Probing The Inaccuracies: Mecha

There’s something about a gigantic bipedal robot that inspires the imagination. Whether it’s the return to personal, one-on-one combat that many mecha-related series seem to explore, or the idea of a huge humanoid machine kicking ass, it’s pretty easy to see the appeal of mecha. It’s also difficult to dispute that they are, in fact, rather awesome.

Unfortunately, they are also completely pointless.

The first question that needs to be asked is, “What exactly is a mecha good for?” Putting aside clearly improbable designs that can freely fly, as found in the Super Robot genre, it would seem that the mecha would be designed as an analogue to the tank – or alternately, to displace the tank completely. This, to me, seems rather improbable, as the limitations of any of the common designs of mecha – bipedal, tripodal, quadrupedal or spider-shape – far outweigh any advantages conferred upon the machine by that design.

To investigate why this is so, we must examine the general form of the mecha in order to determine its typical characteristics.

The Vincent from Code Geass, a series which I feel gets things very, very wrong.

The first, and probably foremost, problem with this design, which appears to be representative of most mecha designs, is its high centre of gravity combined with only two points of contact with the ground. As anybody who has been pushed over before they have a chance to brace themselves will know, this leads to a considerable amount of instability. As mecha would require an improbable amount of flexibility and speed of movement in order to brace themselves after an impact, this would lead to the design being very easy to topple over, and thus incapable of taking any sort of impact without being rendered immobile and therefore useless.

Of course, an actual mecha design would be fitted with gyroscopes in order to prevent it from falling over when it so much as moved on any sort of surface that wasn’t completely flat, but there’s only so far that one can go with gyroscopic stabilisation, and of course, gyroscopes add weight to the machine. It really outlines the disadvantages of bipedal movement in anything that isn’t biological, humans only being capable of doing it efficiently due to their locking kneecaps and the ability to unconsciously maintain their balance with tiny, almost imperceptible movements.

It isn’t just bipedal mecha which suffer from stability problems and a high centre of gravity. Designs with more than two legs may have a more stable base, which largely negates the need for heavy and cumbersome gyroscopes, but they can be just as easily knocked over with a large enough impact. Once a leg is restrained or destroyed, instant stability problems occur, with the machine being rendered instantly immobile, and most likely falling over because of their inability to redistribute their weight unlike a biological organism. The vulnerability of the legs of these machines means that they are rendered vulnerable to tanks, close-air-support aircraft and even men with portable missile launchers. As it is difficult to distribute armour to the legs of mecha without making their movement cumbersome, it would appear that mecha would be limited immediately by the weakness of their legs.

The AT-AT from Star Wars, a series which may not have been realistic, but which outlined the ease of knocking a big mech over.

This isn’t the only weakness of a design based on legs. Leg movement is a form of reciprocating movement, where a piece of machinery repeats a back-and-forth (or up-and-down) movement. While this has proven to be the only successful form of ground movement in animals, reciprocating motion is not considered to be desirable for machinery which is used for propulsion. In engine design, a reciprocating engine requires far more components and usually wears out more quickly than an engine utilising circular motion, and attempts at replacing the piston engine in cars, planes and ships have been common ever since the development of the electric engine and gas turbine.

The gas turbine has displaced the reciprocating engine in all but the smallest aeroplanes since the 1960s, either in the form of the turboprop or the jet engine, while larger ships commonly use turbine engines in order to propel them instead of more complicated, more difficult-to-maintain piston engines. Only in cars and motorcycles has the piston engine persisted; the superior fuel consumption of such engines at that size compared to gas turbines and Wankel engines has allowed them to carve out that niche. However, electric engines utilise circular motion, and with the development of improving battery technology and hydrogen fuel cells, the piston engine will likely be displaced in this market as well.

This has relevance to mecha, because even piston engines convert their reciprocating motion to circular motion at the crank. If one were to directly connect the mech’s legs to the engine, one would either be converting circular motion to reciprocating motion, if a gas turbine or some sort of electric engine were used, or reciprocating motion to circular motion back to reciprocating motion if a piston engine were used. I hope you can see why that would cause apoplexy in many engineers; you’d essentially be transmitting power through another set of complex components, which adds more places for an already complicated machine to fail. If that doesn’t drive the engineers crazy, then it would definitely drive the mechanics that would have to work on it to drink.

It’s unlikely that a direct mechanical linkage to the engine would be used, for not only the reasons outlined above, but also because it would limit the flexibility of the limbs and leave them essentially as simple, crude metal struts. A far more likely system to be used is a hydraulic system, similar to the digging implements found on bulldozers. This would allow for movement of the legs more closely related to the movement of human legs, but would still be considerably less efficient than the movement of actual human legs. As discussed above, the locking kneecaps and ability to quickly change one’s balance lead to efficient bipedal movement in humans, but what would distinguish us from mecha capable of doing the same thing is that human muscles work on the microscopic scale, with nanoscale particles involved in the molecular biochemical activation of muscles. Ultimately, this scale allows humans and other animals to have impressive strength for their size, using a lot less energy than a comparative hydraulic system would use.

The Cauldron Born from the BattleTech series, a series which at least does things a little better than most mecha series. A little.

Returning to the general form of the mecha, apart from the disadvantages conferred by the instability of such a top-heavy design, the height of such machines leads to another obvious disadvantage: It leads to them being very noticeable. For something that purports to be an analogue to the tank, that is rather a significant weakness. Some people seem to forget that tanks are hardly invulnerable themselves; their tracks are potential targets to even outdated anti-tank launchers, while tank-on-tank combat can lead to the destruction of one of the tanks with just one lucky shot. As such, tanks attempt to decrease their profile and the amount of area to target by running hull-down, using terrain to disguise and cover themselves. This is not a luxury afforded to mecha.

The weaknesses of mecha versus tanks continues with mobility. By virtue of independent driving of both tracks, a tank can turn on its axis, while this is difficult, if not impossible for mecha to do. In order to turn the legs of a mech, one requires a complex series of components which far outstrip the complexity of comparative tank steering systems. As with the difficulties posed with reciprocating motion, these complex systems are useless for anything except making engineers and mechanics very angry.

Even then, the movement will be awkward, which would be especially dangerous in urban combat. Tanks are hardly the most appropriate weapon system in that sort of warfare either, to be fair; they are particularly vulnerable to improvised explosive devices and anti-tank launchers fired by people concealed in buildings, but mecha are even worse in these environments, with problems pursuing or retreating, which is rather problematic.

Just when you thought that there couldn’t be any more mechanical problems with mecha, physics comes and bites the idea in the arse again. Mecha are typically very large machines, and with increasing size comes an interesting correlation. For every squaring of surface area of an object, its mass goes up by the cube of the original object’s mass. While a human male may be on average 70kg, when that same humanoid shape is scaled up to several times that of a human, the mass increases correspondingly, such that mecha end up extremely heavy. A small increase in the height of a mech can necessitate the use of far more powerful servo systems and hydraulics, which is expensive not only in energy but also in cost.

The excessive weight of these machines can cause problems in other ways as well. A heavy machine resting on supports with limited surface area in contact with the ground leads to high pressure underneath. Tanks require wide tracks in order to prevent themselves from sinking into soft ground, but unless a mech had ridiculously wide feet, it would be likely to get stuck very easily in anything softer than concrete or baked soil, and to break up roads in urban terrain. Not particularly useful when you already have mobility problems.

Having discussed the weaknesses of mecha design, let me reiterate that I can still accept the inclusion of such machines in certain series, subject to some rules. I think the most important rule is that the series doesn’t take itself too seriously about the realistic use of mecha, unless there is a very good reason for their inclusion.

The second rule is that mecha in a series really have to “belong” – a criticism that I level quite heavily at Code Geass, as I don’t believe that an empire fundamentally deriving from the British would focus their efforts on huge mecha, as there is little in British tradition to suggest a significant interest in such developments. Ultimately, I think that the alternate history angle of this show, which actually could lead to a very interesting setting, is somewhat let down by the inclusion of something that doesn’t really fit. It might be said that I would need to watch the show with a certain amount of suspension of disbelief, but as the other instalments in this series of articles may suggest, that’s something I can’t always do.

