OutRun remains one of the best-loved arcade games of all time. Famed for its gorgeous visuals and scintillating soundtrack, it’s gone on to become one of Sega’s most respected franchises. Here, Yu Suzuki, explains how he created the iconic racer.
Yu Suzuki joined Sega in 1983, his first assignment was Champion Boxing on the SG-1000. From there, Suzuki’s progress began to gain momentum. By the end of 1985 he had already established himself at the vanguard of coin-op development, having masterminded a couple of major successes for Sega in the form of Hang-On and Space Harrier. But Suzuki’s journey towards becoming a legendary videogame producer was about to shift to a higher gear, and it was the following year’s OutRun driving game that turned Suzuki into an internationally renowned programming superstar.
Before a brief diversion to code the thrilling sci-fi blast of Space Harrier in time for a December 1985 release, Suzuki’s attention was first centred on the racing genre. The result of Suzuki’s initial drive was Hang-On (which appeared in Japan’s arcades in July 1985), a high-speed bike racing game where players literally felt as though they had to hang on to the coin-op cabinet’s handlebars. Part of Suzuki’s motivation for Hang-On’s production was a desire to see to it that Sega overturn Namco as Japan’s leading manufacturer of racing games, and while Hang-On was a superb title – and one which radically altered Sega’s image – he accepted that his first racing game alone hadn’t been sufficient for Sega to overtake its main rival, the developer of Pole Position.Namco was still synonymous with driving games; Sega was being lapped. Suzuki wasn’t fond of repetition, so instead of producing another bike racing game he opted to create the car driving game that would become OutRun.
Well, that’s one side of the story. The other, less weighty but equally important reason for Yu Suzuki’s determination to create OutRun came from a Burt Reynolds flick, as he confesses to us: “The main impetus behind OutRun’s creation was my love of a film called The Cannonball Run. I thought it would be good to make a game like that. The film crosses America, so I made a plan to follow the same course and collect data as I went. But I realised, once I’d arranged everything, that the scenery along the [pan-America] course actually doesn’t change very much, so I revised my plan and decided to collect data in Europe instead…” Although Cannonball Run clearly had a great influence on Suzuki’s work with OutRun, the game also bears what must have been a coincidental similarity to the euphoric scene in Ferris Bueller’s Day Off (also a 1986-vintage production) in which Ferris, the sassy Sloane at his side, speeds off in a rosso corsa Ferrari 250GT. Regardless, Suzuki’s attention had been diverted away from America, towards Europe.
Suzuki’s maverick approach to game development would, during the Nineties, become accepted practice (12 years later, for example, fellow Sega-man Yuji Naka would take his Sonic Adventure team to South America purely for research purposes), but in the mid-Eighties Suzuki was already doing things the interesting way, literally journeying around the world just to make sure that his game would be the real deal. Suzuki’s plans culminated in a European research adventure. “Because of the ‘transcontinental’ concept,” he recalls, “I felt that I should first actually follow such a course myself, collecting information with a video camera, a still camera, and other equipment. I started out from Frankfurt, where I hired a rent-a-car, and I installed a video camera on the car. I drove around Monaco and Monte Carlo, along the mountain roads of Switzerland, stopping in hotels in Milan, Venice and Rome, collecting data for a fortnight. I have many happy memories of that trip. There were many places I visited where communicating in English wasn’t sufficient: one time, when ordering a meal, I thought I had asked [in a European language] for a single bowl of soup but was surprised when four bowls of soup were brought to me!”
Soup or no soup, there was still much work to be done during Suzuki’s fortnight in Europe. “The next step was to talk with local people in the places I visited, and [later] to make those discussions and other episodes reflected in the game,” Suzuki remembers. The result was a unique videogame snapshot of the mid-Eighties, a Japanese interpretation of European geography. OutRun is in many ways the game that is most representative of bubble-time Japan’s extravagances: it’s a production with concessions to luxury (driving a Ferrari Testarossa, sitting inside a state-of-the-art coin-op cab), taken at endless high speeds across effusively bright European-styled country, all to an inspirational soundtrack where the only hint of melancholy arrives beyond the final checkpoint, as Last Wave fades out.
Even while the bubble lasted, however, there were some limits. Sega’s resources were not endless and the technology available to Suzuki at the time – while fearsomely powerful compared with other hardware of a mid-Eighties vintage – didn’t stack sufficient memory to facilitate all of Suzuki’s dreams. As a consequence of these and other factors, most notably a lack of time, Yu Suzuki found it necessary to make a few compromises during OutRun’s development. It turns out that these cuts were not to any great gameplay detriment, yet Suzuki was instinctively unhappy with being forced to sacrifice any of his ideas: “I was only able to put around half of the things I wanted to do into OutRun,” he says. “Because of budget and development time limitations, some of the contents I’d planned had to be squeezed or cut. I’d made preparations for eight individual characters and I wanted to include various events at each checkpoint, which would have made the player experience a story; something like the Cannonball Run film. I also wanted to give players a choice of supercars to drive, so that they could enjoy differences in car performance.”
Of course Suzuki’s hoped-for garage of driveable Ferraris was eventually realised to near-perfection in 2003’s OutRun 2, but for the original game he had to be satisfied with just one Ferrari. “Naturally I was yearning for Ferraris,” Suzuki says. “Above all, the most talked-about car of the time was the 12-cylinder Ferrari Testarossa. The first time I saw the car was in Monaco, and I was really moved by its beauty – I thought, ‘there is no choice: this is the only one’. There are many other charming Ferraris, but memory problems made it impossible to include them in the game… So we decided that the player’s car should be the 12-cylinder Testarossa.”
Race as fast as you can to hit the next check-point.
On returning to Japan, Yu Suzuki and his team set out to conduct further research. Suzuki had already explored the potential for OutRun’s scenery and environment throughout his European rent-a-car expedition; his team’s next objective was to learn more about the Testarossa, but this was fraught with problems, as Suzuki relates: “Only a tiny number of Testarossas had been brought into Japan, so we had some trouble finding an owner to help us with collecting car data. Eventually, five of us squeezed into a small car and drove for three hours to see a [privately owned] Testarossa. We took photos of it from every side, at five-degree intervals, and we also recorded the sound of the engine.”
Suzuki’s work on OutRun was a model of thoughtful, conscientious design. Suzuki has previously spoken of keeping a notepad and Dictaphone next to his bed, so that he could quickly note any ideas he had in dreams. It’s no coincidence that OutRun’s opening stretch of road is traffic free: this was to ensure that players stood no risk of being discouraged by suffering a collision early in the game, so soon after inserting a 100 yen coin to play. Instant explosions on collisions between vehicles, too, in spite of being prevalent in racing games prior to the OutRun era, were not to Suzuki’s liking, and he deliberately omitted this faddish conceit when designing both Hang-On and OutRun. On the other hand, Suzuki reckoned that zooming out into the lead and then just staying there for the rest of the race wasn’t much fun either, which is partly why OutRun is a race against the clock, rather than an inter-vehicle competition. Yu Suzuki’s game was shaping up to be extremely different to other popular racers of the time…
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