Category Archives: Reviews

WEC Le Mans (Konami, 1986) – review & playguide for MAME arcade

Here is a game based on the greatest race in the world – the Le Mans 24 Hour Endurance race. It’s very much in the Outrun style, and was rather overshadowed by that classic game. I’ve never cared for Outrun. I don’t like the way the graphics jitter about as they stream towards you, and the controls have always seemed “mushy”, giving little feel for the road, even compared to something as simple as Pole Position.

I was reminded of this game by a review I watched the other day (Xyphoe’s Amstrad Le Mans review). The consensus seems to be that this is a very hard game. I decided to dig out my MAME copy to see if it’s hard as he made it look. Quick answer: no, it’s really quite easy. At least it’s much easier to complete a four lap race than it is with Pole Position for example. Here’s tip No. 1 already:- use mouse controls, and turn the sensitivity right down to 1%. Without being able to steer the car smoothly and gently across the track you’re going nowhere.

Game overview

The race is over up to four laps, with checkpoints dividing it into three sectors, with a bonus of about a minute added after each. The controls are exactly the same as Pole Position: analogue steering, analogue throttle, brakes and hi-lo gears. And just as with the classic you won’t need much finesse for anything but the steering. The graphic style is familiar enough but quite attractive for the time, and as the race is taking place over 24 hours you’ll see the transition from day to night and back via changes in the colour pallette.

The track is based loosely on the real circuit of La Sarthe, in much the same way as Pole Position was on Fuji. Check out Derek Bell’s lap in a Porsche 956 in 1983 to see how fantastic it used to be before the chicanes. You can vaguely recognise landmarks such as the Dunlop curve and Mulsanne straight, but the corners are smoothed out to make the lap flat-out nearly all the way.

Getting down to playing

The first thing I didn’t like was the car design. It looks too tall, like someone had put a “rocketship” aero cover over a pre-war roadster. Really naff, and the worst rendered car in the game. Roadside graphics could have been more appropriate; I would have liked to have seen some grandstands at least. And the day-to-night palette changes could have been more dramatic; Atari’s Enduro generated more nighttime atmosphere even on the VCS. Sound effects are weak, especially the engine, though the other cars do make satisfying (if hardly realistic) explosive engine booms as you pass them.

I wish more attention had been given to getting the circuit right. It weaves from side-to-side and up-and-down in vaguely the right directions, but there’s no reason they couldn’t have made it almost fully accurate. The most iconic view of the real circuit is of the cars approaching from under the Dunlop bridge downhill towards the Esses; it’s even used in the attract sequence here, but in the actual game the downhill run is completely flat.

The kerbs are rather high, but instead of bouncing off them your tyres seem to find a magnetic attraction, slowing you down in a wearisome sort of way. Hitting another car or obstacle gently sends you into a giant end-over-end rolling sequence like you were taking the mick out of Anthony Davidson. Which is fair enough, but a featherlight graze of another car sends you into a sequence with exactly the same penalties of time wasted (half a dozen seconds) and car damage (zero), only you are spinning flatly rather than cartwheeling. How much better if minor knocks rattled you offline or pitched you sideways a bit, giving a skilled driver chances to recover.

Those are the main complaints out of the way (I’m not going to get into stuff like “If the race is supposed to last 24 hours why do you get points for time remaining at the end?”). When you’ve gone through the learning curve and it actually comes down to playing the game I have nothing but praise. You certainly need to get the hang of the controls, but with time the mouse feels so at one with the car that you seem to be controlling it by thought alone. Only the sharper corners need some visual feedback to check the car is turning as tightly as you want.

Master the circuit and, except for two slow hairpins, it’s flat-out all the way. It’s just the other cars you have to deal with now, and here the game really excels. The first time you go through the Esses at full throttle, weaving past the opponents on either side, is as exciting as it is satisfying, and a taste of things to come. This is the key to this game’s success: it flatters the player. Other games have your rivals weaving all over the track or deliberately blocking you, but here they stick to their lanes so you can pass on the best side with confidence. The effect this has on later laps is profound. It’s breathtakingly exciting to flash past trains of speeding cars on the narrow track with inches to spare, though it doesn’t take much skill to do it. You just have to keep your foot in and believe everyone will stay out of your way.

Hints and tips

If there’s one playing tip I had to give above all others it would be be committed. You have to keep your foot to the floor as you gain on another car; if it’s on its own it will stay in its lane and you can be confident of passing cleanly, except on the tighter kind of double bends. Notice there are two models of cars, the sport prototypes like yourself and the slower GT class with the Porsche Turbo body style. These latter should normally be nipped past on the inside of curves, while the faster cars may have to be passed on the outside. This is against your instincts as it means steering to actually hit the car, but don’t worry, you’ll drift safely to the outside of it.

