a review of OutRun 2
a videogame developed by am2
and published by sega
for the arcades and the microsoft xbox
text by tim rogers
Confession time: my parents — a pair of world-renowned experimental psychologists — lied to me for the first ten years of my life, telling me that the closet they kept me locked up in was actually located somewhere in the Taj Mahal. Their plan was to see if I’d eventually break out — which I did, at age ten — and what I would do after that. My mother theorized that I would go on to inflict mind-bending cruelty on animals; my father predicted that I would discover videogames and begin writing about them in the first person. At any rate, for those first ten years, I kept submitting the same Christmas list every year. I wanted: a fighter jet, a rocket pack, a laser gun, the benefits of decades of martial arts training (without the hard work), dark black sunglasses, a bright red Ferrari, a big blue sky, and a hot blonde girlfriend. I never got any of these things, and my parents never got the Nobel Prize, though I did start writing about videogames in the first person.
The point of this is that Yu Suzuki, game designer ordinaire, was devoted, in those days, to making games that satisfied every reasonable adolescent Christmas fantasy list. With Space Harrier, we got the jet pack and the laser gun; with Afterburner, we got that fighter jet; with OutRun, we got those black sunglasses, that red convertible, that blue sky, and that yellow-haired girlfriend.
Modern game designers seek to fulfill different kinds of wishes: the wish to have participated in World War II, the wish to shoot a motherfucker in the head for stealing your fucking drugs. A few shining beacons of love exist in games like Portal, where the game designers go above and beyond the call of duty to present you with something you didn’t know you absolutely wished you had (a gun that lets you shoot two portals, one being the entrance, the other being the exit). Portal is brilliant because we fall in love with the idea of this invention and the way it’s executed; it is, quite possibly, the only “other” direction game design should have ever gone at that big fork in the road called OutRun.
Analyzing OutRun as wish-fulfillment is a straight-ahead exercise. If you’ve never wished for a hot red convertible the hot blonde girlfriend (or equivalent) or the simplicity of the open road, touching a videogame controller has probably never occurred to you.
Times were easy back when OutRun made its splash. Games were things you paid to make you forget the world. In OutRun, you had a bright red car that you could drive as fast as you like. A girl sat in the seat next to you. She reacted visibly to danger and excitement. You drove faster, you crashed, you lost, the screen went black and reflective, you noticed the bus pulling up to the stop outside the window, you went on with your real life.
Sega released OutRun in 1986, a year into the big banging cacophony of Super Mario mania. OutRun might not have been a reactionary piece. We can pretend it was. Kazunori Yamauchi, master of Gran Turismo, once told me that Super Mario, although technically amazing (it spurred on his already existing interest in using computers to program simulations of physics — namely momentum, inertia, and torque), did not move him the same way Choplifter did. We can imagine Yu Suzuki, in a bomber jacket and a tight pair of navel-high beltless blue jeans, playing Super Mario Bros. with a face of iron stone for six straight hours, cracking a smile of sheer frightened dreadful joy, turning serious again, and finally wondering aloud who’s supposed to relate to this nonsense. Yu Suzuki was (and maybe is) videogaming’s best excuse for a Cecil B. DeMille. Out came OutRun, a celebration of cars, of physics, of love — a celebration of already having the girl. It’s as much — or as little — as you want it to be at any given split second.
Game design fell into a kind of second renaissance-like ruin around the early 1990s. Game designers stopped doing what Yu Suzuki had done — appealing to the clustered-up, fist-sized, toy-loving, juvenile and distinctly human wishes of children — and started appealing to the convoluted concept of what the marketing people thought gamers wanted. That’s the problem with a thing: one touch, and your hands are sticky. If you played OutRun more than twice before 1993, chances are they were thinking of you when they made OutRun 2019, in which your FutureCar (in the year 2019, no less) can accelerate to a maximum speed of 692 miles per hour. (At this point, of course, Yu Suzuki had already turned all his attention (by which we mean the five minutes a day he steps out of the real world and into the shoes of a “game designer” (highest, sincerest compliment, right there)) to the production of Virtua Fighter.)
