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The Return of Rollcage - The Story of GRIP: Combat Racing

by Neal Ronaghan - October 26, 2018, 8:55 am PDT
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A fan of old combat racing game Rollcage sought out a sequel and wound up making one with a programmer from the original game.

GRIP’s origins lie in a fan wanting to rekindle an old series, paving the way for him to connect with a developer from the original game and set sail on making a brand new title in that style. That fan was Chris Mallinson. The game was Rollcage, a PC/PlayStation game from 1999 focused on driving all over walls and combat. “I was a huge fan of Rollcage and Stage 2 back in the early 2000s, and nearly 15 years on from those games I started looking online for a sequel.” he told us.

There was no sequel to Rollcage to be found, but Mallison found Rob Baker - a programmer who worked at Rollcage developer Attention to Detail on that series. Baker had long left the games industry, but still tinkered with Rollcage to make it compatible for modern computers.

The two connected and formed Caged Element. So that’s how a fan of Rollcage wound up directing the development of a spiritual successor to the cult series. The team grew, but Mallinson sought to keep the team filled with passion for Rollcage or similar racers.

And that helps because Rollcage is not GRIP’s only inspiration. Mallinson counts Star Wars: Episode I Racer and Mario Kart as inspirations as well. The track design and emphasis on providing lore for the tracks and planets come from Episode I Racer, as well as even a little bit of F-Zero. GRIP’s combat elements owe a lot to Mario Kart, as the series “undoubtedly rules the combat racing genre” in his words.

As development started, Mallinson and the team made the decision to launch the game as a part of Steam’s Early Access program. It was integral for the success and viability of the product as development continued early through in 2016. He credits the support of the community for a lot of the title’s successes. ”These early players, and in particular the Discord community that play the game day in day out, have been vital to shaping GRIP into what is today,” he explained. “They’ve brought balance that we couldn’t have on our own – when you create a game like this it’s fair to say you have a vision but we undoubtedly needed their hundreds of hours of play experience to steer our development and make things right for launch.”

While the PC release was necessary for GRIP to find its legs (or wheels?), the reason we’re writing about it here is the upcoming Nintendo Switch release. The hope was to bring it to consoles from the get-go. With specs not necessarily equal to PC, Xbox One, and PlayStation 4, the development on Switch has been tough. “There was a lot of work to do from the textures to the unique physics code we’ve written into the game,” Mallinson detailed. “On Switch you’re not getting the same level of fine detail as you would with the latest generation of PC graphics, but I think more importantly what’s been preserved is the intense action and sense of speed that really define the game.”

I can speak from experience with the Switch version of GRIP that while it’s not flawless by any means, the game impressed me with how nice it looks and runs. In my few hours with it, I’ve hit some slowdown (mostly in well-populated arena combat) and noticed some rough textures, especially in handheld mode, but the sense of speed comes through. Sure - this game will look better on basically every other platform it’s coming to, but I can play this one on the go. And in split-screen, though that’s the same for other platforms as well. More games need split-screen.

“I don’t think you can really have a Rollcage-inspired game without split-screen as it was such a core component of the arcade racer experience in years gone by,” Mallinson echoed my sentiment. “I also have to say that when we’re talking to gamers, online or on the ground at exhibitions, they all miss split-screen. Its absence from games has become an accepted norm but I wouldn’t confuse that with people not wanting the feature. Can you imagine big screen Mario Kart without it? It’s been challenging but worth it.”

While I feel that GRIP lacks the immediacy of a Mario Kart as far as impromptu rooftop multiplayer sessions (as per that age-old Switch unveiling), the multiplayer is fun, especially as you find people who can settle into the blend of racing and combat.

It’s a blend that feels like a dying breed - the late and great Bizarre Creations’ Blur feels like it was the last to take an earnest, quasi-realistic stab at it. Mario Kart and the recently delayed Team Sonic Racing seem like the only ones left standing. Of course I’d be remiss as a Nintendo fan to not ask the futuristic racing game developer about everyone’s favorite futuristic (and dormant) racing game series: F-Zero.

“Something F-Zero did well was giving life to the world behind the tracks and the purpose of the racing taking place in it,” Mallinson satiated me with kind F-Zero words. “It makes you feel like you're racing in a world and ecosystem that isn't just a bunch of disembodied tracks - behind the scenes, there could be so many stories unfolding out of bounds.”

He went on to tie it into his own game: “We took inspiration to bring some of this off-track magic to GRIP - building a purpose to the planets and the tracks and their place in telling the story of why these races are happening - we actually built out own internal lore around the game during development to drive this. We wanted our tracks to feel alive, much in the way F-Zero does.”

GRIP isn’t exactly F-Zero, but it does carry the vibe of the series with it a bit. The planets that you wish you could explore. The vehicles with distinctive designs. It’s almost like, maybe F-Zero cars wouldn’t be out of place in this world. When asked about a Nintendo vehicle that he wish could make it into GRIP, Mallinson gave me an answer that just had me nodding in agreement. “I think it would have to be the Blue Falcon from F-Zero,” he told me. “It just looks so awesome and I think, with a few modifications, it could fit perfectly in the GRIP universe.”

After years of longing for more Rollcage games, Mallinson is close to launching his own successor to the specific blend of physics-based combat racing where you drive all over the dang place. GRIP comes out on November 6 on Switch (and a mess of other platforms) with a slew of modes, including arena-based combat, normal races, and combat-focused races. We’ll have a full review as we get closer, but until then, maybe do what helped form Caged Element and dream your dream of your favorite dormant series. Maybe just maybe you’ll help bring it back in a few years.

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