Runnin’ Down an Out Run Dream

Here in Los Angeles, in the South Bay communities of Manhattan and Hermosa Beaches, there is a concrete pedestrian path that hugs the shore. Lined with multi-million dollar mansions and Mediterranean-style beach condos, “The Strand” is easily my favorite place in the whole world to go running. As I don my headphones in the early hours of the evening and begin my run under dark palm tree silhouettes, set against the backdrop of the fading Pacific sunset; it is in these moments that conscious thought and mundane stress melts away, giving way to the purity of rhythm and music.

During my runs, I feel truly grateful to be healthy and alive, and the image of sunsets and palm trees calls to mind childhood summer vacations, on a different shore, where the sun touches the sea only at dawn. On this coast, in my memory, the rushing waters of the outgoing tide echo beneath a pedestrian path of a much different sort, made not of concrete but of wooden floorboards, bleached gray and desaturated by the sun and briny ocean air. This path is lined not with mansions or palm trees, but with funhouse mirrors and roller-coasters, with miniature golf courses and water slides. It is a place filled laughter, smiles and the balmy aroma of fried dough and powdered sugar …

… and arcades upon arcades like there was no tomorrow.

It was in this place, the Boardwalks of Ocean City, New Jersey, that my two older brothers and I, ages 10 to 15, would spend the evenings of our summer vacation in an electric feeding frenzy of pixels, color and music. Our bemused parents, welcoming the respite from their three little geeks, would sit on the benches outside, keeping a close eye on my baby brother, enjoying a cool, nocturnal ocean breeze and a slice of fresh fried pork roll on a bun with cheese.

It was during these beloved halcyon summer nights in the mid 1980s that my love for Sega games probably first started, and no game more powerfully evokes poignant memories from this magical time than Sega’s arcade driving masterpiece, Out Run.

Out Run‘s innovative mechanical features, such as the candy-red, motorized sit-down cabinet that pivoted side to side as you drove and the force-feedback steering wheel that jerked in your hands as you crashed, supported a very tactile and uniquely immersive driving experience for its time. But it was the game’s replayable, branching course structure, vivid art direction and amazing sprite scaling technology that truly distinguished it from its contemporaries: Few games offered the sense of velocity and tension as you downshifted from 290 kph and power-slid into a hairpin curve.

For me, however, the most memorable and lovable aspect of the game is easily the musical soundtrack, composed by Hiroshi “Hiro” Kawaguchi, of Sega’s legendary R&D Department, AM2.

I have always loved videogame music, probably unusually so. I listen to it all the time, and it never fails to conjure impressions and feelings of people, places and moments from my younger days. The beautiful thing about game music is that it’s a way to continue to derive enjoyment from a game long after you’ve beaten it or put it aside. Back in the 8- and 16-bit console eras, sound tests were an extremely common and welcome feature in games, and for me, half the fun of buying the game was playing it through first and experiencing the music afterward. Naturally, this worked out fine for home console games, but in order to experience the full fidelity of Out Run‘s music, there was just no way to get around it – you had to go to the arcade and feed it quarters.

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I remember my older brother, Chris, and I used to wonder much it would cost to get a home version of Out Run ($4,000 was his best guess) – wishful thinking for a bunch of dorky teenagers with no money. But Chris was a hard worker and possessed much stronger musical talents than I did. During his junior year of high school, he worked for months washing dishes at a local restaurant to save up enough money to buy a rack-mounted Ensoniq Mirage Music Sequencer and Sampler and Roland MIDI Controller Keyboard. Once he figured out how to use all this music hardware, he taught himself one of Out Run‘s main soundtracks, “Magical Sound Shower,” and programmed it into the sequencer. What he wouldn’t give for videogame sheet music or an MP3 back in those days!

Today, Chris also lives a few short blocks from the ocean in Manhattan Beach, CA. If it wasn’t for him, I never would’ve discovered the South Bay communities of Los Angeles or moved out here in the first place. Although we are both very busy with our respective jobs, when we get time to meet up, one of our favorite places to go is this Mexican restaurant in his neighborhood, Pancho’s.

“‘Magical Sound Shower’ was hotter than a Cuban street fiesta,” he tells me. We’re seated in the basement dining room of Pancho’s, a huge hall adorned with pastel murals, palm trees and year-round Christmas lights. It’s a Friday night, it’s crowded and a little loud, and he and I are seated at a table in the corner, sipping on blended “Naughty” Margaritas, our favorite.

“And the part where you get the wild steel drum solo? That part was the best! You could only get to that part if got close to the end and you played really well.”

Most modern games rely on overt mechanisms to keep you playing – like cut-scenes, power-ups or in-game money – but Out Run employed a more subtle method. Its main soundtrack, comprised of three songs (“Splash Wave,” “Magical Sound Shower” and “Passing Breeze”), was really like no other game music at the time, from the standpoints of both technical fidelity and style. It was this soundtrack that drove you to keep playing, to hear the best part, all the way at the end.

Very recently, I tracked down a copy of the North American Sega Ages compilation for Sega Saturn on eBay, containing pixel-perfect versions of Out Run and its arcade brethren, Space Harrier and After Burner II. Released for the North American market by now-defunct publisher Working Designs, the game comes with a foil-stamped instruction manual containing some interesting commentary from the composer, Hiro.

“I like the song called ‘Passing Breeze’ the best,” says Hiro. “The melody that makes you feel sorrowful and the atmosphere, it is hard to explain how great this song is.”

It’s really interesting that Hiro would characterize “Passing Breeze” as “sorrowful” – if anything, I’d say that the song was peppy and light. But I think I understand what Hiro is trying to describe – “nostalgia” – a feeling that any fan of Sega, past or present, would understand and appreciate.

Even in its handling of player failure, Out Run‘s use of music is very smart. Beat any of the top-10 time records, you got to enter your initials into the high-score screen.

“Oh my God, that high-score screen! That was like heaven!” my brother said.

Set to the soothing bell tones of “Last Wave” and a relaxing tide of synthetic white noise, the Out Run high-score screen was a vivid gradient texture of twilight hues and tree-lined boulevards.

“Please listen to this song at the end of summer, when you are all by yourself, in the dusk, at the beach,” Hiro says from the liner notes.

It is this image, this feeling that Hiro’s words suggest, that has always been very meaningful to me. When I was young, that high-score screen was like a window into a place where life maybe was a little easier, perhaps a little more laid-back and carefree, a dream that I always knew I would one day work very hard to make happen.

“And now you’re living your Out Run dream,” said my brother. “Palm tree silhouettes by the beach in the sunset and everything.” I smile and dip a tortilla chip into the spicy salsa. While my life is far from carefree, and the novelty of living in LA by the beach wore off a while ago, I still try not to take it for granted, taking time to appreciate that I’m very lucky to be where I am.

Sega really captured something special with Out Run, a timeless, universally appealing title, nothing less than a true icon. Few games succeeded at bringing the player into its breezy, hyperbolic vacation fantasy, immersing players in the essence of being the laid-back cool dude in shades, with the sexy, blonde girlfriend, cruising to exotic locales in a red Ferrari in the sunshine. Like Composer Hiro from AM2, I, too, feel that words don’t fully describe what the game represents to me, but Out Run will always stand out among its august arcade lineage as an entertainment experience like no other.

Edward Moore is currently a Senior Game Designer at Pandemic Studios in sunny Los Angeles. Prior to this, he served as a Game Designer at Electronic Arts and Irrational Games in Boston. As a first-time contributor to The Escapist, Ed looks forward to future opportunities to share his geeky gaming insights with you.

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