On the other hand, BattleTech can be taken as an example of a mech-related series that I do enjoy. The mecha seem to fit better into the series than some other series involving such machines, and although there is a significant disparity between their portrayal of mecha and designs which would work in real life (insofar as such designs could work), they at least don’t portray the machines as invulnerable, giving it the heat-venting problems which add a bit of extra tactics to the series. I think it’s a good example of how to do mecha correctly without necessarily making them realistic.

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ARMA 2: Operation Arrowhead – A Comprehensive Review

Since the breakout success of 2001’s Operation Flashpoint: Cold War Crisis, Bohemia Interactive have found themselves at the forefront of the military simulator genre. Building on the experience gained with their previous games, the developer has been able to present an increasingly authentic and realistic picture of modern combined-arms combat, and have even been involved in the development of fully-featured military simulators for the world’s militaries.

ARMA 2: Operation Arrowhead is the latest game from Bohemia Interactive, set in the fictional country of Takistan. Task Force Knight, a detachment of the United States Army, has entered the country with the aim of deposing the previously USSR-backed socialist regime which has threatened the neighbouring country of Karzeghistan with the use of chemical weapons in an attempt to secure a vital piece of oil-rich land. The player takes control of four personnel in Task Force Knight, from a rifleman in the airborne infantry to an AH-64 Apache helicopter pilot.

Operation Arrowhead is marketed as a stand-alone expansion to ARMA 2 which can also be integrated with the content of the original game. This seems to be a sensible marketing decision by Bohemia Interactive, allowing new players to immediately experience the new content without having to purchase both titles, while also enabling players of ARMA 2 to carry over their data from the original game into a more expansive package.

The changes which Operation Arrowhead makes to the game engine are more evolutionary than revolutionary, with new features such as the ability to adjust gun sights to compensate for bullet drop, a variety of new weapons, including several variants of the FN SCAR, and a fully-comprehensive simulation of thermal imaging sights taken from the VBS line of professional military simulators. Along with this, the game comes with three new maps from the country of Takistan, with far-stretching deserts, mountain ranges and compact urban terrain which present a substantially different sort of combat to the forested grasslands of Chernarus, and a sort of combat more reminiscent of current engagements in Iraq and Afghanistan.

Nearly all of the Takistani buildings are modelled inside and out, which grants an extra dimension to urban combat.

Unfortunately, the campaign isn’t really long enough to take full advantage of these little improvements in the game engine. With seven or eight missions, depending on your actions throughout the game, and none of them as substantial as some of the missions in ARMA 2, there isn’t enough time to really explore the new terrain of Takistan throughout the campaign. It’s hardly a large enough campaign to be spread out between four characters either. Overall, this seems to be a case of the same problem that has applied to all of Bohemia Interactive’s campaigns since ArmA: Armed Assault, with several intriguing and interesting elements to gameplay, but not enough focus or polish to be regarded as classics.

Fortunately, the campaign makes up only a small amount of the game, and there are plenty of places to really use that new terrain to its full potential. The simplistic-but-addictive Armoury mode allows the player to try out equipment and vehicles from the game, while the expansive Editor mode continues to grant players a powerful and useful tool. Indeed, between these two modes alone, there is the potential for dozens of hours of gameplay, and the multiplayer game remains hugely entertaining.

It shouldn’t come as a surprise to long-time players of Bohemia Interactive’s games that Operation Arrowhead continues to present a realistic and authentic picture of modern warfare and combat, but despite the development team’s efforts, this still isn’t the most accessible game for new players. A rather idiosyncratic control system can occasionally frustrate, particularly when it comes to issuing commands, and a lot of key bindings may have to be reconfigured in order to keep the game in line with your personal preferences. An improved training mode does enhance the process of learning these difficult commands, but the complexity of the game may frustrate some players beyond the point that they may be used to.

The graphics of Operation Arrowhead remain exceptional, capturing all of the little details on soldiers’ equipment, vehicles and the terrain. Consequently, the game needs a fairly hefty machine in order to play properly, particularly at higher resolutions or higher view distances. While the game can be played with a less powerful machine, a slow frame rate can be dangerous in a game where a single shot can kill, and there are a few graphical glitches associated with slow graphics processing which become jarring when they occur in the middle of a firefight.

The sound recordings all work well, and despite not being as visceral or loud as they might be on an actual battlefield, Bohemia Interactive have done a good job of performing the difficult task of recording firearm sounds. They’re substantially better than the rather effete sounds found in the likes of Call of Duty: Modern Warfare 2. Machine sounds are all well done, particularly when it comes to the aerial vehicles, and the effects of environment on the sounds continue to be portrayed accurately and usefully.

While Operation Arrowhead works well as a stand-alone package, it works even better when played in association with ARMA 2 in the Combined Operations package. Not only do you get the comprehensive features of both games, but you also get full access to the work of the extensive modding community. Most add-ons should work straight out of the box, while more expansive mods seem to only need a little bit of work to carry over to the Combined Operations package.


The ACE 2 team are among the groups of modders in the process of porting over their content for use in Operation Arrowhead.

Overall, ARMA 2: Operation Arrowhead continues the ambitious and realistic action found in Bohemia Interactive’s other military simulators. The action is stunning, as are the graphics and the attention to detail, but the short campaign is a bit of a disappointment, and while there’s plenty of gameplay to be found elsewhere, it sometimes seems as if the game was expressly designed as a sandbox, leaving players to create their own content. The editor makes this very possible, but it may prove to be too much effort to those who are looking for a more cohesive playing experience.

Bottom Line: ARMA 2: Operation Arrowhead is a very ambitious game, with plenty of potential gameplay, but requires a lot of effort to unlock its full potential.

Recommendation: This game is a must-have for fans of military simulators, or of Bohemia Interactive’s other games, but other gamers may want to try the demo before deciding whether this is something they want to plunge into.

Predators – A Cinematic Review

For various reasons, 1987’s Predator is one of the best-remembered science fiction films of its era. Combining balls-out action with an interesting and imaginative antagonist and a cast of action stars on top form, it was a solid action film and certainly looked like a good foundation for a franchise. Unfortunately, the intellectual property has been rather squandered, with Predator 2 inexplicably being set in Los Angeles, of all places, and the Alien vs. Predator crossover series yielding two rather mediocre films and a handful of computer games of varying quality. After this mixed bag of movies and games, producer Robert Rodriguez and director Nimród Antal have taken on the task of trying to give the series a new lease of life.

Immediately, Predators establishes itself as an uncomplicated film, eschewing exposition and jumping straight into the action. The film starts with the main protagonist, Royce, played by Adrien Brody, falling from the sky towards an unfamiliar jungle. After successfully parachuting into the strange surrounds, he soon finds that he isn’t alone – a collection of people have been parachuted in with him, from a female sniper for the Israeli Defence Forces to a death-row inmate, and one civilian doctor who doesn’t seem to belong. With unknown dangers hiding away unseen in the jungle, this motley collection of soldiers, murderers and criminals have to stick together to take on the far more threatening foes which persistently stalk them.

To be honest, Adrien Brody would hardly be my first choice for a main protagonist for this type of film, with his gawky looks which make him look rather geeky, but when the action begins, he manages to play the part of his cynical, impersonal mercenary quite well. Unlike the original, the cast doesn’t contain many established action stars, instead relying on the services of some obscure actors. Considering that there isn’t much time to establish any character development, it isn’t a huge loss, although the actors play their parts well nevertheless.

It takes a while for the action to begin, with the opening sequences taking time to explore the previous victims of the Predators’ hunting techniques. When it does begin, it’s choreographed well, with the requisite amount of bullet spraying and convoluted environmental hazards that such a movie really needs, and once the Predators begin making themselves known, it all escalates towards a fast-paced finale which may not be all that clever, but which is certainly entertaining.

It goes without saying that a movie like this is rather trope-heavy and doesn’t go out of its way to break with tradition. Instead, it embraces it, with a genre-savvy main character who manages to lampshade some of the more obvious places where action movies have tread before. The places where the film does break with tradition are quite welcome, with limited ammunition meaning that the characters have to be discriminate with their gunfire, and even the romance in the film being dealt with in a subtle manner. In fact, the romance plays out a lot like the same scenes in Aliens, with a respect growing between two strong characters who manage to escape a dangerous scenario.

