Feature: The Making of Unirally

Whoever said two wheels are better than one clearly didn’t experience this wholly unique racing title

If you consider yourself to be a true artisan then there’s nothing worse that pouring your heart and soul into creating something truly breathtaking only to then be accused of flagrant plagiarism; such an allegation robs you of the unique satisfaction that crafting something truly beautiful brings. Spare a thought then for the development team of Unirally - they succeeded in forging an astoundingly enjoyable piece of software that was robbed of the limelight thanks to largely unfounded claims of idea-theft.

Developed by Scottish code house DMA Design and published for Nintendo’s dominant Super NES console in 1994, Unirally (or Uniracers as it was known outside of Europe) was anything but a conventional video game release. Announced in the CGI-tinged wake of Donkey Kong Country, DMA’s racer was initially viewed with almost equal amounts of suspicion and expectation – the visuals possessed that shiny rendered look that so many developers craved at the time but also retained a degree of simplicity that lead many early sceptics to comment that it was little more than glorified tech demo. Ironically, this was actually closer to the truth than many suspected.

The birth of Unirally, like so many of DMA’s other titles, is typically unorthodox. “Unirally actually evolved from a tech demo,” recollects former DMA Design member Andrew Innes. “It was an obscenely difficult unicycle simulator and it was decided that it could be turned into a game. I think there are parallels between this and Lemmings, which evolved from some Deluxe Paint animations of little walking men, and Grand Theft Auto, which evolved from a tech demo of a software-rendering engine. This style of game genesis differs markedly from every other company I’ve been involved with; the typical approach is to remake whatever is currently selling well, but put more stuff in it and do shinier graphics.”

Fellow DMA Design cohort Robbie Graham expands on this with the not-particularly-astonishing fact that Unirally didn’t actually begin life as a racing game: “The goal was to do a platformer with a unicycle character as this had plenty of potential for interesting physics and balancing gameplay. As the design progressed, it became more and more a racer and less a ‘platform’ type game. As the racing part became more important and the Advanced Computer Modelling on the unicycle ate up much of the graphics memory, the game adopted its unique ‘clean’ look.”

These graphics obviously enabled Unirally to stand out from the crowd and to some degree game capitalized on the frenzy of interest Donkey Kong Country had created in the art of CGI. However, adopting this new technology put additional pressure on the designers. “Although the unicycle in-game was probably no more than about 32 pixels high, the source 3D geometry had every detail present and correct,” recalls Graham. “Even the threads of the screws inside the unicycle frame were modelled.”

Creating the unicycle characters was only one part of the puzzle – it was also vital to ensure that the animation was smooth and packed with character – this also caused headaches. “It’s not a 3D model in the game, but a series of 2D images of the 3D unicycle in all the potential positions” explains Graham. “When you consider that the unicycle can tilt and stretch with speed, the saddle can move, it can flip with various stunts and that for most or those positions there needed to be 16 versions for the different pedal positions (they go round and round as they should), it was a data management challenge to say the least. I remember seeing the unicycle frames all printed out on A0 paper and there were hundreds and hundreds of frames.”

Given the level of realism the team wanted to achieve, they felt it was their duty to at least investigate the inner-workings of the subject matter. “Since it was a unicycle game so we thought the team should learn how to unicycle” chuckles Graham. “However the only ‘safe’ place to practice was the main corridor of the office. After the game was complete, the walls of that corridor were absolutely filthy and dented from all those sweaty near death experiences on the unicycle. I’m not sure anyone mastered it properly. I certainly never came close.”

With such extensive research ensuring that the racing portion of the game was suitably perfected, the team started to tinker with the core concept and added the unique idea of performing stunts. “I think it was a natural evolution of the game” recalls Mike Dailly, another key member of the Unirally team. An early stumbling block was encountered, though. “The obvious stunts are just spinning in the various axes” says Innes. “The others - like ‘head-bounce’ - are the only things we could thing of; to be honest there’s not much else you can do with a unicycle. If you notice, in the game there’s a blank space in the ‘Mega Stunt’ menu, which is where we ran out of ideas. Apparently people were phoning up Nintendo help-lines and refusing to believe there was nothing there.”

Then there was the small matter of the two-player split screen mode – a feature that many exalt as the crowning glory of the game and a facet of Unirally that was actually on the cards fairly early in the development period. “I think it was always heading that way - the team really enjoyed racing each other” remarks Dailly. “Usually if a team play the game in their spare time, then you’re on to a winner”. Graham agrees: “It’s a great two player game and this was helped a lot by the stunt reward system – something that at the time had not really been done to my knowledge. Forcing players to pull aerial flips and rolls to win a race really makes the game.”

