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Although I like a wide range of computer games, it has to be said that racing games have always been my favourite. Whatever computer or console I've owned racing games have always made up a large part of my collection. The thrilling speed and sheer fun of blasting past an opponent (particularly in two player mode) just can't be beaten.
Outrun is one of the games that started my obsession. Whilst there were some great earlier examples (most notably Pitstop 2 from Epyx), it was Outrun - with its brilliant sense of speed and fun gameplay - that really raised the bar for the genre. I can remember eagerly awaiting the Commodore 64 conversion of the game... and the crushing sense of disappointment when I loaded it up on Christmas Day morning. It looked horrible, played horrible and was about as fast as a centipede that had lost all its legs in a freak boating accident. Thankfully, not all conversions were this poor and the MegaDrive version was a massive improvement the C64 effort, although sadly, it still suffered from a number of problems in crucial areas.
The idea behind Outrun was very simple. Set on the open road (rather than a track) you must race along in your famous red Ferrari, avoiding other vehicles and getting to the next checkpoint before the time runs out.
Graphically, Outrun is pretty impressive, doing a good job (on the limited hardware of the day) of trying to replicate the look and feel of the arcade machine. The game perspective is taken from just behind and above your Ferrari (which gives a good view of the road ahead) and your car is well detailed and looks good. There's a real sense of speed (particularly when compared to the sluggish C64 version) and some reasonable graphics scaling on the oncoming traffic and other obstacles, so that they gradually grow larger as you get closer to them.
Sound, too, is very good. Music was a key feature of the arcade machine, with the ability to choose your own in-game music via your car's "radio" (Magical Sound Shower for me, every time!). Music in this conversion has been well-replicated and I defy anyone to play without at some point whistling or singing along to the tune! Sound effects are obviously not as beefy as their arcade counterpart, but they are effective enough. In particular, there's a nice throaty roar from the engine of your Ferrari and whilst other effects might be quite limited, they do their job.
Controls are reasonably well implemented. Whilst they obviously can't replace one of the big attractions of the arcade original (the sit down cockpit with steering wheel and pedals), they are at least well implemented and nice and responsive. Your car can sometimes feel just a little bit twitchy and you will spend a few games getting used to how long you need to keep buttons pressed, but once you've mastered it everything feels pretty natural. The lack of a steering wheel is a big miss, but consoles just weren't equipped with that sort of peripheral (at least not in most homes) back in the 80s.
It's when we come to other aspects of the game that things start to unravel a little. Ripping around the roads of America is still a huge amount of fun and roaring past other cars gives you a rather smug feeling. Unfortunately the difficulty level has been toned down massively from its arcade counterpart. The wide roads, generous curves and relative paucity of traffic mean that the game has suddenly become much simpler to complete. The original game was frustratingly tough at times (it was, after all, designed to encourage you to keep feeding coins into it) and you really had to practice to get good at it. The MegaDrive conversion goes too far the other way. Although I'm a veteran gamer, in terms of skill level I'd only class myself as a competent at best. Despite this I can complete the game in Easy Mode without breaking a sweat; even Hard Mode doesn't challenge me much more. I'd like to pretend this is because I'm brilliant, but the reality is that whilst it's fun to be able to finish a game for once, it doesn't offer much long term challenge.
MegaDrive Outrun does at least contain the feature that was so revolutionary at the time: a limited ability to choose your route. Every so often, you come across a fork in the road and have to decide whether to go left (easier) or right (harder). This adds some degree of replayability, since you can go back and replay it using different routes. Even then, though, it's not going to add much to the longevity of the game nor does it add anything new to the gameplay.
Outrun MegaDrive will set you back less than £10, so it's not going to break the bank and at that price it's worth considering. It's the sort of game that's fun to fire up every so often and even though it's a bit easy it provides a welcome blast of simple nostalgia as an antidote to some of today's overblown titles. Outrun MegaDrive might not be completely faithful to its arcade big brother, but on the limited hardware available it's a good effort.
(c) Copyright SWSt 2012