Ultimately, though, this is an unapologetic B-movie, which will never be regarded as a cinematic masterpiece, but which has some rather interesting elements and is overall a solid action movie. At the very least, it manages to get the series back on the right track after the juvenile efforts of the Alien vs. Predator movies, and as that is all it could have reasonably been expected to do, it could be commended on that alone.

Bottom Line: Predators is a solid action movie, and a decent sequel to the original movie.

Recommendation: If you’re a fan of the first one, or just simply looking for a simple action movie, check it out. If plot and character development is your thing, give it a miss.

Predators – A Cinematic Review

For various reasons, 1987’s Predator is one of the best-remembered science fiction films of its era. Combining balls-out action with an interesting and imaginative antagonist and a cast of action stars on top form, it was a solid action film and certainly looked like a good foundation for a franchise. Unfortunately, the intellectual property has been rather squandered, with Predator 2 inexplicably being set in Los Angeles, of all places, and the Alien vs. Predator crossover series yielding two rather mediocre films and a handful of computer games of varying quality. After this mixed bag of movies and games, producer Robert Rodriguez and director Nimród Antal have taken on the task of trying to give the series a new lease of life.

Immediately, Predators establishes itself as an uncomplicated film, eschewing exposition and jumping straight into the action. The film starts with the main protagonist, Royce, played by Adrien Brody, falling from the sky towards an unfamiliar jungle. After successfully parachuting into the strange surrounds, he soon finds that he isn’t alone – a collection of people have been parachuted in with him, from a female sniper for the Israeli Defence Forces to a death-row inmate, and one civilian doctor who doesn’t seem to belong. With unknown dangers hiding away unseen in the jungle, this motley collection of soldiers, murderers and criminals have to stick together to take on the far more threatening foes which persistently stalk them.

To be honest, Adrien Brody would hardly be my first choice for a main protagonist for this type of film, with his gawky looks which make him look rather geeky, but when the action begins, he manages to play the part of his cynical, impersonal mercenary quite well. Unlike the original, the cast doesn’t contain many established action stars, instead relying on the services of some obscure actors. Considering that there isn’t much time to establish any character development, it isn’t a huge loss, although the actors play their parts well nevertheless.

It takes a while for the action to begin, with the opening sequences taking time to explore the previous victims of the Predators’ hunting techniques. When it does begin, it’s choreographed well, with the requisite amount of bullet spraying and convoluted environmental hazards that such a movie really needs, and once the Predators begin making themselves known, it all escalates towards a fast-paced finale which may not be all that clever, but which is certainly entertaining.

It goes without saying that a movie like this is rather trope-heavy and doesn’t go out of its way to break with tradition. Instead, it embraces it, with a genre-savvy main character who manages to lampshade some of the more obvious places where action movies have tread before. The places where the film does break with tradition are quite welcome, with limited ammunition meaning that the characters have to be discriminate with their gunfire, and even the romance in the film being dealt with in a subtle manner. In fact, the romance plays out a lot like the same scenes in Aliens, with a respect growing between two strong characters who manage to escape a dangerous scenario.

Ultimately, though, this is an unapologetic B-movie, which will never be regarded as a cinematic masterpiece, but which has some rather interesting elements and is overall a solid action movie. At the very least, it manages to get the series back on the right track after the juvenile efforts of the Alien vs. Predator movies, and as that is all it could have reasonably been expected to do, it could be commended on that alone.

Bottom Line:Predators is a solid action movie, and a decent sequel to the original movie.

Recommendation: If you’re a fan of the first one, or just simply looking for a simple action movie, check it out. If plot and character development is your thing, give it a miss.

FROM THE ARCHIVE: Grand Prix Legends – A Retrospective Review

Grand Prix Legends is a 1998 PC-format racing simulator, developed by Papyrus Design Group, pioneers of the racing simulator genre, and produced by Sierra Entertainment. Building on Papyrus’ previous experience, it sought to bring a true-to-life simulation of the 1967 Formula One season to the computer screen.

The player takes the role of a new racing driver, racing for one of the teams present in the 1967 season. Racing against such legends as Jim Clark, Jack Brabham, Denny Hulme, John Surtees and Graham Hill, the player must contend not only with the legendary drivers, but also with the volatile nature of the racing cars of the 1960s.

To be honest, there isn’t much in the game itself which lends itself to a modern audience. The dated graphics show the game’s age all too well, the game has limited and buggy support for DirectX and OpenGL, a third-party patch must be applied to the game to allow users with computers with modern processors to play the game and the game is notoriously hard on processors, making the minimum specifications a joke. Yet, despite these obvious flaws, the game has a thriving community which remains to this day.

To understand why, we must answer a simple question: Why would anybody choose to simulate the 1967 Formula One season? The answer: The 1967 Formula One season was one of the most challenging and dangerous in the history of motor racing, and Grand Prix Legends manages to simulate it in a highly and often brutally realistic fashion.

Imagine, if you will, a car with 350 to 430 horsepower in a chassis weighing just over half a ton, with no downforce, rock-hard bias-ply tyres, no seatbelts and 160-plus litre fuel tanks, containing high-octane, highly volatile fuel, made in such a way as to surround the driver. Sounds like some sort of fictional death race, doesn’t it? But instead of this being fiction, this was an all-too-present reality for the Formula One drivers of the 1960s.

Some people may be asking at this point, “430 horsepower? That’s nothing – my Gran Turismo 4 Nissan Skyline can produce over 1,000 horsepower!” But there are a few fundamental differences between that Skyline and the Formula One cars of the 1960s. The Skyline comes with thirty extra years of chassis and suspension experience, and most importantly, is completely full of computer processors. The nearest thing to a processor in a 1960s racing car was the brain of the driver, a man with balls almost the size of the car they were driving, and invariably, the sorts of reflexes which would make the very best of professional computer gamers cry with inadequacy, a man which knew the chances of his demise at the racing track, but still chose to give the Reaper the finger before roaring off in their violently powerful racing car.


Vicious, snarling monsters, controlled by some of the bravest men in existence.

Because of its realistic approach, the game is easily one of the most uncompromising and unforgiving experiences in the gaming world, serving up the sort of experience which would make veteran players of Battletoads and Ninja Gaiden feel distinctly incompetent. Even the developers pinpoint this in the manual, cautioning, “The first time you go out on the track, you will spin and crash. This is because, the first time they play Grand Prix Legends, everybody spins and crashes.”

I went into the game with a great deal of overconfidence, with at least some driving simulator experience to my credit. I left my first practice session having opened my eyes to the heroism of the racing drivers of 1967, as these cars speared out of control with the most minor provocation, serving up massive amounts of oversteer, and, just as the developers had predicted, it did not end well. This was no unfair level of difficulty either, unlike the aforementioned Battletoads or Ninja Gaiden; this was the result of absolute simulation.

And as an absolute simulation, it is imperative that you pick the right peripherals for the job. While the cars can be controlled with a keyboard or joypad along with the more customary steering wheel, the keyboard is an extremely inadequate solution, due to its lack of analogue controls, and even a joypad leaves something to be desired. A good-quality steering wheel is almost imperative to control the cars properly, and with the addition of force-feedback support, the game can finally be played in an appropriate fashion with modern steering peripherals.

But outrageous difficulty alone would have only given this game notoriety, rather than any lasting success, so there has to be something in the game that appeals to people who aren’t just masochists. This “something” is the detailed approach to everything in the game, of a level that wouldn’t become commonplace in racing simulators for at least another five years, with the onset of SimBin Studios and their GTR series, and Image Space Incorporated’s rFactor.

Unlike many racing games, there is absolutely no head-up display inside the car. All of the instrumentation that the car possesses is in the cockpit, which the developers have laid out true-to-life in every car, right down to the offset tachometers in the middle of the dashboard. There are no chase cameras – everything you do is in an actual driving position, complete with all of the equipment in front of you.


A view of the infamous BRM P115 from inside the car – note the large central tachometer and the fuel gauge to the right.

There are a number of other very impressive features that can be noticed from the moment you enter the car. The engine torque is transmitted onto the chassis, something that becomes quite evident if you blip the throttle in neutral, causing the car to contort and flex as the engine serves up its torque. But be careful you don’t rev the engine too hard – engines explode if they aren’t treated right.

