You know you’re getting old when all you can say is “Really?” after finding out that OutRun is celebrating its 30th anniversary this year. I can’t believe it’s been 30 years already. That means I was just 14 at the time of the game’s debut in arcades– but it wasn’t until 1989 that it changed my life.
See, in 1989, I was 17 years old.
That summer, I took driver’s education classes and was preparing to get that all-important driver’s license. While I aced the written test for my learner’s permit, the act of driving was a more elusive skill for me to master; in fact, I was so nervous during driving sessions that my instructor often had to take over for me. My mom and a few of my friends each took turns at trying to get me over the hump. My main problem was cornering. More specifically, I used to oversteer into turns and would often come very close to or even go over the curb when turning right. After help from friends and family failed to fix my problems– and after a failed driving test– I seemed doomed to a life without a driver’s license.
At this point, you’re probably asking, “Okay… so what does this sad story have to do with OutRun?”
Well, it started one late summer afternoon after another failed driving lesson with my best friend. Seeing that I was disappointed by my continued lack of progress, he took me to a local pizza place to get my mind off of my failings. While waiting for our order to come up, I spotted this coin-op with a steering wheel called OutRun. It looked pretty neat. The wheel, unlike other racing games that I’d played up to this point, had more tension and felt more real.
“Why not try it?” my friend suggested. “It’s not real. Just have fun.” He put two quarters into the machine. I got to pick my music, which was cool. Magical Sound Shower? Okay.” The screen switched to the starting line, where my red sports car was ready to go. My foot rocked against the accelerator as the red lights counted to green… and then I was off.
The first section of the race, through the beach, was pretty easy… with the exception of a tricky S-curve that I didn’t handle well. Still, I managed to make it through to the first checkpoint. The next section, which was littered with rocks and cliffs, was tougher. More turns meant a couple of more crashes– but I was learning that I needed to slow down to make the turns easier. Unfortunately, my mistakes were costly. Time ran out with the next checkpoint in sight. My timing was unintentionally good, though, as the pizza was ready.
After eating, I put two more quarters into the OutRun machine and tried again, putting to use what I had learned in my first play. I more lightly steered into turns, without overcompensating or oversteering. I remembered to slow down for the tough S-curve at the beach, and I let off the gas a bit for the tighter turns in the second stage. I made it to the next checkpoint this time, with grassy fields, blue skies, and… more turns to navigate. Another S-curve tripped me up, as well as mistakes made because I felt the pressure from the ever-ticking clock. I didn’t make it to the next checkpoint, but I knew that I could with more practice.
From this point on, I was hooked on OutRun. I made weekly visits to this pizza place– sometimes alone, other times with my best friend– with four quarters. That was enough for two tries per week. As the weeks went by, and as I got more time playing the game, my skills improved. I was no longer crashing in tight turns due to high speed. I was remembering where the S-curves were, and when to either slow down or even shift down. Eventually, after the fourth week, I finished the game. My practice had paid off, and I had won my first race. After that, I worked on taking different routes and learning the course layouts.
What surprised me was that my mastery of OutRun had given me more confidence behind the wheel of a real car. Driving with my mom, or with friends, I was taking turns better. I wasn’t as nervous. Occasional jitters gradually subsided, and I was on my way towards getting that elusive driver’s license.
OutRun— a coin-operated video game– made me a better driver, doing what driver’s education and other practice had not been able to do. It literally changed my life. Without having played the game, I am left to guess how I might have gained the confidence and comfort level necessary to get behind the wheel of a car and do something that so many of us take for granted every day. It also made my mom and other adult family members, who weren’t exactly enthused about my love of video games, see that they’re not all bad.
Now, more than a quarter of a century later, I can proudly say that I can still finish a race in in OutRun. Thanks to ports on the PlayStation 2 (via the SEGA Classics Collection) and on the 3DS (by way of OutRun 3D), I can race literally anywhere and anytime I want to. It’s still amazing to me at times, as a 40-something, to be able to play arcade games outside of the arcade. Teenage me from the late 1980s would be shocked if he could see what the future held.
Having said that, nothing beats finding an OutRun coin-op at an arcade. I can still feel my blood pumping when I select Magical Sound Shower and then rev my car at the starting line as the lights change from red to green. All of the memories come rushing back as I hear the tires screech around the corners.
I can smell the pizza.
I can see and hear my best friend from high school reassuring me, like he always did.
I can feel the smile on my face that mirrors the one I felt when the light bulb over my head went off and I “got” the art of steering.
And– for just a few minutes– I can roll back time and relive one of the truly outstanding moments from my younger days.
Happy 30th birthday, OutRun… and thanks for everything.