Faster Than Speed: A closer look at the Atomiswave Need for Speed: Underground clone

Alongside the recently covered Maximum Speed, Sammy's 2004 street racing title Faster Than Speed represents one of only two racing titles released for the Atomiswave arcade platform. Faster Than Speed differs from its stablemate in that it is a street racing title with an emphasis on high stakes, blink-and-you'll-miss-it, one-on-one vehicular duels through neon soaked city streets; in stark contrast to Maximum Speed's more traditional, reality-based stock car racing shenanigans.

Now, while it's quite clear that Sammy plundered Sega's own back catalogue when searching for inspiration for Maximum Speed (it doesn't require a PhD in the field of 'looking at stuff' to see the similarities between Maximum Speed and Daytona USA), the inspiration for Faster Than Speed is - checks notes - unequivocally Electronic Arts' phenomenally successful 2003 underground street racing title Need for Speed: Underground. A game that was released a year earlier than Faster Than Speed and which also offers high stakes, winner-takes-all races in highly tuned import vehicles, through perpetually dark (but beautifully lit) city streets, parks, boardwalks and other civic areas not really designed to be driven through at 100mph.

It's true that other night-themed racers existed in this period (Midnight Club springs to mind), and there were some small, independent art house movies that also touched on the topic at the time, but for me there is no other title that is as heavily borrowed from than Need for Speed: Underground when it comes to the aesthetic or the general demeanour that Faster Than Speed is trying to exude. Hell, even the name is a sort of side-eyed reference to EA's title - they may have the need for speed, but we're faster than speed! 

It's a subtle touch (almost as subtle as Bizarre Creations naming its flagship Xbox racing series after Gotham City in reference to Metropolis being cited in the title of its Dreamcast prequel); yet it is enough to corroborate my suspicions that yes, Faster Than Speed was plopped out by Sammy to cash in on the massive popularity of Need for Speed: Underground. And those small movies about cars that nobody saw. Cough.

Naming and visual conventions aside though, there's precious little else within the Faster Than Speed package that compares favourably to Need for Speed: Underground. That's because, well, Faster Than Speed is (whisper it) a bit naff. Before anyone leaps down my throat I want to qualify that the work done by such amazingly talented people as megavolt85 et al over at Dreamcast-Talk is the reason that Atomiswave games are now able to be played on the Dreamcast console. 

The Atomiswave is about as esoteric and rare as forgotten arcade platforms get, and due to that fact, the vast (vast) majority of people will have either never heard of the system; and even fewer outside of either the arcade collecting scene or - more recently - the Dreamcast scene will have ever had the opportunity to play many of the exclusive titles. Faster Than Speed is one such Atomiswave exclusive and that we now have the ability to sample these uncommon titles is a testament to the devotion of the Dreamcast community in bringing such long-lost games back to the fore. Even in light of the impressive resurrection of the Atomiswave library though, we mustn't turn a blind eye to mediocrity...which unfortunately is exactly where Faster Than Speed conks out.

As stated, Faster Than Speed was released in arcades in 2004. There appear to be two variants of the cabinet made available - both of which seem to be quite rare, according to the user ratings over at the International Arcade Museum. The first is an upright arcade cabinet with a steering wheel, pedals and the kind of bench seat that looks like it would cause irreparable damage to your arse after too long sitting on it; while the other is a sit-down model with a proper racing bucket seat (see the flyer below for details). 

An intriguing sidenote about this system though, is that the documentation (available on an archived snapshot of the Sega Amusements website) makes reference to several update kits, whereby arcade operators could install Faster Than Speed Atomiswave hardware, buttons and marquees in cabinets that previously housed such iconic racers as Rush: The Rock, Cruisn' USA, and even Ridge Racer (the upright cab, not Ridge Racer Full Scale).

The rear of the Faster Than Speed flyer (Image credit: Sega Amusements)

Taking even a cursory glance at the promotional materials for Faster Than Speed, it's quite evident that Sammy was positioning the game as a multiplayer-first experience; the operation manual explains how to go about activating the hidden 'Head 2 Head' mode, whereby two cabinets must be linked together via the optional router and then the Head 2 Head mode be switched on in the Atomiswave system menu. By default, this option is set to off. So what option is there for the arcade proprietor who only owns a singular cabinet? Four player alternate mode, of course!

Upon starting Faster Than Speed on Dreamcast, you are confronted with a menu asking which type of game mode you'd like to begin and curiously the default option is this four player alternate mode, so beware if you're starting the game for the first time - if you inadvertently select this, you essentially have to race the same circuit four times, each time trying to set the fastest time in order to be crowned the winner. And that's all - as far as I can tell - that the four (or indeed three and two) player modes offer: it's a simple time attack mode where you try to set the fastest time against your friends (or sworn enemies, should you prefer to spice things up).

