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The Artistry of Out Run

By Phoenix Kaspian — 8th January, 2024

Out Run Videogame, 1986

Out Run (1986) is the greatest arcade videogame ever made. Not in a retrospective, mushy, nostalgic-idiot kind of way, but in a provable kind of way.

Of course, the caveat here is that we are talking about an arcade game, and the public video-arcade is a social context that is vastly different from the home. As an industrial artist, I am interested in public-spaces, and society's reactions to those spaces. So, when I write that Out Run is the greatest of all arcade games, I mean that it is everything that a videogaming experience in a public-space should be: Intense; brief; satisfying; deeply-physical and tactile; thrilling; social; theatrical; a spectacle.

Out Run shakes you awake from the humdrum. It is less an escape from reality than a reassertion of reality. The Out Run steering wheel is motorized — digitally-controlled servo-motors simulate the texture of the road in the game. Sure, others have imitated it since, but the steering-wheel in Out Run fights you in just the right way (whether realistically or not) to elicit the convincing whole-body experience of engagement with the track. Foreign vistas fly-by; shimmering, psychedelically-sharp reinterpretations of known-geography. Then there's that music. Out Run is a passing-breeze for the player's senses.

Before we deconstruct Akira Watanabe's gorgeous air-brushed artwork used for the later Sega Genesis release of Out Run (1991), it is important to fully understand the Out Run arcade 'cabinet' as a physical experience. Although by the standards of today, the graphics of this coin-op videogame are clearly 'dated' from the mid-eighties, this arcade game feels better than anything I have played since. Naturally, the reader may question whether I have sufficient experience to make this claim; well, yes, I have.

I am, among other things, a professional videogames-designer. I briefly collaborated with Steve Jobs. Also, as a child, I was, on account of the traumatic catastrophe at home, almost perpetually in a state of retreat, buried deep into an Atari, Amiga or Mac; later a Sega Genesis; the complete series of Playstation releases etc. I still maintain: nothing has yet improved on Out Run as an arcade experience.

Rage Racer (1998) certainly evokes some of the spirit of Out Run, and Burn Out Paradise (2008) remains the genre's high-point for the home-gamer, but neither of these games were 'arcade' games in the truest sense: They were never built into cabinets and placed in the physical 'arcade' from which the genre derives its name.

There is a universe of difference between the home-gaming experience and the arcade. We could begin with the purely pragmatic and consider that the cost and effort required to build a successful arcade (as in 'coin-op cabinet') game is huge. Ideally your arcade game will appeal across sexes and demographics — like Pacman (1980, Namco) or Space Invaders (1978, Taito) — and your game will showcase a novel control system that is physically 'delicious' for the player to operate — like the motorized steering-wheel in Out Run (Sega, 1986), or the trackball system used by Centipede (1980, Atari). Building an arcade game is hard. Building a successful arcade game is pure artistry, and represents a standard-of-craft that, as a culture, I think we should return to.

The videogame-design community should enact its own Dogma95, a moratorium on game production, and a new set of guidelines. Modern games, for all their positive aspects (escapism from Clown World etc.), also enhance and amplify that sense of displacement and alienation. I don't mean this in a 'now let's look at some statistics' kind of way. I mean that it's now got to the point where the average person can clearly look around at our culture and say: Something is seriously fucked up here. We're way beyond the niceties of statistics, or quiet analysis.

Looking at photographs of the video arcades of the 80s does not feel like peeking though a window into a quaint, but passing-moment in the past; one in which videogames were brilliantly-designed, social, and community-friendly. Instead, we can look back through that window and discover, with horror, that our culture did not progress but, instead, it was destroyed.

What we lost

The era represented our collective excellence in games design. In the photo above, you can see a typical video-arcade as it would have looked in the 1980s: cool blues and faux-wood panel meet circuit boards, trackballs and cathode-ray-tubes. You can see games like Space Invaders and Space Panic which evoked a sense of our galactic relationship. The video arcade looked out into the universe, instead of into a cellphone. It was a shared experience, rooted in community.

We could still have coin-op arcades, and they could still be very popular. Of course, games companies aplenty will retroactively mumble about economic-challenges and the transition to home consoles, but as we know, these megalithic industries with near-infinite marketing budgets are not tossed about on the currents of history. They make history.

We don't have video arcades anymore because communities, social connection, and the type of games that were manufactured in the arcades posed a threat to power. Not the greatest threat to power, but one among many. In the 80s, for a younger (and even older) demographic, coin-op video arcades were the town-square, the public forum, a place in which citizens of the 1980s were bedazzled by the latest electronic-artistry of their time, but simultaneously could talk together. We gathered, like villagers around a warm, twilight-fire, and shared dreams, ideas, and desires as humans. We bathed our souls in the cathode-ray-glow and chip-tune soundtrack of the arcade.

