Ah, Out Run. Anyone who was a gamer in the eighties and early nineties can’t ever forget it.
It wasn’t just that it was technically impressive — and it was, for the time. The main appeal of Out Run was that it wasn’t a typical “racing” game in which professional drivers run against each other in specially prepared tracks or sections, such as a Formula 1 or rally race. Out Run was different: it was about a guy trying to impress a girl in his Ferrari Testarossa, through several North American scenarios. It wasn’t a “race”, there were no “opponents”; the other cars on the road were just normal traffic. Even advertisements at the time, instead of talking about some “ultimate driving challenge”, just said that you’d almost be able to feel the wind in your hair. In short, it was a very different driving game, and there’s a reason people still remember it well.
So, naturally, there were ports for home computers and consoles. Nowadays, it’s easy to try them all out, using emulators and such, but at the time the teenager I was didn’t have any options other than to play it on his trusty ZX Spectrum (a 128K +3, at the time). In other words, I didn’t really have other versions of the game to compare the Speccy port to (OK, there was the original arcade version, but nobody expected a home computer port at the time to compare to that!). If I had, maybe I wouldn’t have played it so much.
It looked like this:
Now, don’t get me wrong. These are actually pretty good graphics for a Spectrum. They’re mostly monochrome, as was usual on that machine, due to its infamous color clash (basically, it could only have 2 different colors for each 8×8 square of pixels), but they’re well-drawn and detailed, and you can identify most of the other cars easily. The graphics are not the problem here.
Neither is the sound, which you’ll be able to hear in the video coming next, sporting faithful renditions of two of the three classic Out Run songs, “Magical Sound Shower” and “Splash Wave”. Unlike most versions of the game (including the arcade itself), you don’t pick one song at the beginning and stay with it for the entire game; here, instead, it alternates between the two songs every time you go to the next stage. If you ask me, this way it actually works better, since you don’t listen to the same song over and over.
It also includes all the levels of the original arcade version, including the split paths, a feature left out of the Commodore 64 version, for instance. Yes, it’s a multi-load, which on tape could be pretty annoying (though at least in the 128K version it could keep several levels in memory, so, if on your second time around you chose the same stages, it wouldn’t have to load them again), but, again, it’s pretty understandable, considering the hardware and the size of the game.
So, what’s wrong with it? Take a look at it and see for yourself (the video spends about one minute on the menu screen, so please be patient):
Noticed the problem? No, it’s not the annoying “skid” sound (which, incidentally, was even worse in most of the other ports, including the Amiga one). It’s the speed, or, more precisely, the frame rate. Not only does it kill any possible sensation of speed, but it actually makes the game much harder to control, since, with a frame rate of 2-3 fps, it’s quite possible that you have pressed a key and the screen hasn’t updated yet — noticeably. And the speed you saw here is on a mostly empty level; the one with the rock structures, I’m sure, goes below one frame per second… and, no, I’m not exaggerating.
Now, yes, the Spectrum had its limitations, but, come on. I’d think it obvious that a game that played like this wasn’t ready for release. Couldn’t they lower the graphics detail? Optimize some routines? A racing game needs speed, needs a decent frame rate; if you’re not getting it yet, you don’t release.
It wasn’t as if the Speccy couldn’t handle a decent conversion of an arcade racing game:
So, why did I play it so much? I think I already mentioned it at the beginning of this post: it was a combination of 1) drooling over the arcade version, and 2) not having other ports of the game to compare it to, until several years later. This port, then, was the only “way” to play Out Run at home… and play it a lot I did. Oddly enough, more than the 4 examples I’ve just shown, all of them better ports with much smoother frame rates…