Considering the nature of Faster Than Speed as the type of arcade experience where you'd be invited to chuck a few coins in and have a quick blast with some friends, I guess this is a nice added bonus where room for an additional cabinet for Head 2 Head gameplay wasn't available; and is actually quite commonplace in point-to-point rally titles, even on current-gen home systems.

Two Faster Than Speed cabinets arranged in Head 2 Head mode (Image credits: International Arcade Museum / Killer List of Videogames)

The single player experience is a little bit more traditional - select single player and then you are confronted with a choice of six initial courses to race on. While there are actually 12 in total, the greyed out tracks are the 'Stage 2' variants, which are themed in a similar style to the 'Stage 1' version, but are of a different layout and generally require you to race out and around a checkpoint and then back to the start line. Once you've selected a course, you select a vehicle (of which there are 12, all with different stats) and then it's out onto the city streets to face off against a singular adversary. For anyone who cares, the various locations in Faster Than Speed are:

  • Beginner: Sunnywood
  • Novice: Metro City
  • Advanced: Neon Hills
  • Expert: Wall Park
  • Pro: South Beach
  • Ace: Pacific Bay

As far as I can tell, these locales aren't mean to simulate any specific American city, instead taking elements a global audience may be familiar with and mashing them together to create a semi-recognisable pastiche. There are elements of Las Vegas, San Francisco and Hollywood mixed in with areas which - I can only presume, having never actually visited the USA - are meant to represent New York and other major conurbations. 

One particularly nice detail is that the designers have tried to make things interesting by throwing in the odd piece of classical architecture, with uplit churches and colonnaded musuems occasionally lumbering out of the darkness. I suppose these instances stick in the mind because they contrast so starkly against the modern cityscapes that make up so much of the rest of the world.

Again, aping the high stakes gameplay of games like Need for Speed: Underground, and also the underlying thread of movies such as The Fast and the Furious and its sequel 2 Fast 2 Furious (amazing title, that); the main theme in the racing in Faster Than Speed is that the winner takes all - it's a one-on-one street race where the loser loses not just their honour, but also their shiny, shiny hideously modded car. And because this game is from 2004, you'd also be expected to transfer your road tax to the new owner, too. Not that that last sentence/misguided attempt at humour will mean anything to anyone outside of the UK. Sigh.

The vehicles themselves are all branded with generic titles such as 'Type I,' 'Type II,' etc., however it is clear that they take design inspiration from real models. Any petrol head who knows their stuff will instantly recognise the familiar lines of marques such as Nissan, Mazda, Honda and Talbot (OK, probably not that last one). They do all have differing stats such as speed, handling, nitro; but in truth it doesn't really seem to matter which vehicle you select - just select the one with the best paint job is my advice. Speaking of paint jobs, each 'whip' has several to choose from, so you're in for a treat if ogling the type of garish two-tone hues only ever seen in an episode of Pimp My Ride is your thing.

Leafing through the aforementioned operation manul for the game, it appears that Faster Than Speed, when initially installed, would only offer the player a choice of six vehicles; a setting in the setup menu allowed the operator to 'release' a new additional vehicle each week using the game's internal calendar. This Dreamcast port appears to have forgone that option and had all six bonus vehicles (giving 12 in total) enabled as default, hence my confusion about the lies - damned lies! - emblazoned on the arcade flyer.

The front of the Faster Than Speed flyer (Image credit: Sega Amusements)

So yes, the aim of Faster Than Speed's single player experience is to face off against an ever increasingly wily vehicular foe, beating them and taking their vehicle (if you wish) and them moving on to the next stage/race. It's a fairly simple premise and one which I think you'll agree fits the arcade pedigree of the title quite well. I dare say that if Faster than Speed had ever received a home port, then further play modes would have been required in order to give it a little bit of longevity, but as a coin guzzler in its purest form, there's little wrong with this system.

But herein lies the weakness of Faster Than Speed when a pedantic fucker like me slimes their way onto it with a critical eye. Faster Than Speed, for all its early 2000s eye candy, noise and ridiculousness is actually a fairly weak driving experience when you sit down and play it for any length of time. And again, thanks to MegaVolt85 et al, we now have the ability to do this. Before I dive in to what irks me about this game, let us discuss the positives. 

Faster Than Speed looks pretty nice. The environments are a little unbalanced at times in how detailed they are, with some tracks looking way better than others; some have really lovely looking city environments with huge neon billboards and casinos and what not, and there's a liberal dose of lensflare and light streaking wherever you look. However in other places it almost feels like you're playing a Nintendo 64 game, with blurry textures, cardboard trees and unlit areas such as subways and parks looking particularly grotty. The vehicles though, look exquisite across the board with their strip-lit undercarriages and pearlescent paint jobs really showing off what the Atomiswave (or in this case, the Dreamcast) could do.

