A Separate Branch: Something Lost From Early Arcade Racers

So those other racers are just moving obstacles with speed relative to yours, rather than the stationary obstacles of the track. They give you the feeling of competition without directly impacting your ongoing goal (which is, in true arcade form, simply to keep going).

— Optional Objectives (@opobjectives) October 29, 2018


About two weeks ago, I was playing the emulated version of Excitebike on Switch. I’ve found myself with this kind of game a lot lately, usually wrapped inside another game. That is, I’ve been playing Hang-On inside of the Shenmue remaster and OutRun in Yakuza 0.

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Image: No wonder the Electronics King didn’t nail his score. Who chooses Passing Breeze as background music? (Yakuza 0)

I’ve always loved these games, especially when I could play Sega AM2's offerings in their glorious cabs. There’s a lot to like in the animations that Sega’s teams put in Shenmue and Yakuza. There’s something very tactile to me about watching Ryo slide onto a Hang-On bike. To the touch, these machines had a lot of smooth plastic. Well, at least the plastic that remained smooth amidst cracked vinyl and sticky spots from spilled sodas.

Gif: Ryo kills some time between looking for sailors. (Shenmue HD)

On the one hand, these embedded games, and their place in the game world, are goofy extras. On the other hand, the way they have been incorporated into game worlds has been rightly praised for its immersive qualities. Until I revisited Hang-On in Shenmue, I had forgotten how small the screen was relative to the massive controller of the bike. Then I watched Ryo approach the machine and, for a moment, I could see the small size of the screen relative to the scaled contours of the motorcycle/controller. Of course, that nostalgic animation is over quickly. Once Ryo climbs aboard, Shenmue spins the game up to full screen, and all of a sudden I’m playing it on a modern television.

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For whatever reason, even though I grew up with an NES, I never got that into Excitebike. But, since I’m into arcade racers of the era, and because I like to at least boot the games I get with online subscription services, I thought that I would give the Switch Online version a spin. That brought it into relief with AM2's offerings.

At this point, you might imagine that the “something lost” from early arcade racers has to do with their arcade cabinets and controllers. While I think those are great, there are plenty of options for high-effort cabs and controllers these days. The thread of that high-effort hardware has survived from Sega’s early 2000s Ferrari F355 Challenge to the rigs people set up to get their best Gran Turismo experience.

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Image: An Excitebike cabinet (The International Arcade Museum)

But that’s not what this is about. If it was, I wouldn’t keep bringing in Excitebike along those AM2 masterpieces. I mean, look at Nintendo’s 1984 effort at an arcade cab.

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Just look at it.

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No, what I think Excitebike, OutRun, and Hang-On all have in common is structure. Specifically, I think there’s a way that all three games structure the relationship between the player and other drivers/riders on the road or the track. That relationship, combined with the structure of progression in the games, gives me a whole different feeling compared to a racing game with ranked competition.

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I have in mind the way that other vehicles, and their drivers and riders, appear on the road or track with you. Namely, the way that they appear as obstacles in relative motion to your vehicle. The sound design of OutRun and Hang-On emphasizes the relative speed between your vehicle and the others on the road. When you pass them and they recede into the background, a momentary Doppler whine marks your passage. In Excitebike, with its verticality, the challenge is to judge whether your jump or lane change will put you just in front of another racer or, more disastrously, on top of them.

Gif: See sprites. See sprites wipe out. (Excitebike)
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But right there in that last sentence is the illusion of these games: I just referred to a simulated bike and rider as “another racer.” That’s not quite right. While these other, almost identical sprites closely resemble the player’s avatar, their primary role in the game is to slow the player down. The relationship in these games is between the player and track, including whatever static and dynamic obstacles the track has to offer. Those “dynamic” obstacles are these other, moving, objects. To be academic about it for a moment, these other racers are as close as we get to purely category- or role-bound others, understandable only through their relationship to the player/ego/self. They have no distinguishable features or actions that would enable any other kind of relationship. The only way that we might see them as racers, and not just as objects, is through the similarities in shape and movement that they have to our own avatar. In that way, we as players can recognize them as other racers. But, even while they’re recongnizeable, they are distant in every other way. We are racing on a track with these vehicles, but not against them.

If another vehicle or racer passes you in one of these games, that’s far from the worst thing that can happen. The single worst thing that can happen is a collision. That can be caused by a static feature (a tree, ramp, or sign), another racer, or an intersection of the two. Some of the most thrilling moments of a game like Hang-On can come when you’re trying to pass on a safe portion of track while it curves, requiring you to weave through traffic while making sure to stay safely on the road. That’s the highest risk situation possible in the game. If your vehicle connects with any other you have to watch an animation of the resulting crash. Depending on the game, that might be followed by some more animation of your avatar trudging to your vehicle in recovery. In OutRun’s case, in one blink your wrecked Ferrari is teleported off the road and, in another blink, your avatar(s) are teleported into a brand new one. Meanwhile, the seconds and milliseconds keep ticking.

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Gif: Did you flip your Ferrari? Don’t worry, we’ll just teleport you a new one. (OutRun)

Those milliseconds are directly consequential for the game. Being arcade-style experiences, the chief goal in all of these racers is to keep going. Once you’re over time, it’s Game Over. You won’t see the next arena or stretch of road until you start back over and do better in relation to the clock.

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That’s a sharp contrast to the main modes of many racing games that came after these arcade classics. Once you start to add identifying information, like racer’s names or distinguishing character art, entirely different competitive relationships become possible and, for the most part, encouraged. Over the course of a four race grand prix in Mario Kart, you may find yourself shaking your fist at the pesky Luigi that’s always pushing you out of the top place, glaring at you every time you change places. Even within a single race, when you can identify another racer that you have passed, or failed to pass, a more competitive relationship can form. Of course, time and speed are still important. They’re just not as important as making sure you finish at the top of a ranked order.

In OutRun, on the other hand, it doesn’t matter how many other cars or trucks you pass. The only important thing is that you move past them and through the landscape as quickly and flawlessly as possible, sailing through checkpoints into the next landscape, picking out your path to one of the branched endings. Your competition is with the whole structure of the game and with your past successes and failures. The other vehicles on the track provide the feeling of racing against others, but lack the qualities of competition. That’s an overlooked accomplishment of these early games, a strength of their simplicity that was discarded when designers seized the opportunity for more complex features and systems. Creating the fleeting, almost screen-by-screen feeling of racing without rank, place, or hierarchy is a remarkable achievement. Hierarchy is pushed out of the gameplay, surfacing only after your ride ends, when your score might be placed on a leaderboard amongst automatically generated thresholds and (ideally) the scores of other people.

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- Don

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