Sunday 18 November 2012

OutRun for the Sega Mega Drive/Genesis

If you were a car-mad boy growing up in the 80s, chances are you quite fancied a Ferrari Testarossa. Alas, unless you were stinking rich, you would never see one outside of car shows or American telly. That is, unless, you regularly frequented an amusement arcade.

In 1986, Sega's OutRun made a massive splash in the coin-op racing scene. The sit-down cabinet's faux-Ferrari modelling stood out. But the "realistic" hydraulic features that shook you about with every twist and turn in the road was only part of the appeal. Using Sega's pioneering 'super scaler' technology (debuting a year earlier in Space Harrier and Hang-On), OutRun was faster, smoother and better-looking than any other  arcade racer by a country mile. And like the Testarossa itself, the handling was a dream.

With a smash of this magnitude, OutRun was converted to virtually every home computer and console out there - the Spectrum, the Commodore 64, and PC Engine, for example. Alas, Nintendo had to wait for a version until after Sega had exited the console hardware market.

OutRun first made its way to a Sega console in 1987 when the Master System got its very respectable conversion. It found a home on each of Sega's subsequent machines, but it was probably the Mega Drive version that proved the best-selling and most widely played.

Released in the European region in Autumn 1991, the Mega Drive's was as faithful a conversion as the hardware allowed. You race your Testarossa against the clock across five different landscapes. As you reach the end of the stage, you have to choose between a fork in the road. The left path is easier, the right path more challenging. This makes for some variation and the possibility of setting personal bests over multiple tracks. There are also five endings in total, which add a scintilla of re-playability.

The other key innovation that put OutRun in pole position at the time were the musical options. The arcade offered three tunes to choose from: Splash Wave, Passing Breeze, and Magical Sound shower. The Mega Drive version goes one better and offers an additional ditty, Step On Beat. The three original BGM compositions rank among some of the most memorable early video game music ever. I didn't go into any trendy bars along Miami's Coconut Grove in 1983, but I'm pretty certain their in-house bands would have sounded something like them.

And that's OutRun in a nutshell. By the standards of today the gameplay is, if course, completely dated and superficial. The problem with Mega Drive OutRun is that it really wasn't up to scratch upon its release. Coming out three years after the Mega Drive's Japanese debut and five years out from the arcade, it was simple, bland, easy, and lacked in the lastability department. This was a problem shared by the franchise's various iterations. Other Sega arcade conversions that preceded it, such as Super Monaco GP and Super Hang-on beefed up the cartridges by adding optional career modes that provided additional levels of play. It's a mystery why Sega didn't do that here - a rush-release to up the software library pre-Christmas? Whatever the case, I paid a fiver for my complete Mega Drive copy about six months ago. I would have felt very cheesed off if I had forked out £39.99 for it in 1991.

As an average racer that attracted mediocre reviews in the magazines of the day, why does OutRun remain one of the better loved Mega Drive games? There is the nostalgia for the arcade, of course - and Sega's 16 bit conversion was the closest a home system had come to the original at the time. The music too is a passable interpretation (though my personal favourite remains the C64's rendition).

But there was more than that behind its success. What OutRun did, and was perhaps the first video game to do, was sell a lifestyle. Despite being designed and published by a Japanese company who based all the tracks on European landscapes, and starring the top-line product of an Italian luxury sports car manufacturer; OutRun has always struck me as a very American video game.

In the early-mid 80s, American car culture had a big in with popular culture. Tom Selleck was tearing around sun-kissed Hawaiian beaches in his Ferrari 308. The Hoff and KITT were fighting crime and bringing wrong 'uns to justice, and the General Lee was doing repeated stunt jumps over Hazzard County's many creeks. These in turn rested on a flurry of mid 70s-mid 80s American films based around cars and chases.

In American culture, the car has both been a status symbol and a passport to (masculine) individual independence. The road itself is a highway to a better place, and promises opportunity. But more than this, it is the journey down that road that matters: the freedom and adrenaline rush that comes from pushing 200mph in defiance of convention and traffic regulations is a very individual experience. OutRun wraps all this in a stylish package by adding the Testarossa and a glamorous blonde travelling companion. Also, it is more than a coincidence that for a European landscape, the game's starting level is suggestive more of Magnum PI than the Spanish Riviera.

If you like, OutRun is an aspirational video game. It does not matter that a micro fraction of a percentage of young men and boys who played the game would go on to own a prestigious sports car, let alone a Testarossa. It drew together and embodied then-current popular cultural themes around cars, individuality, the outlaw, and conspicuous consumption. In short, OutRun was more than an arcade simulation of fast driving. It was cool.


Alex Dawson said...

Great post. I had the C64 release which included a separate cassette of the arcade music. I am going to dig it out this weekend!

As driving games go, most that I remember from the pre-Out-Run era were fairly dry and serious affairs. Continental Circus, Pole Position, Hang On...there was a lot of conservative Forumla One emulation but nothing "outside of the box" in terms of driving games .

Arguably, Out Run opened the door at the time for all the fun-filled driving variants that followed...Power Drift, Chase HQ and even on to Mario Kart and beyond.

I have to give a nod here to the 2006 XBox release of Out Run - Coast 2 Coast. In my opinion, it is probably the most enjoyable and accessible racers on the XBox - if you want serious power and detail then theres Project Gotham or Need for Speed, but for wacky and colourful fun - including giant alien invasions and beachballs mid-race - there's Out Run. As a follow-up it entirely encapsulated the original game (not to mention the tunes) and added lots more. Well worth a look (and in fact we should at the next boys computer games session).

The main reason Out Run was successful in the UK, I think, is because it offered colourful and outlandlish escapism in a time of a fairly grim political and economic situation. A new Out Run franchise for 2012 would be very welcome.

Phil said...

Sega are quite canny when it comes to using their ancient intellectual properties. Coincidentally, they have just released this, which looks pretty awesome even to a this-gen averse nerd like me.

But yes, something tells me we haven't seen the last of OutRun.