A Quick Look At 18 Wheeler: American Pro Trucker

Of all the NAOMI to Dreamcast ports that were given a wide release - there are several that only got a limited release in Japan - 18 Wheeler is undoubtedly the one that gets the shortest of shrifts. Cast your mind back to those pastel hued days of Sega's arcade dominance and subsequent ports to the home tellybox, and names like Crazy Taxi, Ferrari F355 Challenge, Virtua Tennis, Outtrigger and Cosmic Smash instantly spring to mind. 18 Wheeler? Not so much.
This is odd for a couple of reasons, but the main one - for me at least - is the awesome way in which the game was presented in coin-op fashion in some locations. To whit, the game was set up with a huge mock truck cab that did a good job of allowing the player to feel like they were really driving an articulated lorry - it certainly felt very grand to the teenage me playing 18 Wheeler in the Namco Station at Manchester's Trafford Centre, anyway.
Since those heady days of the early 2000s, I have gone on to acquire my HGV license in real life (don't ask, it's a long story) and I am legally allowed to drive trucks of varying sizes. I can say though - with some authority - that driving a truck in reality is nowhere near as fun as it is in 18 Wheeler: American Pro Trucker. The game was ported from the arcade to the Dreamcast and released in PAL territories in June 2001 - several months after the announcement that Sega was ceasing production of the console. As you can probably imagine, the reception was lukewarm - to say the least.
This late release probably has a lot to do with the decision to allow Acclaim to publish the game on the PlayStation 2 and Gamecube after Sega had consigned the Dreamcast to the great bargain bin in the sky; but for the purpose of keeping this consignment of Dreamcast-related cargo on track, let's hit the road and take a look at Crazy Taxi's poor relation. More specifically what it gets right, what it gets wrong and whether it's worth your time and money. This is 18 Wheeler: American Pro Trucker...

With this being an arcade port and all, the last thing you should expect is some kind of deep and meaningful storyline. Oh, and it's a game about trucking. However it's less Eddie Stobbart and more JB Hunt, if you get my drift. So, once you fire 18 Wheeler up and jump into the marquee arcade mode you're asked to choose from one of the four token characters (think the Crazy Taxi cast, having swapped their cabs for hulking articulated juggernauts and you're golden), hook your rig up to a trailer and then haul ass across the state within the time limit. Within about 8 seconds you're introduced to an obnoxious rival trucker who obviously has no life or friends, and who constantly barks insults at you over the CB radio.
The main aim in the arcade mode then, is to belt it as fast as you can across the stage, avoiding traffic where possible and beating your rival the the goal before the time runs out. Essentially, 18 Wheeler is pretty basic in design and effortlessly fits into Sega's arcade pantheon with its quick pick-up-and-play mechanics and simple as you like gameplay. It's easily one of the most shallow games Sega ever ported to the Dreamcast, and the extra modes are threadbare too, but for a game that's quick to jump into and have a short-lived 10 minute blast, it can't really be faulted.
Throughout the four stages of the main arcade game are multiple routes to take, various environmental hazards to avoid (or smash through), and bonus vans to run off the road in order to earn vital seconds that are added to your countdown timer. One of the best things about 18 Wheeler is that is does a really good job of giving the impression of an open world in which you're racing across. The various towns and rural areas, highways and arrid desert plains...it all looks quite grand and gives the impression that you really are travelling across vast swathes of the United States on a vital mission to deliver logs or milk...or some shit. In reality, the stages have a start point and an end point and there are a couple of forking paths, but there is no freedom whatsoever. You are funnelled down familiar paths time and time again, and so replay value is limited; while the scripted aspect of the adventure and the set pieces play out in the same places with precision timing. Suffice to say, this gets a bit dull after the tenth time running a particular stage...and that's one of the main problems with 18 Wheeler. Twister? Yep - same place every time. Sand storm? Ditto.
See, Crazy Taxi was a pretty repetitive title but the open nature of the (fairly small) world made it feel like every run could be a bit different depending on the passengers you picked up. In 18 Wheeler, that isn't really the case because the stages are just that - stages. Like stages in a rally game. Yes, there are forking paths...but ultimately you go from A to B and you'll have seen everything 18 Wheeler has to offer in terms of the single player arcade mode in less than an hour.
Its fortuitous then that Sega thought to bolster the standard arcade game with some Dreamcast exclusive options. The first of these is a score attack where you complete laps of various themed stages in an attempt to hit as many bonus vans as possible before the time runs out. Hitting ordinary civilian traffic with your big rig means a loss of points. The other life extending mode is a parking mini game where you are tasked with negotiating a series of labyrinthine roads and alleyways in your truck, before manoeuvring into a highlighted parking space (you guessed it) before the timer clicks down to zero. It's actually a lot of fun, and as someone who has done this stuff in real life I have to say it really is quite accurate.
There's also a two player split screen mode that riffs on the score attack, where you and 'your favourite rival' (as the manual says) can race each other around enclosed circuits, trying to rack up points and hampering the other's progress by opening the back doors of your truck and spilling all sorts of unmentionable shite all over the highway. Mainly pumpkins though, sadly. A couple of thousand gallons of Dulux white emulsion would have been more fun...but you can't have it all.

