, and the terrain has a bit more variety in those. So, if you're looking for a list of versions in order of interest, here's my view:

European U.S. Gold cover

So, in true Top Gear/Grand Tour tradition, the best game is the worst game, and if you can bother to search for the long gone Epyx Shrine through Wayback Machine, you will find that the site's view on this matter is much the same. If you combined the gameplay elements in the SPE/CPC/MSX version with the smoothness, graphics and sounds of the AMIGA version, you'd have a definitive version of 4X4 Off-Road Racing.

At the time of release, 4X4ORR was a game with potential, but it offered too little, too late, and these days offers barely anything of value to even retrogaming enthusiasts. But I hope this comparison serves some purpose for anyone who has ever been interested in this game. Thanks for reading, see you next time!

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