Watching someone play Carmageddon for the first time at EGX (admittedly on iOS), it was incredibly satisfying bearing witness to the realisation that it's not your average racing game. Their first few checkpoints were meticulous - carefully driven to ensure they stayed on a good racing line, maximising the top-ups to the ticking clock. Then a monster truck with a drill for a nose came hurtling down the road the wrong way and flattened them. There was lots of swearing, a frustrated attempt to find the track again and get back on course with seconds left on the clock.
And then they realised that running over cows and screaming pedestrians filled up your time as well. After a couple of seconds he was doing sadistic donuts in a field and had smashed a fellow racer to smithereens. He was cackling like a maniac. I had to smile.
You see, that's really what Carmageddon was all about: that split-second of violent wishful thinking that everyone goes through at some point behind the wheel; the blip of road-rage that causes us to attempt reckless overtakes on the motorway, drive like a cock to nip into a space following a junction, and whisper profanities at pedestrians who suddenly walk out from beyond parked vehicles. What better way to soothe and vent our freeway fury than to retire to the PC once home, and engage in some four-wheeled, anarchic mayhem?
Racing games these days seem intent on having a setting and maybe even a story (or a pop-up music festival), but Carmageddon needed none of that. Instead, you stepped into the shoes of one of two drivers - Max Damage or Die Anna - and took your violently pimped race car through over 35 bizarre levels from suburban fields and winding mountain tracks, to labyrinthine caverns and powder-dusted arctic tracks. Each race was the same: there are six cars, you start with a small amount of time on the clock, either win the race or destroy the cars of your opponents. Pleasantly, the AI almost always gunned for the latter.
But Carmageddon wasn't just a fun, dumb game. Well...it was a fun, dumb game, but there were a number of clever little things going on under the hood for which we as an industry should be truly thankful. The first was the destruction model when it came to the cars. Wreckable (and repairable) vehicles were fantastic to see in action, with the money earned from Piledriver bonuses and Cunning Stunts essential for feeding back into the car. Watching your front wing bend it itself back into shape and pop back into place was mindblowing at the time.
The physics of the game made for some hilarious kills, as bloodied cows ricocheted into their herd-mates, or you sent lampposts and trees into a frenzied crowd of pedestrians, earning yourself a sweet Nice Shot bonus in the process. But it affected car performance too. A year before GTA, and two before Driver, here was an open driving game that saw cars you could beat and batter into all sorts of amusing shapes, hamstringing their racing capabilities, and rendering them sitting ducks. Lots of fun was spent on occasion, lining up the comatose carriages under a bridge, before then driving off said bridge to reap stunt and multiple takedown bonuses.
Finally, Carmageddon will always be remembered for being the poster child for everything that was wrong with gaming back in the Nineties...according to people who didn't play games. While the rest of the world was busy being sanctimonious and missing the point, we were playing Carmageddon, and loving it. The BBFC refused to certify it, a certification submission process undertaken by SCi admittedly for publicity reasons, only caving in 10 months later. In was banned in a number of countries, including Brazil, and censored in others such as Germany. "Ban This Sick Filth!" headlines cried. By contrast, this week's release on iOS saw the game dropped uncensored onto the App Store with a 12+ certificate. How times change.
If we have Interstate '76 and Twisted Metal, and of course Death Race, to thank for Carmageddon, then we have Stainless to thank for creating a game that was pure catharsis. Did playing it mean we actually wanted to go out and mow down a bunch of pedestrians? No, of course not. But Stainless gave us a supreme level of player empowerment, by both flaunting the rules of conventional racers, and allowing you to do what you'd always wanted to do in those rather more staid games: turn the vehicle of that bastard who overtook you into a smouldering wreck.
Subsequent games would bring with them new playable vehicles, and a wider array of power-ups - Jelly Suspension and the Electro Bastard Ray were the main highlights in the first game - but they wouldn't be the only games owing a debt to Stainless' madcap triumph. It's a testament to the enduring, bloodsoaked charisma of the game and its developers, who've worked so incredibly hard to bring the IP home once more, that the Reincarnation Kickstarter did so very well. And it's a delight to see it re-released on the App Store. It's no strings attached fun that refuses to make any sweeping moral statement, tell any kind of story, and deliver anything other than a visceral, violent, and, crucially, fun experience.