Screamer: Much more than a Ridge Racer ripoff

Given Screamer’s 1995 release date, comparison’s to Namco’s Ridge Racer — which came out two years earlier — were inevitable. And I doubt developer Graffiti (today known as Milestone) were complaining, either; their game being regarded as the closest thing it was possible to get to Namco’s PlayStation (and arcade) exclusive on an MS-DOS PC was a sure sign that they had done something right.

And yet, you shouldn’t simply write Screamer off as an attempt to make “Ridge Racer for PC”. Because while there is definitely more than a hint of that about its design, it boasts its own unique characteristics that make it worthy of exploration and celebration in its own right. So let’s take a closer look, shall we?

Screamer

Screamer features several modes of play. Its “normal game” mode is actually just a single race on any of the tracks you have unlocked, with three available from the outset. A more substantial experience is offered by the game’s Championship mode, which challenges you to race a series of six circuits in sequence, earning points for your finishing position. Earn enough points to meet a qualifying quota and you can move up to the next championship; fail and you’ll have to try again.

Alongside this, there are also three “extra” modes which feature the obligatory time trial, a mode where you knock down cones to extend the timer, and a slalom mode where you have to steer through cone gates. All told, Screamer actually offers a great deal more than Ridge Racer does in terms of things to do — remember that the original PlayStation version of Ridge Racer had just two tracks in the same environment (plus reversed versions of said tracks), with the intention being that you’d simply replay the game over and over in pursuit of better times, arcade-style.

More by us:  Running the world's worst hospital in Biing! Sex, Intrigue and Scalpels

Once into a race, the screen layout will look immediately familiar: rev counter and speedo in the bottom right, race information at the top. Four different views are available, including the standard Ridge Racer-style unadorned first-person view, a cockpit view (with bitmap rather than polygonal cockpit, Need for Speed-style) and two external views.

Screamer

Screamer’s tracks are well-designed and varied, with most of them having a distinctly European flavour — unsurprising, since Graffiti/Milestone are Italian — and plenty of dynamic elements. Upon Ridge Racer’s original release, people always loved bits like the aeroplanes taking off in the background, and the “camera” helicopter buzzing the track at low altitude, and a variety of similar scenery elements are on display here. Some excellent use of ambient sound helps give a feeling of the locales in which the tracks are set being properly fleshed out, too.

The actual roads themselves are designed well, too; flat and banked corners demand that you approach them rather differently, some tracks offer alternate routes, and the road width often varies sensibly to allow for a bit of drifting if you so desire. The only real “issue” with the visual side of things from a modern perspective is a heavy degree of pop-up — nothing unusual for a PC game running in software mode from 1995, but perhaps jarring to those more accustomed to today’s draw distances.

Sound is very good, too, with some rocking Redbook audio tracks from Allister Brimble accompanying the action, some satisfying engine and crash noises giving you helpful feedback on how the race is going — plus, optionally, a Ridge Racer-style annoying announcer. Mercifully, unlike in the original Ridge Racer, you can actually turn the announcer off independently of the other sound channels — though I have to admit, there is a certain charm to his cheesy comments, and you may well find yourself missing him when he’s gone. Brake for the snake!

Screamer

The game can be controlled either by keyboard — which works surprisingly well despite its digital nature — or via analogue joystick, though in the latter case, annoyingly, the game’s menus still need to be navigated via keyboard.

More by us:  Jill Goes Underground - that difficult second episode

Back when I was a kid, I played Screamer with the keyboard, because we didn’t have a suitable joystick at the time. I had a good time, and I learned to get quite good with the controls. Revisiting the game more recently, though, I decided to try the analogue controls on an Xbox 360-compatible joypad — which works just fine with the DOSBOX version available via GOG.com.

Suddenly, the real genius of Screamer came to light. Despite a few occasionally twitchy moments — rather hilariously, if you slam the steering all the way to one side as you launch from the start line, it’s possible to make your car face sideways before you even really start moving — the handling of Screamer with an analogue stick is absolutely sublime, and was available several years before Namco nailed it with Ridge Racer Type 4.

Screamer

There’s an incredible degree of precision that you can control your car with — and it’s a stark contrast to the resolutely digital controls that Ridge Racer was using at the time. On top of that, the way the viewpoint “rolls” with your steering from side to side is not only thrilling to experience, but also provides helpful feedback on how hard you’re pushing to the left or right.

This highlights another core difference between Screamer and Ridge Racer: while Ridge Racer encourages liberal use of drifting and powersliding to get around tough corners, in Screamer it’s actually more to your benefit to slow down a bit ahead of a corner, then steer around it as gently as possible at the speed you’re going. The reason for this is that Screamer’s drifts throw your back end out so violently that it’s very easy to end up knocking into the barriers at the side of the track; taking a somewhat more restrained approach is often in your best interests.

More by us:  Midway Arcade Treasures: Hard Drivin'

That’s not to say you can’t throw your cars around the track if you want to; indeed, some of the less grippy cars on offer seem specifically designed with that in mind. But it is noteworthy that a marginally more realistic approach is also an option if you prefer to drive that way.

Screamer
It is obligatory for every ’90s racing game to have a bridge like this

Don’t worry if you’re not a simming petrolhead, though; this is still very much an arcade racer at heart! As such, it’s not a game that will likely keep you occupied for the long term — but then it’s not designed to be that, either. It’s a game that, much like its obvious inspiration, is designed for you to boot up, enjoy a quick thrill ride for an hour or two, then move on and do something else. But such is its appeal that you’ll find yourself coming back for another ride time and time again — even once you’ve “beaten” everything it has to offer.

Yes, yes, yes, I know Screamer 2 is better and that’s the one everyone always yells about these days — but don’t sleep on the original! It’s still a great time — and dirt cheap today, of course.

Screamer is available now from GOG.com and Steam.

Check these out too!