Learn to drive in lanes; use the middle lane by default. This is different to most racing games, but here the ability to keep to a lane on the smoother corners will pay off in safe overtaking. But with the tighter kind of esses there’s no choice but to use a racing line. There are only two slow corners where you need to use the brakes. Approach in the centre lane and hit the brakes early, attempting an easy middle line rather than a racing line. Try and be clean on these corners with a smooth exit rather than a rally-cross approach.

When you are gaining on a pack of cars at a dangerous place on the track, ease off early and hang back for a while rather than get on their tails. Lifting off the throttle briefly can gain enough time to nip past another car cleanly, but going bumper-to-bumper only seems to slow down the car ahead even more, meaning you have to absolutely stand on the brakes to avoid it. As you practise and achieve more consistent lap times you’ll find car placements falling into patterns which are easy to remember.

All-in-all you shouldn’t find it too difficult to finish the race, at least compared to similar games. Remember you have several seconds in hand if you can avoid crashing, so it’s more important to be clean and consistent than to be a maniac on every corner. When you back off the throttle you’re not losing as much time as you think.

Track guide

This is a pretty basic guide for beginners and people who are struggling with the game, essentially only dealing with the first lap. Note that you may need to restart the game to see the same car colourings as I describe here. Please refer to my video above as well as the inline screenshots. So first off, start in low gear and change up at about 160kmh – it’s not absolutely critcal when. The first challenge is to slip calmly past the Rothmans car (pic #1) on its left and take the gentle curve past the Dunlop bridge. Easy, as long as you have your controls set up right. If you don’t find it easy the only thing you’re going to gain from the rest of the game is frustration.


Challenge number 2 is the Esses: pass on the left at the approach, then move to the right of the slow Porsche (#2). This again should be easy, but does require confidence. There are then two long fast right-handers leading on to the Mulsanne straight. Decide well in advance which side you’ll pass the cars you will always find here. On later laps you may need to back off a little to clear some space. Remember to do this nice and early and you’ll have no dramas.

On the long straight keep to the right. If it’s clear it will stay clear; sometimes another car will squeeze you by cutting a little into the lane but you can handle this. Normally you’ll have no problems, though sometimes violent jinking is needed to weave through the pack of cars that can build up at the beginning of the straight.

After the checkpoint there’s another easy sweeping right-hander, followed by the first hairpin. Approach in the centre lane (#3), brake fairly early and try to stay in the middle of the road, though in fact you will be taking something of a racing line. It’s surprisingly easy to mess this up, so try to be consistent; it will keep you “on pattern” with the other cars.


The end of the next straight will see you gaining on another Rothmans car with seemingly little room for manoeuvre on either side. Pass on the right (#4); it’s easy as long as you can steer accurately and stay in lane.

After the next sweeping right you’ll encounter the first real challenge: a flat-out left-right plunging curve. It will take some practice to do this regardless of any other cars, but once you’ve mastered it you’ll have the problem of the car you encounter on the lip of the exit. If it’s a slow GT car there seems to be no option but to slam on the brakes to give you time to pass on the left. But it should be a fast car, and if you steer to the right so its seems you’re going to ram the back of it you’ll drift safely to the left (#5). Take car not to hit the kerbs.


There follows a long sweeping left on the approach to the checkpoint. This can be a little dicey in traffic, but follow the general rule of passing slow cars on the inside, fast on the outside.

Next is a very long left-hander. Always hang to the right on this, and you can take it flat out. Make sure you steer consistently to the left as much as you can but without ever having to move back to the right to avoid another car. Check that your car graphic is actually turning the full degree (#6) as you approach the end of the turn. I mess this up in the video, for which there is no excuse.

After this there’s a difficult sequence of bends. Stay to the left as much as you can, especially on the entrance (#7) and exit. This part can be done flat-out without too much bother on the first lap, but later you may have to back off in the middle. The short straight ends with a tight left-hand hairpin. Treat it just the same as the right-hand one earlier.


The final sequence is a left-right esse. This is tricky. As a guide you should try to beat a slow GT car into the corner, but hang back a little from the fast cars (#8) before blasting past them on the exit. I always deliberately take this cautiously on the first lap, not just for safety but because I actively don’t want to be too fast here. Passing the purple Porsche before the finish line puts the game into a more difficult pattern for the next lap.

Go and play it

I strongly recommend WEC Le Mans. It’s certainly not innovative, but it is very exciting, and without being as frustrating for less gifted players as better-known games in the same genre.

