Maximum Speed: A closer look at the Atomiswave Daytona USA clone

Maximum Speed is a white hot racing game that will thrill all your senses. Not my words - the words of whichever advertising guru came up with the guff adorning Maximum Speed's European marketing materials. And who am I to argue? Absolutley nobody, that's who. Right, let's get crack-alacking.

Maximum Speed was released in arcades in 2003 on the Atomiswave platform, and represents arcade racing in its purest form: there's you, a load of thick-as-mince AI adversaries, a plethora of tracks of questionable design quality and an ever-ticking clock. Thanks to the incredible development efforts of Megavolt85 et al over at Dreamcast-Talk in the recent past, Sammy Atomiswave titles are now playable on the Dreamcast, and we thought it was high time we took a more in-depth look at some of the games that have made the leap from the coin-op to the home and expanded the Dreamcast collection even further. 

If you aren't familiar with the Atomiswave story, it's worth taking a look at our guide to the short-lived Sammy arcade format here, and the story of how these lesser-spotted arcade titles ended up being ported to the Dreamcast here.

The two marquee racers for the Atomiswave platform were Faster than Speed, a sort of Need for Speed: Underground style street racing title stacked to the gills with neon strip lights, garishly painted hot hatches and more night racing than you could shake a Tokyo Extreme Racer at (check it out here); and Maximum Speed, a more traditional stock car style racer very much in the vein of Daytona USA. Its the latter of these two (obvs) that we'll be poring over here, to discover why, even though its not really up to the standard set by SEGA's own stock car racing series, Maximum Speed is probably still worth a look if arcade racing is your bag.

From the outset, it is clear that Maximum Speed is a game that's meant to be played in short bursts. Because this is essentially the very same code that would be played on a coin operated cabinet with a steering wheel and pedals (of which there were stand up and sit down variants), probably secreted away in the darkest reccesses of some brick and mortar arcade somewhere, there is no championship mode, no career mode or owt even hinting at anything more than "please put your money in dickhead, play for 5 minutes and then kindly piss off." The only real quality of life improvements for the home console are that the controls have been helpfully mapped to the standard Dreamcast controller, complete with analogue stick and trigger support (which is important - more on this later).

So what you're essentially getting, should you plop Maximum Speed onto your GDEMU (other optical drive emulators are available) is the authentic arcade experience with no home conversion improvements whatsover. Mainly because, y'know, Maximum Speed was never (officially) ported to anything. What you're confronted with when starting Maximum Speed is the ability to play a single race, in any of the initial three classes of vehicle, on any of the six circuits. There are 23 other vehicles also vying for the top spot during each race, and there's a clock counting down that replenishes by varying dwindling allotments each time you reach the next lap checkpoint. So far, so 'as you'd expect.'

The vehicle selection boils down to three different classes, with stock cars, trucks and open wheel variants being slectable, and then each type of vehicle being further sub-divided into three distinct flavours; one being an all rounder, one having better acceleration and the other having a higher top speed. Once you've selected your whip you get to select a track, of which there are six and these are, again, further divided into easy, medium or hard difficulties. 

The game explains these difficulty levels using a series of stars to denote how tricky they are, but the operations manual that I managed to scrape from the remnants of the now defunt SEGA Amusements USA Inc. website goes a little further, actually labelling the tracks as easy, medium or hard. Thanks Wayback Machine. For ease, I have now uploaded this operations manual here so you too can view it, dear reader. As an interesting side note, I did find that the preserved website for Maximum Speed appears to exhibit the text for SEGA Clay Challenge rather than the correct copy for Maximum Speed. Not sure why that is, maybe someone absent mindedly pasted the wrong paragraph in there when the page was created. A hangover maybe? Or just plain old incompetence? Who knows...but I digress.

The tracks on offer are a good mix of standard ovals and twisty forest, desert and mountain based circuits and while none of them really stand out or are as memorable as the iconic 777 Speedway or Seaside Street Galaxy, they're all functional and offer a nice variety in terms of aesthetic. With names like Liberty Hall Raceway, Wizard Grove Raceway and Rodeo Peak Speedway, they're clearly going for the NASCAR and Indy Car vibe, and to be honest Maximum Speed nails it in terms of track design...even if none of them are really all that impressive in terms of location or intricacy.

