Byte Driver Review

Contributed by DJMMT

I’m not really sure why I was recently offered a review key for a game that originally released in 2019. And even more interesting is that it’s actually a recreation of an arcade game from 1979. But I was offered a review key by the publisher, Thalamus Digital, so today I’m reviewing Byte Driver from Vector Hat. Let me start by saying that I’m reviewing this as a current game, as I don’t really write retro reviews in most cases. So, while it’s definitely not fair to expect a game from 1979 to stand up to modern standards, it was submitted to me as such, so that’s how I’m going to review it.

Byte Driver is best described as a battle driving game. While the courses and driving are pretty standard, the combat is actually pretty creative and dynamic. Before you read forward, let me preface this review by clarifying that if you are looking for a competitive racing game, whether against other players or NPCs, this game is not for you. While you do drive fast in Byte Driver, there are no positions, no trophies, and the finish line is more metaphorical than literal. Yet you are on a track of sorts. However, if you are looking for a game where you get to drive a fast car and shoot things, then this may be what you’re looking for.

Visually, Byte Driver is simple but cool. It’s done in wireframe. Again, it was originally released in 1979. Playing it took me back to the days of Star Wars – The Arcade Game (1983). Funny enough, I’d say this is actually harder than that was, and in many ways less satisfying, if I’m being honest. I’m fine with the graphics. The retro feel is simple, but enjoyable. What I found more interesting was that this version of the game goes out of its way to simulate issues that the original 1979 arcade version of the game had. For example, there are background glitches that randomly pop up in different parts of the screen. It’s a nice touch that adds authenticity, but it can be annoying. While it didn’t bother me too much in the actual gameplay, I found it very irritating when navigating the menus. So much so that it was one of the first things I commented on in my notes for this review. That said, I was pleasantly surprised to find that you can turn this, and several other visual options, off, or on in some cases, in the settings menu.

While it does attempt to simulate gaming in 1979, Byte Driver runs very smoothly. I didn’t experience any glitches or performance problems. All the graphical issues are intentional. With the simple wireframe designs, limited number of models, and limited use of colors, there’s not much going on here to push your graphics card. The entire game is only 140.29 MB. There are only five stages, which mostly look the same other than the colors used, a maximum of five vehicle models, and three types of weapons designs. Overall, it looks and runs fine, but it does not look impressive. I only have two complaints about the visuals in this game. The first is that some of the wireframe text was a bit hard to read when certain letters were used. It’s not a huge deal, as it mostly affects menu navigation. My second complaint was missiles splash damage. While it’s difficult to say for sure with the fast movement of the gameplay, the perception of missile splash damage range was a constant issue for me. I often took damage from missiles that I felt like I was out of range of. It’s a hitbox to graphics problem. Not a game breaking issue, but something I found rather annoying in specific sequences.

The HUD is simple and clear. The right side of the screen has an energy bar, which is HP. The left side has a bar that shows your speed, and your boost meter when available. The top left shows the weapons, including shields, that you have amassed. The top right shows your current score and elapsed time for the current run. In the bottom left corner, you can see your car’s performance stats, but you pretty much won’t use that information while playing.  

I was happy with the audio experience in Byte Driver. As it’s a racing game, a large part of the sound effects are your car’s engine. This baby purrs in the way classic racing game cars sound. When you boost, you hear it. When you crash into the siderails, you hear it. The weapons have their own little sound effects for each of the three types. There’s also sounds for the few other things that can happen, which mostly entails taking damage, hacking other cars, and dying. One thing I will say about the sound effects is that, with the exception of certain weapons, they are very one-sided. You don’t really hear the other vehicles on the road. Really, it’s only other vehicles taking damage that you hear outside of your own actions. That’s not really a problem though, as it works for the fast-paced nature of the gameplay. There is a soundtrack of 70’s/80’s inspired retro tracks for atmosphere, but the default audio mix drowns out the music with how loud the sound effects are. You really have to go out of your way to listen to it, if you want to. It’s not bad, but it’s not a reason to pick up this game either. The irony being that you can literally buy the five-song soundtrack as DLC on Steam for $1.99.

As for writing, there really isn’t any in Byte Driver. The only exception is that when you end a run a random sentence appears on the screen. It’s completely irrelevant to the game and your performance in that particular run. But some of them are kind of funny. For instance, I got one that said “BE SURE TO DRINK YOUR OVALTINE.” I don’t know what specifically determines which sentence you get, but I did get some of them repeated several times. Otherwise, the only writing in the game is tutorials, which are simple, but clear. The biggest issue in the tutorials is how fast everything moves. I had to play the tutorial twice to fully grasp how everything worked. That said, the tutorial is not long, so it wasn’t a serious issue.

I will acknowledge that while the game doesn’t have any narrative writing in it, the official Byte Driver website does have a short story summary for the game. Here it is in its entirety:

The year is 1999. The self-driving cars have become self-aware and have taken over the highway. Only one person tries to drive. Her car, the Byte Driver driver, is equipped with a device of her own design, a device that can absorb the capabilities of autonomous vehicles. Her mission: to destroy the Cyber Mind, breaking the connection between the self-drivers, and bring freedom back to the road.