Once you get onto the track, the cars slide all over the tracks as the rock-hard tyres find difficulty in gripping, just as would be expected. For a game from 1998, the driving physics are very impressive, even if they are a bit primitive by modern standards.

The game has a rudimentary damage model for those undoubted times when you will slide out of control. While, like the driving physics, it is a bit primitive by modern standards, lacking cosmetic car damage, and also appearing to give the car far too much damage resistance compared to modern games, certain parts of the damage model are only rivalled by the most modern titles, including the engine damage model, where over-revving the engine will lead a large engine detonation, leaving the car useless.

After the large amount of practice that is recommended, players will finally be ready for their first race, competing against virtual versions of some of the most legendary drivers in history at a variety of different tracks, including Watkins Glen, once home of the United States Grand Prix, Spa-Francorchamps and even the legendary Nurburgring.


Unpredictable cars at a fearsome track. Question: Who thought that a Grand Prix race at the Nurburgring was a sensible idea?

The AI, as with many features of this game, is primitive compared to certain modern titles, in particular the SimBin simulators, but it still manages to impress as it makes attempts at blocking the player and even creating a dynamic strategy. Considering the trouble that most people will be having with keeping the cars under control, having too strong an AI would probably be more of a curse than a blessing, and the drivers are still adequate even today.

Overall, Grand Prix Legends was far ahead of its time, and even though some later racing simulators have increased accuracy, realism and superior AI, none of them have returned to that unique perspective brought by Grand Prix Legends, which simulated a season where the driver was more important than the car, and death stared every competitor in the face.

Bottom Line: A unique experiment in the simulator world, and fantastically well-presented, especially for its time, but dated graphics, the requirement of third-party patches and the frankly terrifying difficulty leave this as a game for the most committed racing simulator fans alone.

Recommendation: Most racing simulator fans should already have this in their collection. As for everybody else, consider the amount of time you are willing to sink into the game – it could be a long time before you can compete with the AI.

Grand Prix Legends is a 1998 PC-format racing simulator, developed by Papyrus Design Group, pioneers of the racing simulator genre, and produced by Sierra Entertainment. Building on Papyrus’ previous experience, it sought to bring a true-to-life simulation of the 1967 Formula One season to the computer screen.

The player takes the role of a new racing driver, racing for one of the teams present in the 1967 season. Racing against such legends as Jim Clark, Jack Brabham, Denny Hulme, John Surtees and Graham Hill, the player must contend not only with the legendary drivers, but also with the volatile nature of the racing cars of the 1960s.

To be honest, there isn’t much in the game itself which lends itself to a modern audience. The dated graphics show the game’s age all too well, the game has limited and buggy support for DirectX and OpenGL, a third-party patch must be applied to the game to allow users with computers with modern processors to play the game and the game is notoriously hard on processors, making the minimum specifications a joke. Yet, despite these obvious flaws, the game has a thriving community which remains to this day.

To understand why, we must answer a simple question: Why would anybody choose to simulate the 1967 Formula One season? The answer: The 1967 Formula One season was one of the most challenging and dangerous in the history of motor racing, and Grand Prix Legends manages to simulate it in a highly and often brutally realistic fashion.

Imagine, if you will, a car with 350 to 430 horsepower in a chassis weighing just over half a ton, with no downforce, rock-hard bias-ply tyres, no seatbelts and 160-plus litre fuel tanks, containing high-octane, highly volatile fuel, made in such a way as to surround the driver. Sounds like some sort of fictional death race, doesn’t it? But instead of this being fiction, this was an all-too-present reality for the Formula One drivers of the 1960s.

Some people may be asking at this point, “430 horsepower? That’s nothing – my Gran Turismo 4 Nissan Skyline can produce over 1,000 horsepower!” But there are a few fundamental differences between that Skyline and the Formula One cars of the 1960s. The Skyline comes with thirty extra years of chassis and suspension experience, and most importantly, is completely full of computer processors. The nearest thing to a processor in a 1960s racing car was the brain of the driver, a man with balls almost the size of the car they were driving, and invariably, the sorts of reflexes which would make the very best of professional computer gamers cry with inadequacy, a man which knew the chances of his demise at the racing track, but still chose to give the Reaper the finger before roaring off in their violently powerful racing car.

Vicious, snarling monsters, controlled by some of the bravest men in existence.

Because of its realistic approach, the game is easily one of the most uncompromising and unforgiving experiences in the gaming world, serving up the sort of experience which would make veteran players of Battletoads and Ninja Gaiden feel distinctly incompetent. Even the developers pinpoint this in the manual, cautioning, “The first time you go out on the track, you will spin and crash. This is because, the first time they play Grand Prix Legends, everybody spins and crashes.”

I went into the game with a great deal of overconfidence, with at least some driving simulator experience to my credit. I left my first practice session having opened my eyes to the heroism of the racing drivers of 1967, as these cars speared out of control with the most minor provocation, serving up massive amounts of oversteer, and, just as the developers had predicted, it did not end well. This was no unfair level of difficulty either, unlike the aforementioned Battletoads or Ninja Gaiden; this was the result of absolute simulation.

And as an absolute simulation, it is imperative that you pick the right peripherals for the job. While the cars can be controlled with a keyboard or joypad along with the more customary steering wheel, the keyboard is an extremely inadequate solution, due to its lack of analogue controls, and even a joypad leaves something to be desired. A good-quality steering wheel is almost imperative to control the cars properly, and with the addition of force-feedback support, the game can finally be played in an appropriate fashion with modern steering peripherals.

But outrageous difficulty alone would have only given this game notoriety, rather than any lasting success, so there has to be something in the game that appeals to people who aren’t just masochists. This “something” is the detailed approach to everything in the game, of a level that wouldn’t become commonplace in racing simulators for at least another five years, with the onset of SimBin Studios and their GTR series, and Image Space Incorporated’s rFactor.

Unlike many racing games, there is absolutely no head-up display inside the car. All of the instrumentation that the car possesses is in the cockpit, which the developers have laid out true-to-life in every car, right down to the offset tachometers in the middle of the dashboard. There are no chase cameras – everything you do is in an actual driving position, complete with all of the equipment in front of you.

A view of the infamous BRM P115 from inside the car – note the large central tachometer and the fuel gauge to the right.

There are a number of other very impressive features that can be noticed from the moment you enter the car. The engine torque is transmitted onto the chassis, something that becomes quite evident if you blip the throttle in neutral, causing the car to contort and flex as the engine serves up its torque. But be careful you don’t rev the engine too hard – engines explode if they aren’t treated right.

Once you get onto the track, the cars slide all over the tracks as the rock-hard tyres find difficulty in gripping, just as would be expected. For a game from 1998, the driving physics are very impressive, even if they are a bit primitive by modern standards.

The game has a rudimentary damage model for those undoubted times when you will slide out of control. While, like the driving physics, it is a bit primitive by modern standards, lacking cosmetic car damage, and also appearing to give the car far too much damage resistance compared to modern games, certain parts of the damage model are only rivalled by the most modern titles, including the engine damage model, where over-revving the engine will lead a large engine detonation, leaving the car useless.

After the large amount of practice that is recommended, players will finally be ready for their first race, competing against virtual versions of some of the most legendary drivers in history at a variety of different tracks, including Watkins Glen, once home of the United States Grand Prix, Spa-Francorchamps and even the legendary Nurburgring.

Unpredictable cars at a fearsome track. Question: Who thought that a Grand Prix race at the Nurburgring was a sensible idea?

The AI, as with many features of this game, is primitive compared to certain modern titles, in particular the SimBin simulators, but it still manages to impress as it makes attempts at blocking the player and even creating a dynamic strategy. Considering the trouble that most people will be having with keeping the cars under control, having too strong an AI would probably be more of a curse than a blessing, and the drivers are still adequate even today.

Overall, Grand Prix Legends was far ahead of its time, and even though some later racing simulators have increased accuracy, realism and superior AI, none of them have returned to that unique perspective brought by Grand Prix Legends, which simulated a season where the driver was more important than the car, and death stared every competitor in the face.

Bottom Line: A unique experiment in the simulator world, and fantastically well-presented, especially for its time, but dated graphics, the requirement of third-party patches and the frankly terrifying difficulty leave this as a game for the most committed racing simulator fans alone.

