Saturday 19 May 2012


My Sega Retro journey brings me to this disaster - OutRunners for the Sega Mega Drive. What joy.

Once upon a time Sega released one of their most iconic arcade racing games, OutRun, literally translated to "crash simulator 1986" as I can't judge my depth on the road. OutRun did many great things and deserves a lifetime of praise, but I tend to favour the likes of Space Harrier for my sprite scaling fix, as I've never been convinced the "pseudo 3D driving game" genre actually works.

But OutRun was legendary, and legendary games spawn sequels, no less than three of them claiming to be directly related to the first game. We had 1989's Turbo OutRun which was pleasant enough, and of course 2003's OutRun 2 which saw widespread critical acclaim. But there was also OutRunners in 1993, a fun arcade release that went down well with fans of the genre. Again I struggle with OutRunners much like I do with After Burner or Power Drift and the numerous other games of this nature, but that might be because I've never sat down in their super duper cabinets.

And so, to cater for deprived folks such as myself, Sega released a port of OutRunners to the Mega Drive in 1994. Except not quite, because it wasn't released in Europe, suggesting they don't want my money for it. And technically Data East released it in the States. But I digress.

There are many games like this for the Mega Drive. Developers trying to bring extremely advanced, cutting edge games to then-six year old hardware. Atari Games for example felt it was fun to bring in the polygon action games at a glorious ten frames per second (or lower) - there was an odd mentality around publishers back in day and Sega were not immune to this crazy way of thinking. OutRunners, a game best suited for release on the Sega Saturn, came to Mega Drive fans in a form that was almost unplayable, all in a failed effort to keep the system "competitive".

OutRunners was a Sega System Multi 32 arcade game, and as we can judge from the name of the hardware involved, we're talking about a game that relies on 32-bit processors and multiple screens. In fact, OutRunners was always sold as a twin cabinet - though it can be played as a one-player experience, it was designed to accommodate two, and can actually be maxed out at four. Now, the average arcade goer wouldn't think too deeply about this concept - they're unlikely to understand what's going on behind the scenes, so there's no expectation to keep the twin monitors.

But hey, that's what you get anyway. Yep, MD OutRunners is always forced on you as a two player, split-screen experience, and with two players comes fun extra restrictions, such as the amount of detail viewable on-screen. If you don't have a buddy, the computer will cycle through the menus and take control so you'll never be alone. It's an interesting idea for an arcade environment, but in the home, on the Mega Drive, you ideally want the whole screen to yourself when playing solo. That's what you'd get in the arcades, anyway.

Though they're happy to keep this pointless layer of accuracy in, MD OutRunners is equally happy to skip other ideas, such as the music, which is often wrong, and the graphics, which are lacking for obvious reasons. All things considered the Mega Drive simply isn't powerful enough to run this game properly - it can't even cope with the original OutRun, nevermind the upgrade that arrived seven years later.

Most of this comes down to one feature - the ability to scale sprites in real time. Sega built arcade hardware around this concept, but the Mega Drive lacks the processing power to keep up. The result is choppier visuals and more importantly, less of them. You get a lot of bland environments which often fare look worse than attempts seen with "normal" OutRun. What's more, most of these issues arise from the ridiculous idea to force split screen play down our throats.

The sound effects are also unusually rubbish this time around too. In fact if you looked hard enough you might find better experiences on the Sega Master System or NES.

The one redeeming feature about OutRunners is an "original" mode, which has you take part in small races against opponents, eventually finishing with the car from the excellent Virtua Racing. In the Japanese version, you get to play as this car, but it was removed in the US variant because westerners were clearly too spoiled already. Thankfully it's not something to get excited about.

In the end it's clear there is no point in purchasing Mega Drive OutRunners, but you can't help but have respect for its creators nonetheless. We're nearly two decades on from OutRunners' original release and there hasn't been any superior home ports. It might be crap on the Mega Drive, but at least it's crap you can feasibly go out and buy.


  1. In fact, while it is theoretically possible to scale sprites on the processor, "in software," nearly all games at the time do it using special hardware, their processors just not being able to do that kind of effect in real time.

    It should be mentioned that Nintendo's Super Mario Kart also had a permanently split screen, and yet it's regarded as a system-defining classic. So there's that.

    1. Super Mario Kart is slightly different - that's a game built with horizontal split-screen in mind. It's an odd design choice, but seeing as other SNES racers can function without needing to split the screen in two, my guess is that it's not truly needed. It's just Nintendo's method of providing the user with a map and/or indication of when shells are coming or whatever. Also maybe to put some emphasis on the two-player mode, which most third-person racers lacked at the time.

      With OutRunners, the game was never meant to be split in two, and with bulkier HUDs, all this does is reduce the field of view for no real gain at all. Unlike Mario Kart where you might care about what's happening on the second screen, in OutRunners you're rarely likely to.