The Making of OutRun
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-fiblast 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.”
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 personal gameplay preferences happened to be in tune with those of the majority of players, leading to design decisions that would help OutRun to push driving games away from their tendency towards ‘the impossible’, as Suzuki explains: “At the time of OutRun’s development, driving games were made whereby a collision with another car would automatically result in an explosion, and they had many things that would be impossible with real cars. Even if you were good at driving actual cars, the skills needed in those games were completely different. I wanted to make a driving game where people who were skilful drivers of cars could also achieve good results in the game. For that reason, where at all possible, we simulated features such as horsepower, torque, gear ratios and tyre engineering close to those of real cars. For features that were difficult to control, we added AI assistance. For its time, I think the level of OutRun’s production was very high.”
The AI assistance Suzuki speaks of was used to particularly good effect with the handling of the Testarossa. The ‘drift’ techniques Japanese racing game developers tend to talk about are, according to Suzuki, essential in good driving games – if the car’s tyres grip the road surface too closely, the handling of the car will be too twitchy – but prior to OutRun this wasn’t commonly appreciated by driving game developers.
The response of OutRun’s Ferrari was pitched perfectly, however, neatly averting all of the frustrations that players feel when they’re attempting to control cars which are prone to understeer, oversteer or ‘twitchiness’. And it’s just as well, really: not only did OutRun present endless one-way traffic through which you had to weave a path, but it also presented a choice of routes at the end of each stage, demanding that you swerve left or right to head towards the next easier/trickier area. In a game as gorgeous as OutRun, while the primary thrill was in the ride, part of the fun was just seeing what the next stage looked like.
Suzuki concurs, explaining that the emphasis on the scenery was deliberate: “I wanted to make a game where you could enjoy magnificent changing scenery and landscapes while driving, and really get a nice sensation from playing it – not a stoic racing style of play.”
From the use of a roofless Testarossa and the choice of Coconut Beach as the game’s first stage, to the names of the soundtrack selections (breeze, wave, shower) and the various pastel shades used to draw the sky, OutRun feels almost tangibly fresh; the perfect game for summer. We mention this to Suzuki, quietly hoping we haven’t just perceived the experience horribly wrong all these years.
“Yes, that’s correct,” he nods, to our relief. “I wanted to make stages where you could smell the fresh fragrance of new leaves and flowers, like in the green meadows of Switzerland, so I’m happy that you were able to sense that.” For such a cohesive, finely crafted game, it’s surprising to hear that the team behind OutRun was very much a randomly assembled group of individuals from within Sega. “The team consisted of four programmers, five graphics designers and one sound creator,” Suzuki says, “and we had the [coin-op] cabinet made by commissioning another team. The game development team was made up of people who happened to be available at the time, so I wasn’t able to assemble the team according to my wishes. I wrote all of the important planning and programming parts myself; I don’t think anything was really influenced by the development staff. I recall the bulk of development work taking between eight and ten months to complete. However, during those eight to ten months I was almost living at Sega,” he laughs.
Although the other programmers and graphics designers working on OutRun appear, according to Suzuki, to have had scant influence on shaping the game, one man – Hiroshi Kawaguchi (the artist formerly known as Hiroshi Miyauchi) – had a tremendous effect on what has become one of the most highly regarded aspects of OutRun’s production: its music. Kawaguchi joined Sega as a programmer in 1984, coding alongside Yuji Naka on the SG-1000 game Girl’s Garden while writing music purely as a hobby outside of work. Suzuki heard some of Kawaguchi’s tunes and was so impressed that he commissioned him to produce the soundtrack for Hang-On, after which Kawaguchi quit his role as a programmer and became a full-time in-house composer at Sega.
Yu Suzuki, himself a guitarist, had specific requests of Kawaguchi for his OutRun assignment: “During the planning stage I explained in detail to the sound engineer what type of tunes were needed. I told him that basically I wanted eight-beat rock rhythms at a tempo of 150bpm.
