Waxing Wistfully on Wacky Wheels

Like most games that I have a long-standing adoration for, my first experience with Wacky Wheels came from a sublime shareware CD that one of my relatives gave me in the 90s. Although I no longer recall any details on the CD itself, aside from it having a black background with white text, I do remember that it contained demo versions of a great many timeless 90s computer games, including Wacky Wheels, Jetpack, Pickle Wars, Commander Keen 1 and 4, Jazz Jackrabbit 1, and Raptor: Call of the Shadows.

My parents never understood the point of computer games, so I never owned a gaming console and very rarely received computer games as gifts. Warez were also, at least in my experience, exponentially harder to locate back in those days (I still vividly remember how rewarding it felt to finally locate the full version of Doom on a French warez site after years of toiling away looking in every nook and cranny of the Web). As such, this seemingly throwaway CD went on to become one of my most treasured possessions, and I played every single demo on it to completion many dozens of times.

This CD was not my first brush with gaming; the very first computer we ever owned after immigrating to the United States contained demos of both Doom and Raptor: Call of the Shadows. Needless to say, playing those two games for the first time at a young age was akin to being unexpectedly injected with potent heroin, and I quickly began fiending for more games to consume, an addiction that the nameless shareware CD was too happy to feed. While not the absolute finest ware the CD had to offer, the zany kart racing game Wacky Wheels quickly developed a very special and unfaltering place in my heart.

My friend ShadowM00n wrote an excellent article explaining why it is inherently futile to attempt to assign any game the title of "best game", and in most cases, I am inclined to agree with his assessment. Nonetheless, I will make an exception just once and declare that Wacky Wheels is indisputably the greatest racing game of all time, based solely on the fact that it is the only racing game, at least to my knowledge, that allows one to player as Razer - a shark driving a lawnmower (<screenshot>).

I have played Wacky Wheels far too many times to count over the decades and I'm not sure I have ever finished a single campaign as any other character but Razer. Even in spite of the availability of a tiger (Tigi), the comedic siren's call of the lawnmower-driving shark was too powerful to overcome. Even after 20 to 25 years of gaming, he still remains one of the most memorable computer game protagonists that I can think of.

In fact, at some point over the decades, I became so accustomed to playing as Razer that seeing him replaced him with another animal and seeing the iconic shark demoted to an NPC that I have to compete with turned into something that could not fit into my Overton window. If "computer game protagonist dysphoria" was an actual term, it would describe my sentiments quite well.

A side-note on the term lawnmower: although Wacky Wheels is inspired by Mario Kart and the vehicles in the game do seem to resemble karts, the game explicitly refers to them as lawnmowers. As it turns out, the vehicles were originally supposed to be karts, until musician Lee Jackson made a disparaging remark about the sounds they made resembling Briggs & Stratton lawnmowers. The references to karts were then <changed to "Lee & Jackson lawnmowers" as an inside joke>.

I fully understand that my proclamation of this goofy, cartoonish 1994 DOS game being the greatest racing game of all time will no doubt be met with a cacophony of howling laughter, perhaps followed by many shouts of "have you never heard of X?" I am fully aware that modern racing games that are far more complicated and sophisticated than Wacky Wheels are a dime a dozen, and have even played a number of them over the years. Ultimately however, none of them ever captivated me for very long, and I always found myself returning to my old flame.

I suspect the crux of the matter is that the racing genre is simply not something that has ever particularly captivated me. Platformers (such as <Commander Keen> and <Jazz> <Jackrabbit>) and first person shooters (such as <Doom> and <S.T.A.L.K.E.R.>) were always my bread and butter, and racing was akin to an exotic treat that I would partake in occasionally.

While racing connoisseurs can no doubt find much enjoyment in the myriad of choices offered in more modern racing titles, I never had the motivation to dig too deeply into the genre and learn just what are the benefits and negatives of particular vehicles, engines, oils, and so forth, nor any desire to worry about realistic vehicular physics. Wacky Wheels is a legitimately challenging game on the highest difficulty setting, yet it is ultimately also a very basic game that just about anyone can pick up and, on the lowest difficulty setting, even excel at.

Far from irritating and confusing the player with the burden of individually optimising seemingly every individual molecule inside their vehicle like modern racing titles do, the only choices Wacky Wheels forces you to make are what animal you wish to drive as (the only correct answer, of course, being Razer), what difficulty level to play on, how many laps the races should have, and how fast the vehicles should drive.

That is not to say that Wacky Wheels is insipid and lacking in features. There are a diverse amount of tracks and terrains with numerous pick-ups and hazards to be found. Each track features hedgehogs that you can abduct and fire at other drivers to briefly sabotage them, as well as weapons such as matchstick fireballs, demons that oscillate back and forth across the track, and oil that can be spilled behind you to derail other drivers.

Most tracks also feature shortcuts that can be exploited to save time (and become mandatory on the highest difficulty setting), as well as debilitating terrain such as dirt/grass, oil slicks, and water that causes your lawnmower to submerge and be replaced with a cute periscope. (<screenshot>) There are also bars that allow you to rapidly fly forward through the air, gracefully executing a 360 degree turn in the process, and "turbo straightaways" that give you a hefty, temporary speed boost.