The “wish” being “fulfilled” in OutRun 2019 is the presumption that no one wouldn’t want to drive a car that could break the sound barrier. The thing is — and this might be the thousand-and-first time we say this — videogames aren’t real in the first place. Playing one requires at least a faint (perhaps subconscious) desire to escape from something, and also a suspension of disbelief, to a degree. OutRun was perfect how it was, with a “normal” sports car that drove at “normal” insane high speeds. Because — and this is crucial — OutRun fulfilled a wish that any given player could, with enough skill in manipulating his or her own life, eventually see through some day in real life. When you start putting jet thrusters on the car, and making the dream unattainable, the pressure builds: your game cannot just “be” — it has to be awesome, from every angle. This was the age of Street Fighter II on home consoles, the age of the arcade being this amazing showcase of technology. This was the age of Sonic the Hedgehog versus Super Mario Kart, of Genesis doing what Nintendon’t, of Operation Desert Storm; nobody knew what anyone wanted anymore, much less children; everything fell to presumptions: if they’ve played a game before, they must like games. Put a jet thruster on the car.
Seventeen years later, the mind boggled at the announcement at Sega were releasing OutRun 2 for the arcades. It was 2003; we were legally adults already. It would be no exagerration to say that all of us here at Action Button Dot Net — both in the Writers’ Citadel and out there in the Readers’ Country — are invariably objectively attractive professional male models, and driving a real red convertible with a real blonde woman is something we all actually do in our spare time. Still — maybe it was nostalgia at first — OutRun 2 appealed to us, maybe because the fear of death just wasn’t as prominent in the game, and we felt free to crash, and spin, and burn. Also, because we unfortunately don’t live within an hour’s driving distance of Egyptian pyramids.
It’s highly important to note that the cars in OutRun 2 are actually Ferraris. In the original OutRun, every kid with a dream knew that the car was a Ferrari Testarossa. In OutRun 2, there’s no doubt: it says “Ferrari”, right there. We’re reminded of how Kazunori Yamauchi said that, way back when he was cold-calling car manufacturers re: the original Gran Turismo, many makers literally scoffed at his idea — a painstaking video simulation of driving, aimed at the mass market — and hung up the phone. When the game was released and Car and Driver profiled it, he had to figuratively beat them away with a stick. One has to wonder: if Gran Turismo had never existed, and the makers of OutRun 2 had thrown together a gorgeously modeled Testarossa, shown it to Ferrari, and said, “we want to make this game”, would Ferrari have sneezed with hatred, or would they have grinned like children? You can’t ask for better publicity than OutRun 2: even if you’ve got it your head that you will never own a real Ferrari, the idea of driving one in a game with a loving pedigree is at least a comforting thought. OutRun 2 has you at blue skies, high speeds, and open roads: the Ferrari is a “why the hell not?”
In execution, OutRun 2 is love: the videogame. It is the freedom of outer space, and the sudden happy shock of friction. Like a Righteous Terminator sent from the future with a Valuable Message, it materialized in video arcades of the year 2003, leaving a semi-spherical impact crater. It stood, hands on hips, among the sad state of our favorite fetish: the game equivalents of bare-knuckle fistfights in blinged-out ballrooms, “shooting” games where the player’s actual main goal is navigating a maze of dots while Getting a Headache, or fighting games where every character who isn’t dressed up as a maid is a six-year-old boy wearing a nun suit and a miniskirt. It’s a wonder OutRun 2 was allowed to exist; at the time of its development and eventual release, Sega were thick into Operation: Teach People Hate, an instrumental part of which had been faking a poll on their official website to make it look like human beings actually wanted to play a Sonic the Hedgehog game with a scorched-red sky, starring a jet-black hedgehog wielding frighteningly realistic handguns. So much unthinkability was in the air in those days; though Yu Suzuki was reportedly not involved with OutRun 2 on any more than a superficial level, we will gladly and boldly attribute the strait-laced, logical nature of its execution to his lingering legacy. The game designers didn’t want to cross him, and Sega wouldn’t dare let them want to cross him. Seriously, if this game had been an actual Sega production, the minds behind Shadow the Hedgehog would have seen to it that the blonde-haired girl be replaced with a six-year-old boy whom the player character had “kidnapped” because “market research” revealed that games about “crime” were popular, and also because modern trends in video gaming indicate that some human beings are actually pedophiles. Instead of hearts rising like happy smoke from the passenger’s seat, we’d be treated to shrill boyish screaming, and the cackle of a testosteroney nutcase whenever we drift.
