The launch of a new console can be one of the most exciting times for gamers. After years of hype, people finally get to see what a new piece of hardware could do. That is often reflected in the games that launch with the new system. Launch titles are often designed with the goal of being flashy displays of the new technology while being great games in themselves usually comes second. While they may have turned heads at the launch, more often than not they tend not to have staying power once the novelty wears off. For every Super Mario 64, there are about two dozen Red Steels. In many ways, that holds true of the original Twisted Metal.
The story is bare-bones, but it works. The premise is that, by 2005, Christmas in L.A. is celebrated with the Twisted Metal tournament, a demolition derby with lethal weapons. The organizer is a guy named Calypso who would grant anything, no matter how realistically impossible, to the victor. Playing through the campaigns of each of the twelve combatants reveals their wishes which are mostly granted with fiendish twists. Calypso is basically a barbecued Santa Claus with Loki's sense of irony, and seeing the endings for each character did get me chuckling at how warped they were (even though the endings are just text with a couple of quick screenshots).
The gameplay is reasonable for a launch game. Even though the physics are very arcadey (there's even a "Tight Turn" button in the control scheme), each of the twelve vehicles feels different and easy to maneuver. The standard weapons are all useful though they take too long to respawn. The balance between the combatants is sketchy. While on paper it makes sense that the heavily armored Darkside has the wimpy special weapon while the easily dispatched Mr. Grimm has one of the strongest specials in the game, in practice it still feels off. Fortunately, the game is fair enough not to have all the CPU opponents just ganging up on the player; they do fight amongst themselves as well. Unfortunately, the final boss Minion is one of the cheapest end bosses in video game history. At least 40% of your playtime on each campaign will be spent fighting (and getting killed by) Minion. Finally, each campaign is very short. I was able to reach Minion on Medium difficulty in about 30 - 40 minutes.
The audio/video package holds up decently for a PS1 launch title. The visuals give a decent sense of speed with very few clipping issues. Texture warping (a common problem with PS1 games) is only noticeable on the buildings in a couple of stages. The explosion effects are decent. There's even an impressive cockpit view for the time. The soundtrack is generic and forgettable though I do like the twisted version of Jingle Bells that plays on the fourth stage.
The original Twisted Metal does hold up from a gameplay standpoint. It's still fun even 20 years later. However, most of what it does was improved upon in the sequels, especially Twisted Metal 2: World Tour and Twisted Metal: Black on the PS2. It can still be a fun game for Christmas family gatherings. Nothing says the season of joy like a creepy-looking ice cream truck shooting napalm, am I right?