You’re cool, the engine’s hot, the girl’s gorgeous, a tank full of gas and an open road. The rest is up to you.
And apart from the forced time limit and the hugely out of proportion image on the poster, this tag line was pretty much spot on.
On September 20th this year, 30 years will have passed since the original Outrun arcade release. 30 YEARS. Can you believe it?? It’s a game series which is instantly recognisable the world over, and shows off exactly what Sega used to be great at, creating iconic, fast paced games. Like so many people. My experience of Outrun starts here…
Oh, no, sorry. That’s just where I wished it had started. In reality, it began here.
Yep, released in 1987 by US Gold, this was Probe Software’s Sinclair ZX Spectrum port of the classic arcade game. I say, port, it’s more of a fraught… as in fraught with problems. Ahaaaaaaa. Although in a way, starting with this version was a blessing, for I had yet to experience the joys of the high speed arcade sensation. So to this end, I accepted the Spectrum version for what it was.. a playable, if jerky car racing game.
I mean, I knew about the arcade version, of course, and I boldly played the Spectrum version with a sense of pride that my humble 8 bit technology could pull off a feat of arcade gaming with such ease. I mean, when you look at the Spectrum version, it has all the basic elements.
Ferrari Testarossa (or a close approximation)… check
Outrun music… check. I had a 128k, so it played in game, but there was also an accompanying audio tape with the arcade music for 48k owners to play alongside the game.
Roadside props… check
Wistful background scenery… check
Traffic… check, including tiny, tiny little trucks. And just look at how big they were advertised in the preview! Just a little out then.
Irritating tyre squeal.. check
Female passenger… check
Male driver… check
Come’on, this was the ’80s. Sexism as common place.
But for all that. It played a little like a bag of mangled dog food leftovers. Of course, I didn’t mind this. The excitement of passing those tiny trucks, recognisable German vehicles, and being able to choose your route (something C64 owners missed out on) was a breeze… almost like a passing breeze. The tape loads between each level, were less enjoyable, especially when you had ran out of time and had to return to the first level. But it was clearly outrun none the less, and these were the sacrifices you were used to if you wanted an arcade port in the ’80s.
My next experience of Outrun was provided by my cousin’s LCD dashboard style toy. This was like a Tiger handheld, but with a steering wheel and a piece of plastic for a Ferrari bonnet (much like real life). It was limited, but played probably about as well as the Spectrum version.
Roll on a few years and we land at my Sega Master System. Outrun was once again on my agenda (although not the 3D stereoscopic version), but the Master System conversion did not disappoint (well, much, anyway). This version was also released in 1987, but I didn’t get a Master System until the early 90s. Now, it should be stated, that by now, I’d had my hands on the arcade cabinet in it’s various forms, and a home computer port was never going to cut it, but some would come close.
Released in 1986 and developed by Sega AM2, the arcade version was a thing of wonder. It’s fast, smooth pace requires some intense driving skill, yet the scenery and feel of the game is somewhat relaxing. The multiple branching roots, although present in most ports, are revealed as the wonderful concept they are here, with drastically different scenery and obstacles on each section. The definable music was such a simple, yet compelling feature. It made the whole experience feel more lifelike, just like selecting a track in your Datsun Cherry before cruising off to your local Burger King. As for my favourite track. I like them all, equally I think. But each track seems appropriate for different moods. Splash Wave is quintessential for times when you really want to blast your previous course times, Passing Breeze is ideal for more relaxed times when you just fancy a drive in the sunshine and Magical Sound Shower is a perfect for racing stress away. I haven’t even got onto the sit down cabinets, or even the moving cabinets and the cohesive driving experience they offered either. But that’s something you really have to experience in the glorious flesh.
Anyway, back to the Master System. You can see that that Sega’s developers took a different approach to other 8 bit computer ports. Where most ports tried to emulate the look and dimensions of the arcade, the Master System version was designed to play as well on the hardware as possible, packed into a 256k ROM cartridge. To this extent the Ferrari is smaller and most of the screen is taken up by sky. This means less processing is required by the Z80 processor and ultimately that the pace is fast and pretty darn close to the arcade experience, there’s even road undulation, which adds an important depth to the game… literally. We’ve also got some fairly close renditions of the original music.
Some of the tunnel sections are pretty fit inducing, but as long as you can twitch your way through these sections, it’s about a good a version of Outrun as you can hope to have on 8 bit hardware. I spent a lot of time playing this version, at least until I got my hands on the Atari ST version, developed by Probe and released by US Gold once again.
And… I kinda wished I hadn’t. I mean, I spent a lot of time playing it, but I’m not sure how much of that time I actually enjoyed. I think I persisted as it was Outrun, and this was my new 16 bit shiny hardware.
The game takes a while to load up from disk, and you’re then presented with a menu system which you need to navigate by mouse, which is irritating, especially if you haven’t got the mouse hooked up. The gameplay is controlled by joystick, and playing outrun with a joystick is never as satisfying as a control pad. The music was enjoyable, I must say, and the graphics were chunky and bold. But something was off. That Testarossa with it’s Atari STFM inspired number plate just looked a bit plain, a bit tonka toy and the frame rate was like wading through jerky mustard. It’s playable, but when you realise the road forks are missing from this version, like the C64 version, but with less than half the frame rate, you just lose it.
And so, onto the…
Mega Drive version
The Mega drive version was about as good as you could hope for a home port to get. Produced by Hertz and released in 1991, pretty much everything you wanted was present, including gritty Mega Drive adaptations of the music and almost faithful speech sampling whenever you pass a “checkpoint”.
We’ve got a chunky Ferrari, road side obstacles a plenty, varying backgrounds, pleasant differences between stages and other vehicles which are almost in scale to your high performance Testarossa. This was the most enjoyable home port of outrun I had experienced, probably even to this day, which is good because that’s pretty much where my Outrun journey finished.
Oh, no, wait. I also have the privilege of owning the MS-DOS version after this. It’s safe to say the experience didn’t quite hold up. The car is tiny, the graphics aren’t too bad – I mean the trucks are the right size, and we’ve got VGA graphics (not bad for a 1989 release) – but listen to this…. yep, those bum notes, all 763 of them – from this Sega developed release I might add! – was enough for me to stop playing Outrun before those relaxing memories were tainted by cringe worthy PC Speaker sounds jolting me awake in icy cold night panics. So, I sat, and just waited for something better, something more soothing.
And so, my next experience of the classic game wouldn’t arrive until some 15 years later with the Xbox 360 take on Outrun 2, in the guise of Outrun Online Arcade. Now this game is every bit as addictive as the Mega Drive version of the original and it’s a game I play on a regular basis to this day. It manages to capture the high speed elegance of the original, but in that relaxing zoned out fashion which we all came to love.
There have been various ports, conversions and releases of Outrun over the decades, including Turbo Outrun, Battle Outrun, Outrun Europa and Outrun 2019, but for me, these remain the essential gaming experiences of this take on the racing game genre.
It’s one game I’m certain we’ll still be talking about in another 30 years. Unless we’re all dead by then of course.