One of the more pleasant games that came out this year is Jalopy. You play as a citizen of East Germany in June 1990; your goal is to ferry your uncle across Eastern Europe in the final days of communism. (The version of the game I played wasn’t finished, and in that build, at least, the reason for your road trip is a mystery.) You will be taking this voyage in just the worst car.
The jalopy of the title is a Laika 601, which is a Trabant in everything but name. The first thing you do with this car is put it back together, a process that never really ends.
The game unfolds country by country. You pick a route, start the car, and hope some mission-critical part won’t wear out before you get there. Game mechanics include such features as having to mix the right fuel-oil ratio for the car’s two-stroke engine, a step-by-step tire-changing process, and a trunk that requires you to sometimes take everything out in order to pack it in more efficiently.
When all else fails and the car dies on the road, you can prop the door open and push, as I did when visiting the game’s version of Bulgaria.
Your companions for this journey are the radio, the mosquito whine of the motor, and your uncle. As much as this game has a story, it’s his: There’s something out there he wants to see. He seems a little nervous he won’t get the chance to, but remains hopeful that the road will provide for you both.
And provide it does, in the form of cardboard boxes and wooden crates full of the game’s dozen or so items. You’ll find items you can use directly on the car, or unusable item (like alcohol or sausages) that can be traded in at the next gas station for fuel or parts. Be careful when crossing borders, though; the guards check for contraband.
If this all sounds like a parody of video games – a driving game with one, terrible car; a HUD with crosshairs but no weapons – it’s strangely pleasant. The game’s minimalist graphics are never a cop-out for style, and the gameplay is more challenging than it might look.
An added bonus, at least as of my playthrough in July, are the unpatched bugs. In one case, I discovered I could cross a pair of guardrails on foot to the oncoming lane. There, I jumped on the hood of an oncoming Lada, which whisked me away.
Another fun surprise was to be had at the game’s ersatz ending, in an unfinished level. I escaped the cordon around the final player area, and discovered where the road ends:
It was an oddly poignant stopping place.