I remember selecting a number of tunes to be used as points of reference. In those days we couldn’t use samplers or PCM sound sources, so the timbre of the tunes was a synthesizer creation, which led to us having some difficulty when attempting to trim data quantities for playback of the tunes. I remember wanting some guitars and voices in the soundtrack, but it was impossible to achieve with the technology of the time, so I ultimately had to give up.”
The final soundtrack represents one of the finest, enduring examples of Japanese videogame music. OutRun offers players a choice of three tunes – Passing Breeze, Magical Sound Shower and Splash Wave – via a mock car-stereo screen before the action begins. It’s a concise collection of aurally luxurious numbers, each upbeat and catchy to the point where players would anticipate every subsequent bar. Somehow these tunes fit OutRun’s graphics perfectly, and they even seem to be in tune with the feel of the Testarossa’s acceleration and handling. This is explained in part by Yu Suzuki’s balanced commitment to OutRun’s sonic, visual and responsive aspects – “I couldn’t think of the game and music as detached, separate things,” he tells us – but there’s also the fact that Hiroshi Kawaguchi, after working with Suzuki to deliver the excellent Hang-On music, was beginning to understand Suzuki’s wishes and his way of thinking. We ask Yu Suzuki to reveal his favourite OutRun cut and he responds without any hesitation: “Magical Sound Shower.”
Aware of all five senses (he has even contemplated the potential for games that challenge players’ sense of smell), Yu Suzuki wanted to make OutRun a tactile experience – not just something to appeal to the eyes and ears. Hence the cabinet designs he commissioned, which were early examples of coinop setups capable of delivering force feedback to players at appropriate moments, such as whenever the Testarossa crashed into a roadside signpost. There were four flavours of OutRun cab – Deluxe and Standard moving types, an upright with a force feedback wheel only, and a cockpit version without any such movement. The appeal of the jolting DX and SD versions was overwhelming, and after their initial trial runs non-feedback cabinets became relatively rare in Japan.
Regardless of the presence/absence of moving parts in these prestigious cabinets, all of them used Nanao-brand monitors. It was essential that OutRun’s super-quick sprite-scaling and undulating roads were displayed on the best possible screens, and it was fortuitous that these cabinets were the last wave of Sega machines to use Nanao monitors. As part of a cost-cutting exercise, subsequent Sega coin-ops would use lower-spec Samsung displays – while the Nanao screens would stay bright forever, the later Samsung monitors were prone to screen-burn and visual signs of ageing.
The OutRun arcade machines had an unexpected effect on the crowds of players who used to hang out at Japan’s game centres; no previous driving game had inspired such dedication. And players went to extraordinary lengths in the pursuit of high scores. Around 1988 it was common in Japan to find OutRun machines with broken gearsticks: the so-called ‘gear ga-cha’ trick – where opportune gear-down/gear-up shifts would be rewarded with a prolonged white-exhaust speed boost – was published in Japan’s then-widely read Gamest magazine, along with a photo-led guide to explain the intricacies of the move. Arguably the most aggressive of OutRunners were not playing in the intended spirit of the game, but such determined play helped to establish OutRun as a phenomenon in the arcades, as well as a commercial success that covered Yu Suzuki’s travel expenses many times over.
Yu Suzuki has always been blessed with a clear vision of what he wants, even if – as in the case of the unfinished Shenmue saga – he hasn’t always managed to get it. But with OutRun, Suzuki’s vision was realised as perfectly as could have been hoped for, leaving players and its designer and programmer with a supreme, satisfying experience born out of red metal, pastel skies and accelerating away towards the horizon.
We’ll leave Yu Suzuki with the final word; he deserves it: “OutRun’s concept was not about frantically racing to just barely take first place. It’s about giving a ride to a beautiful woman, who sits at your side, and driving around in a luxurious car with just one hand on the steering wheel, taking first place in the race by a wide margin – and with time to spare.”