Sega’s mastery of the arcades in the 1980s is undisputed and a lot of the credit for that goes to Yu Suzuki and Sega AM2, the man behind Shenmue, Space Harrier, Virtua Fighter, and Out Run among many, many others.
One thing that Sega arcade games always strove to do was stand out from the competition, and they would often accomplish this in more ways than just excellent gameplay. Many arcade cabinets were huge, elaborate mechanisms with gigantic screens and booming sound. In short, Sega arcade games were made to stand out in an otherwise crowded space.
Released to arcades back in September 1986, Out Run is the quintessential Sega game: As the driver of a Ferrari Testarossa Spider, the player drives across tracks around the world. Out Run was unique for its time because it did not emphasize competition with other racers but instead focused on the pleasure of driving and offered gamers multiple routes with each playthrough. Normally you only raced against the clock and, as long as you made it past the checkpoint, you were allowed to continue racing.
Along the way the player encounters forks in the road where choices have to be made about what route to take. Your car, while not destructible, will suffer time loss if you hit and object. Since your main objective is to make your checkpoint time, losing precious seconds can often be a disaster when things are down to the wire. This was unique for the time because the game did not tout competition as its gameplay mechanic but rather the pure essence of driving itself.
To amp up the appeal of the driving simulator side of things, Out Run arcade cabinets tended to be complex machines that simulated the feeling of driving a race car. This means that you say down in a racing seat, grabbed the wheel, and hit the road, the cabinet’s massive sound system and hydraulics doing the rest of the simulation for you. It was the equivalent of a stationary rollercoaster, and it was amazing. On top of all of this, the soundtrack to the game is absolutely outstanding, combining the best of 1980s power anthems and arcade sound.
You can see a lot of Out Run in Yu Suzuki’s later game, Virtua Racing, a racing simulator that showed off Sega’s emerging 3D graphics games, the same engine that would later be seen in Virtua Fighter. While Virtua Racing is competitive and not as bent on simulating the act of driving a race car like Out Run is, the game still has the bare bones structure that you find in Out Run’s mechanics. And that’s why Out Run is such an arcade classic because it not only introduced the world to the joy of simulation games but it also helped spawn the types of racing games we see now in Forza and Gran Turismo.
If there was any question that Out Run belonged in the video game hall of fame those will be quickly answered with a cursory playthrough of the game, a session which will easily reveal the foundational aspects of modern racing games found here in this title from the dusky arcades of 1986.