I’ve always been an “Atarian” at heart, the Atari 2600 was my first game console (unless you count the TI 99/4A but that was technically a PC) and I own every console they produced with a decent collection of games for each system.
While the Atari Jaguar is often maligned and misrepresented as a system with “no good games” except for maybe Tempest 2000 or Alien Vs. Predator, that isn’t fair to the variety of titles which were good and fun to play. One of those is Atari Karts. No it was not an original concept because it is obviously based on Nintendo’s Super Mario Kart which had been released a few years prior. However they took the concept and went in their own direction with it, offering beautiful graphics (perfect frame rate, tons of color, parallax scrolling, full-screen view at a higher resolution), excellent sound and fine controls. Without a battle mode, it is all about racing across various cups where the difficulty is balanced properly enough so you aren’t throwing the controller at the wall. The courses are fun to play and tracks even have hills to make it a little more interesting. Unfortunately it has always been one of those “hard to come” titles that was even considered rare in the 90s.
That said, there was one bizarre design choice that was made in the development of the game that had they gone in a different direction I think it would have made the game better. This was something that always bugged me a little bit when I would play the game. It didn’t break the game or anything but for a game called Atari Karts, you would assume that the characters, items and tracks would have something to do with Atari history. That is one aspect that what gave Super Mario Kart its charm and appeal. As Atari Karts was made, the only recognizable character in the game is Bentley Bear, from Atari’s Crystal Castles. The rest of the content was made just for this game, none of which really have any exact connection to any previous Atari property.
An uninformed critic might suggest that this is because Atari was recognizing that they had no characters to choose from (around the time Atari actually had spent some time trying to come up with a “mascot” character to compete with Sega and Nintendo – the efforts resulted in an alligator that never got past the paper and a 3D demo of Oswald, which was canned since it was far from appealing) but in reality they could have filled the AK roster up with characters from their past without much trouble. So here some ideas that could have made an appearance, or if Atari had survived to release the planned Jaguar 2, could have made for a more interesting Atari Karts 2.
So let’s take put on our imagination caps and see how we could redesign Atari Karts. I will tackle the characters, the items and the track themes.
(Note: I am just referring to properties/characters owned by Atari Inc. and not from the split of Atari Games. Adding in Atari Games you could have used quite a bit more – Paperboy, Peter Packrat, stuff from Marble Madness, etc. / Images used from ArcadeFlyers.com, Atariage.com)
As a refresher, here are the characters that they used in the game as released in 1995 (minus the 4 unlockable “boss” characters):
Atari had a decent roster of characters that had been created over the years. Because these were not handled like Nintendo or Sega have used their designs, many people have forgot about who it is they have to choose from.
Major Havoc (Arcade) – Released in 1984, Major Havoc was one of the very last vector monitor arcade games to come to the market at-large. It was a combination space shooter and 2D platformer game that never got a home release. Due to that and being released at a tumultuous time for Atari, it never became terribly well known but it was an awesome game that deserved more attention in the Atari universe. It was almost resurrected for the Jaguar under the direction of Jeff Minter as Major Havoc 2000 but we got Defender 2000 instead. Given the space theme of the game, Major Havoc’s kart even could have had a design along the lines of the ship we see in the game.
Commander Champion From Star Raiders/Atari Force/Liberator (Various) – One “mascot” of sorts that Atari promoted in various ways before the market crash was Commander Martin Champion. In the case of the famous classic Star Raiders, he was only tied into the game through the Atari Force comic but he starred in the little known Atari arcade game Liberator, which was like a reverse Missile Command. Various members of the Atari Force crew or elements from the universe could also have been used in Atari Karts.
Berthilda The Witch From Crystal Castles (Arcade) – As a way to compliment Bentley Bear who did show up in AK, why not drive as an Atari villain, even if she is a gross wart-pocked witch? The wheels of her kart could have been little brooms just to fit the theme. Even a Gem Eater would work as a playable character.
Charley Chuck from Food Fight (Arcade, Atari 7800) – As a kid that throws food at chefs to reach the delicious ice cream cone, it is surprising Charley wasn’t considered for a spot. You could even have a Food Fight themed level but I will get into that below.
