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OutRun 35th Anniversary Retrospective

OutRun 35th Anniversary Retrospective

It’s not hyperbole to say that the OutRun (Originally stylised Out Run) series has had a massive influence on gaming as a whole since it started back in 1986. From force feedback and fancy arcade cabinets to selectable music and alternate routes; its legacy has informed many aspects of gaming we take for granted now. Oh and it kind of became intertwined with the 80s-tastic musical subgenre that is Synthwave.

OutRun has had its fair share of hits and misses during its existence with some atrociously bad ports as well as some spectacular ones. Join me as I take us on a journey through the series’ timeline and wonder whether we’ll see it return as gaming moves ever onwards.

Let’s start at the beginning…

From the start, it was blue skies overhead!

OutRun (1986)

The original OutRun was designed by the now-legendary Yu Suzuki as part of a small team known at the time as Studio 128 (whose only visible reference in Suzuki’s early titles is the carrier take-off sequence in the Afterburner titles where “128” can be seen emblazoned on the deck). Studio 128 would later eventually become the more well-known Sega AM2.

It sees you driving with your girlfriend against the clock across five stages from a selection of 15, with each stage ending in a fork in the road allowing you to select your route. Originally intended to be based around the Cannonball Run, the game eventually settled on a more European theme to allow for a wider variety of locales although the USA would be revisited in future sequels.

The iconic car from the game, a fictional convertible affair based on the Ferrari Testarossa, has gotten Sega into legal dealings with Ferrari, causing visual tweaks to appear and disappear in various versions over the years. The very Prancing Horse-like mark used in the original art that strikes a strong resemblance to Ferrari’s famous logo being replaced in the more recent Switch Sega Ages release being an example. Although interestingly there have been many official licensing deals with the company too, including in the sequels so they are clearly on good terms regardless.

Like Suzuki’s other popular titles from the era, notably titles like Hang-On, Afterburner and Space Harrier, OutRun used Sega’s Super Scaler technology to help create a sense of speed and visual flourish. As the name suggests, it allowed for scaling sprites to create scenery that moved at a steady framerate giving the illusion of a 3D environment.

Aurally the game has one of the most iconic Sega soundtracks from the era, created by the legendary Hiroshi Kawaguchi, the man behind most of the catchy earworms Sega’s arcade titles are famous for. For the first time players could choose which of three music tracks would accompany them as they drove through grassy fields and sandy deserts. The game's sound would directly inspire the “Outrun” subgenre of Synthwave, itself seen as a direct expression of 80s nostalgia with upbeat synth and electronica themes.

OutRun would become Sega’s most popular arcade cabinet throughout the late 80s and into the early 90s, with it taking until 1993’s Virtua Fighter to finally take the podium from the carefree driving duo. So it’s of little surprise that OutRun got ported to almost everything you could think of.

Unfortunately OutRun ports to home computers of the time were terribly disappointing. Created by U.S. Gold, none of them captured the speed or feel of the arcade original. Sega’s own ports to the Sega Master System and Mega Drive fared a lot better, especially the Mega Drive port which even got a unique music track added to the lineup titled “Step on Beat”. The Master System even got a pseudo-sequel imaginatively titled OutRun 3D that utilised the 3-D Glasses peripheral (invented by Mark Cerny, fact fans) for extra eyestrain!

In 2014 and 2018 a fantastic M2 port made its way to both the 3DS and the Nintendo Switch as part of the 3D Classics and Sega Ages collections respectively. These releases raised the framerate from the arcade’s 30 frames per second to a silky smooth 60 frames per second and included some fun unlockables making both of these releases better than the original.

Turbo OutRun moved proceedings to the USA

Turbo OutRun (1989)

Turbo OutRun made a lot of changes to the formula when it brought the franchise back a few years later. It in some ways was a truer reflection of what Yu Suzuki originally intended, moving the driving action to the USA in a coast-to-coast race, it does however lose the route selection aspect making it a lot more linear an experience.

Overall it’s very similar to the original outside of new visuals and music, the route is now split into multiple chunks where you can apply upgrades and the turbo in the title probably clued you in to the biggest change mechanically. You can now use a speed boost that with continued use can overheat causing you to suffer a speed penalty. Turbo OutRun also has new weather effects and obstacles strewn about the course.

The music was once again a highlight, again spearheaded by Hiroshi Kawaguchi, including four tracks that were sadly tied to specific sections and not selectable like the original game. This difference, along with the core changes above do make it feel like the odd duck of the franchise.

It wasn’t as successful as the original game and many of these alterations would be stripped away the next time the series appeared. It did however get multiple ports to home computers of the time and the Sega Mega Drive in Japan and Europe.

Once again U.S. Gold was in charge of the home computer ports and they were disappointing, the 8-bit ports were slow, ugly and bore no resemblance to the arcade release. The 16-bit Amiga and Atari ST releases visually were a lot closer as you’d expect but still played poorly. The Mega Drive port, developed by Sega, was much better and a lot closer to its arcade inspiration although it was still badly received.

Outrunners bumped up the visual detail and character!

Outrunners (1992)

This entry saw a return to the original format seen in OutRun, bringing back the forks allowing you to choose your route. It even expanded on this by doubling up the amount of routes leading to 10 possible goals by allowing the player to choose to head East or West at the start of the race.

Unlike Europe in the original game and North America in Turbo OutRun, Outrunners spanned the globe with each area based on a variety of countries including China, Hong Kong, Egypt, Spain and many others. This is combined with eight selectable cars and lots more music (including tracks from the original) that are once again selectable, this time via your in-game car radio.

