Retro Review: 18 Wheeler American Pro Trucker (Dreamcast)

I have the same fondness for the Dreamcast that most gamers of a certain age do, but admittedly, it isn’t a system I go back to all that often. It isn’t for lack of still-viable games; rather, it’s that a good number of the Dreamcast games I would still play no longer require a Dreamcast to play them on. Many have been suitably ported to newer platforms, including what may be my two favorite DC games – Skies of Arcadia and Space Channel 5 – both of which have newer, more easily accessible (and in the case of Skies, superior) ports that I have permanently switched to. Others have been followed up by equally solid sequels that I’d just assume play over their revered DC predecessors (various fighting and sports games come to mind). What end up getting forgotten in all of this are those fun but non-essential games. The ones that you don’t keep a system hooked up specifically for. The ones that you don’t buy a sequel or another version of for a newer system. The ones like 18-Wheeler: American Pro Trucker.

I assumed that this game was basically going to be an arcade-style driving action game in the Crazy Taxi vein, only with big rigs delivering cargo rather than taxis delivering passengers. I was mostly right, with the one big exception: I had more fun with this game. Yep, you read that right, but just to avoid any confusion I’ll spell it out: I enjoyed 18-Wheeler: American Pro Trucker more than I enjoyed Crazy Taxi. Full disclosure: I was never a huge lover of Crazy Taxi. That is, I wasn’t a lover of it on Dreamcast. As an arcade game it was close to flawless, and it was one of the key games for me that still made arcades the perfect place to spend a Friday night in my late teen years. I just found the experience to be lacking on Dreamcast. I won’t spend too much time here reviewing Crazy Taxi since that isn’t the game we are really talking about here, but suffice it to say it just didn’t click with me at home like it did in the arcade and it is probably my least-beloved of the most-beloved Dreamcast games.

On paper, APT has all of the same shortcomings that disappointed me about Dreamcast Crazy Taxi. Its main mode is directly pulled from the arcade version’s and therefore can be completely finished in about 20 minutes. The extra modes added to pad the experience sound like little more than shallow filler. And the gameplay itself doesn’t amount to much more than “Get from Point A to Point B in X seconds, rinse, repeat”. All of this, plus the fact that you aren’t tearing through a crowded metropolis in a speeding taxi, but rather lumbering down the open road in a big, slow 18-wheeler. Sounds like fun with a capital sarcastic F, right?

Well, somehow, it genuinely is. While the speed is slower and more deliberate than other games of its ilk, once I settled into the pace of the game I found that it allowed for a touch more complexity than other arcade racers where you spend the majority of the time just barely in control. Here, once you’ve got the handling of the truck down, you are in total control, and there isn’t as much of the random nonsense that makes you fail so often in many fast-paced action racers. There have been so many times where I was playing another arcade racing game, seemingly doing everything exactly right, and yet I’d find myself falling way short of the next checkpoint for no other reason than some cheap obstacle or setback designed to milk you out of quarters. In APT, barring the first handful of Game Overs that are to be expected while you are learning the ropes, just about every time I didn’t make my checkpoint it was because of something I clearly did wrong, a time bonus I know I could’ve collected but didn’t, a tight turn that I came into way too fast, a last homestretch push that I was capable of but just didn’t pull together in time. In games like this where I have only myself – not archaic game design – to blame for losing, I am much more willing to happily hit that restart and immediately try again, ready to correct the mistake I know I made, rather than feel pissed off and want to quit because the game threw some random BS at me that I had no control over. I never once got frustrated at the notion of having to do a section of the game again, because I knew what to do this time and I was eager to do it right.

The game’s main mode is a cross-country trip from New York to San Francisco divided up into four legs, each one being its own separate stage. You have four different rigs to pick from, each one with its own stereotypical driver: the yee-haw hillbilly, the jive-talkin’ black guy, the hot leggy blonde, and so on. Each one has a slight variance in abilities, but not enough that I really noticed it all that much. The main objective is to get to the end of the route in the time allotted, but there are a few extra wrinkles to make things interesting. For starters, the cargo that you are hauling has a dollar value that decreases every time it takes damage, so you can’t just recklessly plow your way through smashing into everything. Don’t worry, it isn’t a complete driving sim; your actual cab can hit things without penalty so you can still have a little fun out there. Which is good, since the way that you can earn much-needed time bonuses between checkpoints is by crashing into and blowing up “bonus vans” that cross your path. The designers placed these at just the right spots that you get them right as you find yourself needing them, but they never seem to be required to reach a checkpoint if you are playing well enough. The other thing that you have to be aware of is a rival semi that is racing you to your destination and trying to take you down in the process. You don’t have to beat him in order to win the stage, it just gives you a bonus payout, which I thought was refreshing. They could’ve easily used a rival racer that could beat you at the last second and force a restart as an extra bit of cheap artificial challenge, and I’m glad that they didn’t go that route. I found that I usually beat him anyway, especially since every time he’d manage to get in front of me, I’d get directly behind him and activate Slip Stream (drafting) which gives you a speed boost that rockets you past him.

