Back to '89: Before There Was Forza & Gran Turismo, There Was Street Rod
These days it's down right amazing what you can do in a racing game or simulation, from white-knuckled hot lapping in virtual reality to spending hours customizing your car and creating elaborate liveries to show off online. Speaking of online, how cool is it to be able to hop on and go up against dozens of fellow racers from all over the world—all with physics that are as close to real world as they’ve ever been.
Yet despite the incredible advances in driving games over the years, there’s a game that came out nearly 30 years ago that, in some ways, still hasn’t been rivaled to this day. I’m talking about a game called Street Rod, which was originally released on DOS computers back in 1989.
Part racing game, and part RPG, Street Rod was a game that was truly ahead of its time, and despite its decades old graphics and simplistic driving physics, there are still many parts of the game that impress today.
Starting the Game
Street Rod takes place in Southern California in the early 1960s, and it begins with you entering the name that goes on your California drivers license. From there you head to your garage with $700 in your possession to spend on a car.
Rather than picking your car from a showroom, you find and buy vehicles by looking in the classifieds section of the newspaper, where you’ll find a variety of old-school American machinery for sale.
Setting the Standard
Initially, you’ll be forced to start with a rather pedestrian, low buck machine, with the higher performance cars priced well above your allotted figure. This wasn't a bad thing, though. A big part of the game’s appeal was starting with a simple car and upgrading it along the way as you win money racing.
While this sort of “race, win, upgrade your machine, repeat” progression has pretty much become the standard formula for modern racing games, at the time Street Rod came out it was pretty unheard of to have a racing game that was this deep.
You start racing your newly-acquired ride by heading out to the local burger joint where a stream of rivals roll up in front of you. From there you are given the choice whether to ask them to race or let them cruise by while you wait for a different opponent.
Once you decide to challenge someone, you are given the option of either a drag race or a road race, and a number of wager options. You can challenge someone to race “just for kicks,” a specified amount or even pink slips.
Showing Its Age
Once the race begins, Street Rod begins to show its age. The graphics are decent for the era, but anyone who is used to a more contemporary racing game will find the visuals, basic arrow key controls and simplistic physics a big step back from the modern era.
Yet even despite its age and simplicity, Street Rod has some unique features that add quite a bit of realism. For example, if your car has a manual transmission you’ll have to let off the accelerator for a moment when you shift, and timing this can be a big factor in whether you win or lose.
If you select the longer, road race option, you’ll have to navigate corners and even potentially escape the cops. If they catch you, they'll write you a speeding ticket that you’ll have to pay from your funds.
After you’ve tried a few races, you’ll naturally want to start upgrading your car, and this another area where Street Rod shows some impressive depth. You buy upgrade parts the same way you buy cars, in the classified section of the newspaper.
As you browse through the list of manifolds, carburetors, engines, transmissions and more, you have to remember to purchase the parts that fit your car. For example, if you bought a racing transmission for your Ford Thunderbird, you won’t be able to swap it over to your Chevy Bel Air.
Better yet, after you buy the parts you actually have to install them by opening the hood, unbolting them and swapping them out. At one point we upgraded our factory two barrel carb setup to a dual quad setup, which required buying and installing a race-type manifold and two separate four barrel race carbs.
If that wasn’t enough, if you want to go out and race, you’ll need to make sure your car has gas, which is purchased by going to the gas station and manually filling up the tank. You can even play with the timing to extract that last bit of performance from your machine.
In addition to that, Street Rod even features basic forms of visual customization, which was unheard of in a racing game at the time. You can shave the bumpers, chop the top, add decals and even change colors—all for a cost.
Taking on The King
Eventually, your goal is to climb the ranks and win enough races to earn a challenge from “The King,” the boss of the game who drives a heavily modified ‘63 Corvette. Come out victorious and you’ll not only win his car, but his girlfriend as well. Because that’s how it works, right?
With some features that were ahead of their time, and still others that haven’t been seen since, Street Rod is well-deserving of a spot on the most of important racing games of all time. It laid the groundwork for what’s standard in racing games today, and with its RPG elements, it went well beyond being a simple driving game.
Best of all, if you weren’t able to experience this game when it was new 29 years ago, you can play it right now in your web browser via the highly addicting Classic Reload site. Try it out and see what a cutting edge racing game experience was like back in 1989. Just don’t blame us when you lose all of your productivity as you try to dethrone The King and his mean ‘Vette.