Recent news of the Vigilante 8 release on XBLA got me nostalgic for its bigger brother Interstate ’76. For those that don’t know Interstate ’76 or I76 as it was typically called was (is), hands down, my favorite computer game of all time. The game was set in, surprise, 1976 and envisioned an era when the fuel crisis of 1973 had never ended and roaming bands of auto-vigilantes brought their brand of villainy and justice to the deserts of the American West. The game employed the old Mechwarrior 2 engine to recreate classic muscle cars tricked out with everything from machine guns and flame throwers to rocket launchers and oil slicks.
The physics and combat systems were fairly advanced, almost on par with any racing game (modern or otherwise). The damage model was complex with what had to be upwards of ten specific areas of your vehicle tracked separately. Off the top of my head damageable areas included: front, rear, left, and right armor, chassis (maybe tracked separate based on location), tires, weapons, and even the driver. The game featured an in-depth customization system that allowed you to modify your chosen car. Armor strength was measured in poundage and could be distributed as you saw fit and, depending on your weapons layout, opened up many different tactical possibilities. For example, the Royale (or was it just Royal), one of my favorite cars in the game featured three forward hard points on the car’s front which meant that typically distributing armor more heavily on the front (the end your most likely to present to an enemy given your weapon layout) was probably your best option. Of course armor weight, and overall weight, effected your car as well so balancing protection with speed and maneuverability became an important aspect of designing your car.
All the above refers to the multiplayer portion of the game for the most part. It created very intense action and a very personal connection with your car. I remember being chased by an opponent slamming the emergency brake on, pulling a 180, shifting into reverse and unloading a batch of linked weapons right into their unsuspecting grill. Other tactics have stuck with me as well. The flamethrower and pistol combo, tricky but effective, in which you use fire to reduce an opponent’s armor, and take out tires, then while they’re slowed pull up along side and take out the driver with your pistol (it only worked when the damage bar was at a certain point and the pistol was the only weapon the driver had). No game’s multiplayer ever captured me quite so much as Interstate ’76 (maybe the orginal Day of Defeat before Valve picked it up).
As if the brilliant, tactical, fast-paced, action packed gameplay weren’t enough the game was well-written, in a fully realized world, with great characters. Then game had a uniquely cinematic feel, an aspect that was deftly cultivated by the games own cutscenes and other videos. For example, after the opening cinematic comes the title screen followed immediately by the opening credits which, in a fit of brilliant bit of cinematic charm, the developers crafted as the opening to a 70s television show; a fact never referenced in the game beyond that opening theme song. The intro shows the characters, giving their name and the fictional actors that play them. All good fun:
The games cinematic quality was part of its charm and was a tradition that continued the in game’s expansion pack sequel Interstate ’76: Nitro Pack (re-released as a standalone game Nitro Riders):
The plot of the single player game was to uncover the mysterious figure behind, and thus avenge, your sister’s death. The quest sends you across the west, through ghost towns, open deserts, and winding canyons. As race car driver Groove Champion you were new to the auto-vigilante world and thankfully had two friends to help you on your way. Interstate ’76 was one of those rare games that made you care about the NPCs and they played an important part in the story. There was Taurus your wingman who, with the press of “C” on your keyboard, would spout poetry; mostly about cars. Then there was Skeeter, the lovable nerdy mechanic whose relationship with cars bordered on the creepy. Both those characters immersed you in the game and left a mark on you as you played. I even named my first car after Taurus’ own car, Eloise (actually my second car (and current car) was even named after Groove’s departed sister, Jade).
Did I mention that the game has a killer soundtrack composed by Third Eye Blind’s Arion Salazar. It is performed by veteran musicians on vintage instruments and recorded with 70s era equipment to maintain authenticity. I still have all the tracks; now lovingly ripped to my iPod.
I won’t go into the lackluster sequel, Interstate ’82, that stripped out all the complexity of the original while violating one the first game’s biggest rules: never get out of the car. I did enjoy Vigilante 8 on the N64, though it was watered down in similar ways but more forgivable given the capacity of that eras consoles and the fact that it never pretended to be a sequel.
It is a shame that Activision never continued this series. Now I’m off to try and get my copy to work on Vista, wish me luck!
In the meantime enjoy this video of the game’s very first mission (man do I still love the HUD):
IGN has a similar article on the game over here.