Nestled deep in the arcade, Out Run was my childhood sanctuary

The premise was simple, even by the standards of coin-op arcade games.

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I don’t remember exactly when I first encountered Out Run, although I’d guess around ten years old, but I do remember exactly where: the fair that used to pop up in my home town every summer. It had an arcade – a creaky, temporary structure folded together off the back of a truck, with a single route through it surrounded on all sides by games – where I’d stay as long as I could. There was everything from fruit machines and coin pusher games to classics like Pac-Man and whatever the new hotness was, each doing their utmost to coax people to play, their competing music and sound effects given an added bassline by the growl of the generator outside.

In that nest of noise and nerds, Out Run stood out. The music got you first as you walked by; the soundtrack was, is, brilliant. Like so many cartoon theme songs and advertising jingles, it lives on preserved in the minds of millions of people who could probably use the brain space for something more useful but will recall it to their dying days because it’s an absolute banger.

Then there were the visuals, Out Run was gorgeous. Even while limited to repeating the same few sprites down the side of the road and changing the colour of the sky to express different areas, the game managed to be a thing of beauty. With its flowers, beaches and sunsets, Out Run didn’t present a world that needed saving, it presented a paradise – it welcomed players.

The premise of Out Run was simple, too, even by the standards of coin-op arcade games. You played a guy driving a car in a time trial road race. The car was an approximation of a 1984 Ferrari Testarossa convertible with a top speed over 300km/h, although trucks, VW Beetle lookalikes and even passing flocks of geese could match or surpass that speed. The race was on a road that seemed to cross geographical regions in a matter of seconds and where nobody minded too much if you smashed into other cars. Every checkpoint extended your time and you’d have to be done in about five or six minutes to win. Different routes chosen at splits in the road along the way provided different endings, higher scores, more difficulty, and that’s all there was to it.

Drive as fast as you can and try not to hit anything, as compelling a premise for a game in Out Run as it is in Dirt: Rally or Euro Truck Simulator 2.

Sitting next to the driver in the car was a woman who appeared to be his girlfriend. Her role in the game and its marketing changed over the years, but in the original she provided a comic foil to the different ending scenarios. In one she looked jealous at the driver getting a kiss from the woman presenting the trophy, in another she seemed suitably upset by a jubilant crowd throwing the driver in the air and letting him land in a heap and in the one she celebrated as the trophy was instead presented to her. She doesn’t do much in the ending that, after being awarded a magic lamp, saw the driver wish for a group of veiled belly dancer types who magically appear around him, but then again she’s probably just as confused as I was over how that ending even happened.

I never managed to be particularly good at Out Run but I’d always play it wherever I found it. It was a sanctuary growing up. New places, new people, if there was an arcade nearby I could avoid them completely. Arcades provided the comfortable social isolation of a modern smartphone without having all those annoying features that allow people to call you, text you or send you pictures of their ever larger and more numerous children.

I owned the version of the original Out Run for my computer at home, but it was not quite the same. It was years later that advanced emulator technology meant I could run an arcade perfect copy of Out Run on my PC, but I didn’t do this for long. It turns out when you can play an arcade game in the comfort of your own home with infinite credits it’s not as fun as it used to be.

This article was part of the NS’s “Vintage video games week”, click here to read more in the series.

Phil Hartup is a freelance journalist with an interest in video gaming and culture