I don't even know what to say about this game. The Wii version of, NASCAR The Game: Inside Line is one of the most interesting games I've ever played. It cost me ten dollars used at GameStop, yet I probably got over 100 dollars worth of enjoyment out of it. I bought it primarily to test Dolphin, but I quickly took a liking to it and kept it in my rotation of games. As I played it longer, I realized that I was no longer testing the game. No, the game was clearly testing me.
What exactly happened at the end there? Well, I'll get to that and much more in this Tales Through Emulation.
The Breeze Flowing Through Your Hair
On the surface, NASCAR Inside Line is an arcade racing game with all of your favorite NASCAR drivers like Danica Patrick and Juan Pablo Montoya. You drive around a bunch of the NASCAR circuits and race up to 42 other cars at the same time.
Unlike the previous Wii incarnation, NASCAR 2011, NASCAR Inside line is absolutely amazing. Unlike most yearly increments, Inside Line uses an entirely new engine, new physics, and has almost nothing in common with NASCAR 2011 (Wii). The 2011 release is a mediocre arcade racing game with none of the crazy stuff that's in Inside Line. Every single car on the track seems to have the full physics engine applied to it. The work they put into it pays off as racing alongside opponents feels just right. Compared to 2011 (Wii) where the AI cars were glued to the track, this was a huge improvement.
What exactly brought forth this huge shift?
Inside Line appears to be a port of the PS3/360 version of NASCAR 2011. While there is a PS3/360 version of Nascar Inside Line, there are certain issues in this game that make me believe it's more heavily based on the 2011 iteration.
Thanks to being a HD to SD down-port, the game looks fantastic on Dolphin when run at higher resolutions and decent on the Wii. Unfortunately, something went seriously wrong in development and the game was released in a very incomplete state. This results in one of the most memorable experiences I've ever had with a video game.
How Do You Test a Buggy Game on an Emulator?
One of the reasons that NASCAR Inside Line stood out was that I was using it primarily on Dolphin. I test Dolphin a lot and report bugs, so when a game itself is actually buggy, it makes my life a lot more difficult. I have to worry more about hardware verification, transferring save files, recording console footage, and more. Usually most big graphical bugs in games only happen in Dolphin.
NASCAR Inside Line decided it wanted to bring the party to the Wii. This game is full of incomplete features, graphical bugs, and game bugs that forced me to constantly switch between Dolphin and my Wii. You'd think something like missing car textures would be an emulator bug... but...
Nope, when upgrading the game from 2011 to 2012, they just forgot to replace some of the textures. You could probably transplant the appropriate files and rebuild the disc image to fix this if you have NASCAR 2011 (Wii/PS3/360) and appropriate file converters. The game doesn't use archives, so, maybe someone who cares could try this in the future. Considering the game developers didn't, I don't think I should hold my breath, though.
I could show several more examples of downright egregious oversights, but, I'd rather talk about them alongside the game itself rather than spoiling them all upfront. It's very difficult to play this game without running into bugs. Before we get to that, let's actually look at the main difference between playing this game on Dolphin and on the Wii.
The Difficulties of Being an Emulator
For the most part, Dolphin runs NASCAR Inside Line perfectly. Too perfectly. On Dolphin, given a strong enough PC, this game will always maintain 60 FPS no matter what's on screen. This lets NASCAR Inside Line on Wii rival the 360/PS3 versions of the game visually!
When I moved over to console to verify some bugs, I had a lot more trouble driving and it was very difficult to judge speed. Why? The game runs at a dynamic frame rate, and can drop down to 15 FPS when a lot of cars are on screen.
Dolphin's terrible GPU timings allows the game to run at a much higher frame rate than console. When someone eventually does tackle an option for more accurate timings, this game will be one of the testing candidates. While having a better frame rate is desirable to just play the game, it's important that someday Dolphin have the ability to get the correct results as well.
NASCAR Inside Line as a Game
GameCube Controller Support
This game supports GameCube controllers! On the PS3/360, you could use the R2/L2 for analog braking and acceleration as if they were pedals. On the Wii, because the triggers of the Classic Controller are digital, they didn't bother to support analog triggers on the Gamecube. You only get a digital press out of it, which gives you slightly less control than on the other versions.
This is one of the dumbest things I've ever seen in a game. When a yellow caution flag happens, you almost immediately get a loading screen. A lot of times, an accident won't fully play out because the loading screen cuts it off and suddenly any sideways cars are now just fine.
