Buggy Boy

Buggy Boy was one of the first games I played on the Atari ST — and it’s one that still holds up very well today.

The game was originally released in arcades in 1985 by Tatsumi, and is known is some territories as Speed Buggy. Home ports were released over the course of the following few years by prolific developer-publisher Elite, with the 16-bit home computer versions hitting ST and Amiga in 1988.

It’s a single-player checkpoints-and-timer racing game with an emphasis on relatively low-speed, technical driving, which immediately makes it stand out against the many high-speed racers based on the Pole Position mould from the era.

In Buggy Boy, you take control of an off-road buggy in an attempt to clear one of five different courses. The first of these, known as Offroad, is a series of five laps around the same course, with additional obstacles being snuck in with each lap, while the other four are five-leg point-to-point races.

Controls are kept very simple and as such allow you to concentrate on the most important aspect of the game: weaving in and out of obstacles and point-scoring items. Pushing up on the joystick accelerates while pulling back brakes; interestingly, letting go of the accelerator does not cause your buggy to start decelerating naturally, it simply “locks” your vehicle at its current speed. This is a godsend for those playing on a gamepad in particular, as it means you don’t have to continuously hold “up” while you’re at top speed.

Like most arcade racers of the period, your vehicle has only two gears, with the first being used to accelerate quickly from a standstill and the second being used to bring you up to your top speed. There’s generally no need for tactical gearshifting to get around corners due to the fact that the maximum speed of the game is relatively low anyway, so the only time you’ll really need the low gear is starting the race or restarting after a crash.

The reason Buggy Boy moves at such a relatively sedate pace compared to other arcade racers (despite what the in-game speedometer might try and tell you) is due to the fact that every track is liberally strewn with crap that has apparently fallen off the back of a truck making a delivery to the local garden centre. Rocks, fences, logs, stones, bushes, trees — there’s all sorts of stuff to get in your way, though some can be used to your advantage. Most notably, logs can be used as improvised ramps to fling your buggy up into the air and over the top of obstacles, while small stones can be used to tip your vehicle up onto two wheels, allowing it to steer particularly tightly in one direction, but making it a bit unstable in the other.

As well as all the obstacles to avoid, Buggy Boy does its best to tempt you from the racing line with various items to improve your score. Coloured flags are worth 30 points each, with a bonus on offer if you pick them up in the correct order indicated on screen, and slalom-style gates give you lots of points if you pass through them while racing. There are also time gates, which add an extra two seconds to the clock each time you complete a lap or leg of the race, so it’s in your interests to watch out for these in particular, especially on the tougher courses.

Many racing games of the period had a score function but it was usually fairly meaningless; the emphasis was very much on simply completing the race successfully, or at least getting as far as you could. But while Buggy Boy does still require you to beat the timer in order to complete a race, the addition of the flags and gates give some actual meaning to that score readout. Sure, you might be able to complete the race, but can you do so with a higher score than last time, given that doing so will require you to weave your way through a lot more flags and gates?

This also gives the game a very distinct feel when compared to even racing games from today, which typically involve direct competition between the player and a number of other opponents. Here, there are no other vehicles to get in the way; it’s just you against the timer and all the various bits of debris that have found their way onto the track to make it rather more perilous than it needs to be.

Buggy Boy is a decent-looking game, especially considering its age, with colourful, clear graphics that scale reasonably smoothly as well as some nice effects like changing road surfaces, bridges over water and even simple polygonal roadside structures such as walls, bridges, tunnels and even banked corners. The frame rate is ample for what the game demands of you — the ST version actually runs slightly faster than the Amiga version — and the controls are tight and responsive.

In the audio department, the game doesn’t fare so well. There’s some decent music on the high score table between races, but other than that there are some fairly underwhelming sound effects during races, with the strange arpeggiated engine sound getting a little grating after a while. That said, they are functional enough, providing you with plenty of audio cues to complement the clear visuals, and aren’t particularly offensive; they’re actually quite authentic to the original arcade version.

On the whole then, Buggy Boy is still a very worthwhile, enjoyable game that is worth playing. Its relatively sedate pace and highly technical driving make it stand out among the high-performance supercars of today’s typical racers, and even back in the day it was a nice contrast to the other games of the period trying to ape Pole Position and, later, Out Run.

If you’re an arcade racing fan with an Atari ST knocking around, definitely give it a look!

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