Sega Ages: OutRun – Chasing the Horizon

Trivia of the day: the shiny red car in the original OutRun is not, as many people assume (and as both numerous sites on the Internet and some incarnations of the game’s original manual claim), a Ferrari Testarossa; it’s just a car designed to look uncannily like a Ferrari Testarossa — in other words, it’s a thoroughly unlicensed knockoff.

The fact that the car in OutRun is almost-but-not-quite a Ferrari is probably why this first game in the series has been so widely ported and still remains relevant today, while the officially Ferrari-branded OutRun 2 and its expanded quasi-sequel OutRun 2006: Coast 2 Coast remain tragically trapped in licensing limbo.

The original OutRun has been ported to enough platforms to make the original Final Fantasy and Ys games blush over the years, as well as putting in occasional guest appearances in games such as Shenmue 2 and Yakuza 0. The latest direct port at the time of writing is for Nintendo Switch as part of the Sega Ages collection and is the work of emulation maestros M2, so let’s once again put our foot to the floor and get driving.

If you have somehow survived this long and not come into contact with one of the more than twenty different platforms that has played host to OutRun at one point or another in the past, the concept is pretty simple: you, being the proud owner of a not-Testarossa, are tasked with taking your car and your blonde ladyfriend on a very long drive.

The exact reason for this is not entirely clear; the crowds gathered at the start line suggest some sort of formal event, but once you get on the road it becomes apparent that it’s just you and the traffic rather than any sort of organised race. Not only that, but there doesn’t even seem to be an agreed track to follow; at the end of each of the game’s stages, the road forks and allows you to continue in either direction, ultimately concluding in one of five very different final destinations.

This was the ’80s, though, and plot didn’t really matter, so long as the game was fun. And OutRun was really fun, building on the basic formula of the “vanishing point” racer established by Namco’s Pole Position some four years prior by incorporating an undulating track, scenery that changed as you progressed through the game rather than a static backdrop, and the aforementioned multiple routes to the five finish lines. In its original arcade incarnation, it was also one of several Sega games from the period that was available in a sit-down “Deluxe” configuration with a motorised cabinet that pitched and rolled as the player enjoyed the game, making it as much a “ride” as it was a game.

OutRun was a showcase title for the “Super Scaler” technology that designer Yu Suzuki and his team developed for motorcycle racing game Hang-On the previous year. Despite being sprite-based rather than using the polygonal 3D graphics we take for granted today, Suzuki made a point of designing the Super Scaler game engines to calculate object positions and movement in true 3D, allowing for an impressive degree of realism despite the relatively limited technology of the time.

This is particularly apparent in OutRun, which renders its visuals with a surprising amount of attention to detail when compared to many of its contemporaries. For example, rather than the cars on the road being simple 2D sprites that grow in size as you approach them, Suzuki’s engine actually allowed their relative position to your car to be calculated in three dimensions, and an appropriate variation on the sprite could then be displayed accordingly.

In practice, what this means is that rather than rival cars and trucks always presenting their back end square-on to you, you’ll see the left side when you pass on the left and their right side when you pass on the right. It’s a small touch — and easily missed — but it’s testament to how seriously Suzuki took his job of simulating 3D with technology that wasn’t quite up to the job of doing it “properly”.

As you might expect given other installments in the Sega Ages collection, the Nintendo Switch incarnation of OutRun is beyond arcade perfect, bumping up the frame rate to a rock-solid 60 frames per second (as opposed to the original’s 30) and providing the option to extend the screen display to full 16:9 aspect ratio. There are also a variety of display options available, including various screen filters, backgrounds and even a simulated “Deluxe” arcade cabinet — though disappointingly this latter feature lacks the earlier 3DS port’s simulation of said cabinet’s swaying from side to side as you steer left and right.

There are also a number of options you can tweak, including separate difficulty level and time limit settings; the former of these determines how much traffic is on the road, with the easiest removing traffic entirely, while the latter controls the amount of time you start the game with. At the default settings, the game feels just slightly too hard for casual play; literally a single crash will put you far enough behind schedule to ensure that you won’t make it to the finish line before the countdown timer expires.

It’s important to remember that this was an arcade game originally, however, and thus those initial default settings are geared towards two things: providing enough value for money that people want to keep pumping their coins into the slot for another go, and providing a brief enough experience that arcade operators can have a decent turnover of players from whom to turn a profit. With this in mind, you should know that there is absolutely no shame whatsoever in turning the difficulty down or increasing the starting time limit; in fact, setting both to their easiest levels effectively turns the game into a straightforward time trial, providing an excellent means of practising the tracks and attempting to improve on your best performance.

There’s another reason you might want to do this, too, and that’s the fact that reaching each of the five final destinations unlocks one of four “tune-up” parts for the car, then finally an “arcade” mode which locks the gameplay to the original 30fps for an experience more authentic to how it was back in 1986.

The tune-up parts include a steering wheel, which makes the car skid less when going around corners; a bumper, which reduces the effect of crashes with other cars or the scenery; an engine, which increases the car’s top speed; and tyres, which reduce the amount of speed you lose if you leave the paved road. Each of these can be activated or deactivated independently before starting a new run through the game, and every combination of parts results in the normally red not-Testarossa changing to a different hue. Activating all the parts makes the game considerably easier, putting victory on the default difficulty settings much more within the reach of your average player than it might initially appear to be!

Other enhancements for this “Special” version of OutRun, as it calls itself, include a number of new musical tracks over the three that were in the original arcade game. Some of these are FM synthesis reinterpretations of tracks that were last heard in OutRun 2 or OutRun 2006: Coast 2 Coast; one particular highlight is a “megamix” of all the iconic OutRun tracks using prerecorded instruments rather than the on-the-fly FM MIDI synthesis of the rest of the soundtrack. Rather charmingly, this  track is represented on the music selection screen as a cassette rather than the usual radio stations.

It’s testament to OutRun’s solid and timeless design, playability and addictiveness that M2 didn’t feel the need to tamper with the formula any further than this. What we have here, then, is very much a similar case to what we had with Sega Ages: Virtua Racing — a release which can accurately be described as “arcade perfect plus”. It’s a game that already stood the test of time very well; with just a tiny bit of extra polish, it’s arguably become an accurate reflection of the OutRun you think you remember through those good old nostalgia goggles!

Suffice to say, it’s the best port of OutRun to date, and since Sega doesn’t seem to be in any particular hurry to dig deep and get that Ferrari license back in order to rerelease OutRun 2 or OutRun 2006: Coast 2 Coast, this is probably the best we’re going to get from the series for the foreseeable future!


More about OutRun

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Thanks for reading; I hope you enjoyed this article. I’ve been writing about games in one form or another since the days of the old Atari computers, with work published in Page 6/New Atari User, PC Zone, the UK Official Nintendo Magazine, GamePro, IGN, USgamer, Glixel and more over the years, and I love what I do.

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5 thoughts on “Sega Ages: OutRun – Chasing the Horizon”

  1. Nice! I definitely remember playing this game but not on my own console, but at a friend’s house (it was back in the days when I didn’t yet own a console). Nice to see this game get such a cool update. The unlocking of stuff with the different endings sounds especially cool😃

    Liked by 1 person

  2. Sounds like a great update to the game! That the developers are focusing on making the existing game work best on new platforms and avoid the “remaster” route seems like a winning strategy. The 16:9 support is icing on the cake to me. 🙂

    Liked by 1 person

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