Robot 1984 from I,Robot (Arcade) – This game made history with being the first to render its graphics in full true 3D. It was flat-shaded but it was a step-up from vector.The universe as presented in the original arcade would make for a cool level to boot.
Oliver the Elf Wizard from Centipede (Various) – Thanks to the comic books of the Atari 2600 era, a character was properly fleshed out for the famous Centipede series, who would have been a fine fit in Atari Kart’s bright fantasy themed world. He also graced the cover/box art for the 2600, 5200 and 7800 versions of the game.
The Archer from Millipede (Arcade) – Along those same lines, the sequel to Centipede had a slight difference in the character who was shown on the arcade sideart as an archer. One of the arcade flyers provided a surprisingly deep background for this character, who was a young prince that forsook his father’s throne, pledging to defend the kingdom against the deceased king’s vengeance from the netherworld.
The Eyes from Haunted House (Atari 2600) – This might be a little weird to have a pair of floating squarish eyes driving around but I bet a number of people would have enjoyed playing as this character anyways. Once again, the haunted house of the Grave’s Estate would have made for a great track
Yar from Yars Revenge (Atari 2600) – The exact level of fame might be debatable but either way, Yar is one of the most famous characters from the Atari 2600 line-up. I would venture to claim that it is better known than Bentley Bear. There have been occasional reboots including on the Nintendo Game Boy and a rail shooter for the Xbox 360 but prior to those Atari should have given Yar a spot on the AK roster.
Kung Fu Lu from Off The Wall (Atari 2600) – I had to look this character up because while I have played the game(which was an impressive improvement to Breakout that came in at the end of the Atari 2600’s official lifespan), I couldn’t remember the character name at all. While that might indicate that no one would care, it still would have made more sense than creating a character from scratch like the Atari Kart character Regius.
Rhindle The Red Dragon from Adventure (Atari 2600) – While the dragon in the game sort of looks like a duck, why not use one of them for AK? Kids would have gone crazy for it either way. Adventure II on the Atari 5200 would come much later but it showed a potential design (more of a serpent style dragon than something you might see in D&D) that would have also worked for AK.
Knight From Adventure (Atari 2600) – From the cover art and the manual it isn’t entirely clear if you are a knight but it seems like a good assumption. Since the game originally represented your character as a yellow block some artistic license would be needed for the modern character (which again in Adventure II you could play as a yellow block or choose from different sprites, including a knight in armor).
Ninja From Ninja Golf (Atari 7800) – Called by Classic Game Room as “possibly the greatest game ever made”, Ninja Golf should have had a modern upgrade itself on the Jaguar but since it didn’t, the ninja with a golf bag should have ended up in Atari Karts instead of the Karatari samurai character – or at least stolen that name.
Jimmy from Midnight Mutants (Atari 7800) – The character that captured the most attention from this game was “Grampa” but that is not specifically an Atari creation so his Grandson Jimmy would have to do. As Jimmy you do get to be a tough zombie killer, hurling an axe into their heads or vaporizing them with a zombie blaster. So he should have been cool enough to make the list.
Louie From Scrapyard Dog (Atari 7800, Lynx) – Louie was Atari’s attempt at coming up with some guy like Mario. As a junkyard owner with an enormous nose trying to save his dog he never caught on in the culture. But it did give players that had an Atari 7800 a platformer game that they had been begging for.
The Twins Torr and Tarra from the Sword Quest Comics (Atari 2600) – The SwordQuest series of games was an idea Atari came up with that would tie four 2600 video games, comic books and a big tournament together in a marketing spree unlike anything they had done before. Prizes like a jewel-encrusted sword or crown were made but the tournament didn’t work out as the market crash happened. Still, the characters are a part of Atari history so they could find a place on the roster.
The Green Skirt Girl from Middle Earth or the Girl in the Yellow Outfit From Space Riders (Pinball) – This might be stretching it here, especially where the people shown in pinball games usually didn’t get the benefit of a name. But tying this to a pinball course as I mention below could have replaced the “Miz Tress” character that did end up in the game.
