Thursday, June 21, 2018

Coin-Op Review: “Double Axle” (1991)

It’s basically Outrun meets Burnout with monster trucks … so why isn’t this game more widely celebrated?


By: Jimbo X

@JimboX

Let’s talk about Taito for a minute. In the grand pantheon of beloved retro game developers, they almost always get lost in the shuffle with Konami, Capcom and Hudson Soft, and that’s a crying shame, because these folks are responsible for some of the most enjoyable games ever in the history of video gaming.

Yes, most people already know they made Space Invaders and Bubble Bobble, but that’s only scratching the surface. The REAL appeal of Taito is the depth (and weirdness) of their software library. These are the same folks who gave us titles as diverse as Arkanoid and Darius, titles as nuanced as Truxton and Demon’s World, titles as entertaining as Power Blade and Wrath of the Black Manta, titles as innovative as Graffiti Kingdom and Sonic Blast Man. Simply put, these guys made a TON of great games, and pretty much all of them remain obscurities, even in this, the age of in-browser arcade emulation.

Which brings us to Double Axle, a 1991 Taito coin-op offering I never heard of until very recently.

Obviously, the game is meant to capitalize on the monster truck trend of the early 1990s, complete with a font that shamelessly rips off the iconic Bigfoot branding. And while I can’t say I’ve played *that* many monster truck-themed video games, of the scant few that I have this is easily the best I’ve ever encountered.

That’s not to say Double Axle is sans any flaws, because it’s got a couple of them — and some pretty major ones, at that. But for the most part, this is an insanely fun arcade racer that deserves WAY more retroactive reverence than it receives. It’s perfect seasonal game playing material; it’s short, it’s fast, the visuals are colorful and everything about it practically screams "it's summer, motherfucker" and that means you NEED to give it a whirl.

Now, the original arcade version had the old Turbo Outrun set-up, with the gas pedals near the bottom of the cabinet and a steering wheel mounted right there in front of the screen. Of course, since we’re emulating this shit it’s not exactly the same experience, but it’s nonetheless one entertaining ass diversion. So let’s hop right into the thick of things, why don’t we?

What's that? "Bigfoot?" Never heard of it before, I swear.

First things first, the game is short — with only five stages, you can feasibly beat the entire thing in less than 10 minutes. Of course, considering how goddamn hard the fifth and final stage is, you'll never actually know what it's like to "beat" the game, so don't you dare think this one won't give you your money's worth in terms of challenge.

The core gameplay is very simple. Before each stage you're allotted a certain amount of money to upgrade your truck with a more powerful engine, bigger tires or nitro boosters. And from there, it's straight to the races, in which you take your lawsuit-baiting big rig on an off-road, pedal-to-the-medal destruction-a-thon against nine other jumbo-sized vehicles (which, among other rides, includes what appears to be a jacked-up version of the van from The A-Team.)

And before you ask, no, the upgrades don't really make that much of a difference on how the trucks control. Sure, the handling is a teeny bit smoother if you have the big old souped-up tires selected, but it's not like having them equipped makes you that much likelier to come in first. The engine upgrade, to the best of my knowledge, doesn't do anything — maybe it makes your ride just a smidge faster, but then again, the advantage is so minuscule as to be almost unnoticeable.

The nitro boosts, though, do come in handy, and almost work like cheat codes in some situations. Basically, if you have at least two of 'em stored up and it's neck and neck heading down the stretch, you're pretty much guaranteed the opportunity to surge in front of everybody right at the checkered flag.

So, stage one. This is a good introductory level that puts you — where else? — smackdab in the middle of the wilderness, complete with muddy bogs and old log cabins and a ton of pine trees that have a frustrating penchant for popping up right in front of you without any advance warning.

Right from the get-go you see everything that makes Double Axle awesome and a major pain in the ass. The sense of force in this game is just phenomenal; even emulating the thing with a keyboard you get a nice, palpable sense of power as you mow down shrubs and rustic, rural housing. Secondly, the racing mechanics are pretty fuckin' excellent, playing out like a mix between Outrun (what, with its hairpin turns and split-second-to-choose forks-in-the-road) and Burnout, in the sense that you can just grind the shit out of your adversaries, demolition-derby-style while jockeying for first place. That crunch as your big rig swaps aluminum with another monster truck just feels so visceral and awesome, and combined with the game's great sense of speed, just mashing the gas pedal in this one feels like a hoot and a half to experience.

But then again, the game does have its demerits, and even from stage uno they are quite evident. Long story short, the controls in this one flat out suck. Maybe you really need the wheel attachment here to play it properly, but using the basic ROM setup is like trying to use a brick for a harmonica. Turning is especially aggravating, since your truck seems to instinctively hug the edge of the road whenever you try to pivot around a corner. And since the sides of the road are almost always littered with giant, truck-stopping obstacles like boulders, pillars of ice and giant balls of magma, perhaps you can see how this presents a challenge. And by challenge, I mean "total fucking bullshit, that's what."

That's a lot of people in the stands. Looks like the trailer park is empty tonight!

So anyway, stage one ain't too bad. Basically, all you have to do is hang tight to the edge of the screen WITHOUT going off-road (which is way harder than it sounds) and turbo boost like a motherfucker as you hit that final straightaway. Along the way you'll figure out the core mechanics of the title (i.e., which rocks you can use as launch pads and which ones stall you out, just how close to the precipice of the screen you can get without falling off cliffs, etc.) and really, unless you utterly and completely suck at racing games, you should get through this one with no problems whatsoever.