Recommendation: Most racing simulator fans should already have this in their collection. As for everybody else, consider the amount of time you are willing to sink into the game – it could be a long time before you can compete with the AI.

Bullitt – A Cinematic Review

Bullitt is a 1968 thriller film, directed by Peter Yates, and starring Steve McQueen as a San Francisco detective ordered to protect a witness with evidence that could bring down a powerful mobster in Chicago. The witness, Johnny Ross, has been accused of stealing $2 million from the Mob and attempting to flee, and has gone to the San Francisco police with information that could help bring down his brother. But all hell soon breaks loose when Johnny Ross is located and targeted by hitmen who gun down Ross and his protecting officer with a Winchester pump-action shotgun. Frank Bullitt, played by Steve McQueen, is then charged with locating and identifying the hitmen. But all may not be as it seems with Johnny Ross…

For a movie which contains a significant amount of action, Bullitt is surprisingly character-led. Filmed in the streets of San Francisco with real people going about their lives in the background, the film immediately takes up an authenticity which is further bolstered by the realistic performances of its stars, and the research into police and medical procedure which is frequently demonstrated throughout the film. There’s a distinct lack of hammy acting, a lot of the communication in the film being expressed by those almost-imperceptible body movements which people often take for granted.

Steve McQueen puts in a sterling performance as Frank Bullitt, as an impersonal character who stands as a contrast to the opportunist – almost self-serving – Walter Chalmers. Indeed, McQueen goes through much of the film saying little at all, seeming effortlessly and ineffably cool throughout the whole film. However, the film does a good job of demonstrating that sometimes that coolness is a cloak for depersonalisation – as exhibited in a scene where Bullitt and his girlfriend encounter a strangled body, where Bullitt barely flinches while his girlfriend runs off, upset at the sight unfolding before her.

Really, though, in a modern context, it’s difficult to watch Bullitt for anything but the car chase – and what a car chase! Taking place through the slanted streets of San Francisco, the chase between the green Ford Mustang driven by Bullitt and the black Dodge Charger has become part of film legend, and probably represents the film’s greatest contribution to cinema.

Unlike previous films, which used speeded-up film of cars chasing each other at relatively low speeds, Bullitt has two cars going at full speed, including all of the associated danger of driving ludicrously powerful and ill-tempered muscle cars at such speeds. What’s more, it really demonstrates the focus on realism which both the director – a former racing manager for Stirling Moss, of all drivers – and McQueen – an accomplished driver and motorcycle rider in his own right – were determined to achieve.


Awesome-looking cars, V8 rumbles and smoking rear tyres – a recipe for automotive success!

The car chase therefore includes all of the smoking rear tyres and low bass rumbles of American V8 engines that a car fan could want, and has the added bonus of having Steve McQueen at the wheel during part of the chase. Both of the cars come very close to crashing several times during the scene, prompting the directors to hire Bud Ekins, formerly working with McQueen in The Great Escape, to perform the more risky stunts – without McQueen’s prior knowledge.

Ultimately, with the police movies of the 1970s, including the tour de force that was Dirty Harry in 1971, Bullitt seems to stand today more as a progenitor of a genre than its own self-contained film. The “cowboy cop” character represented by Frank Bullitt would later become a significant trope and later a cliché, while the realistic action of the car chase cemented that sort of action into the public consciousness.

Bullitt is still a strong film today, and there isn’t much that you could point to when talking about flaws of the film, although the relationship between Frank Bullitt and his girlfriend seems to be yet another case of that forced Hollywood pairing that so often exists in movies, with her dialogue seeming a lot more stale than everybody else’s. At the very least, though, the relationship is defined before the film starts, which is rather an improvement over the current model of shoehorning romance for the sake of it, rather than any actual connection between the characters.

Bottom Line: Bullitt is a solid introduction to the police thriller genre which proliferated during the 1970s, with a car chase which is difficult to top. Sometimes a bit slow for modern audiences, but overall a decent film.

Tourist Trophy – A Comprehensive Gaming Review

When it comes to Sony-exclusive developers, there is one in particular who has been at the forefront of gaming almost since its first game was released on the PlayStation. Polyphony Digital, developer of the Gran Turismo series of driving simulators, has been one of the most successful developers in the computer gaming market for years, over several different platforms. While the company rose to success by focusing on automotive racing, in 2006, Polyphony Digital decided to take up the challenge of simulating another type of racing.

Tourist Trophy focuses on motorcycle racing, a sport which the Japanese are particularly renowned for, particularly in the development and manufacturing of motorcycles. Most of the game’s 135 motorcycles come from Japanese manufacturers like Honda and Suzuki, but European and American manufacturers have some representation in the form of manufacturers such as Triumph, Ducati and Buell.

The game is built on the same engine as Gran Turismo 4, which gives a characteristically authentic feel to all aspects of the gameplay. While the game engine may be a bit too forgiving and altogether too modelled around traction control and stability management to be called entirely realistic, it’s accessible while not compromising too much on accuracy. Tourist Trophy manages to demonstrate the differences between two motorcycles of different characteristics, from the acceleration to the weight of the motorcycle, and overall gives a good perspective on what it would be like to ride a real racing motorcycle.

Of course, riding a motorcycle is not comparable to driving a car – with controls in significantly different places and the necessity to lean into the turn rather than turning a wheel, a vastly different presentation is required to accurately depict motorcycle racing. Fortunately, the GT4 engine proves capable of presenting the differences between cars and motorcycles, allowing you to imagine every shift of weight of the virtual rider. The game also gives a lot of customisation into how the virtual rider shifts weight, from MotoGP-style “knee-to-the-ground” leaning to more shallow road-style riding style. All of this gives a racing model which doesn’t unduly punish beginners, but which rewards the people willing to put effort into the game.

Like the Gran Turismo series, the game has two separate game modes, with the Arcade Mode presenting quick racing action with the available motorcycles, and the Tourist Trophy Mode, where the real substance of the game is contained. Also as in the Gran Turismo games, the objective is to pass licence tests which are aimed at improving the skills of starting players, which will enable you to unlock new motorcycles and compete in races.

Unlike the often-maligned licence tests in Gran Turismo, you’ll probably need the extra bit of training before they can become successful at Tourist Trophy, as the action of motorcycle racing isn’t necessarily intuitive to the neophyte. Thankfully, there are fewer licences to acquire than in Gran Turismo 4, and fewer licence tests per individual licence, which accelerates the gameplay somewhat and allows you to get into the business of acquiring motorcycles and winning races more quickly.

It’s when it comes to the business of collecting motorcycles that Tourist Trophy diverges most from its automotive cousins. Instead of receiving money for winning races, the game has the Challenge Mode, where most of the motorcycles in the game are acquired. In the Challenge Mode, the player is pitted against comparable motorcycles, and has to make up a gap of several seconds in an attempt to overtake them for a given period of time.

It’s a pity that Polyphony Digital didn’t use the same money-based system as they did in their preceding games. While the Challenge Mode gives the player a chance to experience their motorcycles before they use them in the races, it removes the feeling of personalisation that was present in the Gran Turismo games, where you really had to choose their cars carefully in order to avoid wasting money and where you would feel rewarded as they progressed to more and more powerful cars. With the Challenge Mode system, it ends up just being a case of choosing the quickest motorcycle in a given class which best suits your riding style. Only those desperate to collect all of the motorcycles are really going to be rewarded by persisting with the less powerful or less race-suited motorcycles.


Motorcycles like this Kawasaki Ninja ZX-10R will be your mainstays during the game.

Nevertheless, the Challenge Mode can be very good fun, with some of the head-to-head battles being very enjoyable and challenging indeed. Because you compete against motorcycles of approximately equivalent capabilities, you never end up storming into the lead because of your superior power, and it rewards skill and accurate cornering.

Once you win motorcycles in the Challenge Mode, you can then compete in race series, most of them having vastly different entry requirements. It’s nice to see that the developers have taken some steps to prevent the situation found in some races in the Gran Turismo series, where you can simply purchase an car far ahead of the competition and storm into the lead by virtue of your car rather than your skill. Unfortunately, despite the game being dominated by road bikes, there are only four racing series out of twenty-two which allow the use of road bikes, leaving the vast majority of the machines in the game useless for anything outside of Arcade Mode.