Atari related Items
Since they were borrowing a page or two from Super Mario Kart to begin with, some Atari related items could have been used in the game. Granted AK did not put heavy emphasis on items as there is only one that really affects your opponents (the direction swap) but it could be that the same mindcloud that prevented them from using Atari characters in the game also prevented them from figuring out some items that would have worked out just fine.
Qotile – The villain from Yars’ Revenge might not have made for a good driver character (being a rocket-powered screw or something like that) but it would have been the perfect homing-missile style item to use. I would even maintain the exact same “chew-chew-chew” sound it makes when spinning as the other players will know exactly what is coming their way before the shot.
Zorlon Cannon – Also from Yars’ Revenge, the Zorlon Cannon would have made for an excellent straight shot type item. I imagine the explosion effect below would have been a great addition to AK that players would try and do
Super Zapper – The screen clearing bomb in Tempest and Tempest 2000 would have served as an excellent item to affect all of your opponents to stun them for a couple of seconds if you found yourself in last place (like the lightning bolt item in the MK series)
Crystals – Mario has the gold coins, Atari has the crystals from Crystal Castles. Instead of just racking up a coin counter it would have been interesting to use these like wrenches in Super Sprint although that would have required upgradeable stats and possibly a parts system.
Major Havoc’s Shield – While not a pick-up item in the MH game itself exactly, it could have been turned into a power-up for some temporary defense in AK.
Sword from SwordQuest – It is forgotten about now but back in 1982 Atari made a pretty big deal about the SwordQuest games and the tournament behind them. The tournament was never fully completed which was too bad as some very expensive prizes were made for it but at least EarthWorld, FireWorld and WaterWorld were released.This could have been a close range weapon to use against an opponent (or instead of cups, you could be racing for the four original SwordQuest prizes, that would be cool).
DDT Canister – From Millipede, this could make a smoky effect for opponents to cause some brief confusion, probably best used as a mine (kind of like the banana in MK)
The Magic Hat – While Mario has used the stars as temporary invincibility items in all of their games, the Magic Hat from Crystal Castles would fit the same purpose.
Pot Of Honey – This item from Crystal Castles could have been used just as offering bonus points or perhaps you throw it down and it would cause any opposing players that drove through it to drive slowly while stuck in the mess for a few seconds.
UFO – Taking a page from Asteroids, I imagine that the UFO could have worked as an attack item, could be a mine-style item that temporarily fires out randomly in the area it is at, moving back and forth between the sides of the track of where it was placed.
HyperSpace – While the HyperSpace feature in Asteroids was a risky item to use, using it to possibly jump ahead -or behind – a couple of spots in AK would have made for some interesting effects in a race.
Adventure Keys – This would have required some track redesign but I imagine that it would have been fun to pick up one of these keys on the track which could unlock a shortcut for the player or something along those lines.
The Flea – This nuisance from Centipede could also have served as a nuisance for your opponents in AK, allowing you to fire one off to create a string of mushrooms that would slow an opponent down if ran into. The mushroom could dissolve after getting hit.
The Golden Chalice as the ultimate cup – Like Mario Kart, AK divides levels into cups. But in addition to winning those cups, they could have enhanced the incentive for finishing all of them by rewarding the player with The Golden Chalice from Adventure. Why that wasn’t done is another one of those bizarre things that should have been pretty obvious.
Atari related courses
For the record I don’t find the courses in Atari Karts to be bad, I particularly like the beach courses in the game with their animated waves and bright colors. I think they just could have used some elements from past Atari titles to give them that extra personality and polish.
Gran Trak 10/Sprint (Arcade) – Given that Atari invented the racing video game, a nod to their 70s racers seems fitting.
Magical Forest (Centipede, various) – The levels in Centipede are described as a magical forest, the Centipede itself was the villain that terrorized the inhabitants there along with the spiders and scorpions. The Hills level in AK would have been a perfect fit, just add mushrooms, centipedes and spiders.
Adventure Kingdom (Adventure, Atari 2600) – In the game there is a course which gets really close to this with a huge castle in the background but AK could have offered something more along the lines of theming it on Adventure instead of generic fantasyland stuff.
Crystal Lands or Kingdom of the Crystals (Crystal Castles, Arcade) – Or they could have designed a course based upon the levels found in Crystal Castles would have been cool.