The four different characters and their associated rigs all have differing attributes in terms of torque and speed etc., but in truth they all handle pretty much identically. That is - quite well to be honest. The trucks all have a fantastic sense of weight, with the first person camera option allowing the cab to rock and sway accordingly. Nice little details such as detritus on the dashboards will slide back and forth, and air fresheners will sway hither and tither in much the same way as that little Sonic did in Rad Mobile. It's a nice touch, and while 18 Wheeler can be played from an external viewpoint, it is best experienced from the cab of the various trucks. Special mention must also go to the Dreamcast steering wheel here, as using the official wheel HKT-7430 (it's the only one I have) lent a certain something to the experience. It really gave an added dimension to the feel of driving a huge truck, so definitely give it a go if you have the means.
As well as the weight of the trucks and the inertia afforded such enormous vehicles, you're also tasked with operating the gear box. It's not as onerous as operating an actual split gear box found in a real truck; and there is no pneumatic air brake to deal with (nod to the real truckers out there), but you do have to deal with shifting between low and high ratios (low has three individual speeds, high has one), and also the reverse gear in the parking mini game. Interestingly, the trucks do react accordingly if you downshift at too high a speed, with clouds of black diesel smoke billowing from the exhausts and the truck lurching under its own hideously restrained horsepower.

At this point, allow me to take you on a little journey. A journey to my childhood. Christmas morning, 1995 in fact. We received (as in, my brother and I) a Sega Multimega from Santa that year, and at a little past 6am on the yuletide morning, me and my sibling were playing Road Avenger. We didn't care that it was essentially an interactive cartoon. We didn't care that every now and then the grainy FMV would freeze momentarily. We were playing a revolutionary title, a game that looked like nothing else we'd ever seen. Slack jawed and starry eyed we played Road Avenger thinking we'd never see anything quite as awesome ever again. That lasted until about 3pm that day when, regardless of the Queen's Speech being on the telly, our friend from round the corner brought his brand new Sony PlayStation round and showed us Demo 1 and Ridge Racer.
My setup...
An actual arcade cab. Make your own mind up. Heathen.
My mind was blown twice on one day. The reason I relay this crude tale is that, after that day I wasn't ever taken aback by graphics displayed by a system until the Dreamcast came along. The Saturn, Jaguar and Nintendo 64 never made me want to pull someone else into the room and gasp "look at this!". That all changed with the Dreamcast though, the game in question being Sonic Adventure, and the person being my mum - the only person who wasn't already sat glued to the screen (she was watching Eastenders or some shit). And to cut a very long story (and a very tenuous link) short...18 Wheeler wasn't and isn't a game that ever impressed me in home console form.
It looks almost identical to the arcade version, but there is considerable fade in of environmental structures and background (think Cruis'n USA with the horizon pushed back 20ft), and the whole thing just looks a bit muddy...if that makes sense. The fake NAOMI reflection effects, the boxy vehicles, the character models with obvious joints between knees, elbows and shoulders etc. It all just looks a bit shit to be honest. There's a nice level of detail in some parts of the opening stages, but other places and other stages (namely the score attack and multiplayer circuits) look like they've been created by amateurs and had the same textures copied and pasted over and over again. Music and sound effects likewise are a bit suspect, with an over reliance on stereotypical country music and cowboy themes. It just comes across as lazy, if I'm honest.

