There's no avoiding the fact that Grand Prix is a conversion of the NASCAR game.
You know it. We know it. But to the buyers and players the game needs to look and feel like a Grand Prix game - one that alludes to Formula 1 and some of the other formulas while hiding its NASCAR origins through a series of changes and modifications.
But most of those changes made so far are only skin deep, and some are even shallower than that.
That's because there's only so much you can do in the time, only so many
So this review will look at both the underlying game itself and how successfully the game has been adapted for a market where NASCAR has little or no meaning.
Initial impressions of the game come from the backglass and cabinet art but while the translite artwork is vivid and colourful enough, it's not exactly the most exciting image and doesn't convey the tension, speed and danger of wheel-to-wheel racing. The cabinet imagery concentrates on the Grand Prix logo and chequered flag themes and suffices without grabbing your attention.
The cabinet side rails now extend down to provide some protection around the flipper buttons which is a welcome change. The only other slightly unusual feature is the Grand Prix logo on the coin door. Previous games have always had a Stern logo but Grand Prix and NASCAR both have game specific stickers.
So much for the external hardware, let's take a look under the glass.
Initially the game looks quite bare - no large playfield toys and nothing built-up in the centre of the playfield, but initial impressions can be deceptive.
The main feature of this four-ball game - and the one that drives much of the rest of the design - is the racetrack around the outer edge of the playfield. If you know the supercharger design of High Speed 2 - The Getaway then you'll get the idea immediately.
The balls enter the racetrack in one of two ways - from the plunger or from the lock are called the Pit Road, so there is no flipper shot to directly feed the track.
As balls roll around the racetrack counter-clockwise they are accelerated by two electromagnets at the bottom left of the playfield and a further one at the top right (indicated in the picture below).
There are two exits from the racetrack, one at the bottom right which sends the ball onto the playfield and crashing into the test car (indicated below), and one at the top left that sends it into the lock lane.
All balls are plunged onto the track and complete and two orbits before entering the playfield, so new players are introduced to its function immediately. If the ball is plunged too softly, or the autolauncher becomes weak, it will roll back down to the drain and be kicked into the shooter lane again for another go.
The racetrack may be large but it is not as dominant as you might think and although it reduces the space available for the rest of the features, Pat Lawlor is no stranger to designing unusually-sized games. But this is a radically different Lawlor design in other ways too, as we shall see.
There are only two flippers on this game and although they are in the normal position, the requirement for the racetrack to run behind them has resulted in some consequential modifications to the outhole and trough placements.
The outhole is now directly behind the flippers removing any possibility of death saves or bangbacks but also moving an area of high wear out from under the apron and into a very visible position.
With the new outhole, the ball is no longer able to roll straight into the ball trough, so an upkicker is needed to help it on its way. This is initially quite disconcerting because when you lose the ball, the upkicker solenoid fires to put the ball in the trough. Now, the only time you normally get a solenoid firing in the trough area is when a ball is being kicked out into the shooter lane, so it's easy to mistake this kicker for a ball saver relaunching the ball. This sensation is enhanced because a sound effect is played at the same time, making it sound like a game feature.
There is also a small gap in the racetrack where a mislaunched ball can drop down under the apron into the ball trough kicker.
Working clockwise around the playfield, there is one left inlane and one left outlane.
Both inlanes have rollover switches but they don't appear to light anything and there's no indication of any feature on the playfield. Balls can be fed to the inlanes by the wireform ramps.
The outlane is quite amenable to nudging with a decent amount of rubber in the area to help save the ball. The racetrack has an impact here too because there's no path for the left outlane to feed the outhole, so there is a gobble hole instead which leads to the trough kicker. There's no kickback or ball save feature but the left outlane can be lit for special by the "light outlanes" award.
Above the outlane is the scanner. Presumably, NASCAR fans use scanners to listen to driver/pit/crew chatter - something not possible in Formula 1 for instance, due to the encryption methods used by the teams to keep their conversations private.