After that, the game replays the accident that led to the caution. Considering that sometimes the crashes do not involve you at all, this isn't that big of a deal outside of it leading to another loading screen.
After that loading screen, you're under the caution flag driving toward pit lane. You have no control of the car, and depending on your position in the field, you have between five and 30 seconds to choose to pit or not. If you decide against pitting, you get another loading screen and a chart of where everyone is at position-wise.
Finally after all of that, you end up on the front straightaway and have to wait until your car hits the start/finish line to continue driving.
In the Dolphin demonstration above, the caution flags averaged just under a minute long without a pitstop. Depending on the course and your position they can take even longer, too. In multiplayer, if one person is leading the race and the other is in last, a caution flag can take well over 90 seconds due to both players getting the opportunity to pit!
As a kicker, because the cars are brought close together for the restart, you're more likely to get a second caution right after one ends.
My biggest problem with the game is the annoying loading screens that break up the action. If it's a simulation game, let me drive during the caution and actually plan my pit strategy. If it's an arcade game, streamline it more since I have no control over it anyway!
While NASCAR 98 didn't have quite the level of sophistication of these new games, the one thing it did well was actually make cautions work in terms of being a videogame.
No loading screens! A crash happens, the caution flag comes out and gets the field together. As soon as everything is together it's green flag. While this isn't realistic to how NASCAR did it back then (or now,) NASCAR 98's cautions have a similar effect as the cautions in a real race while making them work in a game.
Cautions frustrated me in Inside Line to the point where I turned on Dolphin's Speed up Disc Transfer Rate option and switched off the frame limiter just to try and hurry up these annoying speedbumps. Thankfully, NASCAR Inside Line gives you the ability to turn off caution flags which makes the game infinitely better.
This is the main meat of the game: a career mode where you can earn sponsorships and money for upgrading your car! ...Except that if you win the first race (the Daytona 500,) you get enough money to almost completely upgrade your car and turn the rest of the game into a cakewalk.
Though you have the weakest possible car, it's possible to win even on the highest difficulty. The 1080p60 demonstration was that exact case. Though I did get a bit lucky with the AI making a boneheaded mistake at the end, in the past I've won it without needing such shenanigans. This game isn't very well thought out. If it was, I wouldn't love it so much.
This mode is an utter disaster and I can't imagine why they didn't just disable it before shipping out the game. I'd normally recommend never touching this mode, but the fact it's so broken makes it a joy to play. Certain cars are "scripted" and have no physics, meaning that they follow their racing line and never diverge from it. This allows for some crazy stuff to happen.
Their lack of physics can be abused for all kinds of crazy stunts and sometimes you can gain a lot of height off of crashes or get pinched between multiple cars. This is something that'd be fixed in a day one patch nowadays, but on the Wii we thankfully didn't have that.
For a change of pace, what multiplayer they did decide to include is pretty well done. The first negative is that they didn't dare try to attempt online play with this engine. Instead, they opted for splitscreen. Two players can race together with a full 43 car field if you're willing to play at an incredibly low frame rate.
The multiplayer experience is actually way better on Dolphin! If you have a powerful enough computer, you can play with a full field and two players at 60 FPS, versus running around, at most, 20 FPS on console. Three and four-player modes limit the number of cars to make things easier, but Dolphin still provides a much nicer frame rate.
In terms of functionality, multiplayer is very bare bones. There's no season mode, no multi-race championships, nothing special at all. All you can do are single race weekends. Still, you can set all the options, qualify, and go through a race weekend. The main issue with multiplayer is that the game's engine is already held together by toothpicks and rubber cement, so adding more players to the mix just makes it even more likely to break in unexpected ways.
On Bristol Raceway, there are two pit areas because the track is so short every car's pit can't fit on one straight away. There was a huge wreck in front of the correct pit area, so the AI drove around it on the track slowly. I had now lost control of my car as it went around the track to try again. During this time the second player crashed out... and for reasons I've never been able to reproduce again, the game forgot I needed to pit. It just kept driving and driving and driving. And then it ran out of gas. While I was just playing the game casually at the time and not recording, I managed to grab the aftermath of the glitch when I realized I was watching something special.
Now all of these bugs are fun... but this game managed to take my attention for the better part of a month as I hunted what appeared to be an extremely problematic emulator issue.
One of the Strangest Bugs I've Ever Hunted
I've played a lot of games in Dolphin. A lot of really terrible games. Every so often one of those games are so fascinating that I play them more than necessary. NASCAR Inside Line was a genuinely enamoring game - every single race something completely batshit insane would happen and make me want to keep playing. Sometimes it was bugs, sometimes it was crazy AI, sometimes it was just the scenarios the physics could conjure up. I was hooked. Every race was special.