In the cold light of day, Maximum Speed feels a bit like a budget title when it comes to the actual gameplay. The vehicles don't really feel like they have any distinct charateristics other than visual; they all play in pretty much the same way with only the top speed really differentiating them from each other. The open wheel Indy Cars are the quickest, with the stock cars being the slowest and the trucks slap bang in the middle. That said, and to reiterate, all of the vehicle classes appear to have the same handling model. 

It's not a bad handling model by any means, but it does err on the 'cars pivot on a central point' side, and it's actually quite possible to never remove your finger from the right trigger and just blast around the courses speed, never ever bothering with the brakes. You can pretty much take every corner at full pelt with a little practice, and it doesn't really matter from which of the two camera angles you play from. This isn't really a negative when playing in the trucks or the stock cars, but sending an Indy Car sideways through a corner at full throttle isn't exactly what you'd call realistic. If an Atomiswave arcade racer could ever be described as such. I'm digressing again.

This whole 'full throttle' thing is curious because if you play either the stock cars or trucks, the speedometer has a little flashing light that will beep incessantly if you just constantly redline the engine. Initially, I presumed this was the game telling me that I was doing something wrong and that I might somehow be damaging the motor by just flooring it continuously, but after a few races it became apparent that this little alarm is totally benign and doesn't really serve any purpose other than to annoy. 

While the vehicles do have a (basic and purely cosmetic) damage model, simply holding that trigger all the way in doesn't really have any detrimental effect. Well, apart from the one inflicted on your ear drums as the little alarm beeps over and over until you can hear it in your sleep. I did initially employ the use of the analogue trigger to hold my revs as close to the redline as possible without tripping this infernal alarm, but after a while I realised it was pointless and so the trigger went fully in and I never looked back (in anger).

It's odd that a game called Maximum Speed would add something like this, but who the hell knows what was going on at SEGA/Sammy during those heady post Dreamcast years? I've said in the past that I like to think of post-Dreamcast SEGA as a sort of Stratton Oakmont free for all, where anything was allowed as long as the booze kept flowing and the coin-op money kept coming in. Maximum Speed's existence (and to a lesser extent the Atomiswave itself) - to me at least - confirms this little fantasy.

In all honesty, this mindless appraoch to the gameplay is essentially what you'd expect from a pure arcade racer. There's not much in the way of strategy required - just pedal to the metal and steer. Competitor AI is squarely idiotic, with adversaries not really exhibiting anything actually approaching intelligence. They seem to ping off each other (and you) in a fashion not seen since Cruis'n USA, and while they appear to be able to hold a racing line they will spin out or flip over at the merest hint of a shunt. Curiously, their presence doesn't really affect your car at all, meaning if they are unlucky enough to trade paint with the player vehicle, it is they who will come a cropper and not you. Also worthy of note is the rather bizarre nature of competitors' ability to muster unnatural speed boosts almost at will - one minute you're cruising along with an open road in front of you, the next an AI vehicle has just overtaken you at about 400 mph and then slammed on the anchors right in front of your bonnet. It makes absolutley no sense whatsoever...but it's actually quite endearing that the game designers thought it was worth including at least some arbritrary attempt at a 'challenging' AI. And naturally, by 'challenging,' I mean 'shit.'

After a few races though, it becomes quite easy to navigate the circuits and weave through the pack to reach the podium places. It's here that titles in the mold of Maximum Speed begin to unravel, the pure arcade leaning laid bare. If this game had been given a release on a home system then it is pretty evident that some extra content and modes would have been required to add some modicum of longevity. As it stands, this original rendition is a title that people would most likely have had a couple of races on and then moved on to another cabinet in the arcade. I can't really fault it for the shallowness of the experience with this taken into consideration.