Back in the 80s, we were young, and hopeful. A new age was upon us. People fell in love over a game of Pacman; the Space Invaders machine had a crowd eight-deep around it. We never expected it all to end up where it has in 2023, with a depressed-teenager staring, alone and dead-eyed, into their smartphone Instagram feed; pondering a sex-change versus government-subsidized euthanasia.

A smartphone seems to offer us many new choices: but none of those choices are connection; community; love. In other words, smartphones can never offer us the only choice that can rationally save us. Namely, putting the fucking phone down and smashing it to pulp with a hammer.

No wonder we are depressed; the arcade was stolen from us. These public spaces of digital-art were torn down and turned into banks, smartphone-screen repair-shops and liquor stores.

Computers have become personal cum-stations for Facebook-heads huddled in their darkened rooms, jerking off to eastern-European sex-trafficking victims they call 'porn stars'. Women pretending to smile as they are pornographized to death in a bleak-re-enactment of their father's sexual abuse of them as children. Porn-puppets trapped in memories that can no longer be excavated from their subconscious and are simply repeated, in the present, in a deadly porn-pantomime. The viewer, also deeply wounded, stares into their computer. Sexual abuse survivors jerk off to other sexual abuse survivors in an unconscious global-horror-show. What happened to Space Invaders, what happened to Pacman? They replaced him with Prozac and an iPhone.

This isn't a nostalgia-rant, it's a question of our culture and its demise. A demise intentionally engineered by psychologists and software engineers in Silicon Valley. If you are one of these ghouls yourself, I hope the view of the San Francisco Bay from your million dollar apartment was worth it. Not that you ever look out a window, or go home.

These workaholic-digi-vampires have their fangs buried straight into humanity's heart. From the infant's first unsolicited and facially-recognized Instagram shot to the dark-web Fentanyl order that finally kills them twenty years later, the programmers in that sandy chasm of silicon in California (and some elsewhere) are the mass-murderers of our age. Luckily, for them, killing the human soul is not a crime in law. So they tap tap on their bloodied keyboards and the people stare stare into their smartphones.

Given all this, let's return to Akira Watanabe's gorgeous air-brushed artwork for the Out Run box, pictured at the top of this page. Like the game itself, this art piece is a work of ingenuity and bravery. On closer inspection there are some technical errors in the illustration: The placement of the 'OUTRUN' on the car license plate; the curvature of the road and geometry of the car is suspect; the shading on the rear wheels gives the impression that they are lit from beneath. But it doesn't matter.

Despite the apparent 'problems' with the Out Run illustration, the end result is transcendent; shimmering; human. The modern preoccupation with 'realism' is absent, and in its place is joy; playfulness, dare we call it 'life'? It might not be 'real', but it is 'great'.

We need an urgent return to this flavor of design in general. Something has gone deeply wrong in the videogames arena over the last three decades. The videoarcade was murdered, and with this assassination, the games industry fell into an abyss. Think about it: What was the last truly magical game? Perhaps Tomb Raider (1996). For many, this original Tomb Raider marks the games-industry's last-known flirtation with quality. Graphics and gameplay were given equal weight. We marveled at it. Somebody clearly cared. Shortly afterwards, however, our collective car spun off the road and crashed.

Unlike the driver and passenger in Out Run, we did not clamber eagerly back into our Testarossa, but instead, we have clawed about in the desert of modern games. These games are parched of quality, propped up only by relentless marketing (propaganda). A minority of modern games seem momentarily tolerable, but only in the absence of comparison to what went before. Only if we deny the past and our planned trajectory before half of us began staring into phone screens. Only if we seek to be sedated rather than mesmerized and uplifted.

We have crawled across this hot sand, blind and foolish, for too long. It is time for us to remember who we are as a culture, and what delights we are capable of. Let's get this videogames industry back on the asphalt.

About Phoenix Kaspian
Phoenix Kaspian is an industrialist. He works in hydrogen-automotive manufacture and urban structures. Phoenix's early graphics work included a collaboration with Steve Jobs. Phoenix's book designs have been described by The New York Times as "fabulously surreal", "beautiful" and "stunningly imaginative". While Susan Orlean at The New Yorker called Phoenix's graphics work "amazing". As a journalist, Phoenix wrote for The Telegraph, and The Times in London. Today, Phoenix works internationally for a manufacturing and visualization firm.