Though dated and a bit unbalanced, the gameplay is quite interesting, even by today’s standards of battle racing games. Driving isn’t complicated. You just hold the gas down and steer with the left stick. Steering is smooth and consists of mostly dodging obstacles, which includes other vehicles, their attacks, and mines; and you have to deal with the occasional turn. Turns are also pretty easy to deal with; and there’s a break to slow down, but you won’t use it much if at all. There is also a nitro boost, but you have to collect it manually, which I’ll go into more in a bit. Again, this is a driving game, but not a racing game. You can pass enemies, but you gain nothing for passing them quickly or taking the time to kill them all, save for more points in your final score.

The really interesting part of the gameplay is the hacking and battling. Byte Driver has a small arsenal of weapons for you to use. Lasers, mines, missiles, electromagnetic brakes, and shields, which aren’t a weapon but do function the same way gameplay wise. You always start out with no weapons, but you cannot complete any of the five total stages without using them, because of boss fights. You acquire weapons by hacking enemy cars. This is done by driving behind them within hacking range for several seconds or by using your remote hacker, which works similarly, but operates on its own and is slightly slower than manual hacking. Once a vehicle has been hacked, you can choose what to take from them. Different vehicles have different things available. All of them have energy, which is how you stay alive. You constantly lose energy as you accelerate, but other things cost energy as well, such as taking damage. This forces you to constantly have to hack enemies and absorb energy from them. You can also absorb weapons, shields, and stat boosts for your car. You can hold at least three weapons at the same time, but the tutorial didn’t explain that, so I wasn’t aware of it or how to switch between different weapons for some time while playing.

Each stage is structured the same way. You drive for some time, dealing with enemy cars as your go, then, after a certain distance, you hit a checkpoint. Your energy is partially refilled at each checkpoint. The next section of the course will have some sort of obstacle dodging scenario, such as avoiding mines or missiles being fired by a helicopter you can’t attack. Then, after reaching another checkpoint, you do another enemy cars section followed by a boss fight. Once you defeat the boss, the stage ends. When you complete a stage, your automatically start the next stage. When you complete the fifth stage, you enter challenge mode, which is basically just an endless mode that reruns all the stages with no boss fights until you die. Each stage can be completed in under 10 minutes, assuming you don’t die, meaning the game can be beaten in under an hour, which makes sense considering it was created to be played in an arcade with quarters.

While the gameplay all works, there are some serious balance issues. Especially with the helicopter sequence in the third stage. I wouldn’t call Byte Driver fun so much as interesting. I like the concept a lot and think it could be modernized to create a successful game, which in many ways it has over the years with titles like Twisted Metal, Burnout, and other examples. This game is a great time capsule, but even among retro games it’s not one that I feel inclined to put much time into. There is also little in the way of replay value anyway, unless you really care about climbing the leaderboard, which I almost topped out locally in less than two hours of play. There are only five achievements, which is literally just completing the five stages, so even if you really wanted to stretch this game out it would be hard to do so.

While I was not particularly impressed with the gameplay, I was very happy with several of the Quality-of-Life features included in this build. There are the various visual customization settings I mentioned earlier, as well as more than one useful feature that directly affects the gameplay experience. For starters, you don’t have to beat all five stages in a single run. Every time you reach a stage, that stage becomes available as the starting point of your next run. Meaning that it’s much easier to experience and ultimately beat all five stages than it would be for most games of this nature. There’s also a setting called “No Stress Mode”. This gives you automatic energy refills, making you immortal. While you can’t unlock the achievements when using this mode to complete levels, it does allow you to both practice and see/experience all five stages, regardless of your skill level.

The only bug I encountered with the gameplay was an inability to pause or quit in the middle of a run. It’s kind of crazy, but there’s just no way to stop playing without dying. Which is fine, unless you’re playing in No Stress Mode. During my final test run, I engaged No Stress Mode to see how it works. I was able to run through the entire game and make it to challenge mode and then go on to rerun all five stages in challenge mode a second time. The only problem was that I had no way to exit the run when I was finally done with my tests. I was immortal and trapped in a never-ending loop of wireframe driving. Ultimately, I had to quit the game by closing the window, so I didn’t get to see if scores acquired in No Stress Mode registered to the leaderboard.

While Byte Driver gets a number of things right, it’s just not a game worth picking up in 2024. Even if we grade it as a low budget indie or retro title, there are several better low budget indies and retro or retro-inspired titles available today. The developer, Vector Hat, has three other games available on Steam right now that seem more interesting to play than Byte Driver; and two of them are cheaper to buy. The $8 Steam price tag just doesn’t make sense to shell out for this one. Given the odd circumstances of this game in terms of both date of release and date of the original game it’s based on, I decided not to give it a numerical score.

XPG Terrence

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