The actual racing action is a lot of fun, as challenging as the head-to-head battles in the Challenge Mode, but the limitations of the PlayStation 2 just serve to diminish the impressive technical details of the racing itself. Racing-model bike races are limited to four bikes in a game at any one time, while the road bike races are merely head-to-head battles, just like the Challenge Mode, but with the potential of having a faster bike than the competition, which really removes some of the difficulty and requirement for skill in the few road-bike races there are. The limitations really seem rather ridiculous, and it negates some of the challenge of winding around rivals and backmarkers.

Perhaps the limitations are thanks to the graphics of the game, which like Gran Turismo 4, are sensational for a PlayStation 2 game. Having to simulate the rider in addition to the complex motorcycle models adds strain to an already-overworked system, and one can imagine that any more motorcycles in a race would have compromised smooth gameplay. Indeed, there are some very impressive graphical details, and the motorcycles don’t look far removed from their real-life forms. The graphics aren’t as consistent as they were in GT4, though; the over-the-handlebars view, which is really the only way to play the game accurately, is a nice addition to the game, but suffers from blocky textures lacking anti-aliasing, with low-resolution shots of the speedometers and rev counters and mirrors which don’t operate whatsoever.


The underwhelming handlebar graphics contrast badly in-game to the more impressive scenery.

The number of bikes in a race isn’t the only thing that’s been compromised in Tourist Trophy. Instead of the impressive and substantial number of options available to Gran Turismo players for tuning their cars, Tourist Trophy gives you only a few rudimentary set-up options, and no upgrade options at all for any bikes. Again, the personalisation and customisation of vehicle choices has been diminished, to the detriment of players who played the GT games for the ability to make a standard car into a fire-breathing racing machine.

As well as that, the multiplayer not only has a limit of two players, with no provisions for online play, but also limits the players to racing-model motorcycles. The graphics take a massive turn for the worse, looking about as good as the poor-resolution handlebar models all over the track. It’s hard to see why the addition of another player into the equation would cause the graphics to take such a drop in quality, particularly as this wasn’t an issue in Gran Turismo 4. It’s apparent that this was a secondary concern for the developers, and more than anything else, just looks hacked together.

Having said all of this, Tourist Trophy is not a bad game. The technical achievements of managing to simulate motorcycle dynamics as well as automotive dynamics must be commended, and the racing is both challenging and fun. However, the game often feels like a technical demonstration, more like a test-bed for future games than a stand-alone project. If this is the case, a Tourist Trophy game on the PlayStation 3, with more motorcycles per race, improved graphics, more races for road-based motorcycles and a generally improved presentation could be a fantastic game. Until then, though, Tourist Trophy is merely good – and limited.

Bottom Line: A superb technical demonstration let down somewhat by the limitations of the PlayStation 2. Feels compromised in a lot of areas, but still a fun game.

 

When it comes to Sony-exclusive developers, there is one in particular who has been at the forefront of gaming almost since its first game was released on the PlayStation. Polyphony Digital, developer of the Gran Turismo series of driving simulators, has been one of the most successful developers in the computer gaming market for years, over several different platforms. While the company rose to success by focusing on automotive racing, in 2006, Polyphony Digital decided to take up the challenge of simulating another type of racing.

Tourist Trophy focuses on motorcycle racing, a sport which the Japanese are particularly renowned for, particularly in the development and manufacturing of motorcycles. Most of the game’s 135 motorcycles come from Japanese manufacturers like Honda and Suzuki, but European and American manufacturers have some representation in the form of manufacturers such as Triumph, Ducati and Buell.

The game is built on the same engine as Gran Turismo 4, which gives a characteristically authentic feel to all aspects of the gameplay. While the game engine may be a bit too forgiving and altogether too modelled around traction control and stability management to be called entirely realistic, it’s accessible while not compromising too much on accuracy. Tourist Trophy manages to demonstrate the differences between two motorcycles of different characteristics, from the acceleration to the weight of the motorcycle, and overall gives a good perspective on what it would be like to ride a real racing motorcycle.

Of course, riding a motorcycle is not comparable to driving a car – with controls in significantly different places and the necessity to lean into the turn rather than turning a wheel, a vastly different presentation is required to accurately depict motorcycle racing. Fortunately, the GT4 engine proves capable of presenting the differences between cars and motorcycles, allowing you to imagine every shift of weight of the virtual rider. The game also gives a lot of customisation into how the virtual rider shifts weight, from MotoGP-style “knee-to-the-ground” leaning to more shallow road-style riding style. All of this gives a racing model which doesn’t unduly punish beginners, but which rewards the people willing to put effort into the game.

Like the Gran Turismo series, the game has two separate game modes, with the Arcade Mode presenting quick racing action with the available motorcycles, and the Tourist Trophy Mode, where the real substance of the game is contained. Also as in the Gran Turismo games, the objective is to pass licence tests which are aimed at improving the skills of starting players, which will enable you to unlock new motorcycles and compete in races.

Unlike the often-maligned licence tests in Gran Turismo, you’ll probably need the extra bit of training before they can become successful at Tourist Trophy, as the action of motorcycle racing isn’t necessarily intuitive to the neophyte. Thankfully, there are less licences to acquire than in Gran Turismo 4, and less licence tests per individual licence, which accelerates the gameplay somewhat and allows you to get into the business of acquiring motorcycles and winning races more quickly.

It’s when it comes to the business of collecting motorcycles that Tourist Trophy diverges most from its automotive cousins. Instead of receiving money for winning races, the game has the Challenge Mode, where most of the motorcycles in the game are acquired. In the Challenge Mode, the player is pitted against comparable motorcycles, and has to make up a gap of several seconds in an attempt to overtake them for a given period of time.

It’s a pity that Polyphony Digital didn’t use the same money-based system as they did in their preceding games. While the Challenge Mode gives the player a chance to experience their motorcycles before they use them in the races, it removes the feeling of personalisation that was present in the Gran Turismo games, where you really had to choose their cars carefully in order to avoid wasting money and where you would feel rewarded as they progressed to more and more powerful cars. With the Challenge Mode system, it ends up just being a case of choosing the quickest motorcycle in a given class which best suits your riding style. Only those desperate to collect all of the motorcycles are really going to be rewarded by persisting with the less powerful or less race-suited motorcycles.

Motorcycles like this Kawasaki Ninja ZX-10R will be your mainstays during the game.

Nevertheless, the Challenge Mode can be very good fun, with some of the head-to-head battles being very enjoyable and challenging indeed. Because you compete against motorcycles of approximately equivalent capabilities, you never end up storming into the lead because of your superior power, and it rewards skill and accurate cornering.

Once you win motorcycles in the Challenge Mode, you can then compete in race series, most of them having vastly different entry requirements. It’s nice to see that the developers have taken some steps to prevent the situation found in some races in the Gran Turismo series, where you can simply purchase an car far ahead of the competition and storm into the lead by virtue of your car rather than your skill. Unfortunately, despite the game being dominated by road bikes, there are only four racing series out of twenty-two which allow the use of road bikes, leaving the vast majority of the machines in the game useless for anything outside of Arcade Mode.

The actual racing action is a lot of fun, as challenging as the head-to-head battles in the Challenge Mode, but the limitations of the PlayStation 2 just serve to diminish the impressive technical details of the racing itself. Racing-model bike races are limited to four bikes in a game at any one time, while the road bike races are merely head-to-head battles, just like the Challenge Mode, but with the potential of having a faster bike than the competition, which really removes some of the difficulty and requirement for skill in the few road-bike races there are. The limitations really seem rather ridiculous, and it negates some of the challenge of winding around rivals and backmarkers.

Perhaps the limitations are thanks to the graphics of the game, which like Gran Turismo 4, are sensational for a PlayStation 2 game. Having to simulate the rider in addition to the complex motorcycle models adds strain to an already-overworked system, and one can imagine that any more motorcycles in a race would have compromised smooth gameplay. Indeed, there are some very impressive graphical details, and the motorcycles don’t look far removed from their real-life forms. The graphics aren’t as consistent as they were in GT4, though; the over-the-handlebars view, which is really the only way to play the game accurately, is a nice addition to the game, but suffers from blocky textures lacking anti-aliasing, with low-resolution shots of the speedometers and rev counters and mirrors which don’t operate whatsoever.

