Rockstar was, for a while, one of the most controversial companies in the business. Creators of the Grand Theft Auto series, its success has always been surrounded by media frenzies and retailer bans, with politicians and lawyers using the game as a scapegoat for any murder they could find.
But this is a quite recent development for the company. Before the times of the PlayStation, DMA Design, as the team was known until 2002, was surprisingly innocent. Maker of half a dozen shooters for Commodore computers, it soon struck gold with the puzzle classic Lemmings. It was so well regarded, in fact, that it was quickly invited by Nintendo to design for the then-dominant Super Nintendo console.
And so Uniracers was born. Probably one of the best titles in the long-forgotten 2D racer genre, it puts the player in control of a sentient unicycle of all things, and gives him a list of tricks and stunts that would put Tony Hawk to shame, creating an experience that is not found anywhere in gaming.
In many ways, you can think of the racing aspects like an accelerated platformer. With a moving goal in the form of your opponent, the meat of the game is in navigating the insane courses as fast as you can, jumping at precise spots and taking shortcuts to progress faster and faster until you can win the race.
And it’s surprisingly engrossing. Without complex combo systems getting into the way of fun, it’s all about keeping your balance, carefully flipping in the air to have a perfect landing. It’s like a rollercoaster version of Excitebike, and it’s not just for show. Each climb, hill and descent is both a new opportunity and a new challenge, and there’s ground to be gained every time the course flattens.
In fact, it’s more than one simple challenge, because there are dozens of ways to traverse each stage and you learn new tricks all the time, perfecting each run and getting bronze, then silver, then gold. There’s so much you can do and so many ways to handle each problem that an expert player can practically outrun the camera itself, playing on the edge of the screen. The game even promotes you to play this way directly! Color-coded tracks give away the next hill, hazard or shortcut to make you learn the courses faster, and the simple controls mean that even the clumsiest player will be doing crazy stunts in no time.
The game’s not just racing, either. It has a selection of courses exclusively made for stunts, where you try to score over a certain number instead of competing against another unicycle.
Unfortunately, despite being such a great game and receiving no shortage of critical praise and good sales, the game was doomed to fail.
After somehow being led to think that it owned the rights to any kind of portrayal concerning digital unicycles, Pixar decided to sue DMA Design, claiming the game contained traced animation from its 1987 cartoon short “Red’s Dream”. How it did in court is anyone’s guess, but basing the cycles on real models probably didn’t help. Soon, DMA was forced to stop production of all the cartridges they were going to make, pushing a would-be SNES classic into obscurity.
On the bright side, three hundred thousand copies were made, and the game reached both Europe and the United States, making it both widely available and cheap. So what’s your excuse for not playing it?