The original Test Drive developed by Distinctive Software was my first introduction to something I call first-person driving. Of course, the game is rudimentary at best judged by today’s standards, but it popularized a number of game play elements that we now take for given, such as a roster of differently handling civil cars, police chases, manual shifting, and so on.
TD was not indeed only an inevitable reaction to the so-called yuppie culture that dominated the early 80s, but also an ideological ground zero for, for instance, Need for Speed –series that is easily the most important intellectual property for simulated driving at the moment. TD proved that racing doesn’t have to take place in a dedicated track and that it can be actually more fun and intense outside one. Just like in real life.
It comes as no surprise that in TD, considering it was released in 1987 for home computers, the simulation of depth was carried out with jumpy sprites. The biggest problem when using sprites to depict 3D space is of course their complete lack of depth, so cars, traffic signs, and so on are nothing but cardboard cutouts of their real life counterparts.
To be fair, sprites in TD worked generally fine in the distance, but the “closer” they got, the flatter they obviously appeared. And when overtaking another vehicle, the fragile illusion of three-dimensional objects broke down completely.
TD’s sequel, The Duel: Test Drive II released two years later, kept the graphics paradigm basically intact, but in 1990 Test Drive III: the Passion finally entered the realm of (jumpy) polygon-based imagery.
Sure, the graphics engine of TD III was a bit of a mess and as a game almost unplayable, but one thing that struck me heavily back then was the pure idea that now you could actually see the side of a car when driving past it without the illusion disintegrating. And it didn’t bother me one bit that the polygon cars were in some ways much less detailed and more abstract than the sprite ones. No, that was beside the point. The point was real, genuine depth of objects no matter the visual cost, which was, of course, substantial back then.
I have always found it extremely interesting whenever a certain visual concept is translated into a different graphics principle. The thing is, when immigrating from sprite-based imagery into polygon based such (or the other way around) more often than not the viewing paradigm shifts drastically in the process. Think about for instance Super Mario World and Super Mario 64, how they both depict the make-believe reality in two completely different ways.
That said, what ultimately made the jump from TD (or in fact TD II) to TD III fascinating was the fact that the fundamental viewing paradigm (first-person) was the same in both instalments, even though the underlying technology wasn’t. It was like the developer was forced to admit that the original sprite-based solution was indeed all smoke and mirrors, and now with TD III they were actually serious about it, first-person driving that is.