The underwhelming handlebar graphics contrast badly in-game to the more impressive scenery.

The number of bikes in a race isn’t the only thing that’s been compromised in Tourist Trophy. Instead of the impressive and substantial number of options available to Gran Turismo players for tuning their cars, Tourist Trophy gives you only a few rudimentary set-up options, and no upgrade options at all for any bikes. Again, the personalisation and customisation of vehicle choices has been diminished, to the detriment of players who played the GT games for the ability to make a standard car into a fire-breathing racing machine.

As well as that, the multiplayer not only has a limit of two players, with no provisions for online play, but also limits the players to racing-model motorcycles. The graphics take a massive turn for the worse, looking about as good as the poor-resolution handlebar models all over the track. It’s hard to see why the addition of another player into the equation would cause the graphics to take such a drop in quality, particularly as this wasn’t an issue in Gran Turismo 4. It’s apparent that this was a secondary concern for the developers, and more than anything else, just looks hacked together.

Having said all of this, Tourist Trophy is not a bad game. The technical achievements of managing to simulate motorcycle dynamics as well as automotive dynamics must be commended, and the racing is both challenging and fun. However, the game often feels like a technical demonstration, more like a test-bed for future games than a stand-alone project. If this is the case, a Tourist Trophy game on the PlayStation 3, with more motorcycles per race, improved graphics, more races for road-based motorcycles and a generally improved presentation could be a fantastic game. Until then, though, Tourist Trophy is merely good – and limited.

Bottom Line: A superb technical demonstration let down somewhat by the limitations of the PlayStation 2. Feels compromised in a lot of areas, but still a fun game.

FROM THE ARCHIVE: Esoteric Operating Systems – OS/360 and its successors

Author’s Note: First of all, I know this is going to be a case of tl;dr for most people, but a hell of a lot of work went into this. Apart from a whole load of research, I spent a week trying to install and use OS/360 MVT in order to get a feel for what computing was like in the 1960s, so I do know some of what I’m talking about when it comes to OS/360. Trust me when I say: That shit is hard, and the sort of work that went into it was far beyond the scope of most computer users.

Secondly, it’s not a perfect piece. There are probably a few too many tangents off towards other computers and operating systems, but I was making a chronicle of a series of forty-five year-old operating systems which defied the odds several times to still be used today. It may not be the most riveting read in the world, but please at least give it a go.

Finally, if you’re actually interested in emulating an IBM mainframe, you can try the Hercules emulator, which is capable of emulating System/370, ESA/390 and zArchitecture mainframes. Keeping this maintained is what Tron Guy does in his spare time.

In 1964, IBM was the largest computer manufacturer in the world. Thomas Watson Jr. had brought the company forwards from mechanical tabulators to the electronic era, despite his father’s initial objections, and the company had gained much success with its 700/7000 series of scientific computers, the 605 model, which opened up computer access all around the United States, and the 1401, their highly-successful business model. But despite this success, IBM found itself at a risky position. The computer models that IBM sold at that time were incompatible with each other, and customers were reluctant to upgrade because of the cost of moving over their programs and data.

The market needed standardisation, and IBM decided to risk its place at the top of a volatile computer industry, where many other companies had already failed, to design a standard system architecture which would serve businesses and scientists alike.

The venture was a success. IBM introduced the System/360 into the market in 1964, cementing its place at the top of the market with hundreds of new customers, who were ensured of the ability to expand as they needed. With a system architecture which would become the standard in mainframes up to the present day, IBM managed to sweep many of its competitors from the market, establishing itself as the industry leader for years to come.


This picture might look a bit odd to some people. I mean, when is the last time you saw a programmer wearing a suit?

System/360 machines were highly sophisticated for their time, with some of the earliest hard disc drives providing megabytes of storage and near-instant access to data where competing machines only had the sequential data storage of magnetic tape. For such an elaborate system to be used correctly, it required an equally elaborate operating system. Operating systems were a relatively new innovation, allowing for easier input/output routines without the necessity of programming them in for every program, and IBM had used them itself for some of its previous computers.

So, IBM planned two operating systems for its System/360 machines: OS/360 for punch-card batch processing, and the more advanced TSS/360 for time-sharing on more powerful System/360 computers. Both operating systems ran into development trouble, with TSS/360 never being released at all, but it was the development of OS/360 which became the most infamous.

Fred Brooks, one of the developers of the System/360 and project leader of the OS/360 project, released a book in the 1970s detailing some of the problems which had developed during the protracted development of the operating system. Named The Mythical Man-Month, the book noted some very important concepts in operating system design. This included an argument against the eponymous Mythical Man-Month, where more man-power was thought to be beneficial to a software project, with Brooks proving that “adding more man-power to a late software project makes it later”.

The most relevant of these concepts, however, happened to be Brooks’ description of the so-called “second-system effect”, where IBM went from a series of small, efficient operating systems on their 700/7000 series to a large, late operating system on the System/360 in an attempt to include features that they had forgotten in previous projects. As a result of this, OS/360 ended up as an extremely bloated OS for its time, requiring a lot of memory and expensive system resources at a time when programmers had to be highly efficient. Unfortunately, this principle has struck again in several later projects, including those by Microsoft (who are probably up to fourth-system effect by this stage!).

Because of the high system specifications to run OS/360, IBM were forced to produce a second batch-processing system, named DOS/360 (for Disc Operating System, and not to be confused with the personal computer DOSes). This operating system lacked the co-operative multitasking of OS/360, but was compatible with the lower-end business System/360 computers. Other interim measures existed with the BOS/360 (Basic Operating System) and TOS/360 (Tape Operating System) lines, but DOS/360 was the only one of these operating systems which became popular.

When OS/360 was finally released in 1966, it finally gave the System/360 the multiprogramming support that it required. However, the operating system was designed for computer specialists, with a language known as JCL (Job Control Language) inherent to the structure of the computer, designed for the computer to process quickly. OS/360 was not an easy operating system to use, made for punch-card input and programming languages like COBOL and FORTRAN, with teams of perhaps a dozen programmers, keypunch operators and other technical staff.

Few computers at the time were any easier to use, with the first successful minicomputer only designed in 1961, but these computers, usually present in universities or small computing companies, were able to be programmed and operated by a single person. While the microcomputer revolution of the late 1970s and 1980s was still a long way away, the atmosphere around these more simplistic machines, including the TX-0 and TX-2 in MIT’s Lincoln Labs, and the recently produced DEC PDP-1, was far more lax than that around the huge, complicated and expensive System/360s, to the point where the famous Sketchpad digital drawing program and even the seminal and groundbreaking computer game, Spacewar!, could be developed on it.

In contrast, the stuffy atmosphere around IBM’s machines contributed to a slightly oppressive opinion of them, and the languages that were used with them were derided by many of the early hackers for their inelegant syntax. There was no room to experiment with a System/360, because their programs demanded accuracy. What is more, the social changes of the 1960s were creating a new generation of computer scientists, ones with more relaxed clothing styles and social mores than their predecessors, who programmed with full suits and ties.

Meanwhile, as TSS/360 was cancelled due to even more protracted development than OS/360, replacement time-sharing systems were being programmed elsewhere. TSO (Time Sharing Option) gave users of the MVT variant of OS/360 a limited amount of time-sharing ability, and while this option would not become widely adopted by IBM’s business customers, who usually only required batch processing, it was more appreciated by scientists and military customers.

At the same time, IBM’s Cambridge Scientific Centre were developing a native time-sharing operating system. Running on the System/360-67 variant of the architecture, CP/CMS was a lightweight operating system specifically designed with scientific time-sharing in mind, and was built with an easier interface than the difficult OS/360. It wasn’t officially supported by IBM, being distributed under an open-source model to those places that desired it, mainly scientists rather than business customers.

By 1970, the success of the System/360 had easily paid for the risks undertaken and the protracted development of OS/360, and had helped IBM squeeze some of its rivals out of business. From the 1960s, where the mainframe producers had been colloquially named “Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs”, IBM had produced a situation where rivals sold out their mainframe businesses at the hands of System/360’s market dominance. Now, the mainframe manufacturers were called “IBM and the BUNCH”, the “BUNCH” taking its name from the first letters of the smaller manufacturers.