The scanner is a short lane ending in a saucer - similar to Creature From The Black Lagoon's KISS lane, Monster Bash's Creature Feature, The Sopranos' talking fish etc - and when lit it will award various goodies. The display shows a geeky looking chap with this scanner and headphones and zooms in to the scanner to show a list of eight awards (two columns of four. One of them is chosen. This can be a helper for current modes such as more time, extra balls, lit outlanes and souvenirs. The souvenirs such as hats and t-shirts seem to only award points and don't tie in to the modes like they do in Roadshow. There are several other Roadshow similarities as we'll see.
To the right of the scanner entrance is a yellow standup marked with a chequered flag. There are three of these targets on the playfield and completing them all relights the scanner.
The scanner is also a jackpot shot and is used to collect CHAMP#1 letters. Balls are kicked out of the scanner very fast and the imminent kickout is not indicated as well as it could be, so you need to be alert.
To the right of the left loop is the left ramp.
When the hauler entrance is unblocked, the ball can enter the hauler and then be kicked out onto the wireform and down to the inlanes.
It also scores hauler miles which accumulate during the game - a bit like the miles traveled in Roadshow, and the animation is very similar too. Hauler miles are very useful as they give good awards every 600 miles such as an extra ball at 600 miles, Super Jackpot at 1,200 and lighting the outlanes for special and millions at 1,800.
The lock area is quite interesting because it can release balls into one of two places - either to the left into the racetrack or to the right and back onto the playfield above the scanner.
It does this with two plastic posts to stop the ball and dropping either one of them releases the ball in that direction. It's simple and should be reliable. Balls are fed into the lock from the left ramp but during one mode a ball is racing around the racetrack and you can control a diverter with the left flipper button to send it into the lock.
Shooting the left ramp will advance your position in the race and it can score jackpots, bonus jackpots, score RACE letters and start race multiball.
The ball got stuck on the left ramp a few times, both on the one-way gate and in the hauler itself. A little shaking got the ball free but with a sensitive tilt it would require assistance.
On the right of the left ramp is a small passage where balls can dribble out from the pop bumpers. The bumpers themselves are in the usual triangular pattern but there are no rollover lanes above them. Balls are fed to the bumpers from the loop shots when the shot is weak or when an up-post rises to stop the ball and drop it through a one-way gate.
The bumpers increase the infield value and are used in Infield Party and Super Party modes but apart from that play no major role in the game which seems a bit of a shame.
The bumpers appear to be lit by LEDs rather than regular lamps. The light output was lower and more focused than usual but if they are LEDs they shouldn't need to be changed for a long, long time.
Below the bumpers is the test car fixture.
This is an important feature as it starts most of the game's modes and features in several of them. It's also the most visible playfield toy and the one beginners will enjoy bashing away at. The Grand Prix car is very different to the NASCAR vehicle and the exposed wheels look like a possible weak point but in practice it registered every hit accurately.
The test car sits there on the playfield waiting for you to shoot it. Hits are registered by two playfield inserts labeled 2 & 1 but when hit enough times (twice by default) the car rises up to reveal two square yellow standup targets and the garage scoop. Shooting the scoop will start the currently lit mode (as long as you're not already in a mode).
When the mode is over or the mode requires it, the car mechanism will drop back down to allow more shots to the test car.
On the right side of the test car is the right loop shot.
The next shot is the right ramp which is quite steep with a tight turn at the top to send the ball into a diverter and along a wireform ramp to either the left or right inlanes. The diverter controls which of the two inlanes receives the ball.
The final shot is to a captive ball just above the right slingshot.
In the centre of the playfield just above the flippers are the four RACE inserts.
You light these by shooting the indicated shots and when
complete the left ramp is lit for lock. Shoot that twice to lock two
balls and the left ramp is then lit for race multiball. The ball enters
the hauler and the animation begins. It's another NASCAR hangover with
At the start of race multiball the two loop shots and the two ramps are
lit for jackpots. One ball from the lock area (Pit Road) is send into
the race track and shot around the loop ten times. As this happens, the
two remaining balls are released from the lock and the hauler and the
jackpot starts counting down. Shoot one of the jackpot shots to collect
it and lock the value. Collect all four jackpots to light super jackpot
"I watch the ripples change their size,
The playfield artwork is similar to NASCAR but some significant changes have been made. Fairly obviously, the game logo has been changed and the American and chequered flags have gone to be replaced by various smaller country flags for UK, Germany, Belgium, France, Spain, Italy, Australia, The Netherlands, Sweden and Switzerland.
