The world’s biggest single racing event, the 24 Hours of Le Mans lasts... wait for it... 24 hours, which makes it a less-than-attractive basis for a video game adaptation. Here are a few examples of those who tried.
In a time when a 24-hour race lacked the infrastructure to be put on TV-screens from start to finish and the video game industry was still fighting hard to make a space invader and an Italian plumber distinguishable from each other, the marriage of the two seemed a utopia. Nevertheless, there were some brave people who tried to cash in on the matrimony from the early days.
If you want to make a successful and entertaining game about a race that lasts a full day, you do not necessarily want to encumber the player with the complete experience. You want to recreate the atmosphere, you want the player to feel like Steve McQueen holding up two fingers for a couple of minutes.
One of the first games that wore the Le Mans title was a 1976 arcade cabinet by Atari. Conventional - by contemporary standards - bird’s eye view, multiple tracks included, it is a small game of skill trying to complete the track not crashing out. Obviously, it has no connection to the real thing other than the title and cars on track.
What does have a connection in overall feel, is another arcade cabinet by Atari, Night Driver. Often cited as the very first point-of-view video game in history, this one is surprisingly an able demonstration of the sensation of driving through e.g. the Mulsanne, Indianapolis and Arnage corners in pitch black at the Circuit de la Sarthe, despite its limited capabilities.
Despite the name, the Commodore 64 game Le Mans was merely a clone of SEGA’s Monaco GP - neither having anything to do either with the 24-hour race or Formula One.
The first real game that carried the likes of the actual circuit, the name, the cars and an actual support from ACO, was Konami’s WEC Le Mans from 1986. A beautiful sprite-scaling game enabled the player to experience day and night conditions in an accelerated time-span, driving a Porsche 956/962 look-alike. For the technology available at the time the circuit was mapped out more or less accurately and recognizably due to some well-placed clues of real-life track features, such as the cut back trees at the entrance of Tetre Rouge.
It was fast, smooth and very much addictive and attractive - requiring a considerable amount of space in the arcade.
The king of arcade racing games, SEGA joined the party in the late 90s, at the very end of the coin-op era. Based on the experience they acquired with such 3D racing games as Daytona USA, SEGA Rally, Indy 500 and Scud Race, their Model 3-based Le Mans 24 proved to be a success again, basically being a carbon copy of the Konami game 12 years earlier. A wide selection of cars from different eras, including a Ferrari F40, a Sauber-Mercedes C9, a McLaren F1, a Mazda 787B, etc. (along with a Porsche 917 as a bonus), the yet again spectacular 1:3-scale track of Sarthe was a visual explosion on the senses, bringing the arcade as we know it to an end.
The last game fully dedicated to the 24-hour race was Test Drive Le Mans, arriving to your home system just when Audi started its yet-lasting, almost exclusive domination of the event. The first real attempt to simulate the race - not necessarily in its physics (as arcade modes were available, too), but with the option to race for a complete 24 hours. None of the other parts of the game were much interesting, this feature was a real breakthrough, though, adumbrating the future of racing and simulation games.
Soon enough, such franchises as Gran Turismo or Forza Motorsports picked up the race in their repertoire along with other fan projects, such as the contemporary recreations of the track to Grand Prix Legends or rFactor.
The Circuit de la Sarthe and the Le Mans 24 Hours remains one fan-favourite race among racing simulation enthusiasts, due to the appeal and the unique challenge of what a genuine road course can provide, fitted with the test of endurance.
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