Minecraft Pocket Edition – Overview

It seems everybody’s playing Minecraft these days. So I’m afraid I felt compelled to play a contemporary game for once. Well, it’s got a nice retro feel to it anyway. It’s too familiar to be worth a full review, but I’m going to be having a quick look at the Pocket Edition on my Android phone. (I make it a matter of principle not to own a PC capable of running the full edition.)

So what’re the main differences between Minecraft Pocket and PC? The first is the playing area: just 256×256 blocks, with space for 64 up and 64 down. It sounds too tiny to be of any interest, but although it seems so small underground that you’re mining to the edge of the world all the time, above ground it’s weirdly big enough to get lost in, at least for a short time. Above is my first serious world, and you can see about 75% of it; there’s a bit more behind the camera and in the far distance.

The second main difference is the lack of caves and lava underground. This is a shame; it makes mining harder but more repetitive. Then there’s the lack of the Nether; in its place is the Nether Reactor, a sort of mini-version you can build in your backyard. And finally there’s a whole host of minor creatures and features lacking, such as Endermen and alchemy. On the whole, after the December 2013 update it looks very like the PC version, though I don’t see any real excuse for features being missing seeing as new phones are now more powerful than the typical ageing PC you find in people’s homes.

That quick overview done with, I thought I’d show you how I’ve been getting on with the game. Only a few stills for now as I haven’t got moving video figured out yet. I’ve had the game nearly six months, and I start a new world every few weeks (always Survival, max difficulty). My current one is based on a particular well-known seed: to try it enter “detailed” (no quotes) when prompted for a seed for a new game. It spawns you on a tiny island with just a couple of trees. There’s a similar island nearby, but nothing else that I can see. There are a handful of animals around.

Here is my cottage. It’s a functional design I’ve perfected over a few worlds. The interior is 4×11 blocks, on two main floors with two rooms per floor, divided where you see the chimney. Within the floorplan there’s also a cellar with smelting equipment, a sub-cellar strongroom, and a spiral staircase leading deep down to the mine. My bed is actually within the wall space, up to the right where you see the bay window. This dates from when I didn’t know how to place a bed on half-blocks. I’ve kept with it because I quite like it and it saves some fannying around; the downside is that the whole world can see me changing into my pyjamas. The roof by the way is built out of sandstone steps; wooden ones make more sense but I’m fed up with them catching fire. In the background you can see the night-lighting for my extensive wheat farm, and also the second island in the far distance (I don’t go there much if at all).

Now here is my tower, a small version of another design I’ve perfected over time. Useless really, but I think it looks cool. The interior floorplan is 5×5 blocks. The staircase turret is 3×3 blocks inside, but this design allows them to overlap by just one block effectively without taking up any useful space. I begin this spiral staircase on the first floor, partly because it demands a fancier overhanging design, partly because in larger towers I like to have a “grand staircase” leading up from the ground floor.

This is my barn, the first I’ve built. Filling the hayloft upstairs was the reason I had to have such a large wheat farm. Downstairs live a small section of my population of sheep. I didn’t have any sheep to start with, but one turned up from I don’t-know-where, soon followed by another. So why not breed them? I’m afraid I got a bit carried away and only stopped when I realised they were eating my lawn faster that it could replace itself. Barns aren’t any use of course, except for the obvious fire hazard. I expect it will produce a dramatic conflagration if I get bored one day. (Don’t worry, I’ll let the sheep out first; necessity has made me a total pacifist when it comes to Minecraft, and it pains me when I watch other people hacking animals to death as soon as look at them.)

Finally my pair of townhouses (with Nether Spire in background which I’m currently demolishing). They’re mirror images but otherwise built to identical plans. Each has a front parlour, back living room, and ground floor kitchen extension. Upstairs there are two bedrooms plus bathroom. Plus an attic, and of course the obligatory cellar with smelting equipment (I do a lot of smelting, but tell the wife it’s a Laundromat). The block resolution is so crude there’s very little room for moving about in once you build interior walls, but that restriction is part of the charm of the game.

So that’s my little world. And I do mean little – most of the time has been spent filling in the sea with rubble from the mine to get space to build on. Now if you’ll excuse me I must get back to demolishing that hideous eyesore of a Nether Spire.

Microprose Formula One Grand Prix (PC, 1992)

This is the first game I ever bought for my PC. It cost £45, which hurt, but in hindsight was a bargain.

Microprose Formula One Grand Prix first wowed players on the Amiga, but the 486 CPU by then having clearly outstripped the old 68000 machines for power the PC version was much better. It was written by Geoff Crammond, whose first racing game was the well-regarded REVS on the BBC Micro. I’ve never played that one, but I did play the Amiga version of his Stunt Car Racer and found both the physics and gameplay of this deceptively simple racer to be remarkably good.

