There’s something not quite right about F1 Circus. Maybe it’s the fact that the track only ever goes upwards – like a seemingly endless stream, a constant straight line that never ends. Maybe it’s the fake names, deliberate distortions of famous racing legends like ‘A.Semna’, ‘A.Plost’ or ‘N. Manserr’. Hard to say.
No wait: it’s the SPEED. Hot damn this game is fast! Gone are the days of slowly plodding around short overhead circuits à la F1 Dream (1988); here the game will propel you along at speeds you never thought imaginable. As soon as you pass third gear the backdrops become a blur, and your fate completely uncertain… Will you reap victory and carve your name alongside those of motor sport legend, or simply plough your tin-box speedster into a solid concrete wall and finally find out what ‘DNF’ stands for?
F1 Circus came as a complete shock to those fortunate enough to experience it back in 1990. Although it may be completely unrealistic in terms of a sporting simulation, what it does do is provide a gut-wrenching insight into the sheer adrenalin of F1 racing – that incomparable high of holding on for as long as possible, riding the crest of that high wave known to the privileged few as ‘The Edge’.
A single mistake and it’s over: crashing into an opponent damages the car (a pitstop will cost you at least a place or two) whereas sliding off trackside will see your car immediately ‘Retire’. Off. Over. Nil points. Next race. Brilliant.
The game was an immediate success, and proved a very valuable cash cow for struggling developer Nichibutsu. The old masters hadn’t really delivered much since the glory days of Crazy Climber (1980) and Terra Cresta (1985) so it was good to see F1 Circus and its innumerable sequels keep them on track for just that little bit longer.
The tragedy though, is that they blew it – following superbly playable ‘fixed 2D’ iterations they made the strange decision to use ‘Mode 7’ for the SFC Super F1 Circus, completely destroying the fluidity of the gameplay. In Super F1 Circus 2 they scrapped the overhead viewpoint altogether for a standard ‘behind the car’ perspective similar to Exhaust Heat (1992), except nowhere near as good. That was the death knell for the series: if the early games were masterful arcade-style racing games, the later 3D titles are just plain awful.
Oh well, no bother. At least you have the early overhead titles games, and as F1 games go they are some of the finest games the sport has ever inspired.