Buggy Heat: The Arcade Racer That's Matured Like Fine Wine

The Dreamcast's stable of racing games is bursting with thoroughbred stallions, with classics like Le Mans and Metropolis Street Racer proudly held aloft as the pinnacles of the genre on the system. But there is one title that many may have simply dismissed or never even given a chance to prove itself as a worthy alternative to the more well-known titles vying for attention on a crowded starting grid. That game is Buggy Heat, a Dreamcast launch title from CRI that initially wowed with its decent graphics and interesting features, but which was lost in the maelstrom and ultimately usurped by Sega Rally 2 in the initial launch lineup melee. Buggy Heat is certainly a game that is worth another look, even now, after almost 20 years have passed since it first burst onto the scene.
Buggy Heat is a game I courted in those first few months after the Dreamcast's UK launch, and I distinctly remember being impressed with the visuals in those warm and un-fuzzy post-N64 wonder years. It looked incredible at the time, and the detailed vehicles and interesting tracks initially won me over. But after a week of playing and seeing pretty much all it had to offer in terms of new environments and vehicles, Buggy Heat was forgotten and I quickly moved on to the next game I could get my hands on. It's only relatively recently that I've gone back to investigate this early offering on the Dreamcast, and in this time I've grown to truly appreciate its nuances and have rediscovered a game that is so much more than the sum of its parts.
What initially seems to be a very rudimentary pretender to Sega Rally's off-road crown is actually a pretty deep and interesting experience, that even offers a feature that wouldn't be seen again until the release of the Xbox One. Behind the paltry track and vehicle selection rosters is actually a racing title that deserves a second look, because with time - not unlike a fine wine - Buggy Heat has aged beautifully and is, for me at least, one of the best arcade racers on the Dreamcast...

Known as TNN Motorsports: Hardcore Heat in the United States, CRI's off-road racer was a launch title for both the European/PAL and US Dreamcast consoles. The Japanese version launched slightly earlier than either of the western iterations in July 1999 and received generally negative reviews, with the game's handling quirks singled out for criticism. In the months leading up to the worldwide release, it seems that these kinks were ironed out though and the game that was delivered outside of Japan is actually meant to an improvement over the initial Japanese release.

In all honesty though, I'm only going off reports I can find online regarding this topic, as I haven't actually played the original Japanese retail version of Buggy Heat. I have however played the early demo version that was included on Volume 1 of the Dreamcast Express demo disc series, and the game plays quite differently to the one that ended up on the shelves of my local games shop, so I have no problem believing these claims.
On release in the UK, Buggy Heat received generally favourable reviews with Paragon's unofficial Dreamcast Magazine awarding it 76%, EDGE giving 6 out of 10 and Arcade bestowing the game with 3 stars out of 5. While not exactly setting the racing world alight, Buggy Heat was labelled as 'alright' and then it sort of faded from the memory as newer titles like Speed Devils came in to kick it unceremoniously off the podium and take the champagne-soaked glory.

But here's the thing. If you go back to Buggy Heat now and look at it for what it is - an arcade racer born of an era where bright, brash visuals and nondescript metal soundtracks and no frills races filled with the clashing of fenders were de rigueur, then Buggy Heat represents something that's not so common today. A game that doesn't take itself seriously, has a relatively threadbare complement of tracks and vehicles, but one which is a ton of fun to play but also offers quite a bit of depth if you're prepared to dig beneath the veneer of next-gen eye candy.
Like many arcade style racers of the time (where have all the arcade racers gone?), Buggy Heat offers the player the choice of a handful of tracks and vehicles to tear around them with. The interesting angle in CRI's game though, is that all of the vehicles also have a driver assigned to them, and they all - apparently - have their own driving style.

Buggy Heat forces this personalisation of these vehicles on you by way of a display in the HUD while out on the track, where plasticine-like avatars grimace out at you, their general feelings on their performance relayed through basic facial animations. It's a nice gimmick and when you jump in to the main championship mode it adds the impression that you're not simply racing against AI drones, but real people. Sort of.
The structure of these championships is quite good too. There are three difficulty levels and each one adds more races and tougher adversaries to the mix. However, unlike in most games you don't actually need to finish in a certain position to progress. If you come last, you'll still continue to the next stage, you just won't get as many points as the rest of the pack. It's quite common in these types of games for the player to have to finish in the top three or four in order to advance, but in Buggy Heat you're allowed to have a nightmare of a race in one stage, but then come back to take the glory in the next. And here's where things get interesting.

