25/04/2015

BATTLE OUTRUN (MASTER SYSTEM)

One of the great pillars upon which the videogame industry is built is a process I personally think of as "angrification," where gentle, peaceful concepts are given a crispy coating of violence. Nothing draws in the punters like the promise of, if not actual bloodshed, then at least the potential for black eyes and hurt feelings. That's how we ended up with Mario and Princess Peach beating seven bells out of each other, with Mickey Mouse swinging a key-shaped sword around, with Battlechess, for pity's sake. Almost no franchise can escape this process - not even the lighthearted summer breeze of arcade racers that is Sega's OutRun, and thus in 1989 the Master System became home to Battle OutRun.


Regular VGJunk readers will probably know of my deep and abiding love for the original OutRun, a game which I consider about as close to perfect as any arcade title has ever been. A big part of why I feel that way is OutRun's relaxed charm, it's atmosphere of escapism where your only enemy is the clock and you're not racing for a prize because the experience is the prize. To shoehorn in some inter-vehicular combat, as Battle OutRun does, feels somewhat sacrilegious but in the interests of fairness I suppose I should reserve judgement until I've actually played the game.


Battle OutRun is a race across America, the boring middle states where nothing happens being excised from the gameplay experience out of consideration for you, the player. The game itself provides no details on your reasons for embarking on this road trip, but I found a transcript of the manual which explains things thusly: you are Joe Hurst, "the coolest bounty hunter ever to take the wheel," a title Joe is only allowed to use on a technicality because Samus Aran's spaceship doesn't have a steering wheel. Joe wants the bounty money so he can restore his pride and joy, a supercar with the copyright-skirting name of the Larborarri Teratuga. Joe's Teratuga can't be in that poor a condition, mind you, because that's what he drives around in for the whole game.


Here's Joe's first bounty target. He doesn't exactly look like the kind of hardened criminal I was expecting. He looks like he has a thyroid problem, what with those bulging eyes. Whatever his heinous crimes are, they were apparently severe enough to warrant a bounty of 2000 dollars and that could pay for Joe's new floormats so I'll be tracking him down on the highways of San Francisco.


In classic OutRun fashion, you can choose the background music for each stage by retuning your car radio, although this differs from the original game in two ways. One is that Battle OutRun's soundtrack, while passable, is nowhere near as good as OutRun's. The other is that in OutRun you don't manipulate the radio with the wizened, gnarled finger of an ancient sorcerer.


The action is underway, and it's no surprise that for the most part said action is very similar to OutRun Senior. You have to drive your red sports car across the country - with no girlfriend at your side, because the life of a bounty hunter is a dangerous and solitary one - avoiding collisions with the traffic and other obstacles in an effort to reach the end of the stage before your time runs out. Battle OutRun's main difference from OutRun's control system is that it lacks the Hi-Lo gear shifter, so mostly you're just holding down the accelerator and very, very occasionally using the brake.


It's all very familiar, and it plays about as well as you'd think a Master System version of the concept could. The movement of the road and the scaling sprites are smooth, the controls are sharp and the collision detection is much more accurate than I thought it was going to be, which was nice because there's a lot of narrowly scraping past obstacles in this one.
Early impressions are good, then, and so far it seems like an enjoyable enough ride, colourful and straightforward while feeling just a little flat.


"COME" says the sinister, three-lane-spanning truck. What do you mean, "COME"? Like, join your mysterious convoy or something? I dunno, my mother told me never to trust strange lorries.


Oh, I see, come in. Well, as I'm doing nearly 250 kilometres an hour and your occupying pretty much all the road in front of me then yes, Mr. Truck, I think I have little choice but to "come in." The only real question is whether we're all going to die in a fiery explosion or not. Is Joe Hurst's career as a bounty hunter doomed to failure, cut short before it even began when he's abducted by a menacing truck?