Writing a full review would be a bit daft at this distance in time, but I’ll try to point out a few things that made F1GP special. First of all was the manual; it’s such a good introduction not so much to the game as to the world of F1 in general it would be a good buy on its own. As well as a readable introduction to the current F1 teams and drivers (as of 1991, the last year Mansell, Prost & Senna raced together) it covers the mechanics of racing car design and the theory of optimal race driving including the all-important racing line.


Getting started, type in the right word from the manual and you’ll be rewarded with the attractive main menu against a backdrop of the Monte Carlo circuit. Come to think of it there was a snazzy-for-the-time title animation sequence, but I quickly de-installed that to regain the disc space. It has all the options you would expect, basically coming down to choosing between a single race and starting a new season (all 16 circuits are present), plus load/save and configuration options. The game is very easy to navigate, though it does become a bit slow and mushy once you learn exactly where you’re going.

But the terminally impatient have their very own option: ‘Quick Race’. So we will choose that. This sets you down straight on the grid, no need for qualifying or any of that. I think the circuit was Monza by default, but of course you could change it. Right away (or, more likely, once you’ve given in and looked up what the controls are instead of trying to figure them out for yourself) you start to notice the good points. The car is very easy to control, even with the keyboard. And there are help features too. They go beyond the ubiquitous automatic gearbox / immune to damage stuff. How about automatic brakes, and a racing line painted on the road? To a seasoned gamer these sound like the sort of cheats that make a game worthless, but they’re not. Rather they take away the sort of frustration at flying off at every corner that makes you start to hate a game. Very soon you’ll be turning the cheats off – you have to on the higher skill levels anyway.

Graphics are attractive and functional, if not exactly realistic. Take the cockpit layout: it combines all the help options, the lap timings, and the real controls in a way that makes perfect sense. The steering wheel doesn’t turn though, which is a shame. Captions will come up overlaid at the top of the screen from time to time to report things like fastest laps; it’s very like watching a race on TV.


Outside the cockpit the graphics (by the standards of the time) are even better. Though brightly-coloured and Legolandish (perhaps in homage to Pole Position) they are fast moving, have consistent physics, and are accurate to the real circuits. Not in the has-the-right-number-of-corners-in-the-right-directions way of earlier games, but the trackside trees and buildings and even gentle undulations in the surface are faithfully rendered. This was a big step forward for the time; Indy 500 had done this, but naturally only for the one circuit. Unlike the Amiga version the track surface is texture mapped which really helps convey a sense of speed (but turn it off by pressing ‘T’ if the game is getting too much for your old 386 PC). Sometimes it will rain, and the track and cars become washed out in spray.


But the all-important question is: What are the crashes like? Pretty good as it happens, though not quite on the cataclysmic scale of some of those in Indy 500. Lots of cars can get involved, and bits of wing go flying around, but there are no fireballs or anything like that. A nice touch is the animated marshalls waving flags at the side of the track. (Mustn’t forget the supplementary to the all-important question: Can you drive the wrong way around the circuit and cause pile-ups? Yes of course you can, though the steering feels a bit wonky and the graphics can glitch).

Once you’ve got the hang of racing, and are fed up with being beaten, you’ll want to return to the garage to change the set-up of your car. You can load and save set-ups to have different ones not just for different circuits but for racing and qualifying too. The changes you can make are (mercifully some will say) simpler than the Byzantine complexity of the Indy 500 options. You can change wing angle (front & back), brake balance, gear ratios and tyre compound. Changes make a real difference; on a circuit like Hockenheim you want a car that can top 210mph on the long straights, but at Phoenix you must add a lot of wing to keep your speed up through the many tight corners.

I have a host of minor niggles with the game, but that’s actually a good sign: it means I’ve been playing it far too much to have noticed that many. There are two complaints big enough to single out. The first is the sound, which is very thin and reedy. It’s actually very like the audio from on-board cameras of the time, but I want my cars to go NEEEEEAAAAAOOOOOOWWWWWWW!!! (especially when I’m overtaking someone). Then there’s the AI of the ‘enemy’ cars. The cars are very aggressive, but their one weakness is they don’t know when to brake safely amongst other traffic. Instead they compromise, being either too early, thus too easy to overtake, or too late, causing guaranteed first lap pile-ups at chicanes on the faster circuits.

Overall F1GP gets the balance between game and simulation just about right. Arcade fans will find it action-packed enough to enjoy, and may even mature to become committed sport sim devotees. The race distance can be adjusted from 10% up to the full whack, so can last nearly two hours. It wasn’t long before I was doing full seasons at full race distance, and loving it. The long term appeal is vast. Even when you think you’ve mastered a circuit there always seem to be ways of squeezing an extra tenth out of your lap-time.

F1GP @ Wikpedia