I've had conversations in the past where people have voiced a distinct distaste for racing games. The most common lament by far is that they're too repetitive. "What's so fun about driving in a circle over and over again?" is one that gets thrown around a lot, levelled at arcade racers and simulators alike. At face value, it's a fair observation. Racing games regularly confine the player to dedicated racing circuits, forcing them to repeatedly cover the same ground over and over in search of nothing but a faster lap time. For players more interested in gorgeous views, monster-slaying and stat-building, yes, I'd imagine this is a recipe for boredom.
I have a theory, though. As I see it, the racing game is one of the most blatantly honest types of video game. Much like shmups, another pet genre of mine, the range of verbs available to the player in a racing game is minimal at best. At the most basic level, one can control the direction they move in, and how quickly they move in that direction. The substance of racing games, therefore, comes from everything in-between; every variable that affects the execution of these basic actions. The characteristics of the car being driven, the conditions it is being driven in, the quality of the surface it is driving on - all of these states vary from course to course, and game to game. Yet somehow, with time and practice, it's possible for the player to create order out of chaos; to direct an speeding amalgam of metal, plastic and rubber around a complex series of curves without incident. Racing games, in their most basic form, represent the same pursuit of perfection that mastering any other game entails. In a hobby where players talk about "optimum routes" through games, and where speed-running is revered like a sport, it's a bit puzzling how the connection isn't made more often.
For as long as I've played games, racing games have been one of my favourite genres. From the moment I put my hands on the wheel of games like Cruisin' USA and Sega Rally, I was hooked. It was the sense of speed, initially; the thrill of tearing down the road flat out, and sliding around corners like a lunatic. The danger was a factor too, of course. More often than not, you're sharing the road, and there are few things as sickeningly fascinating as a major car accident - something the Burnout series capitalized on. But as I played more and more of them, it became more apparent that it was neither the spectacle, nor the competitive aspect of racing games that interested me. Shocking, I know - the idea of playing a racing game when you're not all that interested in racing! For me, I believe, the main appeal of these games is something far more quaint, and almost mundane. Around the time I'd earned my driver's license and had been on the road for a few years, it became all too clear. What attracted me was the act of driving itself.
OutRun (Sega, 1986)
Which brings me to OutRun.
The original OutRun, released by Sega in 1986, was a sight to behold. Arcades were a technological nirvana in their heyday, and Sega were one of the best at delivering a video game experience you just couldn't get anywhere else. OutRun was no exception: a hyper-idealized take on the "Cannonball Run," with the most expensive version being housed in a hydraulic-equipped full-motion cabinet resembling a certain red sports car. Utilizing the "Super Scaler" technology first seen in Hang-On, OutRun's motorcycle-centric elder from 1985, the speed and sound on display put other games to shame. I still feel jealous whenever I see video of one of the remaining cabinets in motion. I still hope that one day I can sway from side to side in that seat as I guide the (sadly non-existent) Ferrari Testarossa convertible through the curves. Thankfully, there's an excellent, near-perfect home port available for the Sega Saturn, and more recently one for Nintendo 3DS.
Even without the added experience of the moving cabinet, OutRun is still a joy to play. Left idle, the game will cycle through its attract mode, backed by the sound of crashing ocean waves. Upon pressing the start button, the player is greeted with a cheerful chirp and the sight of the Testarossa's dashboard, a hand upon the car's radio dial. It's still a novel thing to select the background music here, like putting on your favourite track before heading off on a drive. The music itself, composed by Sega's own Hiroshi "Hiro" Miyauchi, is inseperable from the game; OutRun just wouldn't be the same without it. From the irresistable samba beat of Magical Sound Shower, to the calm yet determined feeling of Passing Breeze and Splash Wave, I can't think of a more fitting soundtrack. After selecting your tunes, the game begins, your car roaring and screeching into position at the starting line.
Once the flag drops and you leave the cheering crowds behind, the game's true appeal becomes clear. The road undulates wildly, extending endlessly towards the horizon. Scenery flashes past as you careen around the curves, palm trees and beach-side stalls giving way to stone archways and vast fields of blooming flowers. Other vehicles slowly draw closer and get in your way, but they're not competitors. VW Beetles, Porsches, "Birin" beer trucks; they're all just on their own journey, driving down the road. At set points, the road splits into two, with each run taking place along five of the game's fifteen total stages. Some stages are shorter, some longer, some easier, some harder - in the end, though, it's your journey. You're not confined to a track, you're on the open road. Just you, your love at your side, and your car, running endlessly towards the horizon.
OutRun is not a racing game. OutRun is a driving game.
OutRun (Sega, 1986)
There are certainly racing game elements present, of course. The inclusion of a extendible time limit, as well as a point tally, encourages players to find an optimum driving line through corners and traffic alike. And, of course, there is a goal: five stages in, no matter which route you take, the game has to end. It is an arcade game, after all. But in the moment - when you have your foot down on the accelerator and your tires are smoking hot - OutRun really is just you and the road. Once you're familiar with the game and start to really refine your routes, it's a bit like meditation. You forget about the timer and score, and focus on the drive. Humming along with the music, you turn in just right so you don't have to let up on the gas, sliding outwards and try to squeeze through a gap in the traffic. Sometimes it works and you're a step closer to a great run. Sometimes it doesn't, you hit a beer truck, and slide haphazardly into a giant Sega billboard, cursing as the car and its occupants tumble off-screen. Truly, if there's any competition to be found here, it's against yourself.
Sequels to the 1986 original would introduce more and more features, many of them competitive. The best would have to be the sublime OutRun 2006: Coast to Coast, which featured a fine range of licensed Ferraris, race events with up to 15 competitors, and an extensive mission mode. Some of my fondest memories are dribbling beach balls down the hills of not-San Francisco in an F40, and carefully avoiding UFO tractor beams on Easter Island in a Dino 246. Yet even with all that fluff, it still feels like the original. OutRun, at its core, is exactly what I love about racing games. It's not buying engine upgrades in a menu, making my car look like a mardi gras float, or endlessly tweaking suspension settings. The way the road extends endlessly into the distance sums it up nicely: the drive is all that matters.
If a racing game doesn't feel great to drive in, it's not a good racing game. That goes for wild arcade-style games and straight-faced sims alike. It seems like such a obvious thing to say, but you'd be surprised how many racing games are out there that make you feel like you're driving a wet sponge. When I think about all of the racing games I've truly enjoyed, there are certainly other aspects that make them memorable, but it really does all come down to this single check-mark. From the fantastic and ridiculous Ridge Racer and WipeOut series, to more recent stone-faced examples such as DiRT Rally, they all make their particular brand of driving a true pleasure. They all make driving feel amazing.
OutRun 2006: Coast 2 Coast (Sega AM2/Sumo Digital, 2006)
OutRun, however, remains as the best example of what attracts me to racing games. It's the simplicity of it, and again, the honesty of what you see on the screen. One look, and it's obvious what it's all about. Driving like the wind. Driving for the fun of it. Driving endlessly into the distance.
Just plain old driving.