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Oldest-looking version found, but bear in mind: this looked far less detailed, and was still the most fun a certain sort of kid could have.

Need For Madness is the brainchild of one-man Egyptian studio Radical Play (Omar Waly). Simply put, it’s a cartoonish driving game where every stage can be won as a race or as a demolition derby, at the player’s discretion. Its current iteration is grand and ambitious, a comprehensive single-executable package including the original game, the sequel, multiplayer functionality, car and stage designers, and updated graphics. This is all well and good, but today we’re focusing on what kicked this all off: the 2005 original, in all its low-poly, childhood-forming glory.

Back when Java applets were a common sight on the Web, NFM took full advantage, showing up on free games site Miniclip as a true 3D experience, immediately setting itself apart from the sea of 2D flash games common at the time. I distinctly remember when it was the talk of the entire school; everyone was hooked for a time. It’s not that it was graphically remarkable for the year; after all, in the commercial world, Half-Life 2 and F.E.A.R. already existed. No, it was the sheer presence of that third dimension that made the game so much more real, a proper racing experience without having to bug your parents for the latest Need for Speed instalment. Combining liberal physics, simple controls, and sheer fun, as echoed in the mission statement of a loading screen pictured below, it’s no mystery why it was a real hit of a free Web game, not to mention memorable enough to warrant the continuous iteration that brought it to its current level.

The original’s loading screen. I can’t seem to get it to work, but at least I could dig this gem out of the launcher JAR.

The original was rather short in total, with a straightforward formula: you choose among a variety of cars to compete with, each with unique stats suiting them differently to racing or wasting. Each unlockable car is the most formidable yet, and leads the pack for two tracks. Win first place by either outracing or wasting all opponents, and you unlock the next car, expanding your options. Keeping your power level up, crucial for both speed and strength, is done by performing wild aerial stunts, which have dedicated controls for physics-defying rolling and yawing. As different cars are suited to different strategies, so too are the tracks, though it’s always up to the player in the end.

Need For Madness wasn’t just a fun free racing game, though. It featured two aspects that, coupled with its largely Gen Z audience, ended up offering a generation a particular sort of education, if one decided to dig a little.

Stage 1’s music, for all intents and purposes.

The first is the soundtrack. It was just as distinctive as the idiosyncratic gameplay and art style, at least as far as a free 2005 Web game was concerned, and it was the one part that wasn’t entirely original: it was all tracker music. Omar Waly scoured The Mod Archive for appropriate-enough tracks, then remixed them lightly to fit the game. It lent a sonic quality to NFM that was thoroughly unique in its space. Being one of those eight-year-olds left entirely to my own devices (pun intended), I went looking across the Web for a download of what I imagine I must have called “the Need For Madness music” (I doubt I knew the word “soundtrack” back then), and this was how I found out about trackers in general. Anectodes from friends suggest I’m not the only one in my generation to tread this path.

Unregistered HyperCam 2. That’s how you know we’re discussing real history.

Next, it introduced modding to many youngsters. See, while it was playable as a Java applet, there was also a downloadable version that could be played offline, well before, and practically unrelated to, the modern downloadable-only Need For Madness. In the files of this version, it was relatively easy to dig out map files, which were in a simple enough internal format that they could easily be edited by some kid in Notepad. This link leads to the video depicted above, one of the earliest known examples. In fact, with how straightforward it was, it was likely enough that at least someone out there wasn’t even familiar with the term “modding” when they discovered this. Omar Waly evidently caught wind of this, as Need For Madness 2 would contain a sanctioned, much more useable level editor of its own.

All in all, Need For Madness is a fantastic little time capsule, formative for many while fun in its own right. This wasn’t a review per se, but I’ll say nonetheless that it’s worth giving it a spin. Besides the influences it wore on its sleeves and left behind, it’s a true joy and may inform or inspire.

Yestin Harrison is a dilettante fascinated by anything from games to graphic design to planetary-scale distributed systems. When not performing his duties as webmaster at Rebind or kicking the site an occasional article, he's found anywhere there's a lark to chase. Reach him on the Web at ylh.io, and on twitter @yestinharrison.