A personal history of powerslides in video games

Dirt: Showdown certainly isn't short of them, and Harry recounts his memories of the driving game staple, the powerslide…

I still remember the first time I ever head the term “powerslide”. It was in a sea front amusement arcade, stood watching my brother play a Rave Racer arcade cabinet. The arcade had seen better days, and most of its floorspace was now taken up with noisy ten pence gambling machines that flashed and span and held no interest whatsoever for two young boys. It was the games we always sought out, tucked in a back corner next to a chained-off basketball score chaser that we were both convinced was entirely crooked. I don’t recall which other, cigarette-stained, machines lurked in that corner, because it was always the bright red, car shaped Rave Racer that drew us in, calling out to us with digitised cries of its own name. Our Mum and Gran would be perusing the junk at the indoor market next door, which gave us half an hour to pour twenty pence pieces into the machine, trying to get our names onto the high score table.

Will was older than me, and better than me at most games, so his abbreviated moniker WIL always sat above my sad looking HAZ. Sometimes he would forego the glory of another step up the table in order to add an offensive looking tag like PIS, BUM or WEE, which would set us off in fits of ridiculous laughter.

Anyone who’s played a Ridge Racer title knows that drift is one of the skills you have to master if you want to succeed. I was terrible at it, and terrified by the complex combinations of steering wheel, pedals and gear stick that the cabinet confronted me with. Part of me honestly thought if I messed up too badly, I’d plough the half tonne, stationary machine through the wall and into the market.

My brother, on the other hand, had it down to a fine art, sweeping his car through corners like he was driving on ice, before flicking it back under control and tearing away down the straights. I was, as you might expect, in awe. My own attempts more often than not ended up with me smashing into an opponent or a track side barrier, much to the amusement of my heartless sibling. At every opportunity we sought out more racing games, but none of them quite managed to capture the thrills and spills we experienced in that dingy corner of a dirty arcade.

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That is, until I saved up enough money to buy a PlayStation. After saving for the best part of a year, and trading in a Megadrive and all of my games, I had enough to buy the console, but not enough to buy any games. I was stuck with the demo disc that came bundled with every new PlayStation, which included a track from Ridge Racer Revolution. I played it for hours, mangling my hands around a new and uncomfortable pad to try and recreate some of the great times I remembered. The PlayStation era was a golden age for home based powersliding, with a raft of arcade perfect conversions flowing onto the console. You’d flick the car into a corner, release X, then smash it back down, overloading the back wheels and swinging you round the corner, before releasing the throttle again to catch the slide and right yourself.

I was still terrible at it, even with the practice I was putting in, but that didn’t really matter. Perched on the edge of a sofa that’s long since been hurled into a skip, controller clenched in my sweaty palms, it was the screech of tyre on tarmac that I was longing for, that perfect technique that I was pining to achieve. V-Rally continued the tradition, demanding you throw your car around a dirt track sideways. It was even tougher, far less forgiving, and I fell in love with it, and another rallying game by the name of Colin Mcrae Rally.

My Dad had been a rally driver in the dim and distant past, and he’d taken us out to watch forest stages in Dalby, but this was even better. Here you were in control, following the instructions your co-driver yelled at you, stalking the line between perfect corner and ditch-based ending. On the rare occasions we’d find an arcade game out in the wild, be it Sega Rally, a new Ridge Racer, or one of the hundreds of other titles that aped the greats, we’d still clamour for a turn, and linked cabinets meant we could race against each other as the developer intended. But those days were fading into the past, and more and more we’d hold our competitions in the living room.

Crazy Taxi and Sega Rally on the Dreamcast, along with Metropolis Street Racer, filled the conflicts of the early noughties. Crazy Taxi was, by its own admission, the most ridiculous of the three, and the closest to the arcade action of our youth. It encouraged irresponsibility, setting you challenges that involved drifting sideways into bowling pins. All three games were energetic recreations of things we weren’t allowed to do in real life, and all three made us wish our own little cars could be so easily thrown sideways around a bend.

As we grew up and apart, our challenges became few and far between. Burnout races in a cheap flat that looked like it was decorated by and for an ageing woman, complete with sofas that smelled a little like sugar puffs; inventing our own multiplayer modes in Gran Turismo 4 when we got bored of just driving round and round. The one thing that sticks in the memory, though, is the sheer exhilaration that still comes from pulling off a perfect powerslide. Realistic physics is an important part of most racers nowadays, making the twitch of the car as you manage to pull it back from the brink of disaster is all the more satisfying.

It’s important to remember where we’ve come from, and what we’ve learned along the way, and my formative experiences with racing games all centred around the powerslide. It’s one of those game mechanics that manages (if you pull it off at least) to make you feel like you could do anything, that makes you feel like you’re perfectly in control of what is essentially a machine on the verge of spiralling into oblivion. I might not have been great at racing games, my name might not have been up there at the top of the leader boards, but something still sparks inside me when I throw a super charged rally car around a corner sideways.

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