So the VGJunk tagline says "videogames classic and obscure," but it's pretty obvious that I've been leaning heavily towards one particular side of that equation. I mean, who's ever heard of Kouryuu no Mimi or Mad Nurse? I bet even the people that made those games have forgotten all about them by now (and in Mad Nurse's case that's probably for the best.) Today, though, I'm going to attempt to redress the balance by looking at a game whose status as a true classic is beyond reproach. I've wanted to write about this game for a long time now, but I've always held back because I didn't think I'd be able to do it justice or really say anything new about it, but after several weeks of being unable to stop myself playing it any time I had a spare moment I realised I had to get it out of my system, preferably with a long, gushing article about how and why this title reaffirms my love of videogaming every time I play it.This game is Sega's 1986 arcade European-Ferrari-road-trip-em-up OutRun.
In 1986, Sega were riding high as one of the world's top arcade developers. The year before they'd had two substantial hits with the motorcycle racer Hang-On, which featured a sit-down cabinet in the shape of a bike, and the rail shooter Space Harrier, which was the first game to use Sega's "Super Scaler" graphics technology. Both games were produced by game design legend Yu Suzuki, later famous for creating Shenmue and the various Virtua games, and developed by Sega's AM2 arcade department. For OutRun Suzuki took the innovative cabinet design and high-speed scrolling graphics of his previous games, wrapped them in an escapist fantasy of blue skies and open roads, put the player behind the wheel of a supercar and then turned his creation loose on an unsuspecting arcade audience. Well, they probably suspected a bit - Sega had just released Space Harrier and Hang-On, after all.
OutRun is a racing game, except it isn't - it's a driving game. So says Yu Suzuki himself, and he should know. The difference between the two is, in this case, largely one of mood and aesthetic, but on a mechanical level you shouldn't have any trouble figuring out how OutRun works if you've ever played a racing game - or, you know, driven a car. You've got a steering wheel, accelerator and brake pedals and a two-speed gearstick that switches you between high and low gear. It's simple stuff, and once you've put in your credit and pressed start you're ready to race. No, not race: drive.
You could say it's not racing because you aren't competing with anyone. There's more to it than that, but while I'm describing the purely technical side of things then OutRun is a checkpoint racer: the race, if there is one, is against the clock rather than other cars. You don't need to finish first, you just need to get where you're going before the time runs out, like getting your tax return done if doing your tax return was cool and exciting.
Right from the start it's obvious that OutRun is about something other than the thrill of victory. It's got a different, more-laid back set of priorities, and as you wait on the starting line in your Ferrari Testarossa (or at least Sega's unlicensed version thereof) with your girlfriend by your side and the summer sun high in the sky, OutRun's charms are readily apparent.
Of course, all the window-dressing in world means nothing if the game's no fun to play, but OutRun delivers on that front too. It's simplicity itself, simplicity honed to a razor edge, a game that knows restraint and when to use it. All you have to do is drive your car along the road ahead, weaving between the traffic and trying not to hit any roadside obstacles, but it's handled with such a sense of flow and precision that it never feels limited. The steering is smooth and consistent, and screaming around corners as fast as possible is the order of the day, trying to keep your top speed up without sliding off the track. OutRun was available in several different cabinet types, including one where you sat in a mocked-up car that was hydraulically tilted to match your on-screen Testarossa's movements. I've never been lucky enough to play OutRun in all its full-bodied glory, but I can only imagine it's quite the experience.
Then there are the graphics, which enhance the game in two ways. Firstly, they just look fantastic. Everything is sun-kissed, bright, clean, the mood of escapism and freedom condensed into the blue of the skies and the swaying palm trees. The second thing is technical rather than artistic, and that's that OutRun uses Sega's famous "Super Scaler" technology to manipulate sprites in a way that allows for convincing 3D effects, giving the game a sense of speed and solidity that was rare at the time and still feels engrossing today: when you're flying down a straight with buildings flashing by mere inches from your wing mirror, it really does feel like you're travelling at face-melting speeds thanks to Sega's masterful use of their 16-bit arcade hardware.
