Thursday, March 28, 2019

Romance of the Road ~ An Ode to OutRun

Have you ever wanted to get away from it all? Does the idea of going the distance and seeing what you never have before speak to you? You ever wanted to grab your love and just go for it? Well, you're human, so I would assume so.

But you don't have to save up or find the right girl to take a vacation. There is a game for that. The racing series OutRun might be the most romantic video game series ever made. And I mean romance in the broader, classical sense. There is no game like OutRun even thirty plus years from its release.

They are some of the best games ever made. This is no exaggeration.

If you've never touched this series before for whatever reason then you have missed out. No, it being a racing game is no excuse. Those enraptured in the possibility of life, love, and adventure, are poorer never having played it.

However, I do understand the hesitation. Racing games do have a stigma behind them, much like sports games, which they did not have back in the 80s and 90s. Before they were made for the fanatics they were made for gamers.

I understand. Despite gaming for near three decades at this point, I've never been into racers. Sure, there are kart racers like Mario Kart (Double Dash is the best one) and the occasional oddball like Road Rash or Burnout but as a whole they don't do a whole lot for me and I tend to get bored pretty fast. There is one major exception to the rule and those are Sega racers. Few companies do them better. At the top of that heap sits the OutRun games, which in my opinion are not only the apex of the genre but creator Yu Suzuki's career as well.

I'm not alone in that assessment as there is a whole genre of Retrowave music named after the series even though the last installment in the series was over a decade ago. Heck, here's an entire album based on the game's soundtrack. The adventure and excitement has inspired that many.

OutRun is that good.

Why it succeeds is in its base intent on a conceptual level. OutRun's concept is about the freedom of travel and exploration, seeing distant sights, discovering new paths and strategies for better times and scores, and being romantic with your lady. It's a game about going the distance. You start from the beginning of the map on the first track and when you reach the end you are offered a fork in the road based on difficulty which offers a whole two ways to go. New courses, new sights, and challenge, await your decision on this new adventure. Every time you play OutRun it is a different experience because you have so much freedom.

The game is about wonder, romance, and excitement. Few games nail all three, never mind a racing game.

And no one has ever come close to matching it since.

Unlike a typical racing game, there are no laps in OutRun and there are no other racers. In addition to the branching paths with winding and varied terrain replacing a set loop in a small course, the other racers are replaced with other cars on the road that you need to slip through to get bonus points (how close you are when you pass in later games can give you a slipstream speed boost and even more points based on how close you were when passing which gives a risk/reward incentive in being dangerous to woo your gal) with one exception. Every now and then hot shots will come racing by on the road at top speed, and if you pass them after a set distance you will get a bonus and even more love from your lady. Because no one is faster than you are. You have to prove you're the best dude on the road at the same time you navigate the tricky pathways and deciding where you want to go on your road trip.

Then there's the bright color palette and breezy tunes blasting in your ears while you spin wheels to make distance. So many disparate elements come together to make this racing experience so original and addictive that you just can't imagine why no one has done it again since. Not even by Sega.

As I said, there is nothing like OutRun.

The series started during the original golden age of gaming back in the '80s with its original arcade installment soon brought to home consoles like the Sega Master System and Sega Genesis and it was eventually ported to just about everything under the sun with even console exclusive sequels. Back when gamers had no issue crossing genre lines everything thrived as long as it was good.

However, like most bad decisions Sega made beyond the Genesis, neglect ended up hurting the series just as it had for their other classic series like Streets of Rage, Golden Axe, Shinobi, Comix Zone, and Vectorman, which sent what were once popular series into undeserved obscurity. The 32-bit generation was a mistake. The Saturn and Dreamcast went by with nothing from this very original series and it ended up hurting its visibility in the long run.

Years passed before someone at the company got a clue.

The arcade division of Sega decided that they were going to make a proper arcade sequel and finally got one out in the form of OutRun 2. You see, while Sega's console division had fallen asleep at the wheel, the arcades were still getting games like Golden Axe: Revenge of Death Adder, House of the Dead 4, Virtua Fighter 5, and Virtua Cop 3. They were still banging them out even as the scene was dying overseas. OutRun 2 managed to best all of them by taking the original formula and giving it a face-lift and a shot in the arm with full 3D, more music, even more ways to score points (both in game and with your girl since they are tied!), crazier sights, and more involved tracks. It was even better than the first one.

OutRun 2 was such a big game that its home release had to come out for the beefiest console at the time: the original Xbox. A version with different tracks came out for the PS2, but by this generation racing games had all but fallen out of favor. It simply wasn't noticed. OutRun 2 was a classic, but no one had noticed at the time.

And it was thought that was to be the end of the series.

Years later OutRun 2 got a new downloadable version for the PS3 and Xbox 360 with a hook being for online rivalries, but it eventually got taken down due to licensing problems. I personally had a lot of good times with OutRun Online. Online or not there is much to do without ever getting bored. Over a generation later and there hasn't been anything new in the realm of romantic racing and there probably won't ever be due to the state of the genre and the dying industry. It's a shame, but you get used to it.

It is unfortunate in this age of stale AAA games we've lost so much imagination and excitement in just going out into wide open spaces and taking in the air. Brown desaturated corridors and barren open-world button mashers have replaced the romance of adventure and wonder of something as simple as going on a car trip.

They're not games anymore, they're just time wasters.

You don't need HD graphics, dozens of dollars spent on downloadable content, or hours of padded content to make a classic. The best games of the '80s and '90s prove it. These short games contain endless hours of entertainment and a single run won't even take the player half an hour. That is called masterful game design and it is a dying skill.

We might never get an OutRun 3 for reasons that will never not be incredibly silly, but at the very least the old games still exist. The original and OutRun 2, and all their accompanying spin-offs, are still very much worth playing today. As said many times, there is nothing else like them and probably won't ever be again.

Should you find them you would do well to play them once to the end of the first route, then a second time through another. You will have problems putting down the controller (or steering wheel) if you do. Getting lost in a land of wonder can do that.

Grab your best car and the keys and get out on the road. Who know where you might end up? It is a big world out there after all.

There's nothing you can't outrun.


  1. Replies
    1. O/T, but over at Kairos we've signed you up to write the "Appendix N" of the SF/F decline.

    2. I can only imagine how many more books like that there must be out there.

  2. The problem J D is that you did too good a job with Fandom:An Illustrated History.

    1. I'm more disappointed that there has never been critique of it in over 40 years. It's such a prime target for one.