Games have gotten so technical. Far sadder than the fact that it is not, specifically, 1986 anymore is the fact that it’s not even 1993 anymore. It is The Future. Game companies cower in the corner, afraid deathly of the day — which may yet come — when someone satisfies everyone all of the way. We’re not making games that satisfy childish dreams anymore — driving a car when we’re not old enough for a driver’s license, flying a plane when we’re not old enough to enlist in the Navy — and when we’re not making games that appeal lazily to the dreams of gamers — bigger graphics, faster cars, angrier backgrounds — we’re making games that make the player feel like a doctor on “ER”, shouting names of medicines. Racing games should be about joy. Joy is neither expected nor appreciated anymore. The most popular racing game in Japanese arcades is probably Initial D (coincidentally also by Sega), which is popular because it’s extremely technical (very difficult drifting), extremely plain (the most devoted gamers, these days, prefer games that aren’t bombastic and confident in their visual design), and based on a Japanese comic book about kids competing in illegal street races with slightly souped-up cars. Kids get into the game because they’re into the manga. They’re into the manga because they don’t have a street-racing car in real life. So they’re into the game because they’re into a manga that they’re into because they’re into cars, and can’t have one. The inevitable lonely kernel of “escapism”, in this case, in being so buried and so accompanied by other, more abstract hooks, only looks all the more depressing. Initial D owes debts to so many angles that it’s hard for a casual viewer to penetrate. If it’s not the sharp technicality of the actual play experience, it’s the question of who the hell all these people (barely-animated poorly-drawn comic-booky face portraits) are, and what the hell they’re talking about (text boxes splashing across the screen). You’ll see high school girls standing behind the machine as high school boys play against each other; they’ll grow up with the impression that videogames, in general, are kind of a lot like Initial D. Then someone will show them Mario Kart Wii, and it’ll sell a million copies in a day, and the executives at Sega will slap their foreheads and say, man, why can’t we think of something like that?
The problem is, Sega did think of something like that. They thought of something like that all over the place. Way back when, there was Daytona USA. The cabinets were big and delicious and inviting. The racing was smooth and easy. If you were in last place, the game didn’t give you a Blue Shell or other similar kill-all item to feed your kleptomania-like inferiority complex — rather, it just subtly boosted your speed without telling you. The key here is that the game was about speed. See: Sega has always been outside the box, and the truest fans know it. All Nintendo did, in the name of success, was build a box outside of Sega, and then climb out of that box.
OutRun 2 is an arcade racing game with a beautiful shiny red cabinet shaped kind of like a car. The deluxe cabinet moves up and down as you encounter bumps in the road. The road is very bumpy, and bendy. Let go of the gas, hit the brakes, let go, twist the wheel, hit the gas again, and you’re drifting on air. The girl in the passenger’s seat loves it. Every once in a while, there’s a fork in the road. Go left, or go right. The road gets more or less twisty. Keep racing. Maybe you’ll make it to the end, a big finish line. It used to be the assumption that you and this girl are bank robbers, though since when do bank robbers drive Ferraris? If they can afford to drive Ferraris dangerously, they don’t need to rob banks (maybe they just steal cars). What exactly are they outrunning? The law most likely gets angry when a car goes as fast as a Ferrari is known to go. When the time limit runs out and it’s GAME OVER, we can either imagine the police showing up and shackling our lunatic while the girl bawls her eyes out, or we can simply escape from our escapism, and think about getting something to eat.