There's innovation at work in the course you're driving, too: OutRun was the first major racing game to feature alternate routes for the player to choose from. Every trip begins with you driving through Coconut Beach, a seaside highway - and when I say seaside I mean the waves are lapping right against the track, which must cause problems at high tide - but once you're past the beach the road splits in two.
Each road takes you down a separate branch of an expanding tree of varying landscapes, the left-hand side offering an easier path than the right, a system which provides not only choice but an extremely smooth and player-variable difficulty curve. Doing well and building up some spare seconds? Why not take the right-hand path and test yourself. Doing badly? Head left and give yourself a break. Whatever path you chose, the challenge increases in such a natural, subtle way that you'll barely even notice until you start a new game and realise how straightforward the first stage was.
You can see the grid of available areas at the bottom right of the screen with fifteen different zones for you drive through, each with their own layout and backdrop. For example, turning left at the first intersection takes you through a flower-filled plain bordered by stone columns...
...while taking the right-hand path forces you down a rock-walled canyon.
Also note that truck to the left and my current speed of 287 km/h. That truck is doing well over 200 kilometers an hour around a corner through a narrow canyon. I can't begin to imagine what that truck is carrying to be that dedicated to a speedy delivery.
The map represents a road trip across Europe, a road trip that Yu Suzuki took in real-life to gather inspiration for the locales in the game, and it covers just about every conceivable landscape you can find on the continent, from lush, twilight forests...
...to white deserts studded with castles...
...to the Netherlands.
Well, I'm assuming this is Holland, what with the flowers (probably tulips) and the windmills. A stereotypical view of proud European nation? Possibly, but I doubt the Dutch would mind when it looks this nice. Also, they're Dutch; I can't see them holding angry protests. I think the Netherlands stage is my second favourite, after the pitch-perfect introduction to the game that you get from Coconut Beach. In motion, the flowers stream past in a kaleidoscopic blur of colour and I'm sorry, it's happening again. I get kind of... over-excited when I talk about OutRun. Maybe a little pretentious. I just can't help myself, and hopefully you'll allow me this one indulgence - after all, I have suffered through *NSYNC: Get to the Show.
Actually, while we're on the subject of games like *NSYNC and me being pretentious, I'd like to take a moment to compare it to OutRun. They're technically both samples of the same medium, both designed as electronic entertainment but from entirely different ends of the spectrum when it comes to passion. Without wanting to be too harsh on the developers of *NSYNC, who after all were just people trying to make a living, that game was a shallow, sleazy attempt to cash in on fame of others - there was no love there, and only the bare minimum of effort. Compare that to OutRun, a game that looks so simple on the surface but which was born of real enthusiasm and a desire to get everything just right - Yu Suzuki has spoken in interviews about how the OutRun team tracked down one of the very few Testarossas in Japan and took photos all around the car at five degree intervals to make sure it looked accurate in-game - and it's difficult to believe that they're both technically part of the same media category.
Something that the "gaming community" (whatever that comprises) seems to like talking about a lot is the question of whether videogames can ever be considered art. It's a question I try to avoid, because it's such a pointless one - art is wherever you find it, and no two people are ever going to agree on a concrete definition of what can or can't be considered art. However, I think OutRun, in its own way, comes as close as any game to earning this apparently-coveted title. For a group of people, working under the restrictions of the technology available to them, to create an experience so wonderfully crafted and full of (that word again) passion - that's got to be a kind of art. Of course, that's just my opinion. Art criticism!
No discussion of OutRun would be complete without talking about the soundtrack, a work of art in its own right that's still widely regarded as one of the finest videogames soundtracks ever. Hiroshi Miyauchi composed four tracks for the game, three of which are in-game songs that are selectable, with classic Sega flair, as stations on your car's FM radio - supposedly OutRun was the first game to allow the player to select the background music of their choosing.
Each of the three tracks is the ideal companion to OutRun's relaxed mood, with a jazzy, somewhat Latin feel that fits the action and visuals like a custom-made pair of designer shades. I know there are some people who don't care about the music in their videogames, people who see it as an irrelevance next to the gameplay, but even they would have to confess that there is no music that could possibly sound more like the soundtrack to a mid-Eighties Ferrari roadtrip across Europe. Here are the three tracks - Magical Sound Shower, Passing Breeze and Splash Wave, and if you've never heard them before then I hope you enjoy them.
