A joy ride

Sega's Out Run never cared about automotive accuracy, it's just a race for the fun of it

Carrying an appeal that crossed over to non-motorists, Sega’s Out Run brought you all the joy of driving with very little of the downsides. Unlike today’s spod-target racing games, there’s no deep dive into engine performance or concerns over aerodynamics, it’s just a cartoonish representation of a beautiful long drive across eye-catching scenery.

Pete Prodge on the Out Run inlay

Cars were never a target of fascination for me. The same can’t be said of my schoolfriends, who’d avidly follow motor racing on television, particularly the Birmingham Superprix. Oh, and living in Northamptonshire (as I still do), it’s the home of the British Grand Prix, over at Silverstone.

I have an uncle who worked on engine design for Vauxhall and he had also spent time on racing circuits back in the 1950s and 1960s. If I had viewed cars as anything more than a convenient metal box that got you from A to B, I’d be well set for chasing the smell of petrol and the sight of grid girls.

As it is, I only bothered to pass my driving test in my very late 30s, and that was only out of necessity. Having spent nearly three hours each day commuting via bus to/from work in Milton Keynes, I had to give in and become a motorist.

How I discovered Out Run

Have you ever heard of Wicksteed Park? It’s a theme park based in Kettering, but don’t get any grand ideas about it, it’s kind of like FarmFoods’s answer to Alton Towers.

Wicksteed Park (or ‘Wickers’, to use the irritating local vernacular) was where I first played Out Run, in their pretty impressive arcade. It’s also the place where I first took charge of a motorised vehicle, with the go-cart circuit open to anyone with three tokens. At a maximum of 15mph, the wind really wasn’t in my hair.

I hadn’t been aware of Out Run at all, but had been dragged over there by my schoolfriend Clive, a fellow ZX Spectrum owner, who worshipped all things to do with cars.

When I say he was obsessed with cars, I’m really not kidding. He’d buy all the car magazines, Autocar, What Car? that kind of thing, and he’d cut out the full-page photos of dashboards from the reviews of new cars. He’d then glue them onto the bottom of a shoebox, which would then be his ‘car’.

Out Run sit down cabinet at Arcade Club, Bury
A sit down Out Run cabinet, at Arcade Club in Bury

The sight of Clive running round his back garden, with his cardboard car fascimile in his hands, doing all the engine noises with his mouth, refuses to leave my mind. He carried this on to the age of 13 and even had his father (an engineer) craft up a fully-working traffic light model at about two-thirds scale.

This absolute hardcore dedication to the worship of the internal combustion engine, to the point of actually impersonating a car, would bring in ridicule from other kids in our class. As the decades have passed and we’ve all got a little wiser, I think I’d bet my three-door Peugeot that it’s down to undiagnosed autism.

Game engine

Be it a car, motorbike or even a lorry, Clive was keenly interested in all things automotive. As such, the vast majority of his ZX Spectrum collection consisted of racing games. Obvious choices like Power Drift, WEC Le Mans and Chase HQ were in there, but there’d also be things out of leftfield, like CRL’s Juggernaut.

Any game that had any type of motor vehicle in it, would be snapped up by Clive, directing his mum to empty her purse so he could acquire another driving experience rendered in 256×192 pixels. He even found joy in Code Masters’s lamentable Twin Turbo V8.

Out Run was his keenest passion and I heard him rave about it for many months. He’d persuade his mother to drive him over to Wicksteed Park, the nearest place that had an Out Run cabinet, with the exception of the annual fair that parked up in our town.

Having been bored to tears with Clive’s obsession over motor racing and his insistence of telling me everything that happened on last night’s Top Gear, Out Run was a huge breath of fresh air for me. It’s driving without the boring bits.

Juggernaut by CRL on the ZX Spectrum
Juggernaut by CRL, on the ZX Spectrum

With hindsight, Out Run looks very ‘of its time’ and doesn’t offer much in the way of realism. It’s a load of 2D sprites made to look 3D to the undiscerning eye. I think those are its strengths. The hardcore perfectionism of the Gran Turismo series makes digital driving a joyless experience.