But things were not perfect for IBM. Incensed at the loss of the MULTICS project to General Electric, IBM needed to develop a new architecture in order to stay competitive. (However, in ironic circumstances, General Electric would be forced to sell out their mainframe business to Honeywell in the late 1960s, and MULTICS would become a laughing stock as it was succeeded by a private project produced by Dennis Ritchie in Bell Laboratories.) So, with the developments made on System/360 in mind, IBM developed its successor, System/370. With the new innovations of integrated circuit design and support for virtual memory included, among other improvements, System/370 became more sophisticated than its predecessor, yet retained complete backwards compatibility with all of its code and even its operating systems.

This architectural improvement helped IBM to maintain its position at the top, and yet, unknown to them, the seeds of the demise of their core business had just been sown. One of these factors would be caused by a company co-founded by Robert Noyce. Noyce, who had been one of the “Traitorous Eight” who had split off from Shockley Semiconductors, home of the transistor, had decided to make his own way once more, founding a company called Intel. In 1969, an Intel team led by Ted Hoff had invented the microprocessor, the first fully-integrated “computer on a chip”, and this invention would have far-reaching consequences as discussed later, ones which would change the face of computing forever.


Intel’s 4004 microprocessor led to a complete change in computing.

The other two factors in 1970 that would begin to erode IBM’s huge lead went hand-in-hand. The first was the rising prominence of the minicomputer, particularly in universities. DEC, developers of the PDP-1, had found much success with other PDP models, and while IBM had a few products present in this market, they failed to pay them much attention. The second factor was an operating system which just happened to be programmed on one of these PDP computers.

Developed in Bell Laboratories, Unix was an operating system first programmed in 1969 by Ken Thompson on a PDP-7 computer, and it had already swept aside the MULTICS project. Unix was just a pet project of Thompson, but it had several factors which would strongly influence later and even modern operating systems. Most important of these was the revelation that a high-level (human-readable) programming language could be used for operating systems, which would allow for Unix’s portability across system architectures. But there were more innovations which would help to cement its later success among computer scientists. Even from the very start, it had full pre-emptive multitasking, which made it perfect for time-sharing, and some of its design briefs would prove instrumental in helping it avoid much of the second-system effect and bloat of operating systems such as OS/360 and MULTICS.

Neither of these factors, however, would start to show their relevance until later on. System/370 came into being having to account for three major lines and a few minor lines of operating system from its predecessor, and so, each of these lines was brought forward with new variants. The low-end DOS/360, originally designed as a stop-gap, became DOS/VS. CP/CMS would eventually become VM/370 (Virtual Machine). IBM failed to account for the potential success of this operating system, which became very popular within the scientific market, partially for its abilities to virtualise itself perfectly, proving one of the very first uses of an emulator.

OS/360 had two specific variants to take account of. The less elaborate MFT variant was replaced by OS/VS1, while the more sophisticated MVT variant was replaced by OS/VS2, better known as MVS/370 (Multiple Virtual Storage). Unlike the development of OS/360, the development of the System/370 operating systems went quite smoothly, particularly as the code could be tested on System/360 machines using CP/CMS.

With these operating systems, IBM would manage to see off its competitors during the 1970s as well, even with increasing pressure from DEC’s PDP and VAX series minicomputers, many now running Unix, and the efforts of Cray Inc., who would build the most powerful supercomputers in the world until the late 1980s. But the seeds of change were germinating, and the microprocessor was coming into its own. The Motorola 6800, MOS Technology 6502 and Zilog Z80 would give cheap processors to those interested in designing their own computers, and after the successes of the MITS Altair 8800 and Apple I, a large number of companies entered the microcomputer market.

With companies such as Apple and Commodore selling millions of computers in America, and Acorn Computers and Sinclair Research doing the same in Europe, IBM realised that their market was at stake. Many of the traditional customers of mainframes would have no use for one with readily-available personal computers, and so, IBM would have to build a personal computer of their own if they wanted to remain relevant in the computing market.

Dispensing with normal in-house IBM design, a team was assembled to build a personal computer rapidly. Taking the Intel 8088 processor and using a form of BASIC from Microsoft, the company which had created the BASIC variant for the MITS Altair 8800, IBM produced the IBM 5150, better known as the IBM PC.


The IBM PC 5150, predecessor of the PCs most people use today.

The IBM PC was a huge success. Appealing to business customers who had previously bought Apple and Commodore computers, the IBM PC lent huge legitimacy to the personal computer market and set the standard for personal computers to the present day. But while IBM had once again maintained its strong position as the largest computer manufacturer in the world, its mainframe business appeared to be approaching obsolescence, as some companies attempted to replace their large water-cooled, room-sized machines with considerably less powerful but substantially smaller personal computers. What’s more, because the IBM PC was based on a commercially-available processor rather than one designed by IBM in house, the IBM PC’s BIOS was soon reverse-engineered, leading to a huge number of clone systems.

Nevertheless, IBM designed a new mainframe architecture, designated ESA/390, at a time when workstations were obtaining amounts of RAM only found in mainframes before then, and when IBM’s position in the personal computer market looked increasingly weak from competing clone manufacturers. The problems with operating systems had long been solved, with time-sharing available across the whole range, and several releases of MVS and VM through the lifespan of the System/370. ESA/390 had an astounding level of backwards compatibility, able to run programs from the very beginning of the System/360’s lifespan.

About halfway through the life of ESA/390, there became a sudden resurgence in the level of mainframe use. Spurred on by companies discovering new uses for their mainframes, and a general shift in IBM’s tactics, which led to their adoption of open-source operating systems, the mainframe defied odds to survive right through the 1990s. New operating systems were devised to maintain the three lines developed during the late 1960s. MVS was updated to become OS/390, which adopted many modern operating system concepts, while VS/370 became VSE. The VM line, which had been largely ignored during the 1960s and 1970s by IBM, became more important as users increasingly supported thousands of users on their mainframes. But to supplement these three lines, IBM’s new committal to open-source led to its adoption of Linux, usually used in conjunction with other operating systems on the same machine.

Today’s mainframe is much different to the mainframe of 1964, on the introduction of the System/360. Apart from the far superior power of today’s machines, they are used according to completely different paradigms. The mainframe of 1964 usually used batch processing using punch cards and magnetic tape, and some of them didn’t even have the ability to perform more than one task at a time. Today’s mainframe is usually used by hundreds or thousands of people at a time, through Web interfaces, and its power is in high potential input/output rates and extremely high reliability.


A System z10 machine, large, hugely reliable and capable of serving hundreds of people at once.

IBM is still the world’s largest manufacturer of mainframe computers, holding 90% of the market with their System z line of mainframes. Linux is gaining an increasing share of use on these mainframes, not often the main operating system on the mainframe, but becoming more popular. The three lines of operating systems from the 1960s still remain, with z/OS the successor of the OS/360 line, z/VSE the successor of DOS/360 and z/VM replacing the CP/CMS project. Each of these operating systems has adopted large amounts of modern computing concepts, yet maintain extreme backwards compatibility. The COBOL code of the 1960s, written for machines using punch cards and teletypes, will still work with little or no modification today.

However, IBM is no longer the largest computer manufacturer in the world. Removed from the desktop computer market by the pressure of clone manufacturers who left IBM unable to compete, and eventually selling out their line of high-quality but expensive Thinkpad laptops to the Chinese company, Lenovo, IBM now focuses on other markets, from its server and supercomputing lines, to the development of the POWER processor, most recently used in the consoles of today. Hewlett-Packard, only a humble calculator manufacturer in 1964, is now the largest computer company in the world, and one of the largest companies altogether.

The mainframe might not have the glamour of the supercomputer, or even the appeal of a desktop computer, but it performs tasks today that are essential to our society. The operating systems for the IBM mainframe, despite their difficult start, have matured into stable platforms, ready for huge loads every day, and ones able to run programs that are forty years old when today’s desktop operating systems often have difficulty with ten-year-old programs. There are lessons to be learned even today from the OS/360 project, particularly with the idea of the second-system effect (something Microsoft is guilty of several times), but despite the difficulties experienced during its development, it has maintained its line during a time period where dozens of operating systems and computer platforms have died out, and that is something to be impressed with, regardless of your ultimate position on the future of the mainframe.