The game’s presentation also takes a huge step up thanks to being on Sega’s System 32 hardware, bringing larger more colourfully animated characters to life. In fact the whole game has a playful larger than life atmosphere very reminiscent of Sega’s earlier Power Drift. Bright colours, vibrant environments and raucous music are the order of the day here.

In arcades this was always configured in at least a two-player setup although it supported up-to four players linked. It was the first OutRun title to support multiplayer racing but it wouldn’t be the last.

Criminally OutRunners only received a decent but scaled back Mega Drive/Genesis port, this time only arriving in Japan and the USA. It is a competent game but lacks a lot of the presentation and flair that makes the arcade version so exciting to play simply due to the hardware it is on. It ends up a bit flat and lifeless in comparison.

I’ve personally always thought it criminal that M2 never got this to work on as part of their efforts with the various Sega Ages collections. It’s a fantastic title and it’s a shame that the arcade release is the only way to play it as intended. Regardless, if you somehow happen to stumble on a cabinet in the wild, be sure to have a couple of credits as it might be the only time you get to play it!

Coast 2 Coast is the most content-rich release so far.

OutRun 2 (2003) / OutRun 2 SP (2004) / OutRun 2 SP SDX (2006)

It took 11 years for the next entry to appear and the first numbered sequel at that! OutRun 2 made the jump to Sega’s Chihiro arcade board which was essentially an original Xbox with more memory.

It introduces new mechanics including a focus on drifting and slipstreaming. Drifting in the game feels quite like Ridge Racer and the game relies on you being able to drift to get good times. It again features 15 courses and like the original OutRun they have a European theme, it also took a page from Outrunners and included eight cars with different stats.

A year later an updated version released OutRun 2 SP (or SPecial Tours) which added another 15 courses, this time taking a page from Turbo OutRun as they are based on the Americas. It also added a few extra cars bringing the total to 10.

The original OutRun 2 saw a solitary port to the home console its arcade hardware was based on: the original Xbox. Developed by Sumo Digital, this port is exceptional and added a mission mode, extra cars, the ability to unlock a version of the original OutRun and an exclusive batch of bonus tracks based on classic Sega arcade racing hits, Scud Race and Daytona USA 2. It’s an excellent package and the bonus tracks alone are worth the price of admission as it’s the only way to play tracks from those games in any form at home.

OutRun 2 SP on the other hand has had multiple ports, all done by the wonderful folk at Sumo Digital. Released as OutRun 2006: Coast 2 Coast and released on Xbox, PlayStation 2, PlayStation Portable and Windows PC, it included all 30 stages from OutRun 2 SP, increased the amount of cars to 15, added Coast 2 Coast mode which was a remixed and improved version of the Xbox OutRun 2’s mission mode and a whole load of extras to unlock.

Later in 2006 an arcade rerelease of OutRun 2 SP on Sega’s Lindburgh arcade hardware appeared, known as OutRun 2 SP SDX. Built to look like Ferrari supercars, these motion cabinets featured the game running at a higher resolution and included embedded cameras so you could see the drivers reactions as you watched the cabinet.

OutRun Online Arcade is the star of the series for visuals despire its cuts.

OutRun Online Arcade (2009)

This sadly brings us to the last official OutRun release and that is OutRun Online Arcade. Released for both the PlayStation 3 (in Europe at least) and the Xbox 360, again by Sumo Digital, this port of OutRun 2 SP is visually the most impressive of them all, with enhanced shadows and lighting running at HD resolutions as you’d expect, it is sadly also an experience that is no longer available for purchase.

It essentially comprises a cutdown OutRun 2 SP experience, including only the 15 stages that SP added rather than the full complement of 30 and trims the car roster back down to 10 from Coast 2 Coast’s 15 vehicles. I’m sure the old XBLA/PSN size limit had a part to play in why these compromises were made but it’s a shame as the overall package itself is fantastic. If only we could’ve had the full Coast 2 Coast experience with the visual makeover from Online Arcade.

Final Thoughts

Outside of these mainline entries there were a couple of oddities like the strange Chase HQ-alike Battle OutRun for the Sega Master System or the bizarre Outrun 2019 on the Sega Mega Drive. Sumo Digital have included a few references in other titles they’ve made for Sega as well as more deliberate homages like the OutRun Bay DLC course seen in Sonic and All-Stars Racing Transformed but we’ve not seen or heard any rumblings of a potential OutRun 3.

I think there is plenty of room for an over the top arcade racing series like OutRun to exist in the modern day. I really enjoyed Sumo Digital’s own Hotshot Racing from late last year which itself was a love letter to Sega’s other racing franchises like Daytona USA and Virtua Racing.

OutRun’s love of the open road, having you scream through blue skies and green pastures with the radio booming out great music is sorely missed; it wasn’t just about racing, it was the experience and enjoyment of just getting out there and seeing the world and I hope one day it returns and brings that back with it.

Simon Brown

Simon Brown

Staff Writer

Often reminiscing about the 'good old days'. Simon has almost perfected his plan to enter the Speed Force and alter the timeline.

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Acelister - 02:01pm, 22nd September 2021

I would have sworn that there were more OutRun titles than that! Madness.

pucechan - 07:11pm, 22nd September 2021 Author

Yeah, there have been a few spin-offs/rebranded titles like Outrun 2019 which sounds nowhere near as futuristic as it did haha, but there have been very few mainline entries.