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Games

The Three-Decade-Old 'Out Run' Is One of 2015’s Best New Games

First released into arcades in 1986, Sega's racer remains amazing today, as its new 3DS port proves.

by Chris Schilling
Apr 7 2015, 3:18pm

When I first clapped eyes on Out Runa stand-up cabinet tucked away in the corner of a Mallorcan café—I was mesmerized. Here was something strange and exotic, though back then almost every game felt strange and exotic to nine-year-old me.

I wasn't allowed consoles at home, and had to make do with a Spectrum—which I cherished, of course, but I always felt a sharp pang of jealousy when my school friends excitedly chattered about Sega and Nintendo, and the games I felt I'd never be able to play. My parents always managed to scrape together enough money each year for a sunshine holiday in the Balearics, and faced with two easily bored kids, they'd always relent to my insistence to immediately scope out the resort until we stumbled upon the local arcade. I was no sun worshipper, and so a day out at the beach lost its allure quickly, and by early afternoon I'd usually been persistent enough in my pleading to find my pockets weighed down with pesetas, jangling noisily as I raced towards the flashing lights and booming speakers, ready to waste the lot.

Even then, Out Run seemed to stand out from the rest. Here was a 3D racer boasting gorgeous, picturesque scenery, a breath-taking turn of speed and an incredibly steep learning curve. I'm not sure I ever finished it—my computer time was limited to half an hour a night, rarely long enough to properly develop my twitch skills—but I enjoyed getting to the fourth or fifth stages before my credits ran out, or we were called away for dinner, or another application of sunscreen (my parents didn't take any chances, even if I spent more time beneath Sega's blue skies than baking under the Balearic sun). I was never much into cars, and I'm still not—most modern racing games bore me to tears. I didn't really think about it so much at the time, but it's obvious the allure of Out Run was not so much the driving as the drive.

That distinction is important, because it's what differentiates Out Run from its contemporaries. Sure, you'll need skill and maybe a pinch of good fortune with the flow of traffic to successfully cruise through to one of the five end points, but while you'll overtake plenty of cars on the way, the game's not about beating them to the finish line. It's never a race. You're all speeding along the same undulating strip of tarmac, but you're all winners because you're all in a wonderful 200-MPH dream, a luxuriant road trip where the world flashes by in a blink.

'3D Out Run,' trailer

During the preparatory stages of development, director Yu Suzuki drove around Europe in a rental car with a video camera attached to the front—Out Run is essentially a highlights package of that trip, but only in a video game could we witness such seamless, impossible segues between beachfronts and alpine peaks, floral fields, and deserts. There's something gently hallucinatory about the way the scenery transitions from one place to the next, a mild but still potent trip that leaves you with a dopey, spaced-out grin.

The best part of three decades on, its effect is barely diminished. The game's recently released 3DS port can't quite capture the tactile thrill of a proper cabinet with a wheel and pedals, but once you're on that road you're caught in the same mellow reverie: you don't want to blink in case you crash, but also because you're utterly hypnotized. And in autostereoscopic 3D, it's a miracle. That winding ribbon of road seems to stretch farther than before, the bumps and turns upon you faster than ever. Racing beneath low-hanging clouds as they hurtle towards you has the same mildly claustrophobic effect of thundering through a tunnel.

Nintendo fans have been clamoring for a new F-Zero for years; this feels every bit as fast. With "Splash Wave" pumping through the speakers (which I've always preferred to the more widely celebrated "Magical Sound Shower") it's at once exhilarating and oddly relaxing, much as I always remembered it.

The 3D treatment makes absolute sense for a game that pioneered its own three-dimensional technique. Most arcade racers at the time were viewed from a top-down perspective; Sega's game used the sprite-scaling technology featured in Suzuki's previous arcade hit Space Harrier to create an illusion of 3D from 2D sprites, so cars and roadside scenery would get larger as you approached them. The fantasy, naturally, is more convincing the faster you go, hence a game that encourages you to put the medal to the metal and rarely—if ever—let up.

For Sega's current master of remasters, Yosuke Okunari and his team at M2, 3D Out Run was not simply an opportunity to preserve a valuable relic, but to try and capture some of the experience of playing it so many years ago. There's no way it can fully recreate the molded seat of the luxury sit-down cabinet, but options offer a facsimile of the physical sensation, the display tilting and swaying as you take sharp corners, and audio options allowing you to hear the noisy clunk of the cabinet hydraulics, as well as ambient background effects. It makes the action even harder to parse at full speed—particularly on a standard 3DS—but it's a thoughtful inclusion all the same; likewise the addition of two new pieces of music that perfectly capture the essence of the original three radio tunes.

It's sad that some will balk at paying $7 for a game of this vintage, regardless of the effort invested in such a comprehensive transfer. Think of it as the equivalent of a pristine new Blu-ray presentation of a favorite film—retouched, cleaned up, color corrected, the works—and the price seems ever more like a bargain. As the blissful lullaby of the leaderboard screen and the sound of lapping waves fades away, and I see the legend "Insert Coin," I can almost feel the weight of that stack of pesetas in my pocket, as I prepare to begin the beautiful journey one more time.

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