This game is complicated to discuss. Not because the game is complex or there’s some problem with the provenance or a complicated word in the title, but rather, because most people I know who knew the game knew it only as stunts.exe, but depending on what part of the world your copy came from, it could have been known as 4DS, Stunt Car Racer, Stunt Driver, or Stunts.
We were, however, all well aware that this game was great.
For reasons that are tricky to explain.
The game is a speed racing game, but not a realistic one; it’s that particular character of 1990 3d you might associate with flying games, where everything moves a bit like a box kite. But instead of the goalpost-less expanse of the wide open sky, Stunts puts you down on the ground with a yellow dotted line on the road next to you. You get to drive in cars that range from junky heavy set jeeps and extremely boxy derby vehicles to Formula 1 down-on-the-ground road-huggers or Italian hypercars by any other name.
But this wasn’t just a racing game where you have to go fast, no no! That would be too pedestrian. Instead, Stunts is a game where the track is full of overpasses and jumps and corkscrews and loop-de-loops and ramps and tunnels and all sorts of best-a-286-could-manage 3d performance elements complete with an ability to recognise when the g-forces are just too much for your car and have it explode on the road. It’s a racing game where the things you’re driving around are meant to be interesting because you need to do things like hit maximal acceleration rates or maintain your momentum but not too much of it because you can’t do a corkscrew if you’re going too fast and also crucially too slow.
It’s a great game for what it is, if a little undirected; there’s no campaign mode or anything like that, just a series of one-lap races where you can pick your car and pick an opponent to race against (with great names like ‘Helen Wheels’ and ‘Skid Vicious’), and that’s it, go go go.
While it had some features that are worth note, like the way it had a replay video that let you position yourself around the track to take in sick shots of your car zooming past and see how cool those stunts you did looked from the outside, the place the game truly shined was its near-bottomless track editor, which let you custom-make a track and even save that file and share it with other people who wanted to play it. Tracks had no fixed size or shape, and they didn’t even need to be doable – all the game cared about is that you crossed the finish line twice.
Hell, you could put byroads and secret passages in your race!
This is the thing I remember Stunts for the most; making practically campaigns worth of content to share with other people. This was 1990, this was the sneaker-net of the 3.5 inch floppy and the shared school computer, this was not a time when I had access to the internet, which is wild because now I think about it, surely there’s a vibrant track-sharing community out there?
This is a great example of how play takes many forms. This is a game that is playful – you are playing at the stunt race, seeing what tricks you can execute. This is a game that is playful in its flexibility – you can pick almost anything to see if it works together and it’s okay if it does or it does not, and you get to make that choice. This is a game that is playfully expressive, where you can make a track that shows the word POOP when viewed from on high, or you can even try and populate an area with a place that feels like a real place that exists, with maps emulating roads or classic race tracks.
I’ve been talking about a lot of games I’ve pirated this year, and this is one that I genuinely have no idea how I’d ever pay back for the time I spent on it. I don’t know anyone involved with it and I don’t imagine they care to learn that a ten year old in the mid-90s melted away a summer playing their game.
But odds are good that if you’re in my audience, you’re going ‘oh dang, I remember that…’