The point's been made before on these pages, but OutRun2 draws it out again: SEGA is brilliant at five-minute racing games.
There are 15 stages, laid out like balls in a snooker triangle; as you get to the end of each one in your Ferrari, you adjust the difficulty by taking the left path for an easier ride or right for a tougher one. All you're up against is the clock, and your only obstacles are the indecently curvaceous undulations and turns in the track, often peppered with slow-moving traffic.
The structure hardly matters: you drive a Ferrari and try to avoid losing speed, doing incredibly cool power-slides when you really can't make it through a turn with the pedal floored. In fact, half the time you do it anyway because it's just fun. Snaking a sideways car through lorries and hatchbacks is what arcade racing should be. And as you get better, you pick up tricks like the s-bend shimmy and work out how best to employ your slide. There's also a Heart Attack mode, where you're ranked stage by stage on your ability to do silly things over short distances - drift as much as possible, break the tape connecting traffic cars, maintain a particular line.
That's the entire game. It's absolutely brilliant.
OutRun2 SP, released in the arcades once OutRun2 had had time to bed in, is 15 more tracks and a slipstream feature, which lets you suck some extra speed out of the cars in front by lurking in their wake. It's what other games call drafting. SP's also a bit gentler on crash punishment and running off the sides. The whole thing's pretty much as brilliant as OutRun2 is.
OutRun 2006: Coast 2 Coast is, on a very basic level, those two games thrown onto one disc - whether it's an Xbox or PS2 DVD, a PC CD-ROM or a PSP UMD - with a couple of mission modes and six-player online multiplayer, and SP's gameplay additions mapped to both games instead of just the SP stuff.
But that really doesn't do it justice, because every inch of Sumo Digital's programming is like the perfect answer to a question most people wouldn't even think to ask.
Okay, that's just going to wind people up.
Normally my brain checks me when I type things like that and spikes them, at least a bit. Thing is, if you're angry with OutRun it's because of something you did, not the game. And not "you know, except for the annoying bit when you want to reload it and you have to jump backwards through a flaming hoop reciting Charge of the Light Brigade in Hebrew". It hasn't actually done anything to piss me off. I don't even know humans who don't piss me off. So let me try and explain what I mean about Sumo Digital's programming.
Basically, it pre-empts you. Everywhere. Let's say you're playing Coast 2 Coast mode, which is OR2006's follow-up to the last Xbox game's mission mode. How do you want to be challenged? A broader range of Heart Attack-style short-sharp tasks spread evenly over the game? There are three layers of it, three 'girlfriends' to impress - and each asks you to do increasingly difficult things on increasingly nasty sections of track. You just select a stage and attempt its two or three tasks to try and get a top, AAA ranking. You've got to the end of a stage and you want to replay it? Branch left and it reloads it seamlessly, entirely in-game. Or go right to exit. Oh, you're failing way before the end? Hit pause, hit restart. You'd rather do the stages sequentially, like you're playing the arcade game? You can do that too. You'd rather challenge yourself at a particular discipline, like drifting, over the course of a whole stage, or just race against cars? There are four pretty sizable Flagman mission modes that offer that.
Or you can just play either arcade game, or either arcade game's Heart Attack mode. There's also an emulated version of the OutRun2 SP arcade machine available outside the main one-player mode. You can do all the OutRun2 and OutRun2 SP stuff in the one-player, but there's an arcade port in there too, with its Time Attack mode and all that. I don't know why Sumo did that. Oh, and you race 15-track continuous versions of each game. I want to kiss their mothers.
Sorry - I know raw, naked enthusiasm is unfashionable.
Unlockables. There's a shop, which has all sorts of cars, reversed versions of all the tracks and a few night-time ones, new music (Richard Jacques may not have done new stuff, but the game has pretty much everything by him you might want to hear), and new goals for the tracks you're playing and unlocking. In other words, it's a shop with stuff you actually want.