Music and effects are fine too, with all the usual rumbling engines, skid and burnout effects, and generic techno tunes you'd expect from a game like Faster Than Speed. Special mention must go to the announcer too, who while not as gleefully patronising as the guy from Ridge Racer, still chimes in with regularity to question your driving ability as you smash into a wall or an AI vehicle for the thousandth time in a race...which is where we move on to the slightly more lacklustre aspects of Faster Than Speed.

I have been playing this game on a Dreamcast with a standard Dreamcast controller and so my opinion may well be null and void, but the cars don't seem to have any real consistency in their handling. I make this point because Faster Than Speed was only ever meant to be played with a wheel, such is/was the nature of the cabinets it was designed to be used with. 

Even with that consideration made, Faster Than Speed played on a Dreamcast can become a frustrating experience as sometimes the vehicles handle just fine and taking corners is a piece of cake, while at other times the turning circle vanishes and trying to negotiate even the mildest of bends will see you drawn magnetically to the walls and trackside barriers, thus slowing you down and allowing the opponent to slip past at best, or sending your vehicle careening through the air and leaving it a quivering wreck at worst.

Faster Than Speed Atomiswave cartridge (Image Credit: LaunchBox)

There's a simple damage model whereby coming into contact with a wall or one of the numerous (and erratically driven) buses will flip your car all over the screen, leaving it perfectly drivable but in poor cosmetic shape; but in many cases this will be because you couldn't see the bus before it rounded a corner and you either had no time to evade it or the car just wouldn't turn quick enough to get out of the way. Also, none of the vehicles appear to have a reverse gear, so if you somehow find yourself wedged into a corner, you can't back up; all you can do is accelerate and turn and hope that the car somehow dislodges itself and allows you to continue on your way.

Add to this mix the almost random 'nitro boost' system which encourages you to hit the turbo button to propel the car into an impossible, fish-eye enabled thunder-blur like something out of a Limp Bizkit music video and you've got yourself a one-way ticket to crash city. The thing is, you need this eternally replenishing nitro boost to be in with any chance of winning the single player races, but when you hit the button, a loss of control is almost guaranteed unless you're on a long straight. Which brings me to another pedantic gripe: the track design.

If any of these locations actually existed in reality, the civic planners would be sacked on the spot. Either that or seconded to work in Southampton where they could continue to wreak havoc on the already utterly dire road network. Impossible corners, road works in the middle of perfectly open and useable highways, absolutely nonsensical road layouts, junctions and bus terminals in the middle of nowhere, bus terminals where the only exit is over a strategically placed ramp...Faster Than Speed is full of utterly bizarre design choices. Add to this areas of open plaza where it looks like you might be fine to drive across it only to be bounced away by an invisible wall; or totally random instances of 'yes you can drive off the track here...but not here, me laddo!' and you've got one inconsistent set of game world rules. Even Clu from Tron would have his work cut out trying to decipher the parameters of Faster Than Speed's game world.

In summary, I'm probably being idiotically harsh on Faster Than Speed. No doubt it is a game very, very few people have ever had the opportunity to experience themselves (or even knew existed before the Atomiswave library was cracked open); and now that anyone with a Dreamcast can do so is something of a revelation. It's clear that the game was created purely to cash in on the popularity of the underground street racing fever that gripped popular culture in the early 2000s, and as a quick blast I suppose it is perfectly playable and looks decent, and was never really meant to be scrutinised by a saddo like me with nothing better to do here in current year. But the annoying idiosyncrasies remain, so be warned if you do decide to jump in to Faster Than Speed for any length of time.

In the course of writing this tripe, I have spent quite some time playing Faster Than Speed on the Dreamcast, but I'd be interested to know if anyone out there reading this has got any of their own opinions and whether you agree or disagree with my ramblings. 

Did you play Faster Than Speed in an arcade back when it was contemporary? Do you own the actual Atomiswave cartridge? What I enjoy most about writing these posts about Atomiswave stuff is that there's precious little really out there on the internet about the titles we can now all play, so I'm intrigued to know if I've just totally missed the point or I have actually typed some sense. Let me know in the comments!


Laurence Goodchild said...

The return of Charlie Brooker/David Mitchell-esque grumpy toned Tom! I can't help but be drawn in by those screenshots, so will ignore the copiously detailed flaws and give this one a spin.

Tom Charnock said...

Haha! Yeah, Faster Than Speed is deffo worth a play - it's free after all and it looks lovely in places so rude not to. Ignore my curmudgeonly prose :D

Cass said...

Fair summary Tom. I would say that it's a perfectly acceptable arcade racer and experience. Back in the day any hypothetical homeport of the game would have needed some serious work and extra content but the actual game engine Sammy developed here on Atomiswave/Dreamcast hardware is great.