For an arcade game released in 2003, Maximum Speed isn't much of a looker. While it's perfectly acceptable in the visuals department it does nothing in a spectacular fashion. Indeed, the Dreamcast's own Daytona USA 2001 is a much prettier, more polished game. Hell, even the various F1 games on the Dreamcast give Sammy's title a bit of a slap. In a way, Maximum Speed's visuals remind me more of an N64 title than a Dreamcast game, even though it was designed from the ground up as an Atomiswave title. The trackside details are pretty rudimentary, with scale irregularities aplenty and empty grandstands stretching off into the distance at any and every opportunity; and the vehicle models are a little on the basic side truth be told. Also, the level of detail (or LOD) rendering is pretty brutal, with other vehicles and trackside furniture turning into blocks of Lego as they hit some magical boundary about 100 metres or so from the camera lens. John Linneman would have a field day with Maximum Speed, that's for sure.

It's actually quite jarring how close competitor vehicles switch to a super low detail model once they overtake you, for example. That said, there are some cool trailing effects from rear lights and some passable lens flares, but that's about your lot when it comes to special effects. Real time lighting is off the table entirely, and save for a few sparks that are thrown up occasionally by AI vehicles, there's nothing here that (probably) couldn't be done on any hardware from the generation preceding the Dreamcast. To put it bluntly, if Maximum Speed had released in 2003 on any contemporary home platform (think Xbox, PS2, Gamecube or Tiger, it would undoubtedly have been lambasted for its bargain basement graphics. Still, it all moves at a nice slick pace and there's no hint of slowdown or frame rate issues, even with multiple vehicles on screen. Granted, the vehicles more than 6 feet away look like someone slapped a bunch of cereal boxes off a shelf, but it's still as smooth as butter.

The sound design doesn't really fare much better than the visuals. Everything sounds just fine, but there aren't really any standout tunes (they all sound like nondescript techno muzak) and the vehicle engines sound like vacuum cleaners. There's also the aforementioned 'maximum revs' beeping noise that's incessant if you race the stock cars or the trucks (the open wheel cars don't have it for some reason); and there's the added bonus of a terrible pit crew shouty radio dude™ who occasionally pipes up with semi-legible advice such as "more speed!", "take it easy!" and the like. Metropolis Street Racer this aint.

It will probably come as little surprise that there is no multiplayer option in Maximum Speed, being as it was a single player cabinet. There is mention of a networking function in the operations manual linked to earlier, but obviously trying to reverse engineer this into a rudimentary Dreamcast port would no doubt be a colossal waste of time and serve only a few people out there who have a Dreamcast console link Taisen Cable. As I'm not a programmer I don't even know if this would be possible, so please take literally everything I write in this article, and everything I've ever said anywhere else on the entire internet, with a massive bucket of salt. Cheers.

In summary then, Maximum Speed is probably more interesting from a history and preservation perspective than as an actual racing game to download and play. That isn't to say it isn't fun in short bursts, but the very fact that it forms part of that elusive Atomiswave library that was once the sole preserve of arcade collectors and can now be enjoyed by anyone with a Dreamcast equipped with a GDEMU is arguably more interesting than the game itself. As it is then, Maximum Speed is a competant and mildly entertaining take on the Daytona USA model of cars going quickly around (almost) oval tracks. You never know, it might actually take off if someone were to do this in real life.

Gameplay is simple, challenge is negligible, and visuals and audio are just fine. Maximum Speed is definitely worth checking out if you're a fan of the genre and have an interest in the esoteric nature of the Atomiswave library; but overall it is little more than an average racer that was never likely to threaten Daytona USA's dominance over the arcade stock car racing genre. 

That said, Maximum Speed is totally free to download and sample for yourself - thanks again to Megavolt85 and others involved in the scene for this Dreamcast port - so grab the ROM at Dreamcast-Talk here and let us know what you think in the comments.


Janino296 said...

Many thanks! Is it possible to Play These Ports using dreamshell as Well? Greetings from berlin

Tom Charnock said...

Hi Janino - greetings! I think you should be able to play the Atomiswave games from DreamShell...but it's probably worth asking at Dreamcast-Talk as somebody there will be able to give a definitive answer.

JPG said...

Actually the Link Up does still work I believe :-)