Version tested: Xbox 360
OutRun never ends. This is, of course, a lie. It does end, inevitably so: somewhere either side of the five-minute mark, as you finish the fifth stage of its multiple-choice, point-to-point odyssey of speed in a howling handbrake turn under blue skies, bright banners and confetti, as the crowd cheers and the girl in the passenger seat squeals in delight.
But in your imagination and in the game's timeless iconography, OutRun is endless. It's a one-way street, a winding ribbon of sun-scorched tarmac that surges ever forward, never back, disappearing into the vanishing point. It's a constant cascade of choice, of multiplying possibilities, every beautiful adventure ending in two more as the generous freeways open and split. It's the drift that lasts forever, your gleaming red Ferrari poised in a never-ending spiral of virtuous oversteer, as elegant as an ice-skater, as impossible to stop or deviate from its course as a freight train. It's one of the most optimistic and joyful videogames ever conceived.
It's appropriate, then, that SEGA seems determined to keep OutRun alive forever. This Xbox Live Arcade and PSN downloadable is the latest in a long series of arcade and home versions of OutRun 2 that spans the last six years. Fair enough: the second-generation OutRun is an evergreen classic, and a rare example of a perfectly faithful and successful update to a canonical eighties arcade game. It deserves to have its time in the sun stretched out indefinitely, not least because it might end up being the last truly great game Yu Suzuki ever made.
To be precise, OutRun Online Arcade is a conversion of the OutRun 2 SP arcade machine, with its all-new American-themed courses (which were presented alongside the original OutRun 2 set in OutRun 2006: Coast 2 Coast) and slipstreaming technique. Like the previous home versions, the SEGA AM2 game has been ably and meticulously converted by Sheffield's Sumo Digital. Unlike them, it features no cunning challenge or mission modes, no delicious breadcrumb-trails of unlockable ephemera - from new car models to original chiptune music to improbable guest tracks from Daytona and Scud Race - to extend its lifespan and perceived value.
That's a slightly disorientating disappointment, but only at first. True to its price (800 Microsoft Points or 10 euros), its source material, its platforms and its title, OutRun Online Arcade is an arcade game through and through. It doesn't need structural longevity, fan service or feature creep. It needs leaderboards, multiplayer, a sophisticated scoring mechanic, and every second of gameplay to be tuned to perfection. It has all these things.
True to the arcade ethos, everything is unlocked right from the start. You have a selection of ten licensed Ferraris, leaning slightly towards retro nostalgia: the F50, Enzo, 360 Spider, F40, Testarossa, 288 GTO, 512 BB, Dino 246 GTS, 365 GTS/4 Daytona, and the obscene curves of the 250 GTO. They're no longer grouped into novice, intermediate and professional classes, and the performance difference between them does seem to have been evened out, though it was always quite subtle to begin with. That said, the quickest Time Attack times are still being set in F50s for the most part, the pliable and pretty Dino and Daytona still make excellent Heart Attack cars, and the Testarossa's unforgettable flattened-wedge profile and aircraft-carrier of an engine cover still provoke weak-kneed, pixellated nostalgia in men who should really know better. "Tuned" variations (faster, twitchier) are available in Time Attack and multiplayer.
OutRun mode is a straight race to the end - well, one of them - against checkpoint time limits. This is where you'll revel in the gloriously na´ve theme-park spectacle and sweeping bends of the fifteen courses. They're the uninhibited, gaudy fantasy of a starstruck tourist with more indulgence than taste, and all the better for it. The blithely bland names (Sunny Beach, Big Forest, Floral Village) disguise a mad fantasy of driving from Miami beach to Easter Island via Manhattan, Las Vegas, the Grand Canyon, the Niagara Falls and a space shuttle launch pad. If you don't want to choose, you can appreciate them all in a single, 15-minute blast.
The courses aren't so much a matter of negotiating their turns, none of which need to be taken at less then 250kph, as of threading your car through them and the fluctuating patterns of hell-bent traffic whilst losing as little speed as possible. Tipping your car into a drift is easy and predictable, but guiding it between cars and buses in gentle parabolas with fine adjustments of opposite lock, or timing its pendulous see-saw through S-bends, takes skill and a little bit of soul. It is a unique handling model, and an exquisite one still.
Eventually, you'll come to consider the lack of an unlock trail in OutRun Online Arcade a freedom or sorts. With nothing but leaderboards and the game's stiff Achievements or Trophies to worry about, you sink yourself deeper into its scoring system: hunting down quick, clean, close and stylish passes of rival Ferraris for big points payoffs, keeping a slipstream chain going through heavy traffic, living for the roar of the ridiculous dragon whose flypast celebrates the end of a well-driven stage.
The other single-player modes are Heart Attack and Time Attack. In the former, your girlfriend sets a series of variously surreal car-control challenges (don't crash, keep drifting, stay in marked sections of track, hit certain objects) and ranks your performance in them; a fine and funny companion piece that shifts the emphasis gently from raw speed onto finesse. Time Attack strips the traffic away for a ghost-car chase to the end, and although some will be obsessed with it, it's rather dry in truth. OutRun's tracks and handling never really lent themselves to this kind of rote learning.
With separate leaderboards for each of the five goals in each of the three modes (plus the 15-track continuous course), hunting down good results on all of them could easily become as great a long-term goal as Coast 2 Coast or Xbox OutRun 2 ever proposed. We only wish the implementation and integration of the online leaderboards was better; the focus on the local scoreboard after your race is one way in which OutRun Online Arcade really didn't need to be faithful to the arcade game, and going to hunt down your performance in the separate leaderboard section is a chore. Geometry Wars 2 is still the only game to recognise that the friends list is the local scoreboard of the 21st century; it's a shame its lessons haven't been learned here.
Another slight missed opportunity is the strictly casual multiplayer mode, offering only unranked matches for six players. It's a terrific cruise between friends - especially if you sacrifice fairness and turn on catch-up, with the option to turn collision off too for synchronised drifting displays. But it's never going to be a compelling network competition to rival that going on in the scoreboards.
In truth, then, Sumo has fallen just a couple of minor steps short of optimising OutRun perfectly for its new network home. The online arcade of XBLA and PSN is a subtly different beast to the bricks-and-mortar-and-neon variety, and in leaderboards and multiplayer OutRun Online Arcade betrays signs of the closed-circuit thinking of the past.
But the truly remarkable thing? These are the only ways in which this essentially five-year-old game shows its age. Sure, the textures are grainy and the models are chunky if you look away from the dazzling, spinning Ferrrari centrepiece, if you stop and study them in the harsh light of 720p. But this is OutRun. Who's stopping?
In motion, it's a painfully beautiful game: in the saturated richness of its colours and the raw exuberance of its backdrops; in the soaring melody of Magical Sound Shower and the husky elocution of the girl who voices the menus; in the hard, brilliant, arcade brashness of it all; above all, in the unique balance and beauty of its handling. Hooray that OutRun lives on: may it never end.
8 / 10