Not to worry, the truck is actually a mobile garage and tune-up station, where Joe can spend his hard-earned bounty dollars on sprucing up his Teratuga. Each category of upgrades improves a certain aspect of the Teratuga's performance: more powerful engines mean higher top speeds, working on the body means you lose less speed when you crash, better tires help with handling and the chassis... well, I'm not entirely sure what improving the chassis does. I mean, I know at least one thing it effects but that thing is so inconsequential that I have a hard time imagining that the game would charge the player money for it.


After some more driving you'll catch up with your bounty target. Here he is now, in his unassuming green car. It's a good thing the music changes when you enter the "boss" portion of the stage because I'm not the most observant - in my defence, I was keeping my eyes on the road - and I could easily have not realised that this was the man I'm trying to bring to justice. In the case of Battle OutRun, justice is served through high-speed automobile collisions, just as Sir Robert Peel envisioned it. Yes, you crash into your target until they stop and yes, it is almost identical in both concept and execution to Chase H.Q., Taito's arcade game from the previous year. Battle OutRun is not nearly as enjoyable as Chase H.Q., of course, but then it's unfair to compare them: so much of Chase H.Q.'s fun factor comes from it's over-the-top, frenetic energy, and the humble Master System simply cannot replicate that. That's not to say Battle OutRun lacks a feeling of speed; as I said, this is probably the best a developer could get out of the Master System hardware in 1989. It's just that it's a much more subdued experience which quickly falls into the pattern of you ramming the target car once or twice, only for it to speed away and put some distance between you. Then you have to dodge some random traffic until you catch up to your bounty. Rinse, repeat, hope that Joe can find the delicate balance of car crashes that results in an immobilised vehicle and not a horrific death for all concerned.


Okay, so I caught the guy, right? That means I get to see a picture of Joe for the first time. Joe is very obviously the same person as the bounty target. He's just swapped his sunglasses for a cap in an attempt at disguise that won't fool me, pal. Unless... did I just pit Joe against his identical twin in a hi-octane battle for justice that could tear his family asunder, that's Brother Justice, coming to a cinema near you? If so, they both seem surprisingly relaxed about the whole thing, the trademark Hurst family smirk marking them as not only brothers but identical twins on opposite sides of the law. If only Joe's brother has a sports car and a pair of aviators, then maybe he would have stayed out of trouble.


With San Francisco cleared of all crime forever, you're free to move on to the next stage. Actually, you're free to move on to any stage. You could skip straight to New York if you like, but without accumulating enough points to soup your car up to maximum power you'll have a very tough time so the whole "stage select" thing is kinda moot. So, Los Angeles it is. What fearsome kingpin of crime will be come up against in the City of Angels?


Ah yes, it's Spaniel Sam, the Dog-Eared man. Who's a good boy, then? Not this guy, he's a criminal. Always chewing up people's slippers and chasing the postman. What a bastard.


The Los Angeles stage definitely has an OutRun feel to it, with its beachfront views, blue skies and waving palm trees. Why, if it wasn't for all the intentional car crashes it would just be, well, OutRun. I get that Sega were trying to mix up the formula, and the cynic in me wants to say they were trying to mix up the formula in a way that involved as little effort and creative thinking as possible, but what annoys me is that Joe's plan is so incredibly stupid. His car needs fixing, and to raise the necessary funds he's going to repeatedly crash his car? C'mon, man, why not spend some of that money and buy a pick-up truck for all the heavy lifting? Think it through. Spaniel Sam here is in a jeep and you're in a whatever-that-fake-Ferrari-name-was, it's no wonder you had to smash him dozens of times before he'd stop.


Spaniel Sam is a speed freak in the sense that he takes a lot of amphetamines, I'd guess. There's no way that haircut was chosen by a man free from the grip of powerful drugs.


I refuse to believe that this person has ever been wanted by anyone, ever. Are those earrings, are are they part ram and they're a pair of horns? Holy crap, I think I've stumbled across Battle OutRun's big secret - all these bounties have been put out by a shadowy organisation determined to round out the escaped test subjects from their manimal hybrid experiments. That first guy, the one who looked like Joe? He was a merman, but obviously you couldn't see his fishy tail in his portrait.


