One of my goals this year is to play more games and extract some tips on good game design along the way. This is my thirteenth review in this series called “50 games”.

May’s Dos Game Club game was Death Rally from 1996. I had fond memories of playing this in my youth, and so I wanted to revisit it.

Death Rally is a top-down racing game with (optional) guns much like Super Cars 2 on the Amiga (well that’s where I played it). You enter a bunch of races to collect points and climb the ladder, upgrading your car and buying new cars along the way.

It’s a great little game, and I found it stood the test of time. I also played the remastered version on Steam, which - while theoretically similar - didn’t feel as entertaining and fun. So what makes the original a good game?

The controls are weird (you can turn without moving) and it’s fairly easy to get stuck in walls/plants/etc. If you get hit by a mine your car might suddenly turn 90 degrees, and if you don’t watch yourself it’s easy to accumulate too much damage and get blown up.

However, it’s just great fun. Once you get a good hang of the steering (and upgrade the tyres), you can actually control the car fairly well. This also means less detours into random walls. Blowing up other cars is a lot of fun, and there are different weapons to do so. The difficulty increases in a reaonable curve, and there will be close-cut races where a final injection of nitro will win you the race - or make you crash into the wall.

It’s actually fairly easy to lose the game by totalling your car while going bankrupt, so there’s an element of risk as well.

All these things make it an enjoyable game that was great to come back to, 20 years later!

So what lessons can I take from this game from a gamedev and game design point of view?

  • The risk aspect changed the way I drove (“tactics”). It also added the fear factor of having to start from scratch (well, from your last save, but still).
  • Difficulty curve is hard to define, but when it’s done well, it’s great. In Death Rally you have three types of races (easy/medium/hard) which means you can mix it up and not “get stuck”
  • Options. I’ve not tried the game without weapons, but sometimes you just speed ahead and try to make the fastest lap. It works as a pure racing game too!
  • Lots of little details, like the shadow man, the loan shark, being able to cripple an opponent. Polish!