OutRun 2 works because it is about flow, awe, wonder. Its friction is the chunky torque of heavy tires on a road, the weight of a morethanfriendly hand on the knee, the pop of a clutch, the heavy pet of a cool breeze. You love the game because its beautiful, idealized world is a place worth escaping to, with shocking blue skies and forests that turn into deserts and then casino towns without explanation. It’s a VHS-tape tropical fish aquarium for a generation of grown-up dreams. And it’s got meat on its bones; it’s sticky where it should be, it’s loose if you pull the right lever. We happily rebound between sticky brakes and loose drifts, one of the greatest states of glorious flux to ever exist in gaming. We enjoy the scenery. How much more can you ask for, as an Adult On The World, without feeling like a jerk?
OutRun 2 shows us a world where the radio only plays seven songs. This is not a veiled slur. The world we can see in this game does not need more than seven songs. Each one of them fits it perfectly. If there is a God in the world of OutRun 2, he invented more than trees and grass and wildebeests — he went so far as to invent the Electone and the jetliner, fly down to Bermuda, mold Carlos Santana out of beach sand, strike up a conversation, and disagree pleasantly with him for a couple of hours, putting away countless Belgian beers in the process. If Sega were to get smart — hey, they’ve got a British man as the president of their American branch, and that certainly doesn’t seem like a bad idea (Super Monkey Ball as a launch game on the iPhone 3G seems like a common-sensical enough move) — and release a 1080p, widescreen, gorgeous redux of OutRun 2 for the PlayStation Network and Xbox Live Arcade, you wouldn’t even need custom soundtracks, whether you “like” the existing music or not. We’d probably like to listen to The Stone Roses’ “I am the Resurrection” while driving like a fiend, though it ultimately just wouldn’t fit. This game and its music exist on precisely the same spiritual plane. It takes a certain kind of subtle jazzy fusion to match both long breezy straightaways and vigorous, jerking drifts.
Once more: we’d like that redux. The Xbox, PlayStation 2, and PSP incarnations are not enough. Sumo Digital did wonders with the home console ports of Virtua Tennis; let them toss OutRun 2 into the downloadable games race. We’d be sure to sicc our loyal pack of Kotaku dogs on the publicity.
More than everything seems right about playing this game on a violent-hot rainy summer night, in boxer shorts, on a sofa, on a huge television, with a digital d-pad, the air-conditioner up something fierce. It’d make even your apartment of five years feel like a forgotten roadside motel with fresh sheets and towels. As is, it’s hard to find this game, and even harder (impossible) to play it under the ideal circumstances. The “ideal circumstances” would entail playing the deluxe cabinet in a dead-empty arcade after hours, maybe with an electric fan blowing your hair back. It’s impossible to ignore that one thing adding to OutRun 2‘s allure is the existence of so many versions of the arcade cabinet, including the giant two-seater unit with a 52-inch monitor, which switches control between two players at semi-random intervals. It might be meant for dates, which is a precious gesture, whether it worked or not. We don’t precisely require this atmosphere for our ideal online port, though we’re more than happy enough to include it as one of the bounty of classy little quirks that add up to one of the best games of all-time.
OutRun 2 is love: the videogame. It is about driving forward, drifting, and not crashing in ingeniously designed tracks with beautiful background scenery. That’s all it takes. We’ve said before — and we’ll say again — that game design these days is downright ghastly, for showing players something (“a star chip”), telling them they need it (“‘you need this’”), showing them something they can do (“pound pegs into the ground”), and then rewarding them for remembering what they can do, in the context of the game (a trampoline materializes out of thin air when the pegs are pounded). In this clear-hot crucible-world, the only thing kids are going to grow up wanting is higher-resolution pegs to pound into the ground, and shinier trampolines materializing out of thin air. This is the world where more than nine hundred girls out of a thousand polled in Shibuya, Tokyo replied that their favorite conversation topic with their boyfriends is “Why aren’t you talking to me?” No wonder Japan’s birth rate is falling through the floor. OutRun 2 is a game the likes of which could save anybody: it is real love, applied to ones and zeroes, outputting the most gorgeous snow globe yet crafted by human hands. As with love, you make your own goals, and you take away your own satisfaction.