Magical Sound Shower seems to be the most beloved of the three, and that's definitely understandable because never has the name of videogame music track been so accurate, but my personal favourite is Splash Wave. There's one final track in the game that's often overlooked, and that's the high-score table music, Last Wave.
It's the ultimate farewell song - even if you ran out of time before the finishing line, OutRun never feels like a wasted journey when you get to hear this. There are no warning klaxons or condescending wha-wha-wha sad trombones, just a simple piece that says "that was a fun ride. We should do it again some time, but for now let's chill out and watch this sunset." I'm projecting again, aren't I? Well, that's what I take from it, anyway. Maybe you hate such relaxing, congratulatory-yet-wistful music, but that probably makes you a heartless monster.
So you've driven through an entire continent, beat the clock and reached the goal, but what do you get for your efforts? Well, as you can probably tell from the pyramidal course layout, there are five possible ending points, and each one has its own short ending sequence (so OutRun even has more replayability than most arcade racing games.) Let's have a look at them, starting with ending A.
The driver is hoisted aloft by the crowd! Warm applause fills the air!
Then the guys holding him notice the young woman in the bikini and drop the driver to the ground, breaking every bone in his body and consigning him to a long and arduous period of physical rehabilitation. His girlfriend, feeling a bit miffed that no-one's paying her any attention, attempts to strike a sexy pose. It's too late, the moment is gone and she just ends up looking a little silly. I think we can put this one down as the "bad" ending.
The route B ending takes a swipe at the quality of Italian motor manufacturing as the Testarossa collapses into a smoking heap as soon as it crosses the finish line. I like the way the driver just shrugs his shoulders as his car - with a resale value on today's market of around £60-80,000 - completely disintegrates. This kind of thing happens to him all the time.
Ending C, and I'm not sure marking the end of your race course with a line of camels is the best idea, but what they hey: everyone's safe and happy, and the driver is presented with a magic lamp to commemorate his victory. What will he wish for, I wonder? World peace? Infinite riches? For the upcoming Robocop remake to not be an utter disaster?
Well, it's his lamp so I guess he can wish for whatever he wants, and what he wants is ladies. His girlfriend seems to be taking it rather well, but those lamps generally come with three wishes so he probably also wished that "my girlfriend is totally cool with this." I don't know what his final wish will be, but I'm pretty sure I won't legally be allowed to show any pictures of it.
At the route D ending, there's a giant trophy waiting for the victorious driver. Well, it makes more sense that Aladdin's lamp, anyway. Come on then, hand over the prize!
Nope, the woman presenting the award walks straight past the driver and hands the trophy to his girlfriend instead. Maybe it's a trophy for "Best Cross-Continental Ballast." This is my favourite ending, mostly because of the animation of the driver sheepishly pressing his fingers together while his partner takes the plaudits.
Lastly there's ending E, in which the driver finally gets his trophy. Then he flexes his biceps for some reason. Look buddy, we can see your Italian sports car and your attractive lady friend, we don't need the gun show too.
And that's OutRun - a genuine classic that's still as fun and as charming to play today as it was twenty-six years ago. As well as the slick graphics, fantastic soundtrack and simple yet perfectly balanced gameplay, it also has a truly timeless sense of freedom. In twenty-six years people might well look back on Gears of War or Call of Duty and decide that brown wars fought by angry men with big guns are passé and boring, but the notion of jumping into a sports car and just driving for pleasure - that's something that I think will hold its appeal for much longer.
In the 2003 sequel OutRun 2, when you pass a checkpoint the now fully-voiced girlfriend will sometimes say "I wanna go far away!" and that, for me, is OutRun's biggest hook. No matter what kind of shitty mood you're in, now matter if the weather outside is dismal and grey, you can always put OutRun on and for ten minutes you can speed along a sun-drenched beach and go far away.
Not bad for something inspired by the 1981 Burt Reynolds movie Cannonball Run, huh?