Some of the mode names have changed - NASCAR's "Right Sides Only" has
Some of the other changes are less obvious. There is a T-shirt at the entrance to Scanner shot which in NASCAR says "Go Fast - Turn Left" but in Grand Prix it just says "Go Fast -" which looks a bit strange. The ramp stickers have changed to reflect the different style of car and the graphics at the top left of the playfield are different.
For a mode-based game, what of the modes?
Well, as we mentioned, you start them by shooting the garage underneath the test car and there are ten of them, indicated by a circle of playfield inserts
just above the flippers. The next mode is flashing and the completed
modes are solidly lit. The next mode can be changed by hitting the
captive ball. With the exception of the multiball modes, they're all
timed and end when the timer runs out. You get an audible cue counting
down from ten to zero but visually there's not much to indicate when the
Final Practice (2 ball multiball): The jackpot starts at 100K and is immediately bumped up by three 25K increments to 175K. Shooting the garage collects the jackpot. Shooting the left ramp sends the ball round the track three times and bumps up the jackpot by another three 25K increments.
Fuel Only: The garage value starts climbing from 250K. Shooting the garage, locks the garage value into the jackpot value and the lit shots collect jackpots. The garage value keeps climbing though, and another shot to the garage locks the new, higher value into the lit jackpot shots.
Super Fan: The same fan from the scanner animation get over-excited when you shoot the ramps for an initial value of 350K which increases 100K with each subsequent ramp shot.
Test Car: This is where you keep hammering away at the car for 500K per hit.
Quick Stop: This takes its theme from the NASCAR name for the mode "Right Sides Only". Four shots are lit on the right of the playfield -
the right loop, the right ramp, the drops and the captive ball - for
500K points plus another 100K for each subsequent shot. Making one of
the shots turns it off until all four are collected when they all
Tough Racing: Shoot the test car for jackpots of 250K plus 100K more for each extra shot. The car then pops up to reveal the garage. Shoot the garage for 2x the jackpot score, but if you miss and hit the yellow standup targets the car drops down and you've missed your chance.
Infield Party (2 ball multiball): A second ball is launched into the racetrack and it circles ten times during which time you can free it and add a new ball to the track by shooting the lit loop shot. After ten loops the ball is sent onto the playfield where alternating left and right loop shots score the infield value which can be increased by the pop bumpers. The mode ends when you're down to one ball.
Hauler Ride (2 ball multiball): The car is spinning in the hauler and a ball is sent onto the racetrack for 10 loops. Shoot past the car in the hauler for jackpots but hit the car and get 2x the jackpot. Any shot to the left ramp during the initial 10 loops will free the ball on the racetrack and replace it with a new ball.
Fast Turns: Shoot the loop for jackpots starting at 400K but increasing 100K each time.
Light Extra Ball: Lights the drop targets for extra ball. You need to
knock them all down to collect it, and if more than one extra ball is
stacked up you need to complete the drops for each one.
Starting the modes is one thing but if you do well, each mode can earn you a mode bonus which is collected at the drop targets and awarded as part of the end-of-ball bonus. The mode bonus is the same value as the points scored during the mode but it can also award a CHAMP#1 letter.
Once you've played all ten modes there is a hidden eleventh mode called Super Party - a multiball where you need to get a certain number of pop bumper hits to light the Super Jackpot at the drop targets. Meanwhile, jackpots can be collected from the loop shots. Super Party finishes when you're down to one ball and you can play the ten modes all over again.
Super Party is a kind of wizard mode but there is another feature which is harder to complete and has a better payoff, that's the CHAMP#1.Indicated by six (#1 is one letter) playfield inserts in front of the scanner, you collect letters to spell out CHAMP#1 by doing well in the modes and collecting the mode bonus. You can also get letters from a scanner award, victory laps, Hard Racing, The Esses and there may be other ways, but they're not easy to get and you need to work to complete the sequence.
If you do though, you start Champion Challenge multiball. This is more like the wizard mode we expect. Everything stops and you get a series of DMD frames running through all the lit awards - bumpers at max, spinners at max, outlanes lit, jackpots are lit, super jackpot is lit. Basically, everything is lit for something good so collect the jackpots and super jackpot but to relight them you need to keep hitting the car and shooting the garage to move your position up to #1. When you get the top place all the jackpots and super jackpots relight and round you go again until you only have one ball left on the playfield.