OutRun‘s influence is not invisible. The world has noticed, and might notice again. Burnout, another car-involving game with the word “out” making up part of the compound-word title, seems to have picked up on the core concepts of “joy” and “joy” contextualized in OutRun‘s ancient rendition of car physics, and applied a spin more friendly to Americans The World Over: the game is about making people crash, making them lose, making them die. As a result, the skies are often stained the color of industrial smoke, or blood, or both. The latest game in the series has the word “Paradise” in the title: it is no coincidence that OutRun 2‘s logo includes a palm tree.
Yet all the world is a stage, and the people merely want to read the ratings. Burnout and its cousins clash and collapse in terrifying pissing-contests of numbers and figures and bullet-pointed visual aides involving strips of fire that grow in relation to how much cumulative destruction you are causing. These games aren’t about an emotion — they’re about filing your taxes and pointing to the number on the return check. They’re not about ripping down Pacific Coast Highway with a hot blonde in the passenger’s seat — they’re about searching for a parking space on Hollywood Boulevard for two hours. We need less games about looking for parking spaces, and more games about driving cars — figuratively and literally speaking. We need more games about atmospheres, and less games where the developer announces in a press conference that the “theme” will be “love” “this time”. “Last time, the theme was ‘life’.” (Final Fantasy VIII.) Whatever you say, jackass! We need game developers to stop telling us what we’re feeling and then “proving” what we’re feeling by showing us fucking numbers; we need people to stop presuming that we have nothing better to do than play videogames. Sometimes — it’s true — we have nothing better to do than play videogames. Can we at least get games that don’t jerk off our dogs and insist that they’re licensed veterinarians?
Sega: listen to us: do not back down. Do not make moody mascots wield magnums. Rather, stick to your own guns, the proverbial ones, and allow at least some people in your organization to further the cause of the clean and beautiful. More even than people need (or even want) loose tennis games starring “famous” Sega characters, they need games of OutRun 2‘s composition. It’s like: Sega made Phantasy Star Online, which was like Diablo II, only the player could control the character directly, swinging a sword by pressing a button. Sega didn’t know what to do with this. Capcom did. They made Monster Hunter. Monster Hunter took the world (in Japan) by storm. Now Sega puts Phantasy Star Portable out on the PSP, and sells half a million copies in a week. It’s their most successful game since virtually forever. The world can learn a lesson from this.
Unfortunately, that lesson might simply be that Sonic Team, who are responsible for Phantasy Star Portable (by default) are back, so we should just let them do whatever they want, like make Sonic the Hedgehog wield a sword and wear a suit of armor. In addition to being a ridiculous scenario, this would also not be a good idea! At the very least, witness the truth beneath your noses: OutRun 2 and Sonic the Hedgehog. Bright red car, bright blue hedgehog. Both games are about speed. Both games have “multiple paths”. Both games have a “goal line”. Both games are confident in their visual styles. Sonic‘s pedigree is ancient animation, the kind where animators realized that freshly drawn and re-drawn grass and flowers look like they’re dancing, so they made them actually dance. OutRun‘s is the very idea of “pop”. Somewhere between these loosely specific poles, we have the “Sega Spirit”. It’s a shame that Sega doesn’t seem constantly aware of it.
AM2, makers of OutRun 2, with Virtua Fighter 5 a worldly success, and Afterburner Climax a shockingly ignored slab of brilliance, are the most talented hooksmiths under the Sega umbrella. If anyone could “save” Sonic the Hedgehog, it would be them, and it would be with a straightforward dash-feast of vibrant color, blue skies, ancient ruins, looming science-fiction cities, and a goal that exists first and foremost in the instruction manuals of our imaginations. If this sort of thing were to happen, it would be a disaster of awesomeness. It probably won’t happen. It doesn’t matter, anyway, really, we’ll keep telling ourselves: OutRun 2 is the perfect Sonic the Hedgehog game. The least we can get, at this point, is a graphically perfect version of OutRun 2, an ice-cold drink, and just one more weekday night with nothing better to do for a couple of minutes, and then a couple of hours.