Late Night Road (Night Driver, Arcade/Atari 2600) – There aren’t really any dark levels in AK but they could have pulled some inspiration from the classic arcade and Atari 2600 game Night Driver for something to fit the bill. The Route 66 level in AK would have worked, just darker and with more road posts; or instead of doing every course as a circuit, the occasional Point A to Point B type course (like Cruisn’ USA) wouldn’t hurt and that would work for the Night Driver idea.
Tank Battlefield (Tank, Arcade; Combat, Atari 2600)- The Jaguar could have benefited from having something akin to Combat 2000 on the console but since they didn’t, a battlefield with occasional tanks and mines to drive around based upon the popular Tank arcade game from could have been fun to play.
CyberMorph/BattleMorph – As a pack-in game for the Jaguar, players got to experience 50 levels of alien world exploration so why not tie that in with the more whimsical Atari Karts? Skylar could even show up and taunt you with “Where did you learn to drive?” in case you got stuck.
VectorVerse (Various) – Using assets from various Atari vector games including Asteroids, BattleZone, Major Havoc, Black Widow, Gravitar, Space Duel, or Tempest. It’s hard to pick just one and they could have used elements from each in the game.
The Junkyard (Scrapyard Dog Atari 7800 & Lynx) – If the character were used then having a course based around the junkyard over which he presides only makes sense.
Pinball – This would be jumping into more obscure Atari history but where they did produce games like The Atarians, Time 2000, Airborne Avengers, Middle Earth and Hercules, you could take various elements from those playfields to spruce up a track. In fact the fairy or angel from Time 2000 would have made for a good time keeper/traffic light holder for the game; the beasts and art from Middle Earth would make for a cool race track in and of itself.
Star Raiders Starbase (Star Raiders, Atari 8-bit) – Where Atari had a lot of love for space games in the 70s and 80s I think it would have made sense to include a track to play on some of those elements. In this instance the setting could be a starbase from Star Raiders where it is surrounded by evil Zylon warships. You could also add in elements from the spiritual sequel Solaris, which was an excellent game on the 2600. I should note that the developers of Atari Karts, Miracle Designs, went on to create a kart racing game for NUON DVD players where they had a space level but instead of driving karts you flew little spaceships (pictured).
Grave’s Mansion/Grampa’s Estate/Dracula’s Castle (Various)- Atari had a few different horror/terror themed games to take a page from, which could have been done per game or as a blend of them all together. Examples include the excellent Midnight Mutants from the Atari 7800; the Grave’s Estate from Haunted House or Dracula’s castle from Dracula the Undead. In regards to Midnight Mutants you had plenty to pick from: zombies, pumpkins, zombies with pumpkin heads, bats, ghosts and huge skeletons that shoot eyeballs at you.
SwordQuest Worlds – One of the key elements to the SwordQuest tournament and games were the comic books. You needed them to figure out the puzzles that the games would offer. Of course Atari never finished all of the games but there were more than enough assets from the comics to build some tracks out of, along with some of the challenges found in the produced games. I imagine a shortcut that does the room-to-room hallway effect from the game (the most intense room switching ever found in a video game) would be cool to find in the game as well.
I,Robot Track – As mentioned, the universe created in I,Robot was fitting for the Jaguar since it was all flat-shaded polygons. With the Big Brother eye out to get you in case you broke the law by jumping, some fun could have been had on a track like this with various flat-shaded poly models to line the sides of the road.
Golf Course from Ninja Golf (Ninja Golf,Atari 7800) – In addition to the Ninja, a course from his game would be great too. You would drive through short and tall grass areas, the forest and underwater, confronting all of the enemies from that game along the way (gophers, mutant frogs, sharks, the dragon, other ninjas) .
Of course there are no problems with inventing new things just for the game but I think at the end of the day what makes kart racing games like these unique are the characters, items and locations. When they are sanitized to not include stuff like that then it takes away some of the charm and personality that the game could have otherwise. Granted a lot of this stuff would only be recognizable by really hardcore Atarians but it wouldn’t have hurt the game in my opinion. What do you think?