Egad – today marks the 30th anniversary of the world-wide release of Outrun.
Now, I think articles like this make no secret of the fact that I’m somewhat of an Outrun obsessive. However, I’m reasonably certain that there can be no way of objectively denying that Outrun was one of the games of the decade.
Aside from Winning multiple awards (including the 1987 Golden Joystick awards for both best arcade game and best overall game,) the arcade cabinets outsold immediate predecessor Hang-On at a ratio of more than 2:1 while the home ports shifted hundreds of thousands of copies in the run up to Christmas. Outrun was a big deal.
Looking back at it today, the question of what made Outrun just so special is a tricky one to answer. Especially From a technical perspective. Yes, though there’s no denying that the arcade game’s dual 16-bit CPUs, synthesizer-derived sound chip and large colour palette were impressive, none of these were firsts.
Not only had immediate predecessor Hang-On pack a similar dual-68000 processor and FM sound chip combo (albeit with slightly lesser-specced components,) but Hang-On had even stole Outrun’s thunder by setting a precedent for large, show-stopping cabinet designs thanks to having a controller that resembled a full-sized motorbike.
Indeed, as time moved relentlessly forward, it became clear that the architecture used in Outrun resembled something of a midpoint in the life span of Sega’s super scaler-based games. Within a couple of years, Outrun’s impressive internals would be rendered obsolete by Sega’s line of 32-bit arcade machines, and its deluxe Ferrari cabinet overshadowed by monsters like the infamous rotating R-360.
Consequently, Outrun was technically impressive only in snap shot – its lasting, cross-generational appeal had to be down to something else.
From here it would be easy to glibly say that it was Outrun’s gameplay – rather than its technical achievements – that made it stand out. This is true, but not quite the whole story either. Yes, its action was definitely faster and more fluid than the competition (with particularly impressive vehicle handling), but then the same could realistically be said about Hang-On, so why is Outrun remembered both more persistently and fondly?
Indeed, if you strip everything down to the core mechanics, Outrun and Hang-On are remarkably similar. Though the opening seconds clearly style Hang-on as a race, this is a facade. Though other motorbikes are present on the track, the game presents you with no real need to best them, no indication of where you sit in the pack.
Consequently, when the peripheries are removed, both Outrun and Hang-On are actually straight, point-to-point sprints against the clock that favour speed and highly simplified grip mechanics over the harsh realities of attempting to take a tight bend at 130mph.
So then, what did make Outrun so special? For me, i think one of the things that makes it so remarkable is the near magical way Yu Suzuki and team managed to take the point-to-point format used in Hang-On an completely recontextualise it.
You see, in Hang-On, tension is everywhere. From the second you see the opposition blast off into the distance, to the moment you hear the first jumpy, jagged chords of the musical score, everything is tinged with a nervous desperation. Will our intrepid motorcyclist make it to the front of the pack and reach the goal? The atmosphere doesn’t necessarily make us feel like he will.
In Outrun, however, this underlying tension is checked by a couple of important design choices. First, there is no race facade. Though there is traffic on the road, it’s all civilian. Yes, to all intents and purposes the traffic in Outrun plays more or less the same role as the bikes in Hang-On, but the whole experience feels a lot less competitive as result.
In fact, ‘feeling’ is arguably the most important thing here, as the other important and noteworthy design elements were ones that don’t necessarily alter the way the game plays, but make it feel more open and seem to give the player more in control. Where other arcade games forced the player along a fixed route, Outrun broke new ground by allowing the player to chose their own route towards one of the game’s five separate, but equal, goals. The player was also free to pick their own soundtrack as well – having the choice of one of three vastly different (but all remarkably laid back) latin/fusion-inspired grooves.
These amendments to what was becoming a reasonably standard formula were ingenious. While the core underlying mechanics of Outrun are those of a racing game, Outrun feels open, free, laid back, relaxed. While other racing games of the time were focusing on more closely emulating the harsh realities of the sports on which they were based, Yu Suzuki and team focused that same attention to detail that others were focusing on racing and turned it onto the art of driving – creating an idyllic indulgent fantasy in the process.
Indeed, who wouldn’t want to be that unfeasibly ideal couple sitting in that impossible convertible Ferrari driving off into an unknown but inevitably perfect adventure? Outrun feels like someone managed to squeeze the perfect holiday into a couple of megabytes of ROM. The overall vibe of Outrun is so laid back i’m surprised that no one who isn’t wearing shorts and a Hawaiian shirt is allowed to play it.
That’s not to say Outrun is a glorified demo reel. Oh no. It might lure you in with its seashore sound effect, latin grooves and blue skies, but beneath that easy- going exterior there’s a remarkably unforgiving driving game, where one false move leaves you cartwheeling into the scenery and left with little chance of making it to the next stage.
In fact, Outrun is possibly the perfect arcade game. If a player gets stuck on a particular stage, they can keep pumping coins in until they get past it. If they’re the sort of gamer who doesn’t like to be slapped round the face by adversity, they can always try a completely different route through it instead. It’s a win for everyone involved.
Now, this is the point where I should say that Outrun was so perfect it couldn’t really be replicated, but that isn’t quite true. Though on consoles there was a mixed bag of home-only sequels, in the arcades Sega never really tried to recreate the success of the original and their coin-op sequels all proceeded down slightly different paths: 1989’s Turbo Outrun focused entirely on racing a Porsche-driving rival across the whole of the USA, and 1993’s Outrunners was focused mainly on its multiple quirky characters and drift-style handling.
They’re both interesting games in their own right, but neither really had the impact of the original Outrun.Indeed, Only 2003’s Outrun 2 tried to directly update the formula for modern hardware, and in doing so may have created the last truly great arcade game.
Outrun, as game and series, is a slightly understated genius. Though not often emulated, its DNA has been undeniably spliced into every arcade racing game created from 1986 onward. If you’ve never played it, I think you really do owe yourself a credit or two.