As a product, Mad Panic Coaster stands out to me. It’s clear that this small PS1 game envisions itself first and foremost as a piece of marketing material. As it should; the game was made to promote the band of the same name, after all. In light of how few people are even aware of the band’s existence (much less associate this game with the band), though, it’s safe to say that Mad Panic Coaster has failed at its intended goal. Yet we shouldn’t be too quick to dismiss the game itself as a failure. Where Mad Panic Coaster the promotional product fails, Mad Panic Coaster the video game succeeds. Its sense of danger and excitement do a better job of simulating the roller coaster experience than many of the games to follow it.
A lot of this has to do with how other games approach this scenario. When games like RollerCoaster Tycoon and Roller Coaster Rampage want to capture the roller coaster experience, they usually employ the same strategy: sit you down in one of the cars, present the track through a first person perspective, and let you watch as the ride unfolds. I can understand why they choose to represent the experience like this, yet I’m not sure how effective a strategy like this can be. What makes roller coasters so appealing in the first place is the sense of being there; of directly feeling the drops and hairpin turns for yourself. So by separating you from that experience and asking that you just watch it unfold, these games limit how well they can simulate a roller coaster. Sure, they can still convey the speed and turns and drops directly on the track – but at best, that’s only going to simulate things secondhand.
By contrast, Mad Panic Coaster’s decision to present itself as a game does away with watching entirely, and in doing so, more faithfully captures the feeling of riding a roller coaster. If I had to describe what kind of game Mad Panic Coaster is, I’d say it’s a literal rail shooter, although that description is far from accurate. While you can shoot explosives at whatever’s hurdling your way, that’s far from the point of the game. Rather, the goal is to survive three laps through a hellish gauntlet disguised as a roller coaster. It’s not even to get a high score or finish the course with the fastest time; the game doesn’t give you the opportunities you’d need to make either of those happen. All you can do is survive.
Already we can see that danger is the driving force behind the game. Yet what allows the game to capture that sense of danger in the first place? Part of that stems from the physicality coded into the game’s visuals: scenery rushes past you in a fraction of a second, and your car teeters ever so precariously if you come too close to the edge of the tracks. However, I see the lack of control as more responsible for the game’s success. Not only does the game understand that players relate to video games primarily through play, but it also knows they approach games with an expectation that they’ll be able to control them. They’re are ease when that expectation is met, and uncomfortable when it isn’t.
So is it any surprise to see Mad Panic Coaster take the Billy Hatcher to such a dangerous conclusion? The game sends you zipping through these course at incredible speed, but gives you very little control over your car. It’s constantly moving forward along a one-way track; all you can do is steer it within that narrow lane. It might be more accurate to say you influence the car, though, given how loose the steering on it is. You’re entirely at the game’s whim, yet it still demands a certain level of control from you. Playing this game feels dangerous and uncomfortable, which is precisely why it works. This kind of design creates the illusion of danger that so many roller coasters rely on, which in turn means it elicits that same feeling of excitement. That’s not to say Mad Panic Coaster perfectly emulates the experience; I don’t know how many roller coasters put you in actual danger like this game does. Still, the game comes a lot closer to emulating it than others have, due in no small part to what the game does with the idea of control.
Of course, the visuals also deserve some of the credit, as they’re what the game uses to get you to stop thinking. I don’t say that as a criticism, but as a compliment. With conscious thought taken off the table, you’re only allowed to experience this game in terms of pure instinct. This obviously lends itself well to the kind of excitement the game hopes to invoke: instinct makes things feel that much more raw and immediate, like you’re actually experiencing these events directly. Granted, that’s probably not what the artists and designers behind this game intended with their art. Judging by the repulsive Rob Zombie aesthetic and the accompanying rock music, it’s easy to see their goal was to create a brand aimed at a very specific demographic. Yet I see no reason why the game has to be chained to its creators’ intent, especially when it realizes its full potential outside said intent. And even under this new approach, their original purpose still holds some value, amplifying that feeling of danger just a little bit.
I’m tempted to end this review on a wide-reaching platitude like, “Success is straightforward, but failure holds greater potential.” However, I don’t think a framework like that could do the game justice. Mad Panic Coaster isn’t that complicated a game; it doesn’t need these new contexts and approaches that framework entails for us to appreciate it. If used incorrectly, they’d only serve to distract us from what the game actually does. So let’s appreciate this game for what it is: a digital roller coaster experience.