The end-of-ball bonus is made up from the mode bonuses, the infield value, the race position, the number of CHAMP#1 letters and the bonus multiplier. This can add up to quite a significant points score - in a high scoring 300 million points game, the bonus on one ball was over 30 million.
One area where the racetrack does impact is the game's lighting. Flashers are usually mounted at the outer edges of the game but that's not possible in Grand Prix, so there aren't many flashers on the playfield - just three in fact. But there are a few under the wood and they are very bright and effective in front of the test car and inside the circle of mode inserts.
The use of LEDs in the pop bumpers is interesting and although the jury is still out on their effectiveness, it's good to see Stern trying to address operators' problems.
The racetrack is tricky to light well, so there are some dark areas but the ball travels fast enough for this not to matter in practice. The rest of the lighting effects are fine if not outstanding.
More disappointing are the display effects which lack any consistent style or polish. They're not bad as such and there are a couple of good ones such as the infield trailers but overall they lack impact. The hauler miles animation is almost identical to the one used in Roadshow and even the scanner looks unfinished and lacking frames. If these were Grand Prix specific effects I wouldn't take issue as they may not be finished but these are NASCAR animations and so reflect on that game too.
One nice change is to the score font which is bolder and chunkier, making better use of the display space available.
The one area I've left to last is the sound, and there's a good reason for that. This game was clearly unfinished when it came to the audio. There were many samples played at double speed, half speed, interrupting each other and repeating quickly over and over ad nauseam. Because it's incomplete I won't comment further on these obvious failings because they'll be fixed before production begins, but there were enough audible sound calls to get an overall impression.
Like the rest of the game, there's a mixture of NASCAR-esque sound calls and some specifically recorded for Grand Prix. The problem is, they chose someone with an accent straight out of the Dick Van Dyke school of English speaking. It's so bad it's good, and it adds some much needed - if perhaps unintentional - light relief to the game. Every time he speaks you want to add "...don't you know!" to the end.
But he's not the only voice. To counter the upper crust guy, there's a commoner mechanic who is occasionally allowed to voice his opinion in a Dickensian low-life accent and a cheery American to do the NASCAR bits.
Some of the original sounds were very effective when used - the booming "JACKPOT" leaves you in no doubt you've made the shot - but conversely others sounded almost mischievous. The "one-million-points" quote has a certain Dr Evil ring of inappropriate authority as if you expect everyone to laugh at it.
The background music is very much in the background and if I'm not mistaken there's the Benny Hill theme tune in there somewhere but there's also a nice raunchy guitar in there too which breaks out occasionally. Sadly, the multiball music is still Sammy Hagar's "I Can't Drive 55" which might be Kimi Raikkonen's lament after another pit lane speeding penalty but less relevant elsewhere.
So while the sound faults will no doubt be ironed out, the special Grand Prix sound is very much an acquired taste and sits uncomfortably with the incumbent effects.
Which is a shame, because I genuinely enjoyed playing Grand Prix despite
"Strange fascination, fascinating me.
The racetrack works very well and with the mylar now installed over the T-nuts at the top left, ball wear should be reduced and the track isn't used so extensively it will lead to premature playfield wear.
The playfield artwork is bright and exciting with some good signposting of the required shots and real satisfaction from making them. They look open and inviting but somehow aren't very receptive to a poor shot so some skill is needed to learn their sweet spots.
The rules are deeper than usual. This is achieved by using Pat's
two-level rules; you can just do this, but if you're good you might like
to try doing THIS! This is a game you
Unhappily, the current mish-mash of NASCAR and Grand Prix brandings make NASCAR the model of choice if you can live with the theme and its implications. Grand Prix just doesn't have enough changes to make it its own game and the changes they have made sit uncomfortably. But as I said, this is a pre-production game so perhaps they will improve.
Either way, the underlying game is a good design with a practical and effective outer track not resulting in significant compromises. Pat Lawlor's
change of direction has most definitely paid good dividends. He just
needs the supporting cast to lift their game to make Grand Prix the finished package it deserves to be.
"I said that time may change me
© Pinball News 2005