It’s the year 1990, the Berlin Wall has fallen, and you’ve just come into possession of a Laika 601 Deluxe. This beat-up old car goes from 0-60 in 22.5 seconds and has a top speed of 100kmph. It’s not exactly a powerhouse, and it’s constantly in danger of breaking down, but it’s all you and your uncle have to get across Germany. As far as premises for games go, this is pretty unique. Jalopy hits Steam Early Access next week, but I’ve been given the chance to take this charming old rust-bucket for an early test drive.
But before I can hit the road, I have to build it. At the beginning of the game the car sits in my uncle’s driveway, a shell with no wheels or inside bits to make it go. I believe that’s the technical term. I replace a missing door, which naturally has a different colour of paint. Then I grab various parts from around the garage—carburettor, fuel tank, ignition coil, engine, battery—to bring the beast to life. And as I do my uncle explains what they all do. The bold, stylised art is striking, with a muted colour palette that perfectly captures the era and setting. There’s a nice physicality to grabbing the objects and slotting them into the car too. When I’m done, it’s time to go on a very peculiar road trip.
I noticed as I fitted the engine that each part had a durability rating. Jalopy is something of a survival simulator, except you aren’t managing your hunger and tiredness; you’re trying to keep your dilapidated old car alive. Weight is also an issue, and the speed the Laika moves depends on the weight of the parts I use and whatever I have in the trunk. There’s an impressive amount of simulation, even down to the lever you have to yank under the steering wheel to pop the hood. The entire game revolves around the car, and I can see myself getting attached to the little wreck as I spend time tinkering with it.
The Laika has a two-stroke engine, which means I have to pour oil into the fuel mixture as I juice her up. If I don’t the engine won’t be lubricated and will wear out at an increased rate. But if I put too much oil in I’ll see a performance drop. It’s all about the balance. I’m learning more about two-stroke engines and ancient old automobiles playing Jalopy than I have in my entire life. Developer Greg Pryjmachuk previously worked on Formula 1 racing games, so it’s clear he loves cars on deeper level than just driving them.
In the car my uncle points out a few useful items. There’s a maintenance manual that will instruct me how to repair the car when it inevitably breaks down, and there’s a map that will let me select a route through the country. When I do the game will procedurally generate a landscape that I’ll then be able to drive across. In the manual I learn that the Laika is named after the stray dog the Soviet Union launched into space in 1957. “Your new car, with its distinguished name, shall forever be a faithful companion to you.” reads a piece of introductory text with a slightly propagandist tone.
The first section of my journey is driving from Berlin to Dresden, which is a distance of 210 kilometres. I stick the keys in the ignition, fire up the Laika, and soon I’m leaving my uncle’s garage and speeding down the Autobahn towards Dresden. I can hear the two-stroke engine heaving and groaning as I drive along and I wonder how long it’s going to hold out. I see other cars on the road, war memorials, and a lot of trees. There’s no in-game music, so I fire up a Spotify playlist of late ‘80s music to enhance the atmosphere. ‘Looking for Freedom’ by David Hasselhoff seems appropriate.
Although the simulation of the car itself is fairly deep, the driving model doesn’t seem to have much nuance to it. If you’re used to the weighty feel of something like Euro Truck Simulator, you might be disappointed. But I get the feeling the driving isn’t really the focus in Jalopy. It’s more about keeping your car running, making money by trading and delivering goods, and there appears to be a storyline involving your uncle returning to his hometown that I didn’t get much of a taste of in this very early build.
My mind begins to wander, then suddenly I smash into another car. I notice a small amount of smoke belching from the hood of the Laika and I know I’ve done something terrible. My uncle tells me to stop whenever it’s safe to do so and I splutter along looking for a place to make repairs. Eventually I reach a town and I stop in a motel car park. Luckily I put a repair kit in the trunk back at the garage and I use it to repair the busted engine. Satisfied, we decide to stay at the motel for the night and continue our journey the next day.
Except I can’t, because in this press build the game ends as soon as I go to sleep. Lucky, really, because as I was attempting to unlock the motel room door with the key, I accidentally dropped my wallet and passport and they disappeared into the ground. Driving around the former Eastern Bloc without a passport seems like a very bad idea. Alas, I won’t find out what happens until a more complete build of the game is released. Jalopy is one of the weirdest games I’ve played in some time, but also one of the most fascinating. I’m looking forward to learning more about the political situation in that part of the world in the early ‘90s, if I can avoid smashing into other drivers.