Strictly speaking, Out Run isn’t even a racing game as such. It’s a long road run against the clock, not any other driver. You’re not on a circuit, just a wide road that’s subject to normal traffic. Lorries and other cars are the clutter you have to avoid on your rapid pace to hit the next checkpoint within 60 seconds.

In the review video, I point out the inspiration behind Out Run, it’s quite simply a 1981 action comedy film. I think that’s why it appeals to me.

Tracy Chapman swipes right on me

Naturally, when Out Run hit the ZX Spectrum in early 1988, we had to have it. I think it was the first full-price game I saved up for.

The naivety of youth meant that I never really saw a flaw with it. It had highly detailed graphics and two of the game’s three tunes played beautifully out of the 128K Spectrum’s sound chip.

You got the actual arcade music on a separate cassette in the package, which would be useful for 48K owners who only had sound effects bleeping out of their machine.

Sure, it was a rather monochrome experience, with the ZX Spectrum’s colour handling being notably bad when compared to the other two major 8-bit platforms, but the Ferrari Testarossa looks proper boss, as do all the other sprites.

What we hadn’t really taken in, is that the Spectrum Out Run is incredibly slow. The magazine reviews chided the conversion for that reason, but we felt that as the timer was counting 60 seconds per track and we had the good graphics and a decent rendition of the music, there was no problem!

Out Run by US Gold, on the ZX Spectrum
Out Run by US Gold, on the ZX Spectrum

Just having the ‘essence’ of Out Run was good enough for us. We weren’t going to admit that it didn’t match the £9 price point. This was arcade standard in our eyes.

In my video, there’s a lovely bit where I’m chatting to Iain Lee, back when he had a live phone-in on talkRADIO (in the days before that station became a witless mouthpiece for far-right nanowits). When we’re reminiscing about Out Run, Iain’s producer Katherine Boyle steps in to point out how home users had to rely on a cassette of the arcade music.

Quite a lot of the home versions lagged behind, literally, the arcade original. It’s no real surprise, as the arcade technology – based on Sega’s SuperScaler board – was an incredible advance.

This leap forward had taken arcade games away from being a collection of low-res 2D sprites messing about on a black background. You now had huge colourful images hurled at you, immersing you in their world.

Out Run wasn’t the first effort using this breakthrough. I go into the fine details on the video, but you’re sure to have heard of the other three major games based on it.

Iain Lee Late Night Alternative
Iain Lee and Katherine Boyle challenge me to identify Out Run's tunes on live national radio

What is for sure, that driving games weren’t going back to the look and feel of Namco’s 1982 racer Pole Position. Sega had set a benchmark, with its competitors trying to get a slice of this pie.

Making the video

The Out Run review video is the first thing I had planned for Reheated Pixels. It is a very familiar arcade hit with many home versions and there are still follow-ups that you can find in modern arcades to this day.

My aim for Reheated Pixels is to cover games I have a passion for, which usually tend to be quirky and not that well remembered. Out Run is neither of those things, it’s quite a famous game, but I picked it to lead so people could get the gist of what I was trying to do.

It’s also the reason why I followed it up with a review of Double Dragon, another landmark arcade game of its genre. I always intended to go with those two first, with the third being Feud, a £2 Mastertronic game. Frankly, I’m going to cover a lot of budget games for home computers, whereas global arcade megahits will be a rarity. I’m setting out my stall, you see.

Pete Prodge at Silverstone Circuit
Pete Prodge at Silverstone Circuit

Doing presenting in front of a green screen isn’t unusual by YouTube standards, although I’d have at least 90% less hassle if I remained in a voice-over-only format. I think the lighting on my links is a bit overdone, my eyes seem rather glazed with the heavy reflections in them.

