Vanishing Point: The Dreamcast's Secret Ridge Racer

In early January 2001, while most were still nursing hangovers and recovering from eating too many mince pies, Vanishing Point released on both the Dreamcast and PlayStation to little fanfare in what was an already overcrowded genre. As such, it unfortunately drifted off into obscurity as one of the most misunderstood and underappreciated racing games of its era.

The titular "Vanishing Point" was actually a reference to developer Clockwork Games' ambitions to create a racing game with neither graphical pop up or fog masking the draw distance. It was also inspired by popular arcade racers of the time, such as Sega Rally, SCUD racer, and there is definitely a taste of Ridge Racer in the visual and course design, with planes flying overhead, yachts in harbours, windmills, trains and of course, lots of big fancy bridges. 

Image credit: MobyGames

But before we go any further, let’s get the elephant in the room out of the way. The game's intro footage is about as misleading as any opening FMV could be for a game. You do not directly race against opponents, there are no aggressive two-way or even three-way races, nor are there oncoming tankers with explosions to satisfy even the craziest of pyromaniacs. That said, what is here, is a rather unique take on the arcade racer. Instead of starting at the back and working your way through the pack to first place, the structure is more like an open time trial. This has led to the misconception over the years that Vanishing Point is just a time trial game. While the aim is to beat each race's set time, the real hook of the game is the traffic you have to weave through as efficiently as possible in order to be able to hit that time - you can’t just follow the most obvious path around the course. The traffic is also multi-tiered, adding an extra layer of depth to how you must approach your driving.

There are two types of traffic AI, the first being basic "drone" vehicles which are just cars that happen to be on the road. They pose very little risk, as long as you just don’t plough into them. But what does make the driving of Vanishing Point much more interesting are other racers on the road who are also vying for the fastest time. Being ready to respond to whatever is going to happen in front of you makes getting past these particular drivers much more challenging; they are much less predictable, and will even try to get around the drone traffic, often taking themselves out in the process.

Image credit: MobyGames

This brings the three key pillars of Vanishing Point into view:

  • Momentum
  • Anticipation
  • Threading the line

In order to keep your speed up, you need to carry momentum through the corners of the course into the straights, which entails not slowing down too sharply or steering too heavily. At the same time, you have to anticipate the traffic ahead, and may find that the fastest path forward is also going to lead you directly into a three-car pile-up, adding a great risk/reward hook. This makes threading your line around the course and through the traffic vital, and once you're familiar with the handling, this is an extremely satisfying gameplay mechanic, especially when combined with the incredible sense of speed the faster cars have.

There are a variety of licensed vehicles from several manufacturers available, including Ford, Toyota and Audi, each with their own unique handling and physics models. The differences between the cars provide a good level of variety to races, as it means there are better ways to approach certain courses depending on the vehicle you have selected. The courses and also nicely varied in both layout and aesthetics, which helps to prevent the game from looking and feeling samey as you progress.

Image credit: MobyGames

The structure of the game is very much of its time, having you start with a very limited choice of vehicles and courses, with more choices opening up the further you progress. Not only do you unlock additional vehicles and courses, but there are entire new game modes to discover, including a "Stunt Driver" mode, with objectives for stunts to carry out, and a "Rally" mode. There are also some multiplayer modes, including the usual head-to-head racing, but also "Balloon Buster" and "Chicken Races", which altogether makes Vanishing Point a surprisingly well-rounded package with plenty of replay value. What’s more, although only two can play at a time, the "Knock Out", "Tournament" and "Winner Stays On" modes support up to eight participants.

Image credit: MobyGames

Visually, Vanishing Point has that "PS1 game" look about it… except, with a higher resolution, cleaner textures and a silky smooth frame rate of 60fps. The car models are rendered authentically, if a little lower in detail compared to other games on the system. 

The game is no slouch on the sound front, with some pretty beefy engine sounds and a soundtrack that never quite hits the highs of Sega or Namco’s greatest, but is far from terrible and fits the high-speed action well.

Clockwork Games didn't quite achieve their ambition of making a game that feels like Sega Rally, but once you learn to ignore the urge to correct the oversteer, there is a very smooth and responsive arcade racer worth experiencing. All in all, Vanishing Point stands out as a unique racing title on the system, and with its relatively cheap preowned price, it is a worthy of addition to any Dreamcast owner's collection.

Have you played Vanishing Point? If so, what are your thoughts on it? Let us know in the comments below or via one of our many social media channels.

10 comments:

Lewis Cox said...

Great article, Mike! I couldn’t think of a more “Dreamcast-y” game than this one. Misunderstood and under appreciated…

DCGX said...

This game is pretty cool. The only big issue I have with it, like most, is the wobbly feel of the cars. Like the backend is on ice. Otherwise it's a fun time!

JRod said...

I really want to like this game but I cannot get a hang of the car handling. I find the cars basically undrivable

Tom Charnock said...

I have a weird love for this game, it looks great. I remember spending hours in the stunt/challenge mode marvelling at the way the car just freezes mid-flight if you go off track! Nice write up Mike!

way2easy said...

I'm pretty sure VP is one of the DC racing games that handles better if you hold the sick forward (up) and roll the stick left and right to steer.
Funnily enough I played this recently but only because I broke out the Ferrari racing wheel and tried it with every DC racing game I own coz boredom.

ShreddieMercury said...

This article has convinced me to give the game another try. I owned it when it was originally released but could never get too far due to the handling and the rather long races. I tried it again a couple years back when I was revisiting racing games on the Dreamcast and had much the same experience, but I've seen it championed quite often as an underrated racer on the system.

I would love to see the Junkyard do an overview of racing games on the system, as Dreamcast has many real classics and real duds alike. I love the genre, particularly any game that takes place post-1938.

RJAY63 said...

Vanishing Point is a strange marriage between arcade style race tracks and overcomplex driving physics. For me, it doesn't really work as everything is a lot more 'nervous' than it needs to be. I wrote a review of the game quite a while back on the Dreamcast-Talk forum.

One interesting aspect of Vanishing Point was the internet function. After connecting to Acclaim's server, the game was programmed to download code directly from the server to the Dreamcast's RAM. Acclaim used something called NetSpine to deliver this. Some of the challenges allowed you to play Balloon Buster mode in single player (normally multiplayer only).

DCGX said...

@RJAY63 That's cool, I had no idea.

MKKhanzo said...

This was my jam back then! People called me crazy for liking it. It looked the part too! Those rock solod 60fps!

Glowsquid said...

The game has the same quirk as Daytona USA 2001 where the steering really is oversensitive for normal play, but if you hold up on the analog stick while steering, it suddenly becomes much more manageable.