PlayStation PlayStation 1

Speed Punks - Sony's Forgotten First Party Kart Racer

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Speed Punks Title

Speed Punks / Speed Freaks

Developer: Funcom Dublin
Release Date: April 18, 2000

Happy Friday everyone! Here's another episode in the long-running-but-largely-inconsistent "Retro Fridays" where I talk about whatever game happens to cause a nostalgic itch that needs scratching. Today's feature is Speed Punks or Speed Freaks, depending on whether you're "across the pond" or not. The term "pond" is a bit further out this time around, reaching the shores of Ireland, Dublin to be exact. Originally released in late 1999 for the PAL region, Speed Freaks was Europe's answer to what a quality Sony kart racer should entail. Released within days from Crash Team Racing, Naughty Dog's own vision of what a first-party Sony kart racer was, using their own mascot, both titles were amazing games in their own right.

Over two decades later, it's obvious that one of these two games would remain a footnote in kart racing history while the other was largely forgotten. When I first played Speed Punks, I heard about it while reading an issue of the Official U.S. PlayStation Magazine and, as one can already expect, I've had the chance to play the demo on the disc it came with. What was special about this disc was that it was the first of many PlayStation Magazine demo discs I'd collected as a kid. It was the year 2000 which meant I'd been gaming for a little over a year and a half at this point. A whole new world had opened up to me and I was thankful for it.

There was also a dual pack that included a demo sampler for Hot Shots Golf 2, better known as Everybody's Golf. (Source:

Instead of anthropomorphic critters duking it out against each other in karts, Speed Punks features a cast of kids (or punks, or freaks) who all decided to host a major tournament spanning across the world. All from the convenience of their treehouse! Of the characters that stood out to me, Tempest was always front and center. This spiky-haired goggle-wearing loose cannon was the epitome of a "Speed Punk." He shared the highest top speed in the game and was also one of the heaviest characters, rare traits to have for a character meant to be the "cover star." But he was different from the "cover star," no, he represented speed.

That's the best way I can explain Speed Punks, in that it's a game based on how fast you can reach the max speed and maintain that speed. Kart racers usually bear the distinction of utilizing items and weapons to even the playing field but having luck with items isn't enough. There's a sense of chaos in handling the karts in-game as these guys cannot stay four wheels on the ground for more than three seconds. A lot of the courses have jumps and elevation changes that can alter these characteristics further which is incredibly hard to adjust after landing from a jump and dealing with a bouncy kart.

The sense of speed is felt once the game's handling "clicks."

The player has to earn the right to "go fast" and this is made clear with its boost system. The only way to gain a boost in Speed Punks is to collect "boost tokens," which will fill the boost meter at a rate dependent on the player's position. The player will earn more boost the farther they're behind as opposed to being in front and the rubber banding is generous as well. Powerslide is the second way players can earn boost but it's not as consistent as other kart racers that utilize the same mechanic. It reminded me of Diddy Kong Racing's physics in that the player is locked at the angle they begin their slide, but they can make minor adjustments.

After a second passes, if the player is still in a powerslide they will begin to slowly fill their boost meter. Upon reaching a full boost gauge, the player can use a max boost which is considerably more powerful than using a regular boost. This also adds a thin layer of strategy in using the boost at the best possible time. Making direct contact while powersliding will immediately cancel it and ending a powerslide to change directions will also end the boost gain. However, there are certain sections on each track where the player can take advantage of a specific glitch.

For a completely original IP, Speed Punks has a memorable roster and world-building potential.

If the player has a maximum boost gauge and they are locked in a powerslide, the player can activate the max boost by tapping the boost button with a full meter. Doing so will increase the speed of the player, while also allowing them to gain meter while power sliding. This effectively gives the player an "infinite max boost" so long as the player doesn't end the powerslide. There's a small yet dedicated speedrunning community for Speed Punks and I wouldn't have found out that this game had hidden depths were it not for them. Once players overcome the unique floaty behavior of the karts, Speed Punks is a blast. Some courses, like the speedways and city tracks, are better than others but this is purely biased.

I wasn't too much of a fan of the jungle courses from a track layout, but the graphics are some of the most beautiful that the PlayStation has to offer. There are unlockable courses and characters, although one character, in particular, is unlocked fairly early on. Cosworth the Dog is easily one of the best characters in the game with above-average top speed and acceleration but he controls like a beach ball in the middle of an air funnel. I suppose if you're named after one of the most successful engineers in the world, you better be fast.

Tracks range from dirt tracks, city courses, and tropical exotic locations like this.

There are several reasons why Speed Punks wasn't as successful as it should have been and the main reason was timing. The PlayStation 2 was released later that same year and everyone was waiting in anticipation. If this game was developed for the PlayStation 2 in mind as a launch title, it would have potentially been a hidden gem that would have kicked off the PS2's legacy wonderfully. The second elephant in the room was that it was in direct competition with itself. In Europe, this was released at the exact same time as Crash Team Racing, regarded as one of the best video games of all time. Not the best racing game. Best video game as in if one were to bring up "Sony PlayStation," Crash Team Racing will be brought up in conversation.

The Funcom Dublin branch would eventually phase out as Funcom became its own singular entity which was a shame as the Dublin studio had developed other underrated racing titles during that time. Nowadays, Funcom is best known for the Conan survival MMORPG as well as other MMORPGs. There may be good news in the future if Sony continues their ongoing track record of remembering that it had an expansive PlayStation catalog collecting digital dust. We may see Speed Punks return as a stealth release for a PlayStation Plus addition but I wouldn't hold my breath. However you find this gem, don't pass up on the opportunity to play what is one of the most challenging yet aesthetically pleasing racing games I've enjoyed throughout my life.

What da dog doin? (About to jump out the window into a trash can...)

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