I'm probably being a it harsh by now though, and I'm almost certain nobody who saw this article advertised on Twitter or Facebook even clicked on the link, let alone read past the first paragraph. In a nutshell then, 18 Wheeler is a competent arcade port that is technically pretty good, even though it looks a bit gash. As a game alone though, it really is lacking in terms of long-term appeal and extra gameplay modes. Once the arcade mode is done, there's not much to keep you coming back for more; even the extras are pretty bare bones. That said, as a very late arcade to Dreamcast release, 18 Wheeler represents a tiny glimpse at what else could have followed had the Dreamcast been more profitable for Sega. If a game as weird as 18 Wheeler was up for conversion, what of Emergency Ambulance or Jambo Safari? Or any of the myriad other open world vehicular NAOMI titles that were owning the arcade sphere at the time?
It's a rhetorical question I certainly don't have the answers to, but the one thing I can tell you is this. If you have a soft spot for the Sega arcade experiences of the golden era of the late 1990s and early 2000s, then definitely give 18 Wheeler: American Pro Trucker a look. It's not an expensive game even with the late release and low sales numbers, and as an example of what Sega was planning with its arcade to home conversion schedule before pulling the plug on the Dreamcast...well, it's fascinating from both a technical and a historical point of view. Ultimately- it's a bit shit if you're looking for something that will last you a while, but quite decent for quick blasts. You probably didn't need the preceding 80,000 words of bollocks to tell you that though. Hmmm...
What do you think? Are you a fan of 18 Wheeler? Are you a trucker? Do you like to rub your oily hands and bulging muscles/gigantic gut all over a Dreamcast? Let us know in the comments, on Twitter or in our Facebook group.

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Daniel Turner said...

i do like this game though i wish i’d played it in the arcade cab too

James Harvey said...

Great article Tom - I'd defo consider 18W to be one of the DC's many hidden gems. It's a shame the DC was all but dead when it actually came out or I think more people would've played it.

yodelarcade said...

a great game. it is one of my favorites on the dc

FlorreW said...

Great review and exactly how i would describe the game. Personally i really enjoy this game alot,but as you already stated, in short bursts.

RJAY63 said...

Played this game quite a bit back back in 2000 (at my local Sega Park). Even got around to writing a guide! It was the cabinet that did for me; while the game was pretty shallow, it felt good to sit in that seat and turn that big wheel. While I did have a DC at the time, I never thought about buying the conversion. However I did pick up the GC version many years later and the sequel, King Of Route 66, on PS2.

Segasocks said...

I think if this game had been based in a different year say 1937 it would have been a much more enjoyable experience!

Anthony817 said...

I got to play the huge arcade cab at our local Putt-Putt Golf and Games here in Texas back when the game just came out at the Arcades. Was really a great experience playing it. I never owned it on Dreamcast back then, but for Christmas of 2001 my brother and I got a Gamecube and I picked it up for that then. Had tons of hours of fun with it. Still a great game to play when drinking.

Damon Fillman said...

This game is criminally underrated. I've put more time in this game than the two Crazy Taxis combined. The speed with which you pummel through American highways followed by the calming parking simulator at the end of each stage is a riot. I especially appreciate the little trinkets on the dashboard that bounce back and forth while driving. Underrated gem.