Innes concurs: “We definitely pushed the competitive aspect; the scope for single-player storyline was inherently limited by virtue of it being a racing game. I remember we had a high-score table going from pretty much the first point we had the game running. A lot of thought went into the statistics tracking because we knew that American gamers liked that kind of thing.” With so much love and care being poured into Unirally it’s unsurprising that DMA actually struggled to fit the code onto the cartridge, as Innes recalls: “As I recall, there was something like 4 bytes free at the end of it all.”

During development Innes discovered that the DMA team had inadvertently created a rather unique and robust copy protection system, the effects of which are still being felt to this day. “Instead of burning EEPROMs for our test cartridges we used to use a disc copy device called because it was so much faster” he recalls. “On one occasion, we sent one of these images off to Nintendo so they could see our progress, but it didn’t work. After some investigation it turned out we had accidentally stumbled upon a method to determine if the game was running off a proper cartridge, as opposed to some other device. I used this information to implement an anti-piracy measure that was so successful that this is the only game I’ve had real trouble getting to run on an emulator.”

Some other aspects of Unirally’s development were equally unexpected, yet endlessly amusing. “I remember writing the swearword censor for the player names, so people couldn’t put offensive stuff on in-store demo copies” continues Innes. “I sent an email round the team requesting offensive word lists and got a few back I hadn’t heard before. Martin Good - who worked on the animations - was particularly helpful in this regard, submitting some awful words I’ve been trying to forget ever since.”

One of the most memorable aspects of Unirally was undoubtedly the innovative user manual. Penned by DMA’s in-house writer Steve Hammond the booklet was refreshingly irreverent and zany, standing in stark contrast the sanitised instruction manuals of the era. “We were all surprised that Nintendo went for it” Hammond admits. “It wasn't like any of the other manuals out there and I was pleased that this got recognised at the time. I'm not entirely certain where the style came from, though I my own sense of humour was pretty dry and sarcastic. Of course I had to do that whilst conveying useful information too.”

Despite his work being admired by many gamers, Hammond found it easy to keep his feet firmly on the ground. “My total royalty cheques for Unirally amounted to something like seventeen quid. I think I bought pizza. The pioneers of the games industry bought Ferraris and swimming pools on the proceeds of their games. I bought ham and pineapple toppings with extra barbecue sauce on a crispy base.”

The negative perceptions expressed by some when the game was first showcased were soundly put to rest when Unirally eventually arrived at retail; as the team at DMA had hoped, it was rightly recognized as an exhilarating combination of speed and stunt work, pre-dating the delicious trick-based mechanics of Tony Hawks Pro Skater by some margin. Reviews were almost unanimously ecstatic and the long-term success of the title seemed assured.

However, ominous rumblings were emanating from the offices of Pixar Animation Studios, producers of Disney-marketed hits such as Toy Story and The Incredibles. Although back then the company had yet to achieve the worldwide fame they now enjoy, they were still brave enough to take Nintendo on over what they perceived to be wholesale theft of one of their ideas.

The problem centred on the Pixar animated short Red’s Dream – produced in 1987 – which featured a cute little unicycle not entirely dissimilar to the ones seen in Unirally. Pixar accused DMA of copying the idea and promptly sued.

Although the DMA team were obviously aware of the short film, plagiarism is something that Dailly refutes to this day: “We modelled the unicycle exactly, based on a real life unicycle. The problem with Pixar was that they seemed to think that any computer generated unicycle was owned by them. They took footage from Red's Dream and compared it to Unirally and the unicycles were virtually the same; this isn't a big surprise as there’s not a lot of ways you can bring life to a unicycle without looking like the one Pixar did. The judge - being the moron that he was - agreed. While it was a unicycle, and did look similar, I think he should have looked at the game as a whole. If he had, then he would have noticed that the game was a completely different environment, and the ‘character’ of the unicycle just wasn't the same.”

With the court case lost, Nintendo had to terminate production of further Unirally cartridges. “The deal was that Nintendo wouldn't make any more carts so Unirally only sold the 300k initial run” remembers Dailly. What could have been a promising franchise was stopped in its tracks. “I do recall some speculation about a 3D version” comments Innes. “But that was more of a thought experiment as to how it would be implemented, I don’t think there was every any serious consideration. Of course, any thought of a sequel was quashed by the whole Pixar affair.”

Dailly is still clearly bemused by the whole affair even today. “It’s like someone making a game about a pen, and Biro claiming ownership over anything to do with pens. At the end of the day, we modelled a real unicycle and it came out the way it did.” At the time of writing Unirally has sadly not been earmarked for release on the Wii’s Virtual Console download service and seems as if the passage of time has done little to soften Pixar’s resolve to see the game buried forever. This is a crying shame because it’s high time that this neglected game - an unfortunate and undeserving victim of corporate pettiness - was given a new lease of life.

This feature originally appeared in its entirety in Imagine Publishing’s GamesTM magazine and is reproduced here with kind permission.