Boss Game Studios off-loaded sequel duties to their dumb-fun hit Top Gear Rally in order to commence work on what would be an altogether more serious, authentic project – 1999's World Driver Championship. It would be the last significant output from the assured Redmond-based team, but remains amongst only a handful of truly convincing Nintendo 64 racing games able to compete with the PlayStation's best. For those wondering, Saffire Corporation's Top Gear Rally 2 did go on to resemble something of its predecessor, but with all of the life curiously sucked out of it.
It's fair to say that inspiration was found in (or possibly pillaged from) the seminal Gran Turismo, and put straight into the World Driver Championship mix. From an insistence for meticulous braking and cornering to its excellent replay feature, the mimicry continues, amusingly, to the choice of presentational font styles. Indeed, Polyphony Digital's racing simulation is explicitly "thank-you'd" in the games' end credits - just in case anyone had gotten hold of any funny ideas by this point.
Boss Game Studios admirably does plenty to persuade the player of its high-end credentials here. There's a comprehensive single-player mode (set aside at least twenty hours if you want to see everything it has to offer), the usual time trial and split-screen 2-player options, and an assortment of brilliantly-detailed touring cars with nuances in drifting, speed and acceleration. Visually accomplished, it stands as one of the best-looking games on the system; textures are rich both in clarity and variety on a level rarely seen outside of a Rare or Nintendo-developed title. In fact, it's testament to this that although the game offers a letter-boxed 'high-resolution' mode (without the need for an Expansion Pak, too), it's not nearly as satisfying as the default, full-screen offering, and outside of being used in the aforementioned replays and core menu system, remains somewhat of an unnecessary gesture.
And yet, the illusion isn't always convincing, sometimes maddeningly far from it. Collisions resemble those from Ridge Racer, whereby shunts descend into an unpredictable game of pinball: often (but not always) at your expense. Impacts with track-side details are even worse - most result in you either spinning out of control or inexplicably becoming magnetised on walls at angles you definitely won't find in any physics textbook. There also appears to be no AI programming whatsoever; CPU cars appear oblivious to the impractical variables of your fleshy existence, and will drive accordingly. In a game which punishes mistakes with increasing regularity, these jokes quickly run thin - unless you're the type who enjoys concocting imaginative fusions of swear words.
It can be said that a successful racing game of this nature is intrinsically linked to how satisfying it feels to tackle (and successfully exit) a corner. In World Driver Championship your back-end constantly feels as though it's sliding outwards, lending a floaty sensation which is both strange and not entirely based in reality. But by the same measure you'll learn to drift around long, arching bends with a momentary tap of the brake and gentle steering adjustments and, when it comes off, it's wonderful. It also passes with top marks the "plays-better-in-first-person-view" test to which any serious racing game must adhere.
But, sometimes, there is that disillusion again. For all its graphical and control fidelity, music appears to have been an afterthought. During every course (based on real-life locations including Las Vegas, Sydney and Tokyo) you're subjected to a simply dreadful, generic, instrumental rock soundtrack. It's disappointing to find in an otherwise immersive experience. In the wrong hands Nintendo 64 games were too often guilty of some lazy MIDI sequencing, but what was needed here was a licensed song or two, or at the very least some variety. Notably, the music volume can be adjusted to zero at any time from within the basic pause menu, so perhaps someone at Boss had a set of functioning ears after all.
Good driving, intimate knowledge of the track's racing line and ensuring a pole-position qualifying lap - a job well-done in World Driver Championship will always be rewarded. It's studious, and the impatient will likely find it a little too dry - if they're not already spinning donuts in the sand traps. As you gain access to more stable and powerful cars (employed by a neat Ridge Racer Type 4-style career mode) your authority and enjoyment during races improves, but practice, practice, practice remains a necessity for success.
World Driver Championship stands proud as a game which offers a deep, challenging racing experience often overlooked in favour of several pretenders on the console, and can comfortably tongue-tie any detractor of the Nintendo 64's graphical capabilities. Some critical flaws prevent it being elevated to a classic - a dodgy paint job when inspected close-up, perhaps - but the illusion has the potential to be thrilling when it wants to be.