Which brings us to stage two, which is really more of an extended mini-game. This is Taito's loving homage to the indoor monster truck rally, and it's easily the funnest thing about the whole game. Instead of racing an opponent, it's you and a competing rig going toe-to-toe in a contest to see which truck can smash up the most shit and it IS every bit as fun as it sounds. It only lasts about half a minute, but by golly, will you have a ball mowing down sedans and crunching tour buses like a diesel-powered Godzilla. Really, this segment alone makes the title worth going out of your way to experience ... even if you don't like racing games, this thing ought to make you squeal with delight, regardless.

With stage three it's back to our usual racing set-up. This time around we're racing in the outback or the Arizona desert or the wastelands of Africa or some other place you'd never want to travel in a million years. Structurally, it's more or less the same setup as the first level, except harder, with more obstacles (including friggin' tornadoes that just show up halfway through the level), windier roads, thicker bogs (which can be avoided by using the old side-of-the-road-hugging technique discussed earlier) and some REALLY steep cliffs that, at times, feel almost impossible to navigate without falling off of at least once. By the way, every time your truck falls off a ledge, it explodes and magically re-materializes a few seconds later ... albeit, driving WAY slower. Get blown up three or four times in a race and your ride basically becomes a worthless hunk of junk that can't make it over an anthill, so, yeah, try not to do that, OK?

Stage four is another glorified mini-game but my goodness, is it another outstanding glorified mini-game. It's the same idea as the monster truck rally stage (you versus another driver compete to see who can run over the most stuff), except this time around it's taking place as you drive THE WRONG WAY DOWN A HIGHWAY. Yep, that's right, this is a game that simulates mass vehicular homicide, and it's every bit as hilariously/disturbingly fun as it sounds. Granted, the hit collusion seems a little off (sometimes you get a nice crunch and you can feel the drag against your truck, other times the game doesn't even bother registering the Toyota Corolla getting smashed under your front tire) but for the most part? This is some SERIOUSLY entertaining stuff right here.

Yeah, the cameo appearance from the Hindenburg didn't make much sense to me, either.

Which brings us to the game's fifth and final level, which I can telly you right now is EXACTLY why this game isn't celebrated as a lower-tier arcade classic ... or even remembered at all, for that matter.

This time around you're racing in an icy village, and if you think having eight-foot-tall tires welded onto your ride will help you one iota as you trudge through they snowy tundra, THINK AGAIN. Unless you hug the ever-loving shit out of the edge of the road you're going to be pirouetting across the screen, constantly bumping into other drivers OR the bajillion ice sculptures just left there in the middle of the raceway. Needless to say, this might just be the WORST-designed stage in the history of racing games — to the point I'd call the stage LITERALLY unwinnable.

Problem No. 1 is the draw-in. Towards the final straightaway, there's this section where you have to drive through a tight squeeze of rock formations. The only problem is the game is faster than the draw-in rates, so instead of being able to weave in and out of the obstacles like Space Harrier, you LITERALLY find your truck ramming into giant boulders that just pop up out of thin air. Of course, the same fate befalls the other drivers, too, so it's kinda' like a final grinder before the checkered flag. It may slow down the game considerably, but it does make the last hurrah way more dramatic; indeed, this is a rare game design (well, glitch, actually) that makes it possible for first and last place to switch positions in just a matter of seconds. And yes, sheer, blind luck is the only factor in play here — skill, be damned straight to the fiery pits of hell.

Get ready, because you'll be seeing this screen over and over again.

And that leads us to Problem No. 2, and this one is quite literally a gamebreaker. The final stretch of the race is a saunter up a steep, icy cliff, with NO barriers to prevent your truck from flying off the sides. Folks, this part of the game is literally — not figuratively, not creatively, not symbolically, not metaphorically — IMPOSSIBLE. Maybe you'd have a better chance with the actual wheel peripheral, but with a good old QWERTY keyboard there's no way you can navigate this one without either falling off the edges or driving so slowly that all the other trucks lap you and you lose by default (by the way, you HAVE to finish in the top three in each race to move in. Maybe I should've told you people that earlier, eh?) Think I'm joshing you? Go onto YouTube and try to find a full play-through of the game. It doesn't exist because NOBODY can find a way to get up that friggin' ice bridge. For all intents and purposes, the game hits an unplanned kill screen as soon as the section begins, and not even spamming your nitro boosts will be enough to get you over the hump. There might be another stage after this one, but like fuck if anybody using MAME will ever see what it looks like.

So, yeah, if you can overlook the fact the final stage of the game is a broken piece of fucking dog shit that is impossible to win, Double Axle is actually a pretty fun little coin-op undeservedly left to the miasma of early 1990s nostalgia. Really, had Taito spent a little more time on the title they could've made it an undisputed classic, or at least a game worthy of an extended home port. Really, this thing *could* have become a Road Rash-like franchise, and let's don't pretend like this engine would have been a natural fit for a REAL video game adaptation of that old Monster Wars TV show. And lord knows it's WAY better than that cruddy Bigfoot game Acclaim released for the NES, so if nothing else, at least it's got that going for it, I suppose.

Maybe Double Axle ain't an all-time classic. OK, scratch that ... there's NO WAY it can be construed as an all-time classic. But what it is, however, is a game that's way better than it probably had any right to be, and with a bit more polish and fine-tuning, could've ended up as one of the best arcade racers of the early 1990s.

But for everything it is (and isn't) it's still a forgotten relic of yesteryear that's very much worth rediscovering. Even as a mere curiosity piece it's more entertaining than a good 70 or 80 percent of the crap that was glutting up the arcade market at the time, and it's pretty fun being able to play a game that was effectively giving us Burnout — with monster trucks, no less — a good decade before the first real Burnout game got released.

And if anybody out there has video evidence of a human player actually BEATING this game's fifth level, somebody give me a heads up ... that is, if alien super-beings haven't already recruited him for a position as intergalactic general, naturally.

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