Also, there’s a crumb of food by the side of my mouth, thanks to wolfing down my dinner just before I started recording. Ah, these early mistakes, eh?

I love the idea of getting out there, to not just sit at home on a chair talking about the subject, but to actually be seen in a different location. Ah, all those times I was sneered at for being a gamer who “never went outside”.

It’s my way of trying to give my output something of a ‘television’ feel. Alas, there are limitations when you go over to Silverstone Circuit on a freezing cold day when it’s completely closed. (Not that I had any intentions of entering it, though, it’s quite pricy to get in and would have delayed the video’s publication.)

Silverstone is located at the opposite end of my county. It’s actually a tiny old village, and it’s where the ‘spoiler’ visual gag was shot.

All the motor-racing stuff is about half-a-mile outside the village, and it’s practically an industrial estate. Understandably, a lot of the businesses there deal with the automotive industry.

I did some B-roll shots on my own in November 2018, but I knew I couldn’t get a decent in-car angle of myself or external shots of my driving unless I hired a camera operator. Thankfully, I recruited Jack Haywood, a friend from the west midlands, who patiently pointed the camera at me as I pratted about for an hour in the cold.

Jack’s work looks a lot better from the early ‘teaser’ video shots I achieved from having an old household camcorder clamped inside my car.

I probably wouldn’t have embarked on Out Run being my first video had I known there were 17 versions at my fingertips. Capturing the footage took a few weeks. (There’d be more version if I didn’t stick to my ‘anything I can emulate and feel is suitably retro’ rule.)

The toughest thing to cover was the Sega Saturn version. That’s a console that’s incredibly hard to emulate. A number of games are impossible to get running on anything other than the real hardware, so I had to get my hands on one.

A CEX-like shop in Northampton had one going for £60, but I thought I could get one for cheaper on eBay. I saw a Saturn listed for a few quid less, so I paid for it and waited for it to arrive. A week after the promised delivery date, with nothing to show for it, I was on the verge of reporting the seller when he refunded me.

I ended up picking it up from Northampton, but even then I had to return for the right cables. Still, this was the first piece of retrogaming equipment in my home since the second-hand 128K Spectrum and a very dusty Windows-98-era IBM ThinkPad.

Sega's Out Run (from Sega Ages compilation) on Sega Saturn
Sega's Out Run (from Sega Ages compilation) on Sega Saturn

The irony is, Out Run on the Saturn looks and feels 99% like the 1986 arcade version. No attempt has been made for the game to take advantage of the superior technology of the mid-1990s console, because it really is a release aimed at retrogamers.

And hence, it is now ‘retroretrogaming’, if you see what I mean. Just like all those Namco Museum compilations around the same time, this is now nostalgia about nostalgia. How very meta.

I could have released the video in early 2019, but I felt it needed one last piece – a shot of myself playing the original arcade game. Having some time set aside for a family holiday up north, I decided to pop over with my camera to Arcade Club in Bury, where I knew there was an Out Run cabinet. A proper sit down one, too!

Previously, the only footage I had of any Out Run arcade machine was a cabinet at the Cambridge Centre For Computing History. Although it’s an authentic arcade offering, it’s the one based on the Sega Master System, literally offering that version of the game, which is a bit lamentable but had to be included for curiosity’s sake.

I was staying in West Yorkshire, so it made sense to bring over my friends from that area – comedy writer and podcaster Ben Baker; musician and retrogaming YouTuber PatchPlays and singer Zoey Phoenix from Wolf359 – over to Arcade Club. I also hoped to get some footage of Double Dragon, but alas, they only had the rather inferior sequel.

Anyway, Patch did a good job of holding the camera, capturing my absolutely piss-poor attempt at trying to get off the first level of Out Run. (Nobody caught me later on getting the absolute high score of the day on Bomb Jack, did they?)

I think it’s a nice way to end the video, anyway. If you want to see what our trip to Arcade Club was like, here’s the video PatchPlays put out on his channel.

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