Viva Las Vegas, with its neon flashing and its one-armed bandits crashing. The neon part, mostly. On the right of the horizon we can see the bright lights of the city, while over on the left we see the bright lights of an abstract purple mess. A terrible accident at the hot air balloon factory, possibly.
I didn't realise it at first, but by this point it had become clear to me that these other road users were actively trying to crash into me. I consulted the manual again to confirm and yes, they are agents of whatever criminal you're chasing, and after much deliberation I came to the conclusion that their aggressive nature is not an enjoyable part of the gameplay. It just feels so opposed to the very nature of OutRun, but if that was all it was then the problem could be solved by renaming the game Car Smash USA or something. No, they're also annoying in a mechanical sense, swerving all over the road before deciding, at some point when you approach them, that they're going to stay in whatever lane they're in. This turns the whole experience into a guessing game: gamble correctly and you'll sail past them as they stay on the opposite lane, but get it wrong and you're in for an unavoidable crash with no chance of getting around them, or at least not until late in the game when you've got better tyres and you can get away with going off-road a little bit. It doesn't add anything to the game - not anything fun, at any rate - and I can't but think the game would have been better served by more traditional, less murderous traffic patterns.


A bald man is sad. Perhaps this is because his head looks like a bean. I hope that was the direction that the higher-ups at Sega gave to Battle OutRun's artist. "Like a bean, but with a sad face drawn on it. No, no hair. You heard me."


The Grand Canyon. Not much to say about this one, folks. It's more orange than Dale Winton's towels, and there are rocks. Big rocks. Grand rocks, you might say. There's also oil spilled all over the road. You can tell it's oil because someone has thoughtfully labelled it with the word "OIL". Of course, you're driving much too fast to be able to read that when you're blazing down the highway, but even without that label you'll soon figure out it's oil when you drive over it and your car spins out. Skidding on a patch of oil doesn't actually slow you down a much as you might think, so if the choice is between hitting the oil or smashing into a roadside sign and coming to a dead stop then take the oil every time.


Oh, so the human-animal hybrid experiments reached the ape-man phase, did they? Good, good. Honestly, you'd think you'd start with the ape-man. More compatible DNA and that. You get The Human Gorilla here up and running and then gradually work in animals more distantly removed from Homo sapiens. Once you've constructed a squid-man and a beetle-man, you can start getting really creative and going to for things like a horrifying amalgam of man and coffee table or what have you.


This is Chicago, and it looks like a miserable place. It's the weather, those are some heavy storm clouds brewing. To lighten our spirits, let's discuss one of the other things you can find littering the roadways of Battle OutRun, and that's ramps. There's a ramp now, right in the middle of the road and I'm blasting towards it at terrifying speeds, so I guess I'll be going into the air now?


That's not as impressive as I'd hoped. The ramps are rather feeble affairs, launching the Teratuga into an oddly floaty jump that serves almost no purpose. I'd say that in the course of a whole playthrough I managed to jump over another car maybe twice, which was a damn sight less than the amount of times I hit a jump and then crashed as soon as I landed because I couldn't steer properly in mid-air. To add insult to injury, as far as I can see the only effect of upgrading your car's chassis is that it makes you stay airborne longer when you jump. Here's a handy hint: invest your money more wisely, such as in a new engine or fuzzy dice.


The official Mr. T inflatable sex doll did not sell as well as anicipated.


Welcome to Miami! What do we have in Miami? White cubes on the distant horizon and a hell of a lot of sky. Sky and buildings inspired by sugar lumps, that's Florida for you.
It's also got a lot of road to traverse, which is a shame because by this point Battle OutRun is starting to overstay its welcome, ignoring the exasperated sighs of its hosts and their pointed comments about how they have the number for a taxi firm right there in their phones. Each stage consists of the same don't-crash-em-up gameplay, with no variation in the action aside from an increased density of traffic and, like, two extra corners per stage. There's nothing to captivate the imagination, and no sense of reward for completing each stage of identical gameplay unless you're really excited to see each city's unique skyline.