This came to a head when I was playing at 6AM in the morning after getting off work. I had set the game to 100 laps on an oval track and things were actually being mostly normal. Then two big wrecks happened roughly halfway through the race damaging most of the cars on the track. This is to be expected and happens most of the time.
Then, in the sky, I saw a racecar flicker out of existence followed by Dolphin spitting out invalid read errors. Shocked, I carefully pushed through each error and then the game continued as-per normal.
I drove around the track a few more laps in a lackadaisical manner as my crew chief urged me to push harder. Unfortunately, my heart was no longer in it and I soon retired from the race. I only had one question on my mind.
What the hell just happened?
I played the game for six more hours that morning in a vain attempt to see if I could get more of these strange invalid reads. It never did, and I ended up wasting my whole day on it. After work the next day, I returned to the game and continued messing with it, and eventually, I managed to trigger it again during another big crash, this time my car was the one flying through the sky as the "Race Over" dialogue was on screen. There were two options:
- This is one of the greatest Dolphin bugs I've ever seen.
- This is one of the strangest game bugs I've seen in a while.
After over 20 hours of experimenting, I had found that it had something to do with big wrecks. Over a week later, I stormed onto IRC and ranted to people that I had managed to track it down through sheer force of will.
Max Damage State
NASCAR Inside Line is an exceedingly lazy game when it comes to damage. You can't really break parts of the car aside from the engine turning red after front-end hits, but that doesn't seem to do anything anyway.
Instead, it seems like the game has a health bar, and once you run out of health and hit "Max Damage" your car will breakdown when it comes to a rest. Except, Inside Line doesn't mandate that your car actually stops - you can continue to drive it as long as you want and actually pit to repair the damage. The normal way to actually crash out is that you hit max damage state during a crash and slow to a stop while trying to recover from a spin or getting trapped against another car or wall.
Thanks to Dolphin and savestates, I was able to attain Max Damage state and test it over and over again. Considering that there is no visible health bar, this proved invaluable to making testing easier. Here's where things get interesting: max damage state applies to AI cars as well. This essentially makes the game a ticking time bomb to crash, especially on longer races.
Car Reset Crash
When you enter pit road normally you can repair your car. BUT if you enter the pit road in an invalid manner, things go very wrong. Let's go over what happens when you stop normally with max damage state.
- Stop the car.
- Respawn car in pit road and mark the car a DNF (did not finish).
- If a player's car is DNF, the game over dialogue is showed.
What happens when you enter pit road in an invalid manner without max damage state.
- Stop the car
- Respawn the car somewhere outside pit road and give the player control.
Both of these things work fine on their own, but, if you enter pit road in an invalid manner while in max damage state... well...
While I haven't reverse engineered the code to see what's actually going wrong, I have a feeling it's trying to respawn the car twice into two different spots causing it to fly out of bounds and potentially crash the game. The spot where you enter pit road along with the speed you hit pit road seems to affect just how violently your car flies away.
While this may seem like a harmless and fun bug to pull off, it's actually quite problematic as the AI can enter max damage state and crash into pit road. That means they too can trigger this strange game state, which in turn explains the car I saw flying through the sky. It's easy to see how testers missed this - enabling cautions means it's much harder (though still possible) to end up in a state where this can happen.
As the video at the top of the article spoiled, this glitch does indeed happen on console complete with the loud BZZZZZZZZ many Wii gamers have run into over the years when dealing with unstable games. With full MMU emulation enabled in Dolphin, you can get the correct behavior and crash the game there, instead of seeing invalid read messages. After solving this bug and proving it happened on console, I was finally free of NASCAR Inside Line.
I have played hundreds of games in Dolphin, and NASCAR Inside Line is one of the top five most memorable for me. I don't know how this game happened, but it is an absolute joy to play if you're in the right mindset. The base racing is actually solid, which adds to the fun when everything around it goes to absolute hell every single time I play it.
If you're looking for a great simulation of NASCAR, look somewhere else. For people like me that love spectacular disasters, NASCAR The Game: Inside Line should be remembered as one of the best. Unfortunately for the developers, their very next game would be remembered as one of the worst games of all time. In some ways I feel bad for them, as NASCAR Inside Line has definite effort and feels like it could have been good if it were completed. The developers would then stick mostly to NASCAR as the company has seemingly fizzled out.