At the beginning of subsequent levels, you get to select one of two available trailers to haul, one marked as easy and the other marked as hard. Basically, the easy one is smaller (and therefore less likely to get hung up on things and cost you cash) and lighter, but worth less money, and the hard one is bigger and heavier and makes your truck handle a bit more sluggishly, but is worth more money. Nothing special, but at least they attempted to give each playthrough a little variety, and I much prefer a tangible difference like that to separate difficulty levels rather than simply shorter time limits or cheaper enemy AI. There is also a simple parking mini-game between each level, provided you beat your rival in said level – it doesn’t activate if you don’t. It simply involves pulling into a green square in the time allotted, incurring penalties for anything you hit in the meantime. There isn’t a ton more to the arcade mode than that, other than a few little environmental surprises in the later levels like falling boulders and a tornado that hurls cars at you (again, those things could’ve been extremely cheap, but thankfully they really weren’t and actually made things fun). Like I said earlier, arcade mode only lasts about 20 minutes front-to-back, although my initial run-through took probably two and a half times that with retries. You can’t save your progress mid-way, so each time you play you have to do the whole thing in one sitting. I only point this out for informational purposes, not because I necessarily consider it to be a huge gripe.

By the second or third time that you play arcade mode, you’ll likely be able to breeze through it with little to no retries, and the multiple characters and trailers do almost nothing to spice things up too much. That is where the extra modes come in. There’s Score Attack, which is essentially one-on-one racing with some combat elements. You go head to head with the CPU or a second player and do three laps around a track, racing for score rather than position. You begin with a set amount of money, and that goes up or down as the race progresses. Hitting a non-player vehicle makes you lose cash, unless it’s a bonus van, then you earn cash back. There is also a very haphazard and hard to control “attack” that involves you opening the back of your trailer and tossing a handful of objects out onto the track. For every item that hits the other racer, you get some cash. Whoever has the most cash at the end of the 3 laps wins. All of this excitement takes place over 6 tracks, which are basically the I and II versions of just 3 tracks. This mode is, by far, the weak link of the game. While it would’ve been a forgivable sin if it was just some throw-away novelty mode for single player, the fact that this afterthought of a mode is the only way to play this game multiplayer is a major blemish. Being able to tackle the arcade mode head-to-head – or, better yet, co-op – would’ve been a far more interesting way to play this game with a friend, but as it stands, you’re better off just taking turns if you ever find yourself playing this game with another interested party.

The other extra mode, the one I was admittedly least looking forward to trying, is Parking Challenge. Well, I’ll be damned if this wasn’t the mode I put the most time into. There are five different arenas to choose from, each with a series of subsequent challenges that you must successfully complete in order. For each one, you follow and absorb a trail of green dots, Pac-Man-style, that serve both as a guide to the goal, and as a tiny little time bonus per dot. This mode is more about technique than speed (although you are still under a rather strict countdown), and as such you must take care not to hit any walls, break any boxes, or knock over any lampposts as making contact with anything but the road leads to a time penalty. And as things progress, you can’t afford even the slightest addition to your clock so nearly flawless runs are required in the later challenges. I was completely hooked by this mode, and couldn’t stop playing until I beat every challenge even though that meant retry after retry after retry. Again, as with arcade mode, there isn’t much reason to keep returning to this mode once you beat it unless you are the type who really gets into trying to top your own best time, or you and a friend are competing for best times.

Ultimately, this game’s biggest failing, as with Crazy Taxi or any number of these types of arcade experiences brought home, is that there just isn’t a ton of content here. I don’t know that more levels for arcade mode, more arenas and challenges for parking mode, more tracks for Score Attack, or a few more novelty modes were necessarily the answer. They more or less did all they could’ve done to beef this game up and make it stand on its own as a full home console release. So, fun as it was, I don’t know that I would’ve been satisfied with the amount of total gameplay time available in this game if I had paid full price for it. It isn’t that I demand 20 hours out of every game that I buy, I just don’t generally love this type of game enough to re-play it the number of times that it expects you to in order to get the intended mileage out of it. But for how little you can probably find it for now, it’s worth the cash. It isn’t the sort of game I would put on a list of games you definitely must seek out for your Dreamcast, but should you ever find yourself shopping for DC games and you happen across this one for a few bucks, it isn’t a bad addition to your library.