Washington DC has a unique skyline; it's got the White House and the Washington Monument and a vast, featureless desert on its outskirts, just like every city in this version of America. Spacious skies yes, amber waves of grain not so much. Still, it looks nice and on the whole the graphics (sprite flicker aside) are one of Battle OutRun's better features.


I've finally made it to New York, where the fiendish Fu Manchu has given up on his elaborate criminal plots to spend his time driving around and making a nuisance of himself. He looks pretty smug about it, but let's see how smug he is when I'm slamming into him with nitro-assisted power!


Still pretty smug, I assume, because my nitro doesn't seem to be helping me. You can buy the nitro as an optional extra in the lorry-shop, and when you have some you can press up on the d-pad for a speed boost. The problem is that once you've rammed into the boss a few times they shoot off in front of you regardless of whether you're doing three hundred kilometres an hour or thirty, and you'll still have to drive for a while to catch them no matter what your speed is. This, coupled with the fact that the bosses can drive through the traffic like it isn't there, makes these later criminal encounters just that bit more irritating than before.


I managed to defeat him, though. He says I have improved much, but the only thing that has improved is my car. At least buying the upgrades, especially the body upgrades, does have a noticeable effect on how your car performs. It's always nice to have that increased feeling of power.
That's all the stages completed, then, so I suppose it's time to sit back and enjoy the no-doubt extravagant ending sequence and hang on, there's another bloody stage.


New York, New York, so good they made me play it twice. There's no mugshot for the villain of this final battle and no indication of what his car looks like, so it's a good job all the other vehicles look exactly the same as they did in every other stage otherwise I might have had to resort to ramming every car until I found him.


Oh, I found him. He's driving a Hot Wheels car with tyres one size down from "monster truck." It was a long and gruelling stage, but this time it's really, truly over. Honestly it could have been over two stages ago when I'd managed to buy all the upgrades and Joe has accomplished his original mission of getting his car up to spec, but I guess once you get a taste for justice it's hard to let any criminal go unpunished.


It's the mob boss know as Jimmy "The Forehead" Scalotti! He's a such a criminal mastermind that he had his skull surgically enlarged to fit all his master mind in there. I think he was in This Island Earth, and his forehead has indeed grown like the mighty oak. I suspect there may have been some miscommunication when this guy was described as "the head of the Mafia."


The ending shows the Teratuga driving across the screen, because lord knows I haven't seen enough of that already, and Battle OutRun draws to a close. Part of me wants to decry it as a horrendous bastardization of everything that made the original OutRun great, the feeling of freedom that can be found in the simple pleasure of driving stripped out and replaced by some dull battling and upgrading mechanics, but I just can't get that angry about it. It's a competent game in it's own way, certainly not bad for a Master System racer even if it's missing a real spark. It's a concrete bridge support of a game: technically well-constructed but unlikely to evoke any feelings of passion. The stages are too long and too samey, the computer-controlled cars are annoying and so I'm forced to end this article in the way it was always going to end - with me telling you to play the original instead.

6 comments:

  1. Wanted 6000 is just mad because everybody loves Raymond.

    You wanna try something really awful? Give Chase HQ 2 on the Genesis a spin. Chase PU is more like. What a disaster! Not that the Genesis was cut out for 3D racing games, but Taito could have done better than that.

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    Replies
    1. I'll probably get around to CHQ2 eventually, because I do like these kinds of games, so thanks for the early warning!

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  2. You say the Mr. T sex doll did not sell well, yet someone is ready to pay our bounty hunter friend $8000 for acquiring one.
    P.s its the capital building in D.C. not the White house, but I think even plenty of Americans make that mistake.
    This also seems to be at least the second high speed game that has a New York City level taking place in New Jersey. And again misinterpreting that decrepit wasteland as a desert.

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    Replies
    1. I can only assume the $8000 bounty was posted by an extremely dedicated collector of A-Team memorabilia.

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  3. The third target is Tina Turner from Mad Max 3

    ReplyDelete
    Replies
    1. Oh hey, so it is! In my defence it's been many years since I saw Mad Max 3.

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