Heart Like a Wheel

Name:
Heart Like a Wheel
Company: Twentieth Century Fox (MCT)
Model #:
N/A
Programmer:
Jim Collas
Year: 1983
Released?
No
Notes:
Based on the 1983 movie of the same name

 

Until quite recently, this game was a complete mystery.  No programmer, no model number, and only a guess on the company.  We didn't even know the name of the game!  The only hint we had as to the identity of this prototype is the name Universal, which was silk screened onto the EPROM board (pointing to TCF as the company).  Over the years people had speculated that if the game was by Twentieth Century Fox it must be based off of one of their movies, but which one?  The best candidate was an obscure 1983 movie called Heart Like a Wheel about female drag racing driver Shirley Muldowney (played by Bonnie Bedelia).  The only problem with this theory is that no one could find any indication that TCF ever considered making a game based on this movie.  Without any further information to go on, the prototype was simply called the Unknown Universal Prototype.

However this has all changed as programmer Jim Collas recently got in touch with AtariProtos to set the record straight.  The game was indeed called Heart Like a Wheel and was based on the 1983 movie (kudos to Greg2600 who correctly puzzled that one out).  Twentieth Century Fox had contracted with a company called Micro Computer Technologies to create a game to tie in with the movie.  Unfortunately the movie didn't do so hot and the game was cancelled.

Although the movie turned out to be a dud, the game is a different story. Heart Like a Wheel is a nice looking racing game in the style of Activision's Dragster (which is really a clone of Atari's Drag Race).  However unlike Dragster or Drag Race which are viewed from the side, this game is viewed from behind.  The perspective is similar to that of Activision's Enduro, right down to the vanishing point on the horizon.   It's immediately obvious from the graphics that a lot of work was being put into this game.   According to the programmer, since the 2600’s 6507 processor couldn’t do advanced math he had to create a set of acceleration tables with pre-calculated data to accurately reproduce how a dragster would accelerate.  He also had to use some advanced sprite interlacing techniques to get both cars on the screen at once.  This is why screenshots only show one car on the screen at a time.

The gameplay is quite similar to Dragster in that the player must rev his engine and change gears as fast as possible without blowing the engine.  However unlike Dragster the player actually has control over his car and can steer it around the lane.  The faster the player goes, the further the car will move into the horizon and the harder it is to keep from crashing into the sides of the lane.  Careful steering is a must if you're going to win a race in this game.

The controls in this prototype are a bit unintuitive and can easily frustrate someone who isn't familiar with them.  This is due to the incomplete nature of the prototype and would have been changed before release.  For example, to start the race the player must press left, up, and right until the little man drops the white flag (or the light turns green).  Once the race has started, pressing up will cause the car to accelerate, while pressing down will change gears.  When pressing down the gear indicator will briefly change from N (Neutral) to C (Clutch) indicating that you are changing gears, continuing to press down will cause the car to shift into gears 1 through 4.

 

As you increase your speed the meter at the bottom of the screen will show your current engine temperature.  If you go too fast in a low gear, your engine will blow.  By shifting gears at the proper time you will enable your car to move faster without blowing the engine.  Once you've reached the finish line, you must press the fire button to launch your parachute and slow your car down.  If you do not launch your parachute in time your car will crash.  Pressing the select button will enable the computer driver which takes over the first players spot (the car will turn yellow).  To race against the computer you will have to use the second players joystick.  There are three different colored computer components to race against (yellow, blue, and red), each representing the level of difficulty.  You will have to race the blue and yellow cars a few times in order to see the red car.

 

There are two different racing variations available in this prototype, which can be selected by toggling the left difficulty switch. When the switch is in the A position the race takes place on a city street with stock cars and a man with a white flag that starts the race.  When the switch is in the B position the race takes place out in the desert with dragsters and the race is started by an automatic light.  Similarly to the odd way of starting races, using the difficulty switch to change tracks wasn’t planned to be part of the final game design, it was only used for testing during development.  There is little difference between the two except the dragster variation moves faster than the stock car variation (the player must switch gears faster) which makes it a bit more difficult.  While it may appear that there is no one player option for the dragster variation, there actually is but you have to work a bit to get to it.  In order to get to the one player dragster race you must first beat all three opponents (yellow, blue, and red), and then you will start the next race in the desert.  According to Jim this was supposed to represent Shirley’s story progression starting as an amateur on the streets and eventually moving up to the professional dragster races.

 

While there are a few racing games available for the 2600, Heart Like a Wheel stands out as being a nice update to the old Dragster formula.  Sadly Heart Like a Wheel was never completely finished before being cancelled.  While the core gameplay is there, the prototype is missing some finishing touches such as correct level progression, the races starting automatically, and more tracks.  Interestingly Heart Like a Wheel was not the only racing game being considered by TCF.  Early manuals mention that a game called Six Pack (based on the 1982 Kenny Rogers racing movie) was coming soon, but much like Heart Like a Wheel it too was never released.  Many people thought that this prototype might actually be the long lost Six Pack (although the theme doesn't quite fit), but now we know the truth.  Although Jim never went on to develop any more 2600 games, he had a long and successful career in the computer industry including becoming President of Amiga during Gateway’s ownership of the brand.  


Version Cart Text Description
??????  H Almost complete

 

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