Due to the strengths and weaknesses of the different vehicles, this matters a hell of a lot as some vehicles perform better than others in certain situations. Pick a big, heavy truck and it'll struggle to get up big hills as it battles against the terrain and gravity to haul itself along; while a small sand buggy will zip and dash up the same hill like an ant. However, once you get into situations involving deep snow or sand, then the heavier trucks will excel while the smaller, lighter ones will lose traction.
And this is my favourite thing about Buggy Heat - the handling of the trucks. Making minor changes to the (admittedly rudimentary) vehicle settings, you can adapt the vehicles to different tracks. Changing the gear ratios of a lighter truck to be more favourable towards acceleration means that it will hit the power band straight out of corners and almost lurch forward as you nail the accelerator, leaving competitors in the dust (or mud. or snow); while tuning a bigger vehicle to be more leaning towards top speed will turn your truck into an unstoppable freight train that can pick up speed on steep straightaways but will be impossible to stop unless you use your competitors as buffers. Struggling to find traction as you power up a snow-covered incline or getting mired in a water trap feels like nothing else on the Dreamcast to me, and with a rumble pack plugged in the effect is all the more powerful.

Sadly, there is no damage model in Buggy Heat, but this doesn't really detract from the fun. Also, this is one game that is definitely best played from a cockpit camera as the real sense of a grunting, snorting pick-up or a nimble, skittish buggy really comes across in this viewpoint. Special mention must also go to the 'picture in picture' viewpoint too, that is completely impractical but is a neat gimmick that allows you to see your driver's actions in real time while you race.
Speaking of drivers' actions, Buggy Heat offers something else that piques the interest: AI learning. Long before Drivatars were a thing in Forza Motorsport, Buggy Heat offered players the opportunity to 'train' an AI to race like them, learning their racing style through analysing performances in the game's time attack mode. It's a fascinating addition, and players were encouraged to train up an AI and then offer it up to CRI's online servers so that other Buggy Heat players could download the profile and race against it. Naturally, the ability to upload or download these AI profiles is no longer possible, but there's nothing stopping you from training an AI and putting it on a VMU for Dreamcast owning mates to race against.

You'd be forgiven for thinking Buggy Heat was the best thing since sliced bread, given the the way I'm praising it almost universally here, but the truth is I really like it and as a mature gamer I have grown to appreciate Buggy Heat so much more now, as a 36 year old, than I ever could have as a teenager. That's not because I'm any wiser, but because games like Buggy Heat just don't really exist anymore. Simple arcade racers that get deeper the more you play them. Yes, you can just hammer the accelerator and slam into walls and spin around, lose you temper and turn it off and claim it's shit...or you can settle down with the outstanding first person viewpoint, enjoy the lumbering nature of the trucks, the physics and the handling model that rewards breaking and restraint as much as it rewards pedal to the metal, and you'll have a great time.
There are only a handful of tracks, but they are designed well and also introduce differing weather effects depending on the championship level you're racing in; and the roster of vehicles boasts some truly bizarre naming conventions - see Drank Shrenker (aka Albert Wesker, below) and Schwartz Speigel for further details - but the good far outweighs the bad in Buggy Heat.

The long and short of it is this. Buggy Heat is a relatively inexpensive and often overlooked racer from the early days of the Dreamcast. It looks pretty unspectacular by today's standards (and by late era Dreamcast standards, too), but look past the weird 3D smoke plumes and half-arsed fake headlight effects, and you'll find a game that really has gotten better with age.
Over to you. What do you think? Love or loathe Buggy Heat? Let us know in the comments or join the conversation in our Facebook group or on Twitter. All the shots in this article were captured with the Akura HDMI adapter and an AverMedia Extremecap U3. If you use them, please give credit.

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Mike Cornett said...

I can't wait to play this game. Nice post.

FlorreW said...

I have tried it, think it was ok but it might grow to be really nice i think if i give it more time. Thanks for posting Tom 👍

Tom Charnock said...

Thanks for the comments guys :)

Hayden Kowalchuk said...

Hey! The timing of this is too perfect. I recently got a hold of and dumped (for preservation) the dreamcast promotion disk 2 (build date: 2-23-1999 vs express vol 1 date: 2-01-1999) and it has a similarly early build of buggy heat. I'll have to check out the differences in both versions and then compare it to the final.

Thanks for the write up.

hoogafanter said...

Never tried this one. Def will give it a shot...

fatherkrishna said...

Will be obtain8ng this ASAP! One I've never experienced!

Liam87 said...

I have the Japanese version but would like to buy the pal version as I've learned of the flaws the ntsc j version possesses but would like to know if the pal version is VGA compatible if anybody can tell me please?