Apogee/3D Realms advertises Wacky Wheels as <being several games in one package>, and this is not a fallacious declaration. In addition to the entertaining main game, which includes multiplayer racing and time trials, Wacky Wheels also features a sort-of deathmatch mode where you and another player can race around collecting hedgehogs and fragging each other with them. There is also a mode where the aim is take down as many skating ducks as possible. I have never had the pleasure of playing Wacky Wheels with another player, but have gotten plenty of mileage from the other playing modes that it has to offer.

In addition to the regular gameplay Wacky Wheels features a cornucopia of fun details to delight the player, such as competing animals turning to look at you and honking their horn whenever they pass you. Anyone who has played the game for long enough will inevitably discover that if you have the misfortune (or fortune, depending on perspective!) of driving straight into a solid object such as a pole at a high speed, the recoil from the crash will eject your protagonist from their lawnmower and send them crashing into your monitor, cracking it and causing you to lose the race. (<screenshot>)

Not all collisions have a negative outcome -- slamming into a pile of tires causes the tires to go flying, with one of them landing on top of the protagonist and wrapping around their lawnmower, almost akin to a pool float. <screenshot> The inclusion of all of these little details, which are fun yet unnecessary, truly shows how much genuine love the developers put into Wacky Wheels.

Moreover, the famous Dopefish from Commander Keen 4: Goodbye Galaxy! actually has a shrouded presence in Wacky Wheels! If, for whatever reason, instead of speeding off at the moment a race starts in order to defeat the other drivers, something compels the player to instead slam on the brakes and execute two complete left turns in the spot they start the race out in, Dopefish will appear from the bottom of the screen and proudly belch out some bubbles before returning to the abyss from whence he came. How anyone managed to accidentally stumble into this easter egg, the world may never know.

Dopefish is a legendary gaming icon who has <visited a great many titles over the years>, but his inclusion in Wacky Wheels has a particularly interesting story behind it. As Wacky Wheels programmer and designer <Andy Edwardson explained it>, there had been some tension between Edwardson and beta tester Joe Siegler stemming from Edwardson taking unnecessary umbrage over Siegler's blunt feedback. After realising that Siegler was only doing his best to help him make a terrific game, Edwardson decided to make amends by adding Dopefish to Wacky Wheels due to knowing that Siegler was a big fan of the character. Siegler not only enjoyed the idea, but even contributed the belching sound that the Dopefish makes.

Like a number of other games, Wacky Wheels also features a glitch (or a feature, as Edwardson retroactively put it) that allows players to "void glide" - or clip through a wall and into the normally out-of-reach abyss beyond. This is only possible to achieve in two-player mode (which can be done solo with both characters operated via different keys on the same keyboard), but it works in every single race track, as well as in two of the arenas for two player shootouts. The webmaster of <Phil's Wacky Wheels Site> put together helpful instructions on how to achieve this feat, which I was able to use to successfully void glide in a number of places.

Although Wacky Wheels doesn't typically feature any sort of interesting structures in the void (a la <S.T.A.L.K.E.R.>) and there are no gameplay benefits to entering it (a la <Doom>), there are some odd phenomenon out there such as "ghost tracks" that resemble exact replicas of the regular playing area but that appear to be entirely cosmetic as the player clips through every single part of them, including the walls. (<screenshot>) The outer regions of every void also feature a surreal white/black void that permanently freezes you in place the moment you stop driving. (<screenshot>)

The only stage that features a coherent and purposeful structure in the void (at least, that I am aware of) is the first track in the Bonus Silver Wheels, which contains a walled-off lake/puddle which the entire race track surrounds. It's a pretty comfy secret area, even if there is absolutely no point in visiting it. The water is swimmable, and there is a miniscule island in the middle of it that is good for taking screenshots. (<screenshot>). It's basically a cozy personal pool that the laws of physics prevent anyone else from intruding on! (:

Some people may have heard of Skunny Kart, Wacky Wheels' evil sibling game. This game was released by the shady (and very aptly named) Belgian company known as CopySoft, who stole an early version of Wacky Wheels' engine and narrowly beat the actual developers of Wacky Wheels to the punch. <The story goes> that Andy Edwardson was working at CopySoft when he put together what would become Wacky Wheels on his own time. Being disillusioned with his current job, Edwardson moved to Apogee, but accidentally left behind a demo CD containing the source code for Wacky Wheels, which CopySoft promptly exploited for their own ends.

Interestingly, there exists a rare beta version of Wacky Wheels which shares a number of similiarities with Skunny Kart. I had the fortune of obtaining a copy of it but was lamentably unable to get very far with it as this version did not yet have keyboard support and can only be used with a joystick.

Wacky Wheels is most certainly far from the most sophisticated racing game out there, but its cute nature and fun, simple gameplay make it a truly timeless gem for me. The complexity and grittiness of most other racing titles turns me off, and I am very delighted that Wacky Wheels was not corrupted by the influence of the ultra-popular Doom, which had come out during the game's development and utterly changed the face of gaming forever. To quote <Andy Edwardson>: "If I could turn the clock back and make Wacky Wheels violent, full of blood and gore would I? Nah. It was fun, and kids big and small can enjoy it." Very well stated, Mr. Edwardson.


A great many thanks to Mr. Alec Lownes for providing the CSS behind the CRT effects in this section, and to Mr. Zeh Fernando and LÆMEUR for the More Perfect DOS VGA font!!