Wipeout is a central part of the easy answer of the PlayStation success story. Its licensed music and in-club promotion are held up as the keys to attracting the post-pub generation. Play it now, however, and you’ll see a contradiction. Often regarded as the originator of gaming’s move towards the cool and the casual, it actually pointed the other way: towards bare-bones gameplay and aggressively clean styling. It was the perfect ambassador for Sony’s understated PlayStation powerhouse – all style, all substance.
It’s somewhat ironic, then, that the origins of videogaming’s most famous trendsetter were in the resolutely unfashionable grid-based strategy game Matrix Marauders, which featured vehicle designs uncannily similar to those in Wipeout. The game concept had been designed by Psygnosis stalwart Jim Bowers, but when Wipeout’s designer-to-be Nick Burcombe saw a SoftImage animation of two of the ships racing he became inspired: “I’d been watching over his shoulder as it took place,” says Burcombe of the animation. “It reminded me a little of Powerdrome, F-Zero and Super Mario Kart. I was in the throes of finishing Mario Kart at the time and found it to be possibly the greatest game I’d ever played.”
As seems mandatory for all great Britsoft productions, the idea took further shape in the local pub. “Myself and Jimmy were sat in the Shrewsbury Arms one night discussing the idea, and in the best tradition of drinking too much and talking too fast, the name Wipeout came out,” recalls Burcombe. “The conversation turned to the music and Jim and I were enjoying The Prodigy at the time. We joked about getting The Prodigy doing an up-to-date remix of the Beach Boys’ classic surf ditty – Wipeout. We simply pictured Liam Howlett being right in your face screaming ‘Heheheheheheee, wipe oooout!’ and then it kicking off at 140bpm with some awesome hardcore. It was such an ace moment – it stuck.”
When work on the game was given the green light by Psygnosis, Burcombe, as lead designer, began the difficult job of designing the tracks. “After seeing things in action, tracks like Altima 7 were built and specifically designed to get a stomach-churning drop after a huge hill climb,” he explains. “As you come over the big drop, you were initially supposed to just fly off the end and be looking down on the scene trying to pick a landing spot. Of course, this means that you have to drawn right to the maximum horizon – which we couldn’t – not at these scales. So the plan was to put it in a cave instead. You still got the drop, but at least you couldn’t see the draw-in and it didn’t frame out.”
Rather less effort went into fine-tuning the inclusion of weapons in the game, with Burcombe admitting that until the sequel the weapon you received was chosen entirely at random. “The key was to take a leaf out of Mario Kart’s book,” he explains. “All the weapons were designed to stall the opponent – not necessarily kill them. And in terms of balancing, well, we didn’t really bother too much.”
As an important launch title for the PlayStation in Europe there was no great wealth of experience to call upon for working on a 3D console game. Indeed, Sony’s interest in Psygnosis was primarily due to its technological experience, initially through work on CD titles such as Microcosm. “Exploring the hardware takes time, and although we knew it was capable of more, you have to call it a day on the R&D side and get a game written,” says Burcombe.
The only major criticism levelled at the game was its difficult, seemingly over-sensitive, handling and although Burcombe was happy to modify this for the sequel he is generally unrepentant: “The steering and skidding and weight and feel of the craft, I have no regrets at all – that was Wipeout.”
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