You unlock all this stuff by earning OutRun miles. "Oh no, a rubbish experience system." BEGONE, UNBELIEVER. You earn OutRun miles for every single thing you do. No qualification - no "every single thing you do right", none of that. Screw up and go left at the end of a girlfriend stage, and you'll bank those miles whenever you choose to exit, whether it's through the exit turn next time around or through the pause menu. When you pause and restart, it banks whatever miles you've done. This is what I'm talking about. Tangible recognition of a gamer's achievements is important (and important to the player, as Xbox 360's been demonstrating) but acknowledging a gamer's endeavours, no matter how mundane; no matter whether he's just spent 20 minutes perfecting a particular line for use somewhere else in the game to no real actual substantive avail, is the sort of thing jaded old sods like me love. Nothing you do is irrelevant, and even if was, everything you're doing is fun anyway.
Just playing OutRun2 is joyous. The power-sliding is a great system - you brake and turn and your end flips out ridiculously, and you coddle the analogue stick or PSP nub or d-pad to maintain the line you want through the turn. As you get better, you stop using it so much so you can build up more speed. Even here, the game wants you know how much it appreciates this. Between stages, stuff flies over the transition straight; the faster you've done the preceding stage, the cooler it is. Do it perfectly and it's a Panzer Dragoon flyby, and they don't show you that lightly. You always feel like you're achieving something, even if you've just turned on the PSP version and chosen its "Just Drive" mode and you're effectively playing for nothing.
Offering distinct types of mission mode is a masterstroke. Each is quite different - trying to drift as much as possible over the course of one stage can occupy you for hours in itself, while the pint-sized girlfriend bits are perfect for short bursts. The top rankings are very compelling, and the tasks are the sort of lunatic fun that plants a smile firmly on your face - dodge the falling meteors, dodge the UFOs, bounce the beachball.
What else? Well, there's the quality of the ports. The Xbox version is probably the king, but the Sony versions are surprisingly wonderful. Initially I couldn't get the Xbox copy SEGA sent me to work, so I played on the PS2. I was expecting a rubbish frame rate, jagged graphics and so on. I wasn't expecting 60Hz, widescreen and 480p progressive-scan from the PAL version, a frame-rate that only melts down ever so slightly (and mainly on the more complex of the SP sections), but there it is. Both the PSP and PS2 version analogue controls take a little adapting to, but you're soon deadly with them. Or you can just use the d-pad like a pro, and you can adjust its sensitivity if you want - how many racing games offer that? The PSP frame rate obviously can't quite keep up, but never reaches the point where you feel more like turning the game off than persisting, and the sense of speed and consistency of control across all the versions I've played (still waiting for PC) is tremendous.
The USB link-up between PS2 and PSP games has been a bit of a joke so far; here, you connect the consoles, set both games into link-up mode, and you can transfer your actual real actual profile between systems. They're the same exact game. This is the only occasion I've ever felt like advocating the purchase of a PSP port along with a PS2 game. Obviously you shouldn't do this because it's silly, but money-no-object people should consider it if they travel about a lot. Last week I went down to Brighton to see some friends. Before I left the house, where I'd been angrily failing at a particular bit of the Coast 2 Coast mode, I thought I'd quickly test the link-up - when I got on the train, I just fired up the PSP version and carried on hammering away it.
Criticism? Errrr. Oh yes, the menuing can be a bit confusing.
So, that's the menus then. Boo! Terrible! Confusing!
Who cares, honestly? Even the PSP load times aren't bad. The only thing that sucks a bit is that the Xbox version doesn't work on 360, and that's Microsoft's fault anyway, apparently.
After a week of listening to GDC dev folk talk about expanding the emotional range of games and encouraging each other to speak to the human condition, OutRun 2006 actually makes you laugh. Not at them, because in a lot of ways they're right; because by simply making sure that absolutely everything in the game is designed to remove the usual restrictions on fun, Sumo's created something that practically transcends rivals like PGR3 and Burnout before you've even done anything.
[Puts down superlatives.] Okay: playing this game is very entertaining, and Sumo's spent ages making sure that your fun is as unrestricted as it can be. Some people will say it's shallow, but it's not; it lasts countless hours.
Although obviously it does count them. Because it does everything it should do.