Arcade conversions on Commodore 64, despite often ending up being quite disappointing for most players, were a major source of revenue for many publishers at the time. Naturally, most coin-ops from the mid 80s were way beyond the limited reach of the beloved breadbin’s hardware. Plenty of times, the C64 received subpar or unplayable conversions, among them titles like Super Hang On or E-SWAT.
Buggy Boy is, luckily, the rare exception.
The original 1985 Tatsumi arcade is notorious for its original cockpit arcade cabinet featuring a unique three screens setup (a later version with a single screen was also released, Buggy Boy Junior). The Commodore 64 conversion came later, in 1988, developed by the Thomas brothers, the two behind the Pendragon series. Buggy Boy (or Speedy Buggy in the US) manages to somehow bring all the excitement of the arcade original to the home computer, intact. The Commodore 64 was far from being the ideal machine to develop behind view racing games, as even decent arcade ports like Out Run and Enduro Racer seemed to prove time and time again.
But Buggy Boy seems to prove this apparent rule wrong, by running incredibly smoothly, among with being playable and colorful. How did the Thomases manage such a great conversion? Well, by making it exciting to play, first and foremost. The player controls a buggy on five different circuits – distinguished by generic names – with the goal of finishing the race before the time runs out. Each tracks differs in difficulty, from the easiest one, a simple oval track that loops, to more challenging ones like southern jungles and beaches or nordic mountain scenarios.
It’s arcade racing at its most basic, sure, but it mixes in quite a lot of mechanics typical of the platforming genre: the buggy can jump (thanks to wooden sticks on the track), go on two wheels and collect items for high score records. The flags are the first obvious collectible, scattered everywhere in the tracks: collecting all the different colors in the order suggested by the interface grants 1000 bonus points. Even more peculiar is the soccer ball to “kick” for 2000 points, then there are various points gates and, of course, the TIME gate which grants two precious extra seconds to the player.
The gameplay is fast but remains manageable most of the time, the key to victory is memorizing the circuits, since even the smallest error, like taking a jump at the wrong moment, may lead to disaster and precious time wasted. The tracks feature obstacles like bridges on water, tunnels and the occasional brain-dead opponent. As it is typical of arcade games from the time, the emphasis is on being able to achieve the highscore, rather than just reaching the finish line. Still, considering how the highscores were not even saved, achieving a top 3 felt like a rather fleeting joy.
Estabilishing its great gameplay could not be enough, though, so essential to the fluidity of the gameplay is the framerate of the Commodore version, which, while having the smallest buggy sprite out of all the different home computer conversions, also runs the fastest. As one may well imagine, the framerate makes a whole lot of difference in an arcade race where avoiding obstacles is the main feature. A textbook case of size not being everything.
The sound design in Buggy Boy is perfect, really one of my favorite in racing games for the C64. Even though there’s no music, the sound effects spectacularly compliment the gameplay: from the jingle when all the flags are collected, to jumping and landing sounding appropriately cartoonish. Especially of note is the reverb effect when the buggy enters a tunnel, a very nice touch.
The other home computer conversions range from rather disappointing (Amstrad) to close to the arcade experience (Amiga and Atari ST programmed by Martin Ward), but all seem to lack the real immediate feeling of the gameplay of the Thomas brothers’ version. The Commodore 64 may not look the best, but, personally, over the years I have found it plays even better than the coin-op.
Some people go as far as defining Buggy Boy as the best arcade racer on the Commodore 64 and well, while an entirely arguable statement, it is an understandable feeling. It is a simple, smooth and perfectly oiled design that harkens back to those simple 80s arcade racing pleasures: collect points and try to not let the time run out while racing on the tracks.
Personally, I’ve never felt comfortable with the huge buggy sprite in the original arcade game, even now, despite having played most of the other conversions, along with the original, I find myself going back to the C64 version. I loved it as a kid and still do. Buggy Boy showcases the Thomas brothers’ special sense for working around the technical limitations of the Commodore home computer, and their great touch in design.
An entertaining fluid arcade racer with just the right amount of challenge to keep the player busy for hours. It may not have the impressive three screen display of the original arcade, but still has what matters most: heart.